Rage Against The Machine Part 2: Rock the Bells

I have been robbed. Plain and simple. Held up, relieved of my cash and left in the middle of nowhere by a pack of gangsters straight from the hood.

How was I set up and hoodwinked? For that we have to roll back the clock to the French Café a few posts ago where I nearly soiled myself, meeting one of my all time heroes, Zach de la Rocha, the rapper from Rage against the Machine.

He told me that Rage, who I have wanted to see live since the day that I first heard “Wake Up” on their debut album, were playing Rock the Bells, like a Hip Hop Coachella, Glastonbury, Big Day Out kind of thing.

I immediately buy two tickets. I have no idea who is going to come out there with me, I don’t really know anyone who is into Hip Hop, but I’m sure the universe will provide the perfect musical partner. It knows how important and life changing this gig is going to be for me.

And connive the Universe does. I am out one night at the Eagle and meet a guy called Zack (yes, same name but with a K) who it turns out is right into his music and loves all sorts, including Hip Hop. We end up hanging out a bit in LA doing arty farty stuff.

I spring the question and Zack loves the idea of coming out for RTB, so I am happy indeed. A gay Hip Hop mate. This is truly fun for it’s hard to find gay guys into hip hop, it’s not the most welcoming form of music for me and my kind.

If a Rock act started bashing gays in their lyrics, their careers would fall into a sales bin faster than Britney’s, yet semi-publicly hating gay men as a rapper only adds to your cred.

It’s a strange thing about the dark spectre of homophobia in Hip Hop. It lurks there in the lyrics and in the attitude of a hefty majority of the artists. I’m not saying that black Hip Hop culture has the monopoly on homophobia. I would hate to be the gay first-born son in a Chinese family, and the religious zealots of white America are not exactly quiet on the subject.

And then there’s a weird thing of being white and into Hip Hop.  In 13 years as a Hip Hop DJ around the world, more than once I had “Yo, DJ Tourist!” screamed at me from the dance floor. Never in Africa though, when I lived there. Probably the best reception I ever had.

So the natural question to ask is, why do I like Hip Hop? I got into it almost 20 years ago in Australia, when I heard Public Enemy’s album “Fear of a Black Planet”. It terrified me and thrilled me in equal measure. It was the voice of an angry putdown group of people, hated for what they were, judged by others and trying to reclaim pride. Which spoke directly to the gay man that I was in my earliest years of becoming. When you are in a minority, it’s not a huge jump to put yourself in the shoes of another one.

So weirdly, though I was a middle class gay white kid in Australia, Hip Hop made complete sense. It was the late eighties, homosexuality was still illegal in Australia, people were dropping like flies from AIDS, and the word “gay” was usually thrown in the same sentence as “prostitutes” and “drug users” by the government spokespeople and “child molesters” by the religious right.

Shortly after my intro from PE, out came The Native Tongues Movement in Hip Hop, bands like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Arrested Development which preached fun and love and getting back to a spirituality. And I bought every single piece of vinyl I could lay my hands on.

Then Gangster Rap did a drive-by and Hip Hop was toe tagged by NWA.

But I have a great love for the music and at its best I always thought of it as a tool that rose organically to express the feelings and educate the people who created it with nothing more than two turntables and a microphone.

Anyway, back to the chorus.

So, there we are, arriving at the Hyundai Pavilion in San Bernadino, about an hours drive out of LA. It’s not too bad actually as freeway trips go in LA. Nice sunny day, the hysterically funny Zack riding shotgun, the hour seemed to breeze by.

The tickets weren’t cheap for this thing, $100 a pop, but the lineup was pretty amazing indeed. Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill, and headlining, Rage. My mosh pit fantasies were running overtime. Thank God I bought them when I still had a bit of cash. Money was so super tight that I didn’t have it to throw around right now.

Then there was the first stick up. $30 to park. In a field. You must be kidding. No, apparently not. And it’s not like there’s anywhere else to leave the car. Fuck you as I fork out my cash.

So we trod into the pavilion. Now having not been to this place before, I presumed it would be something like the stadiums back in Australia. You know, with roofs. The word Pavilion creates a certain expectation of things like, structure. The more fool me.

The pavilion as it happens was another field. No buildings, no pillars, no metal frames. Not even a $10 tarp from Home Depot. They probably had to clear the cows out before the first act. The one thing it did have was a stage at the far end of it. And I mean Star Wars, once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away kind of far.

And all under the baking summer Californian sun.

These cheapskates had erected not one bit of shade. Nothing, nada, zip diddley, donut hole. And it had just gone 1pm. Now, Hip Hop culture demands a certain kind of clothing to be worn at all times, namely oversized denims and trainers, not exactly the most cooling of outerwear. So people were sweating buckets and fighting a turf war for the only shade there, which was being cast by the line of port a loos. Great.

Zack and I decide to go for beers. Stick up number two. They are ten dollars each. And the waters are five. I ask the woman behind the counter if she had a saw so I can take off my right arm to pay her. She stared at me blankly. I don’t know if she didn’t get it, or just didn’t care. Maybe both. So we fork out even more cash.

I am now beginning to suspect that Rock the Bells is not going to be quite experience that I had been hoping for.

But no Karl, don’t be the hater, it’s about the music. And Rage are going to be on in just another 10 hours.

So we wander, and this is where it really begins to take a nosedive. The t-shirt stands are running hot and there are a truckload of different designs to choose from. But as I read them all, it dawns on me that I don’t know a single record label, piece of lingo, character, artist or anything else that’s printed on them. Oh my God, I am really out of touch with this.

Zack and I wonder if maybe we should start our own t-shirt stand there and sell designs that combine the polar opposite elements of Californian Culture. The first t-shirt run would be emblazoned with, “Namaste, bitches”. Next year, next year.

We go and check out the second stage. There is some guy up there rapping away. And there is also revealed yet another chink in the hip hop armour. Hip Hop rose from the street and the clubs. And you know what? That is where it should have stayed. One guy in a boiler suit backed by a DJ on a massive empty stage does not a great live show make. In fact, it starts to look a bit like a large-scale talent night.

Where are the helicopter and limos? Where is the Hennessey, the white suits, the explosions, the bags of cash? Where is the swimming pool ringed by the back up dancers in thongs and fur coats? Where are the hydraulic, pimped out rides? Goddammit, where are the bitches and hos?

Hip Hop, Unpropped, Please Stop.

So we wait it out and watch the crowds. Which now that I look at it, are decidedly un-black. Lots of Latinos, but mostly it’s white. And I mean soda cracker white. Abercrombie and Fitch white. Trust fund white. In fact, pretty much the only black people I saw all day were on stage.

And here’s the other thing about why a mass Hip Hop day kind of loses something. At any other big concert or thing like this, you vibe with the crowd. You meet new people, and you are all at least metaphorically high on the rush of seeing live music.

But that ain’t how it goes down on the day.

Hip Hop is so much about front, that I don’t think I see anyone crack a smile. If I’m having a good time here to day, no one will ever know it. It looked like there was a competition on amongst everyone called, “I am not the uncoolest white person here”. The Latinos had nothing to worry about, they have contributed some great artists to the genre. But the only great white hopes have been Eminem. And Vanilla Ice.

There is even a show here in The States called “The Search for the Next White Rapper”. It was a serious attempt at finding a new Marshall Mathers. Instead, it’s gathered this huge fan base that watch in slack jawed horror. It should be on Comedy Central. Contestant number 6, you can’t talk about a ghetto revival when you come from the suburbs and your Mom drives a Volvo station wagon.

I am seriously beginning to wonder why we are here. Oh that’s right, this was my dumb idea.

But wait, Rage are coming. In only 6 more hours.

But first, Public Enemy. Ah, the men who got me into this in the first place. My heart soars, OK, now we’re going to get this show on the road. Only it seems there was a rabbit that the Public Enemy truck swerved to miss and the whole thing flipped and caught fire.

A very old rabbit.

Listening to Public Enemy was like walking through a really bad museum. What sounded angry and hard 20 years ago, now sounded yawn worthy.

All the lingo in the lyrics had dust on it, and Flavor Flav still was wearing that stupid alarm clock around his neck, but when they got the crowd chanting, “Fuck George Bush”, it was like having your grandfather walk you through Politics 101.

I looked at Zack, he looked at me and together we looked to the car park. We were sunburnt, dead inside from drinking in the heat, and frankly, bored.

But we decide to stay for The Roots. I have seen them twice and they are a seriously great live act. I have still only seen them twice. We discover as we move forward, that the tickets we have only get you within 300 meters of the stage.

To give you a mental picture, hold your thumb and second finger a third of an inch apart, for metric, say less than a centimeter. Then hold your arm as far away from your body as you can. That’s how big the people on stage looked. Actually, not even. It was like watching Guatemalan Worry Dolls.

We headed back to KITT to make good our get away.

It didn’t help that the whole of the day felt like me trying to fit into an old Def Jam t-shirt that was almost worn out and 2 sizes too small as I shouted, “This used to fit! And I looked awesome!”

But, whoever the promoter of that tragic event is, I hope he got a hernia carrying away all the cash. The bands can’t have thought that they made a great show that day. At least I hope not. If my fans turned up to something that looks like every expense was spared, I’d be pretty pissed off. This guilt, however, may have been offset by a big fat cheque.

So while I didn’t see them, I left filled with Rage Against the Machine.

And in protest, I’m buying Kylie’s entire back catalogue. Every album, every remix. You know what, I’ll take all of Dannii’s too.

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About Some Gay Guy

I'm getting divorced. So... yeah.
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