New York City represented mightily at Rock the Bells in Jones Beach last night: Of the nine main stage acts, seven — including the regrouped headliners A Tribe Called Quest — were hometown heroes. Which says more about the vintage taste of festival organizer Chang Weisberg than the vitality of the local scene — apart from the self-styled revolutionary Harlem M.C. Immortal Technique, all of the NYC acts had roots dating back a decade or more. But that doesn’t take away from the fest’s extremely satisfying nineties unity vibe, where nary a soul could get through a set without a pal bounding onstage.
Long Island’s De La Soul got the family thing cooking in the scorching daylight, when an ebullient, sweater-clad Q-Tip and a portlier-than-ever Biz Markie juiced the crowd. Staten Island’s Raekwon and Ghostface came equipped with Wu infantryman Cappadona, as well as the ghost of ODB and about half of Stapleton Houses. Brooklyn’s Mos Def, rocking a Bed-Stuy basketball jersey, had the day’s first big surprise: After nearly ten minutes of Mos’s quasi–New Age ramblings, buddy Talib Kweli popped out and the duo destroyed the backpacker classic “Definition.” (Pharoahe Monch, doing the massive “Simon Says,” was the cherry on top.)
As the sun set, Redman and Method Man (representing Newark and S.I., respectively) got things really rocking — the combination of their outsize personalities, cameos from Slick Rick and EPMD, and that part in “Da Rockwilder” where everyone goes “la la la la la la la” was perfect for the stadium crowd. (Also: Stay tuned, apparently, for How High 2.) Nas, next up, didn’t need much help stealing the night’s festivities — his whip-tight band boomed through a sick Illmatic medley while Queensbridge’s finest verged on declaring himself a wild-card candidate in 2008 (“Let me be the voice of the people and I’ll die for you!”). But help he did have, as the atonal organs of “Success” summoned none other than Jay-Z from the backstage hordes. It was a giant, raucous moment, the kind of grab-your-buddy-by-the-arm, oh-shit moments you brave these exhausting all-day festivals for. But it wasn’t the best part of the evening.
That would come later, at the tail end of Tribe’s bubbly set. As Q-Tip jumped into the stands for the grand finale of “Award Tour,” the stage was crowded with M.C.s scrambling for mikes — including Busta Rhymes, who had sprinted out earlier to do his snarling, monstrous verse on “Scenario.” Amid the chaos, Busta spotted Mos Def, giddily grooving toward the huge D.J. stand. They made eye contact and walked over, grinning from ear to ear, like they themselves couldn’t believe they were all there, and gave each other dap. Meanwhile, Tip, tweaking the song’s chorus, skipped the shout-outs to New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia to focus on just one place — “New York! New York!” —Amos Barshad