Rock the Bells: A Journey Through Time and Memory

by J. Lawrence King on August 17, 2009


It starts at the gate on a wooden table, security searching bags, removing water bottle caps. It’s not a line, but a mass of people, compressed into a singlularity, squeezed through metal detectors like orange juice through a strainer–the pulp left behind: water bottle caps, drugs, Diet Dr. Pepper cans piled in neat towers around the parking lot (each layer an epoch) and something else…something less tangible. Metal detectors root out invisible men with sirens: a novel assimilation process to remove their weapons and expose their water. An invasive beep accompanies me through the plastic archway, where a woman– African American, in a yellow staff polo– asks me if I’m wearing a belt. I pull up my sweater and t-shirt, the small metal belt buckle is proof enough of my identity; a gentle pat down proves that I am indeed visible and physical. No, I am not an invisible man, merely an inappropriately dressed white male with a balding pattern and an open bottle of water, covering a culture I know only through books, Boondocks episodes and BET.

I am not alone. I have a guide who explains The Knux and Chali 2na to me, his frustrations over the treatment of hip hop fans and culture as well as an anxiety over the novelty t-shirt he is wearing from some chicken and waffle joint. I follow him through a carnival of people and merch booths, Wu-Tang clan t-shirts, three kids have Tech N9Ne painted across their chests and back. A carnival atmosphere has the crowd moving in complex patterns, the familiar dialectic of back and forth broken by desire and impulse. We cut through a PETA booth, past the side stage. Someone, dressed like Che Guevera, hands me a flyer, “The Revolution We Need…The Leadership We Have: A Message, And A Call, From The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.” I fold the paper into my pocket and my guide pulls me past the beer garden into the amphitheater. We just miss Supernatural’s freestyle set, but find shade in the lawn to sit and regroup.

K-Os is our DJ, and he mixes in between sets while we gain our bearings in time and space. Things are different from the original set list, and we have no idea who is next. Conjecture is on the side of Raekwon, but the lawn is on a decline and my water bottle tips over, spilling all over the girl in front of me, who jumps up, spilling her own beer. Her boyfriend turns around, obscenities slide to the tip of his tongue, but my guide grabs me by the arm and pulls me out of the lawn before the boyfriend’s language becomes auditory…her ten dollar beer is now a small stream down hill toward the seats and then the stage. The amphitheater is a cavern and K-Os is barely visible.

We sneak out of the lawn and into the seats for House of Pain, where I set my water bottle in a cup holder, and stand for the song I remember from Mrs. Doubtfire. “You obviously didn’t listen to this CD for hours on end when you where in junior high,” my guide shouts over the steady bass line, as he dances in the aisle, his anxieties forgotten. I watch as the group moves around the stage, exchanging mic time, words are drowned out by the rhythm but everyone knows them and the set is moving quickly as if language were time.

“Stop!” says Everlast, his hair and goatee now gray.

“What!” Responds Ill Bill.

“Did you just say ‘I’m an American; I need a blow job and a pizza?’”

The rhythm stops too…contemplating the question…and, without an answer, picks up again flowing continually until the words end and House of Pain/La Coka Nostra leave the stage. Everyone lowers their arms and then bodies back into their seats. Nostalgia is liquid in the air, moving up hill and we drink what we can before it escapes into the city.

K-Os fills the void with familiar beats, teasing a Public Enemy special appearance, finally settling on Slick Rick, who wanders out onto the stage: an assortment of gold chains and medalions around his neck distract attention from the black eye patch and English accent. From our seats, he appears old and slow: swallowed by a stage too large to hold what he has to say.

“I’d like to take you back to 1985.” He says; the DJ leaves his tower at the back of the stage and begins to beatbox.


“La dee da dee/ we likes to party.” I recognize the chorus immediately, and Slick Rick’s words bounce off the beatbox effortlessly, “Go Slick Rick, go Slick Rick, go!” His words accelerate time and the crowd almost feels a history and a culture regenerate–It’s 1985, New York and hip hop is their voice and outlet, the streets ripe with potential energy– but he’s too world worn to hold us there in 1985, and we can’t escape the amphitheater. Slick Rick exits the stage the same way he entered. We felt something…but only for a moment. K-Os returns.

“We live under a system of capitalism-imperialism…a system in which U.S. imperialism is the most monstrous, most oppressive superpower…” The rhetoric hasn’t changed…the communist flyer in my hand reads like a bad dystopian novel…Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek are Reflections Eternal; Talib’s poetry is both political and beautiful, but the stage is too big, and he can’t find room for his language, “for the vast majority of humanity: poverty and squalor…torture and rape…the wholesale domination and degradation of women everywhere…” I fold the flyer back into my pocket for the chorus of “Get By” and sing the few words I know by heart, “When people decide to keep a disguise/ can’t see they eyes, see the evil inside/ but there’s people you find/ strong or feeble in mind, I stay reading the signs.” I wave my hands in the air, as Reflections Eternal end their set.

The stage is set for the Roots. ?uestlove’s drums are placed in front of the DJ tower, next to Captain Kirk’s guitar. Screams from the audience announce the Roots. ?uestlove’s rhythm’s are syncopated and transcendent. Black Thought, self proclaimed poet at large, raps furiously and poignantly through “The Seed” and “The Next Movement.” Captain Kirk takes over “You Got Me,” the stage seems small as he moves from one side to the next, the bass player struggles to keep pace; his guitar tells the stories even Black Thought lacks the language to express. The crowd is standing, the air pregnant with marijuana, the melody colludes with the rhythm; I grasp at the railing, and find only memories…


A Memphis park, under a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, an elderly black man carries a guitar case. “What you got in there?” I ask. “This…this here’s my baby.” He says. “Well, can I see?” He opens the case revealing an old Gibson hollow body and hands it to me. The guitar vibrates under my arm as I strum a chord, and then run my fingers up and down a blues scale. “You good kid. But you don’t sound like me. Not no nobody that sound like me.”


14th st, San Leandro, a woman, ebony skin wrinkled under a stained t-shirt, her smile is rotten gums and decaying teeth. I look at her and don’t understand how to feel, so I feel sad. “Come here boy.” She lowers her mouth down to my ear, I can smell the alcohol on her breath as she whispers to me her story. I understand only pieces, her language shifts constantly, the rhythm stopping and starting weakly, then howling like a thunderstorm. Once finished, she moves away from me; I see her face again…the same face. I don’t understand how to feel, but I don’t feel sad. I start my reply but she stops me, “Shhhh, boy! Don’t tell nobody what I told you! That’s my story. You understand?”

The sun goes down with the Roots and K-Os retakes the stage. The amphitheater is lit by the fluorescent lights of advertisements, and I’m no longer sure what I’m here to document. Big Boi comes on stage but I can’t stand anymore, time runs together, history is broken up by an Outkast song I remember or a girl with a tattoo, squeezing her way down the aisle. Big Boi leaves the stage empty…my guide asks me what I thought, what I’m writing.

Busta Rhymes answers with a commanding baritone, “Everyone stick your hands in the air!” I refuse; he looks directly at me and repeats the command, but I still refuse. “I will not tolerate party poopers!” He’s looking at me, and my refusal, pacing the theater. He doesn’t speak, but removes his wrist watch, placing it near the edge of the stage. I stand and Busta Rhymes begins his set. I don’t recognize the songs, but my guide is dancing and the crowd is dancing. Women grind against strangers in the aisles, politics is replaced by sex. Busta controls the stage tyrannically and the crowd responds through their hips and hands, feverishly grasping the night air. He tries to bring us back with him to 1992 and then 1997 but the night air has its own pulse and moves us toward dawn. No time for deviations, time is now sex and it is linear.

“I want to tell you all a story.” Busta stops the music, sits down on a nearby speaker. “Now I’ve been recording music in the bay area for a long time, but I’ve never been to one of these San Francisco strip clubs.” He pauses; the audience catches its breath. “The other day, my buddy talked me into going, so I went and got a private room…I don’t need no Youtube videos popping up of Busta Rhymes in a strip club, you know.” The crowd laughs along with him. “So the girl gets me alone and asks me if I have any cameras or recording devices on me. ‘No’ I say. So, of course now I’m curious and I ask her why she needs to know. So, she tells me ‘because I don’t want no one to see what I’m about to do to you! Pull out your dick.’ Well, let’s just say that I’m proud of my dick, so I pull it out!” He jumps off the speaker and immediately into “Pass the Courvoisier.” The crowd follows this movement with their eyes and fingers, touching each other, their sex undulates with the coming moon.

His set finishes; he puts on his wrist watch, and walks off stage. The audience looks around, unsure of what to do with their bodies. “Let’s get out here.” My guide whispers in my ear. He looks at his watch, “This is the most punctual rap show I’ve ever been to. He ended right on time.”

He grabs me by the arm and we move out of the amphitheater, through the PETA booth and the communist party, past the side stage where Slum Village is finishing a set–people, not a crowd, gather around the small stage, each word, audible, stands still in the air for the people to jump and grab hold of, passing it from person to person. A word is passed to me and I caress every corner, analyze each crevice before my guide grabs me by the arm and pulls me away from the stage, past the merch booths and beer gardens and through the plastic archway; two female staff workers are conversing and barely notice as we move past them into the dusty parking lot. My guide, giddy and exhausted, recounts everything he’s seen, as we drive out of the Shoreline; I’m quiet and unsure, the word still grasped firmly between my fingers…searching for something to say.

Read Also:

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher Rogers August 17, 2009 at 10:52 am



Jillian Salazar August 17, 2009 at 12:10 pm

James, that was such a delight to read. You are a poet with words.


Christina August 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Go James! I had no idea you were such a good writer! ^.^


Ralph Cordova August 18, 2009 at 8:47 pm

This was a more than wonderful review. Kudos to Mr. King and his point of view. He has a wry sense of humor with the ability to maintain a clever turn of phrase. I look forward to more pieces by him.


Rob Wilkinson August 20, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Great review. I love the narrative style. I was really interested in hearing more about what your guide had to say about the treatment of hip hop fans and culture, though. I always find discussions related to race and hip hop to be fascinating, especially with this particular festival. You seem to touch on it a little, but maybe elaboration wasn’t really necessary.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: