The most well-dressed folks on New York City’s Governors Island last Saturday looked the bummiest. On the balmy last Saturday of the summer, cutoff shorts, tank tops, dirty sneakers and worn-in sandals were among the best things to be wearing for the daylong hip-hop festival that is Rock the Bells.
Elaborate outfits highlighted by fresh tennis shoes, high heels (wedges, too) or anything that gave off a vibe of effort earned more laughs than sartorial appreciation at rap’s lone major fair.
I mean really, how can you appreciate grimy sets from Wu Tang Clan members, Slaughterhouse, and Mobb Deep when you look so, so clean?
Not I, Mixers. In beat up five-year-old Air Jordans, a star spangled tank top (it was Labor Day weekend!), and a pair of shorts, I came to sweat. And from 2pm to midnight, that’s exactly what I did.
My day began with Black Star. The duo featuring Brooklyn rhymers Talib Kweli and Mos Def performed cuts from their 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. They also broke away to perform solo hits. Kweli did his uplifting “Get By.” While Mos, dressed like a substitute teacher in his tie and short sleeve white shirt tucked into his jeans, broke out “Umi Says.”
Things continued with Erykah Badu, who ran through 1997’s Baduizm. Eclectically clad in a fedora, blazer, and pants tucked into her knee-high gold boots, she killed with her mellow “On & On.” Between singing and crowd cruising, she even showed off her production chops by hopping on MPC drum pad for some quick beats.
Next up was Lauryn Hill. Surprisingly, she was bumped out of her headlining slot in favor of hometown favorite Nas. Still, she performed as if she was the night’s main draw. The theme of this year’s festival was that each act select one of their several albums to play. The decision was easy for Hill, who notoriously only has one solo studio album.
Luckily, it’s her masterful The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. At a timely 8:30pm, Hill hit the stage. Many have lamented about how she’s transformed her classic singles into sped-up, unrecognizable ones on stage lately. But for the most part, everything from “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to “Everything Is Everything” felt familiar. Her voice is strong. And apparently, so is her relationship with at least one-third of her old group, the Fugees. She closed out her set bringing out Pras for “Ready or Not,” then encored with her rendition of “Killing Me Softly.”
Queens rapper Nas ended the night with a flurry of guests assisting his set of his 16-year-old classic debut album, Illmatic. Producers DJ Premier and Pete Rock both took turns spinning on the turn tables while Nas brought out MC Serch—the 3rd Base rapper who hooked him up with his first record deal, and then ‘90s favorites Large Professor, Fatal, and Akinyele for “Live at the BBQ.” Akinyele followed up with his oh-so-nasty “Put It in Your Mouth.” Lauryn Hill returned for their collab, “If I Ruled the World.”
And that was the night. As we boarded the boat back to mainland NYC, I looked around at my fellow concertgoers. All were content, worn-out, and dirty. The difference between me and those dressed like they were headed to a state dinner, though, was that my getup didn’t require dry cleaning.