If your idea of hip-hop is Soulja Boy and the "Stanky Legg," this year's Rock the Bells festival series, which hits Merriweather on Sunday, might not be for you.
The bill consists largely of artists whose greatest impact occurred during the music's so-called "golden age" of the late '80s and early '90s. But more important, the four-stop 2010 event celebrates not the MP3 download but rather the full-length album. Headliners are scheduled to perform specific LPs in their entirety, among them rap classics like Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle," Wu-Tang Clan's "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)", A Tribe Called Quest's "Midnight Marauders," Rakim's "Paid in Full" and KRS-One's "Criminal Minded."
"If hip-hop has ever had an album-oriented moment, it's these albums that helped define that," says Oliver Wang, a longtime hip-hop writer, blogger, DJ and editor of "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide." Wang explains that, over the past 10 to 15 years, the music has reverted back to being a singles-based genre, as it was in its formative years. But for a period rap artists were pushed toward making more expansive works, replete with skits and interludes, that made the album greater than just a collection of potential hits.
"I think Run-DMC with "Raising Hell" and Beastie Boys with "Licensed to Ill," sort of this double-whammy in 1986, really put everyone on alert that it's not just about singles," he says. "You could go multiplatinum with an entire album's worth of material. … So, beginning in the late '80s through the mid-'90s, I do think there's greater effort and ambition among rap artists and [their record] labels to think of these as cohesive listening experiences."
But who, in the age of iTunes and ringtones, is going to appreciate a day-long concert of album tracks from two decades ago? Aficionados and hard-core fans, for one. "You're rewarding the fans who know the non-single, inside-of-the-album cuts," Wang says. Another key demographic, he explains, would be hip-hop's aging devotees, whose growing sense of nostalgia for the music of their youth is well-served at a festival such as this.
Many hip-hop fans who discovered the music as children are now in their 30, 40s and even 50s, says Wang, and some of the same principles that allowed classic-rock radio to fill the musical needs of the baby boomers now apply to the hip-hop generation. "I don't buy the argument that just because hip-hop is so youth-oriented, that means that just because you get past 40 you're supposed to stop listening to the music that was meaningful to you 20 years ago," Wang says.
Since 2004 Rock the Bells, whose producers could not be contacted for comment, has developed a reputation as a celebration of hip-hop's roots and rich cultural legacy, this year's concept is less of a stretch than you might think. Says Wang, "It makes sense that as a concert series it would synch up with the general trend of artists doing album-based concerts."
That "trend" is one concert-goers across many genres have encountered in recent years. Artists ranging from Devo to Sonic Youth to Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith have played their most acclaimed albums onstage, in sequence. It's a movement in concert programming that has more than a little to do with Barry Hogan, founder of All Tomorrow's Parties, an ultra-hip, London-based organization that presents festivals and concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Under the "Don't Look Back" banner, Hogan's company has presented or co-presented dozens of acts in this album-concert format, most of them favorites within the indie-rock community. (The Monticello, N.Y., edition of All Tomorrow's Parties over Labor Day weekend will, for instance, feature Iggy Pop and the Stooges playing the timeless "Raw Power.")
Along the way, he's presented hip-hop acts like Wu-Tang's GZA and Raekwon performing their renowned solo albums.
"There are so many great hip-hop records," says Hogan, who also reveals that the hip-hop fans have been much less cynical and finicky about the concept than the indie-rock community. "We would love to do some more. Every single one that we've done has been a hit."
He recalls that Public Enemy, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" in 2008 with several performances, was hesitant at first but eventually embraced the idea and delivered stunning performances. "It wasn't just a nostalgia fest," says Hogan. "It was people going, 'Wow, this is a great album.' A lot of people I know were going back and listening to it again."
As for the most common criticism leveled against the album-concert concept — that is destroys the spontaneity of a typical set list — Hogan disagrees.
"I think sometimes you're watching a band and think, 'Oh, God, what's this new crap they're playing?'" he says. "If you're going to hear this record you know you love, you're guaranteed to hear what you're going for."
If you go
Rock the Bells is Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Gates open at 11 a.m. Tickets are $66-$150.50. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.