Last year's RtB had a few '90s reuniters: Rage Against the Machine, a band that should never again reunite because its musical idea of revolutionary-minded rap-rock is doornail dead (boooooo!) and Wu-Tang Clan, a once great rap group that, while still fun, is basically doing what the Beach Boys did in the '80s, i.e. wholesaling memories with John Stamos on bongos (boooooo...?).
When A Tribe Called Quest "reunited" for Seattle's Bumbershoot 2006 festival, I watched rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg forget words and stupidly try and get a white audience to chant along to a famous chorus with the n-word in it. I realized then: Nostalgia ain't always a shady lane.
But who cares. Tribe has tons of fans and I'm sure will please all of them with hit after rap-purist hit ("Scenario," "Electric Relaxation," etc.). Pharcyde is party rap, and even if its set is a shambles, it should work well enough to communicate a shred of what once was ("Passin' Me By," "Runnin'," etc.).
What else does RtB have? Old dudes that aren't coasting on the past.
Nas should be good. This year has brought us The N---er Tape, his excellent mixtape, and Untitled, a spotty album. He'll no doubt do songs from Illmatic, another classic from the '90s that many consider the best hip-hop album ever.
Mos Def should be good. He hasn't put out a solid album since the '90s, but has made good songs. This year he's even been on a great one, "Rising Down" by the Roots.
De La Soul should be solid, too. It's the only group on RtB that was hot in the '90s (and even the '80s) that never made bad music, broke up or disappeared/reappeared. Post-millenium, De La is making its best music. Thinking man's rap par excellence.
And there's MF DOOM, another '80s/'90s rapper that, like De La Soul, has only gotten better with age. He's been accused recently of hiring impostors to do his shows (he wears a metal mask, so it's a semi-conceivable notion), and a good chunk of RtB 2008 drama should revolve around whether or not he actually shows up.
There's some young dudes, too, and they bring what's current: gallery rap. You know, hipster hop. Retro styles and fresh ideas.
There's Wale, an exciting rapper, who, even if he often doesn't really rap about anything, sounds casually brilliant. Jay Electronica is there, too, a rapper and producer Nas and Erykah Badu think is a genius but has yet to really prove it. RtB should be good grounds for that. There's the Cool Kids, who jack old-school rap sounds for songs about (what else?) being cool, and Kidz In The Hall, who have nothing to do with absurd Canadian comedy but everything to do with being young, smart and skilled.
Take a MySpace afternoon and face the truth: Those four acts all have legitimate claims to "the future of rap." They should all want to perform well at RtB, too, if not for the audience's enjoyment (sad emoticon), then at least to show the old dudes they can hang.
And there's socially conscious hip-hop at RtB, too, courtesy another young act, Seattle's Blue Scholars. It's some of the best Seattle's got right now, and the Scholars' music should be tightly performed because the group's been touring like mad this year.
That's it! Rock the Bells 2008: classic '90s rap, chips off the old block, and a conscience. Here's hoping the nostalgia doesn't come off bloated and the young guns come out swinging.
Rock the Bells at the Gorge, featuring Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Method Man, Redman, Raekwon, Ghostface, De La Soul, Rakim, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Murs, Spank Rock, Sage Francis, Little Brother, Jedi Mind Tricks, Kid Sister, the Cool Kids, Africa Bambaataa, Jay Electronica, Wale, Blue Scholars, Kidz in the Hall, BOB, the Pack, Tyga, Blaqstarr, Flosstradamus, Amanda Blank, Devlin, Darko, Pase Rock, NinjaSonik and Dirty Heads. Saturday, Sept. 6, starting at noon. $50-$175. Visit ticketmaster.com.