Nas rocks the bells

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 9, 2011
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Nas is the ideal candidate to helm Rock the Bells, which features a hardcore smorgasbord spanning from the young and hungry (Fashawn, Freddie Gibbs), to golden underground stalwarts (Souls of Mischief, Black Moon), to the sort of roughnecks who blew up back when commercial DJs had balls (Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep). Though more than a decade removed from the housing projects that sharpened him, Nas maintains the most ubiquitous props of any upper echelon rap artist, retaining diehard fans from the basement to the champagne room.

Whereas Jay-Z (not on Rock the Bells) is a competent live performer, his routine stage show is sure to disappoint those who crave his early B-sides and could do without the anthems. Nas, conversely, tends to tear into throwbacks that only dedicated fans would worship — all the while sprinkling new joints and Billboard bangers like "If I Ruled the World" through his set lists. He knows his audience well — and nobody at Rock the Bells wants to hear a Timbaland abortion from his Nastradamus days.

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"There are still real fans out there, and these are the real fans," says Nas. He acknowledges lifelong legionnaires like me, but is equally enthusiastic about the teenagers who rhyme along to "Represent" and "Halftime." "That's what excites everyone who comes out for this every year. A lot of artists need to see their fans and their fans need to see them, and Rock the Bells makes that happen because no one else does. As a kid with a dream and a vision of how it's supposed to be done, I just wanted to do my part, and I guess I still do."

Even before Nas signed on, Rock the Bells was already one of the last major venues for gimmick-free hip-hop. The tour started on the tail end of — hold your nose — the rap-rock phenomenon, and brought the two-turntables-and-a-microphone (or 10 microphones) dynamic back to the arena format. Furthermore, the tour erased lines between commercial and underground, white and black, alternative and trendy. Top dogs from every last corner of the genre (save for nerdcore) were invited to the powwow, from cult acts like Necro and Tech N9ne, to big label titans like Mos Def and the Roots. The common denominator: live chops.

"A lot of guys today have it a lot easier than we did," says Nas, one of the few rap megastars who doesn't need a hype man or backing vocals. "When I started we were performing in small clubs with no security and a bunch of jewelry on — we were our own security. These were rough crowds — rough like we were — but we made it feel like home wherever we went. Today artists come out and they want to be treated like Madonna. I'm glad I didn't come up like that, because I wouldn't have a reason to keep recording now."

Indeed, his lack of hubris (well, relative lack of hubris, since all MCs are cocky) is what makes Nas the most endearing rapper in the second wave of rhyme greats (post-Kane, pre-Kanye). It's also why I love hearing that young Faraone men are driving their Long Island guido rides with his tracks shattering the speakers — I'd rather that loved ones not like hip-hop at all if their preference is for megalomaniacal contemporary slogan rappers. Nas embodies the most important rule in rap music — to never forget where you came from. Cheesy as that sentiment may sound, it's still strong enough to keep Rock the Bells ringing every summer from Boston to Los Angeles.

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