Hip-hop harmony highlights the 2023 Rock The Bells Festival

Review: The 2023 Rock The Bells Festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with acts that included LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim and more at Forest Hills Stadium in New York.

Having Rock The Bells take place at Forest Hills Stadium was a fortuitous and metaphorical decision.

As you march down Burns Street in the prestigious, affluent Forest Hills neighborhood of New York’s Queens borough, you pass by residents playing tennis in white shorts, headbands and crisp visors. With festival patrons, many people of color, sporting graphic T-shirts of Biggie, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, J Dilla, DMX, and several others, the scene represented how hip-hop somewhat infiltrated American culture, bypassed the moral and financial elitism of a society dominated by white people and became the leading pacesetter for culture.

With rap legend and Queens native LL Cool J at the helm, 2023 Rock The Bells honored 50 years of hip-hop music and its defiant and absolute influence on everything adjacent to it. For nearly 10 straight sun-soaked hours, the sold-out crowd withstood the humidity to enjoy a roster of hip-hop’s most influential artists.

Salt-N-Pepa perform at the Rock The Bells Festival on Aug. 5 at Forest Hill Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen)

The Cold Crush Brothers kicked off the festivities. Led by founder Grandmaster Caz, they proved a fitting opener, representing rap music from the mid-1970s before rap was formally recorded. This beloved crew set the tone for the entire festival, showcasing a type of synchronicity that made hip-hop the immersive entity it is, something to be experienced and not just listened to. 

Groups like Brand Nubian and Lost Boyz displayed the impact of performing on one accord. With Lost Boyz, especially, the fact that they performed Mr. Cheek’s solo hit “Lights, Camera, Action” with the same gusto as their group classics like “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz,” and “Renee” showed the strength of their unity, and resonated with the audience. 

Kid Capri held things down for the ladies, helping the music for a string of femcees. MC Sha-Rock, Roxanne Shanté, Monie Love, MC Lyte, and Yo-Yo had the crowd rocking hard until Salt-N-Pepa took things to a new level. The duo took the audience through their many hits, like “Expression,” “Whatta Man,” “Shoop” and “Push It.”

One of the few missteps of the festival involved recurring technical difficulties. At times during numerous sets, the microphones either didn’t work or fluctuated in levels, making many rhymes unheard in random spots during songs. Unfortunately, De La Soul’s entire set got scrapped as Maseo’s DJ and audio set-up didn’t work during the transition from the previous act, making for an anticlimactic end to what was touted as a Native Tongues reunion featuring Black Sheep and The Jungle Brothers. 

As a result of the hold-up from the De La Soul audio issues, the two subsequent sets — Rakim as well as Method Man and Redman — were cut for time. However, both acts made good with the adjustment as Rakim continued with his customary low-key coolness and slickness. Meanwhile, Method Man and Redman showed why they have perhaps the greatest chemistry of any touring rap duo in recent memory. 

Queen Latifah’s set arguably was the best set of the entire day. Coming out with a live band that included Roots keyboardist Ray Angry, Latifah unleashed not only her classics like “Just Another Day,” “Come into My House,” and “U.N.I.T.Y.,” but she showcased many artists who she championed or managed over the years, via her Flavor Unit company. 

MC Lyte (center) rocks the mic as Kid Capri (right) keeps the music going during the Rock The Bells Festival on Aug. 5 in Queens. (Photo by Matthew Allen)

Monie Love returned for their duet, “Ladies First.” Remy Ma made a guest appearance. Naughty By Nature reunited for “Hip Hop Hooray,” their first live show as a full group since 2019. Renée Neufville of Zhané sang “Sending My Love” and “Hey Mr. D.J.” Big Boi and Sleepy Brown shocked the audience with a surprise appearance, performing Outkast hits “So Fresh, So Clean,” “The Way You Move” and Big Boi’s verse on Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ “Kryptonite (I’m On It).”

Run-DMC performed as the penultimate act of the festival. With Rev Run behaving with particular swagger, cursing up a storm between songs, the energy of the Hollis, Queens, legends went back and forth from the duo to the audience. With the two nearing the end of their run as a group, they left little on the table, showing no signs of disconnect or going through the motions. Together, the two never looked more in sync, running through the songs that made them the biggest rap group of their time, like “It’s Like That,” “It’s Tricky,” “Beats to the Rhyme,” “My Adidas,” and “Walk This Way.” 

The night of fantastic energy and celebration ended with LL Cool J performing with The Roots and DJ Z-Trip. As the creative force behind Rock The Bells, the superstar paid tribute to hip-hop and his native Queens with a set of hit after hit. With Black Thought rhyming along with him, LL postered and stalked his way across the stage as The Roots delivered explosive renditions of “I’m Bad,” “Going Back to Cali,” “The Boomin’ System,” “Luv U Better,” “4,3,2,1” with Method Man and Redman coming back for their verses (Black Thought did DMX’s verse), and “Mama Said Knock You Out,” among others.

Even with LL’s endless bravado hitting the crowd upside the head, an act of graciousness proved to be the jewel of his headlining set. He brought Maseo and Posdnuos of De La Soul to perform with The Roots. The two surviving members performed two of their classics in “A Rollerskating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'” and “Me, Myself and I” with the complement of a full band elevating them — a lovely gesture to end a full day of wonderful hip-hop music and history. 

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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