Stacked lineup of hip hop favourites bring the ruckus for Rock the Bells festival

Between blues fest jazz fest folk fest Afrikadey and Sled Island there’s no shortage of music festivals in Calgary — at least so long as you’re into blues jazz folk world music or indie rock. “But what about us?” asks Calgary’s small but goodly group of hip hop enthusiasts. “Sure we could go see K’naan at Afrikadey or one of a handful of acts at Sled but that isn’t nearly enough to slake our ravenous cravings for phat hooks and mad flow.” For this select group of music heads there’s only one game in town and this Sunday August 2 will be the first time it’s pitching its canvas stall in Calgary’s rich cultural marketplace. Fear not hip-hoppers. Guerilla Union’s Rock the Bells tour is here to rattle your fillings.

“Every show is its own beast” says Chang Weisberg founder organizer and all-round big-time head honcho of Guerrilla Union and Rock the Bells. “It’s really a lot like producing 11 Lollapoloozas. Calgary for example is the only city getting Cyprus Hill. We try to make every show special.”

The highlights of Rock the Bells’ billing include Nas The Roots Common Outkast’s Big Boi Sage Francis Busta Rhymes Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli and Hi Tek) Wu-Tang members RZA GZA and Raekwon with hosting by Supernatural Murs Pete Rock Damian Marley and other performances to be announced. KRS-One and Chali 2na were also slated as a host and a performer respectively though they’ve both since dropped off the bill. It’s disappointing to see two of the most influential names from either coast suddenly vanish from the schedule but Weisberg has gone to extreme lengths to ensure that no one who’s already bought tickets feels duped.

A similar programming nightmare arose near the start of the tour in Toronto when Common suddenly found that he had to honour a film commitment less than 24 hours before his set. Dramatically leaping into action Weisberg quickly arranged for Mos Def to fly in from London to fill in the programming gap. But that’s not all. In addition to performing his own set Def made a surprise appearance during Talib Kweli’s show where they played several tracks from their seminal 1999 collaboration Black Star . As any festival goer who has listened to that record will attest — as soon as they’ve wiped the tears of joy from their eyes — this is definitely what you would call “trading up.”

“One of the things you learn by doing these shows is that these kinds of things are just going to happen” Weisberg says. “Someone is going to have a family emergency. Someone is going to get sick. This time we learned that KRS One does not fly on airplanes. Period. So it would have been logistically impossible to get him [to Calgary] on time. We’re working on getting a couple of other acts to show up but it’s just not so simple as saying ‘Oh these guys dropped out and now these guys are on.’ We have to do a lot of co-ordination with press agents publicists and managers to find something that’s going to resonate with us and also with the public. After that we can make the announcement and people can get refunds or whatever else they need to do.”

Though Weisberg wasn’t able to reveal exactly who will be replacing KRS One and Chali 2na at the time of this writing (check for updates) if it’s even within the same order of magnitude as a surprise Black Star show ticket holders shouldn’t be craigslisting their passes just yet. Even without 2na KRS or any surprise offerings Rock the Bells ’09 still has a very impressive lineup. For one it’s probably the only opportunity Calgarians will have to see a live Reflection Eternal performance and if Kweli and Tek’s fast-flowing minimally produced single “Back Again” is any evidence (listen at ) their latest collaboration will at the very least hold up to their 2000 critically approved album Train of Thought. Of course that’s like saying “This bacon-wrapped unicorn steak is about as tasty as that honey-glazed phoenix breast.” Hip hop fans and mythological epicureans will agree that a par score in this case is pretty damn good.

“We’re working on the Reflection Eternal album and we’re doing the Reflection Eternal show so that’s really what I’m about at this moment” says Kweli. “The album is called Revolutions per Minute and we’re detailing that at the show. Other than that Idle Warship my group that’s got Res and Graph Nobel — he’s from Canada — in it we just got off a European tour so that was fun. And of course I’ve got my label Blacksmith Records. On it we’ve got Strong Arm Steady Anjulie and Jean Gray — so I’m involved in helping to craft all of their records as well.”

Though it has taken Rock the Bells several years since its inception to find its way to Calgary neither Kweli nor Weisberg attribute this to any major differences in the way Canadian crowds react to hip hop shows. In fact despite Canada’s dearth of hip hop festivals Kweli says that a show he played in Montreal with Kanye West and Common remains among the best he’s ever done and he’s excited to return to the frozen North.

“There are subtle differences between crowds in Toronto and crowds in Vancouver” says Kweli. “Canada in general — most people in the world appreciate good music and Canada is no different — Canada has a great appreciation for the art. What I will say is that Canada has a lot of untapped artists and artistry that hasn’t gotten out. People in Toronto like Graph Kardinal people in Vancouver like my man Chin and a lot of untapped resources. A lot of music acts stand a good change to break by playing Canada often.”