NOISE: Whoo! I mean, Wu! Rock the Bells...

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Guardian assistant art director Ben Hopfer checked out the Rock the Bells rap convo on Aug. 6 in Concord:

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Redman carouses backstage at Rock the Bells.
All images by Ben Hopfer.

Rock the Bells sets the bar for what a quality hip-hop festival should be all about. Last year's lineup was good -- members of the Wu-Tang Clan appeared, including Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man -- and this year's bill embodied hip-hop at its highest level. The entire Clan -- excluding the RZA -- performed in tribute to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.

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Wu-tang Clan definitly brought the motherfucking ruckus with the highly energetic Method Man trading off on leads with Ghostface Killah.

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Other members all had their own distinct styles. Pictured: Mastakilla, Raekwon, U-God, Method Man, and the GZA.

Festival organizers always find the right mix of quality hip-hop from the Bay Area and beyond. Local talent like Zion I, Del tha Funkee Homosapien from the Heiroglyphics, as well as the Living Legends were going to be on hand this time, so I knew in advance that the show was going to be insane. In addition to those artists, the lineup was back-loaded with some pretty big names: De La Soul, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Redman, and of course, the Wu-Tang Clan. Toss into this already diverse stew the politically charged Planet Asia and Immortal Technique, and you have the spectrum covered.

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Planet Asia introduced energy early on at the festival.

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Immortal Technique offers revolutionary music to the masses.

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Immortal Technique lets me know what he thinks of the Minutemen with the Brown Berets.

When it came to the music, the festival was top-notch. I can't say the same about the venue. Call me a purist, but I like to see my hip-hop up close. Pack me in a club well past the fire marshall's limit -- I won't care. Hip-hop crowds need to be enclosed. We're kind of like cattle that way. The Concord pavilion just wasn't built for this kind of show. Some '80s arena rock, yes. Mos Def, no.

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Zion-I holds it down for the Bay backstage.

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De La Soul gives the crowd some love.

I don't want a seat when I'm seeing hip-hop -- I want to rush the goddamn stage! The cheaper seats were so far back that I needed a mini-Hubble to see what was happening on stage. Hell, even a $100 ticket couldn't get me to the stage -- thank god for press passes. Big ups for the Wu-Tang Clan. They told the crowd to rush the stage, knowing that without crowd energy, things just aren't the same. But while one bar was raised, another was missing: the lack of alcohol for the 21-and-older crowd left a sour taste in my mouth. Actually, I should say a dry taste in my mouth, as I just wanted a beer or three.

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Sway from the Wake-Up show talks with Domino from the Heiroglyphics Crew. Did I just hear that Heiro is workng with Prince Paul? Shhh!

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Supernatural, now the world record holder for longest freestyle (nine hours!), showed his skills by freestyling only from items handed to him by the crowd.

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Redman proved once again that his presence can bring the crowd to their feet.

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A Blackstar reunion of sorts: Talib Kweli (left) and the mighty Mos Def (right).

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Oh snap, is that Dave Chapelle? Yeeeah!

I don't mean to complain about the show. I mean even at $100 you got your money's worth of unbelievable hip-hop. I understand that Rock the Bells needed a bigger venue this year to get all of these artists together for the day. I just miss the intimacy of last year's festival. Here's hoping next year's will be a little more crowd friendly while still bringing some hip-hop heat.

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Murs of Living Legends shows everybody that he has much love for the Bay.

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The Living Legends pulls no stops when performing as a group. Pictured: Asop, the Grouch, Luckyiam, Scarub, Sunspot Jonez, and Bicasso.