Last year marked the inaugural local installment of the traveling hip-hop extravaganza known as Rock the Bells. Breathing some much-needed golden-age and conscious-type air into Miami's bling-ridden environs, the lineup featured everyone from Jedi Mind Tricks to Mos Def and Talib Kweli, from Nas to a recently reunited Wu-Tang Clan.
This Saturday, Rock the Bells returns with a similarly star-studded cast. The big-deal reunions this time around are A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde, the latter's billing specifically promising all of the collective's individual members. Among the other big names: Nas returns, as does Mos Def and a few members of Wu-Tang: Method Man, who performs this time with frequent stony cohort Redman, and Ghostface and Raekwon, also as a duo. De La Soul and Immortal Technique as well make rare Miami appearances. But the latest addition to the package is a number of leaders from the new pack of cross-genre sensations. Here's our guide to a few of our favorites and an established duo making a new start: Dead Prez.
The Cool Kids
We're a product of the '80s and proud of it! That whole fashion, music, gadgets, all that is getting a fresh look right now — 20 years later, we're re-appreciating that shit." That's Evan Ingersoll, better-known as Chuck Inglish, talking, one-half of the hottest hip(ster)-hop group out right now. Appropriately calling themselves the Cool Kids, Inglish, along with MC partner Antoine Reed, AKA Mikey Rocks, has been making a steady climb into the mainstream.
You might have caught them performing in some dude's living room with that catchy pop singer Sara Bareilles for a Rhapsody commercial or maybe saw them briefly during a cameo appearance on HBO's hit show Entourage. Or maybe you saw the article naming them one of the "Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2008" in Rolling Stone. Or maybe you saw them in any damned music publication/blog out there right now. Yes, the Cool Kids are cooler than you know, even if Inglish doesn't think so. "We're nerds," he laughs. "I stare at my computer all day and make beats."
One thing is for certain — the Cool Kids' beats are simply sick, stripped-down, and minimal, with a respect for the 808 drum machine. You can hear a lot of that on the duo's latest EP, The Bake Sale, released this past June. Says Inglish: "We always say that you know if you got a hit when you play it in your car and people just stop what they're doing and be asking, 'Where's that music coming from?' " ESTHER PARK
Comprised of freedom fighters stic.man and M-1, Dead Prez released its debut album, Let's Get Free, before 9/11 and John Ashcroft put most hip-hoppers on edge. In stark contrast to the calmness of the time, their music spoke of revolution and the empowerment of ghetto youths worldwide. They styled themselves as modern-day revolutionaries disguised under gun-shot beats and heavy, politically themed verses. With lyrics like "The White House is the Crack House" and "Fuck the Bible, get on your knees and praise my rifle," there was, and still is, no middle-ground reaction to Dead Prez. In short, their music makes you want to throw a Molotov cocktail through a Starbucks window.
Eight years after the initial volley, with two major-label releases under its belt, Dead Prez is back. The band's third album, Information Age, is set to drop in November, right in time for the presidential elections. When asked if DP's got an Obama endorsement up its sleeve, stic.man quickly replies: "People who listen to our music damned well know that answer." In other words, no.
Stic.man does predict that Obama will win a landslide victory. But this idea of change being sold to the public, he's not buying it. "We can look at our history and see the facts. Folks thought as long as we got a black police or a black mayor or black judge, things would be different because we'd be represented, but eventually, they just become part of the system. We need to change the system entirely!" He adds: "The revolution doesn't happen overnight. It's a continual process of educating ourselves and others. That's what Dead Prez is all about, educating people to reach a new level of consciousness. That's real change!" ESTHER PARK
Wale might seem like the kind of rapper only a blogger could love, but music industry titan Jimmy Iovine's betting he can move units to the masses. Wale's recent signing with Iovine's Interscope Records has been the culmination of a startlingly rapid ascent for the Washington, D.C., rapper, who, after catching the ear of DJ and producer Mark Ronson, released a pair of compulsive, pop-culture-referencing mixtapes. Last year's 100 Miles and Running and the recent The Mixtape About Nothing have outlined his style — rapidly spit rhymes that reference his favorite television shows, his love for his hometown, and lots of silly jokes.
"My mind is set on one thing — bringing that Grammy back to D.C.," he says at the beginning of "DC Gorillaz." "I'm gonna have a Grammy around my neck, like fuck it/I'm going to tie it on a shoestring and put it around my neck/Walk around with no T-shirt on/And flip-flops and camo shorts."
His blogosphere reception has been nothing short of rapturous, at least partly because he raps over beats culled from popular indie artists like Justice and Lily Allen. And he seems to be aware of this appeal, having told Entertainment Weekly's blog last year: "Lily + Ronson + Wale = blogger's wet dream."
"I feel like bloggers are just a representation of people," he says now, speaking from L.A., where he's working on his debut album, due out early next year. "It's more representative of the average person than television."
He lists Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs among his other indie-rock favorites and also name-drops folks like Jay-Z, Black Thought from the Roots, and UGK's Bun B, all of whom regularly give him advice.
Wale is trying to break new ground by merging radio-friendly jams with a hipster's sensibility. While The Mixtape About Nothing is ostensibly about his Seinfeld obsession — Julia Louis-Dreyfus even gives him a shoutout on it — its underlying message concerns the inanity of most mainstream rap. "Most people like stuff that's not really about anything," he says of snap music fans and the like. "I'm trying to poke fun — trying to throw them off a little bit."
It sounds like a bit of a tightrope act, trying to appeal to a wide audience while simultaneously making fun of them. But even if Wale falls, he will be fun to watch. BEN WESTHOFF