Forest Whitaker

Toplining early '90s rap staples the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and one third of the Wu-Tang Clan -- not to mention true old-timers Rakim and Afrika Bambaataa -- this year's Rock the Bells tour may officially mark the beginning of hip-hop's "classic" phase.

Toplining early ’90s rap staples the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and one third of the Wu-Tang Clan — not to mention true old-timers Rakim and Afrika Bambaataa — this year’s Rock the Bells tour may officially mark the beginning of hip-hop’s “classic” phase. Granted, the firepower on display at Saturday’s show was enough to make anyone long for hip-hop’s golden age, and there were more than enough standout sets to go around. But too much grumbling about the “real hip-hop” (elderly rapper code for “back in my day …”) and a myopic lack of Southern performers rebuts the fest’s claim to be a true “hip-hop platform.”

Among the headliners, only Nas has had a hit record in the past year, and his bombastic career-spanning set was the day’s best-received. Wu-Tang rara avis Ghostface Killah has likewise maintained a consistent output in recent years, though his late-afternoon perf with longtime foil Raekwon focused mostly on material from the pair’s unimpeachable 1995 album “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” The bass-heavy menace of “Criminology” and oddly endearing obscenity of “Ice Cream” were delivered in thunderous fashion, shaking the crowd out of its heat-induced torpor.

Reunited hometown heroes the Pharcyde turned in the day’s most anticipated performance, which was also its most successful. In a way it was almost disappointing, a reminder of the immense individual talents and superb chemistry of a four-piece who only released two albums together before dissolving. “Ya Mama” was as fun as ever; “Passing Me By” bordered on the sublime.

By hip-hop show standards, the fest ran like clockwork, despite a no-show from MF Doom and a near no-show from Method Man. Yet the sheer size of the San Manuel handicapped the early acts, especially De La Soul, who tried valiantly to forge unity among a sparsely scattered crowd. General admission festival grounds would have changed the day’s vibe entirely.

To varying degrees, a few of the biggest talents on the bill fell victims to self-sabotage. A Tribe Called Quest mostly lived up to their reputation as hip-hop’s preeminent live performers, although a weirdly subdued 20-minute solo spot from Q-Tip cut into their set time substantially. Mos Def was frustrating, dropping occasional gems like “Respiration” and “Umi Says” into a scattershot brew of aborted reggae beats and general futzing-about.

Surprise guests Black Eyed Peas performed in their original late-’90s, Fergie-less incarnation, intent on reminding festgoers that they were once a credible hip-hop act. Their set was energetic and virtuosic, yet general apathy from the crowd shows that their reputation may be too branded by “My Humps” to ever be re-authenticated.

Delightfully unconcerned with matters of authenticity, blogosphere faves the Cool Kids put up a rousing midday set on the underpopulated second stage. Boasting of wanting to become “the black Beastie Boys,” the Kids represented underground up-and-comers, a segment of the hip-hop world the show’s promoters would do well to highlight in the future.

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Rock the Bells

San Manuel Amphitheater, Devore; 65,000 capacity; $78 top

Production

Presented by Guerilla Union. Reviewed Aug. 9, 2008.

Cast

Performers: A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Mos Def, the Pharcyde, Black Eyed Peas, Afrika Bambaataa, Cool Kids, Method Man & Redman, Raekwon & Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, Rakim, Immortal Technique, Supernatural, Scratch.
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