Bells Were Rocked 

Rage storms and hip-hop survives a concert crowd fifty thousand strong.

"Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage!" The roar of fifty thousand people screaming for legendary rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine was deafening. Heard from ground zero at San Francisco's Rock the Bells festival 2007 — the photo pit at the front of the stage — it seemed like a battle cry. The moment was certainly epic; one almost expected Valkyries or napalm-dropping helicopters to swoop in from on high.

Instead, Zach De La Rocha, Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim C. — the Southern California outfit collectively known as Rage Against the Machine — appeared, crystallizing the moment for the crowd, who had braved as much as nine hours of music to arrive at this point. Apocalyptic chaos seemed nigh, and even before the band struck its first note, a bevy of crowd surfers breached the front of the barricades, emerging from an ocean of excited fans like crazed salmon.

The stage was shrouded in darkness as the band members came out. On sight of their headlining heroes, the crowd went absolutely apeshit. Thunderously crunchy metallic riffs rained down upon eardrums, projected out of a phalanx of speakers easily five or six stories high. "Ay yo, it's just another bombtrack, and suckers be thinking that they can fade this," De La Rocha half-spoke, half-sang.

In the glow of red klieg lights, which nicely outlined De La Rocha's Afro and made him seem more raving madman than multiplatinum rockstar, the suckers were nowhere to be seen. Rage, which broke up a few years ago (Morello went on to form the now-defunct Audioslave) but has occasionally reunited for high-profile events such as this, was eminently unfadable.

Prefestival press had pondered whether Rage and its agitprop pyrotechnics were still relevant. That skepticism was rendered null and void just one song into the band's set. The combination of De La Rocha's angry postpunk, post-hip-hop polemics, and Morello's fury-enhancing fretwork was and is a potent one, while Wilk's gnarly skin-pounding and Tim C's aggro basslines more than filled out a sound that can rightfully be described as monstrous. Imagine Nirvana with an overt political agenda, or a MySpace-generation version of Led Zeppelin, except louder, harder, and faster, and you have Rage. The set was so loud, anyone without earplugs within two hundred yards of the stage was at risk of permanent hearing loss — the band could be heard clearly near the exit gates all the way at the back.

But it wasn't its ability to pulverize eardrums that made Rage's show more than a nostalgia fest. The band's ultralefty politics are delivered with a conviction that transcends shtick. Songs like "Sleep Now in the Fire," "People of the Sun," and "Bombtrack" had no shortage of attitudinal bombast, but without De La Rocha's fiery lyrics to guide them, Rage would be just another extremely loud band capable of evoking spontaneous slam-dancing and crowd-surfing. It was fitting that both Cypress Hill and Public Enemy were on the bill, being the two hip-hop groups whose influence can most clearly be heard in Rage's sound.

Rock the Bells also emphatically answered the question of whether hip-hop is still alive. Considering the scope and magnitude of the SF show (not to mention the tour itself), the answer would have to be, "Hell, yeah, motherfucker!" Promoter Guerilla Union produced the massive undertaking with one eye on its pocketbook and another on maintaining the culture. Though there was considerable corporate involvement in the festival, there were also spontaneous freestyle exhibitions and B-boy dances. The lineup wasn't just a laundry list of current chart-topping acts with appeal to the key 18-24 demographic, but a mix of classic acts, underground legends, and up-and-comers.

Most importantly, Rock the Bells didn't bury its political or social awareness one iota. In addition to Rage's revolutionary urgings, Public Enemy's Chuck D and Flavor Flav led the crowd through chants of "Fuck George Bush!" and "Fuck Dick Cheney!" while dusting off chestnuts like "Fight the Power" and "Night of the Living Baseheads." They made a statement for racial unity by trotting out Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian for "Bring the Noise" — an obvious precursor to Rage's genre-bending fusion.

Consciousness permeated the earlier sets as well. A reunited Wu-Tang Clan brought the ruckus, but also dropped science. As usual, Cypress Hill advocated for the legalization of marijuana, while Bay Area mainstays the Coup hipped the crowd to the class struggle with tunes like "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish" and "My Favorite Mutiny," drawing a sizable, energetic crowd despite the simultaneous presence of the Roots on the other stage.

The take-home message? Not only is hip-hop still alive and well, but conscious, political, and revolutionary lyrics can still go over with large audiences. Indeed, the SF Rock the Bells show will go down as one of the biggest crowds in the history of hip-hop. Not bad for a genre supposedly on its deathbed.

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