Nas rocks the bells

The rapper fronts the tour that erased lines between commercial and underground, white and black, alternative and trendy
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 9, 2011

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GIMMICK FREE “As a kid with a dream and a vision of how it’s supposed to be done,” says Nas, “I just wanted to do my part, and I guess I still do.”

Six months ago my teenage cousins told me they'd been listening to Big Pun. And Nas, and Ghostface, and every other artist who inspires regular road rage in male rap fans between the ages of 28 and 35. I don't have kids, but in discovering that the next generation considered my idols to be statesmen, I sensed the same pride and joy that a baby boomer feels after catching junior getting high on Zeppelin.

Fuck Tom Brokaw, because my generation was the greatest. We spelunked through moldy crates to trace samples to their roots; we respected the architects; we supported Eric B. for president. Our treasured artists reminded us to pay homage, from Biggie propping Lovebug Starsky, to Nas swimming down "Memory Lane." So now that our heroes are two decades deep in the game, inhabiting unmapped terrain as the second wave of rap elders, it's only right that they're shown the same appreciation.

Enter Rock the Bells — one of the last remaining brands in hip-hop that doesn't send thirtysomething heads into cranky conniption fits. For eight years running, the tour has paraded Timberland-boot boom-bap's most decorated soldiers from coast to coast, scratching itches for those who deplore cornball radio rap — a growing facet that now boasts everyone from my suburban cousins, to angry young thugs, to middle-aged white guys with Wu-Tang tattoos. For all of us, it's an incarnate answer (in the negative) to the question Nas put forth four years ago: Is hip-hop dead?

"[Rock the Bells] brings me back to the place where it all started," says Nas, who has headlined the tour for four straight years, and now owns a piece of Guerilla Union, the promotion company behind it. "It brings me back to a lifestyle, a way of thinking, and a way of MCing that can seem strange now, because — unfortunately — there's a part of that that's missing in today's game. Things change, and I respect that, but there's a part that's gone."

Nas doesn't reject the nu-pioneer label, nor has he run away from his critically exalted, hard-to-overshadow Illmatic (1994) arguably hip-hop's greatest debut masterpiece, and perhaps even the best rap album of all time. On a bill with other living gods like Common, Raekwon, and Lauryn Hill, the blessed son of Queensbridge will perform his seminal work in full at this year's Rock the Bells, which swings through Mansfield Saturday after stops in New York and California.

"I've done a lot of different kinds of [sets at Rock the Bells]," says Nas, who last year and the year before rocked as one-half of a duo with Damian Marley. "This one is different, though — this is a celebration of greatness, and of great times in peoples' lives when these records came out. A lot of people never got to see these acts perform some of these classic albums, and this is one day, one festival, where they can have that good time."

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