The Rock the Bells Organizer On Beats, Rhymes and the Touring Life
If you want to know how most musicians feel about promoters just check out the lyrics from the A Tribe Called Quests’ song “Rap Promoter” – “If there ain’t no dough, there ain’t no show”. Historically, the relationship between the musician and the promoter has been a very rocky one. Enter Chang Weisberg who would probably be more comfortable watching the show, as a fan, from the audience than he would be watching it from his office backstage.
Since 2004 Weisberg has been putting on Rock the Bells, the annual hip hop festival that features established and up-and-coming artists. Rock the Bells lineups are legendary, featuring hip hop icons like the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Snoop Dogg.
It’s obvious that Weisberg loves hip hop, but what he does best is his ability to form relationships with the artists, mutually beneficial partnerships, that have helped produce classic Rock the Bells moments like the Wu-Tang Clan reunion in 2004 and the A Tribe Called Quest reunion in 2010.
The Couch Sessions caught up with Weisberg ahead of the start of the 2013 to discuss the early days of Rock the Bells, the development of Rock the Bells acts, who hasn’t performed at Rock the Bells yet, and what you can expect from the festival in 2013.
CS: You’re not just a promoter, you’re a fan of hip hop. What was your first concert as a fan?
Chang Weisberg: Wow. My first concert as a fan was in 1998, it was a Depeche Mode concert. I had been to like a club show before that, it might have been Cypress Hill, House of Pain, I remember seeing House of Pain, but in 1998 I believe the first big stadium show I went to was Depeche Mode. It was crazy.
What was your first concert as a promoter?
First concert as a promoter…big concert I would say would be the Cypress Hill SmokeOut.
Do you think it’s important to be a fan of the music you’re promoting?
Absolutely. If I wasn’t a fan of the music there’s not enough money ultimately in this business to make me do some of things we got to do, you know? What we’re doing at Rock The Bells, it’s not just a concert, it’s a platform.
Rock the Bells will always represent the foundation and the pillars of hip-hop, as well as celebrate what’s happening now and in the future. – Chang Weisberg
Rock the Bells started in 2004. You guys built it slowly, until it turned into a national tour in 2006. What were the early days of Rock the Bells like?
The very first Rock the Bells, the first half a dozen of them, were in an underground club in Hollywood. It was down and dirty, kind of like the Unity shows when I was a kid that I went to. There was a series of concerts, underground hip hop concerts, in LA called Unity, that’s where you first saw Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Cypress Hill. That’s the inspiration for Rock the Bells. We started Rock the Bells because there wasn’t anything like that at the time in 2004, there wasn’t a lot of touring in hip hop, it was hard to get insurance for people. It seemed like there was a great opportunity and that’s where I think Rock the Bells really thrived. It went from five or six club shows and turned into a festival that summer and the rest is kinda history from there.
2007 was a breakout year for Rock the Bells; you had two sold out dates at Randall’s Island in New York. In 2008, you had the US tour and Rock the Bells went global with shows in Europe. After 2008, the number of tour dates decreased; in 2009 you did 11 dates, 2010 there were four, 2011 there were three, and three dates again in 2012. Was this is a conscious effort to scale back the tour, was it growing too fast?
You know what, at that point in 2007, it just like exploded you know? I had a partner at the time that was like ‘let’s see what Rock the Bells can do’ and we based it upon touring history and record sales. But there were obviously cities that 90’s era East Coast hip hop wasn’t really crackin’, like Houston, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. We couldn’t seem to get past, 7,000, 8,000 tickets. The festival really works once you get past 10,000 people in the amphitheater model, any less than that is definitely gonna be a loss. It’s hard to gather that much talent and put it into one show without having a particular type of draw.
When you were doing that research, I know it doesn’t talk about when we went out and did all the clubs with Raekwon, Ghost[face], and Mobb Deep. Rock the Bells festivals are only a few times a year, but there are Rock the Bells developed club shows that we do on occasion throughout the year…
I’m on your email list, so I get all that stuff.
Good, so you see that we stay active. We did a big Vibe Magazine presents party during the Magic trade show. Those are smaller shows and we don’t normally track those as part of the festival series. Rock the Bells is a platform, it’s this live hip-hop platform, that exists throughout the year. I am already working on next year’s Rock The Bells you know?
That goes into my next question. How far in advance did you start planning out the 2013 edition of Rock the Bells?
I mean it started in 2012 I can tell you that. Every year certain things, like the booking process, are earlier and earlier because sometimes you’re planting seeds and other times it’s just the luck of the album cycle as they come around.
There’s more and more competition now than ever, especially for hip hop acts. I mean we’ve been doing a great job supporting a lot of groups, and those groups have grown up and their out on their own tours now. Look at Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Wiz Khalifa, and Mac Miller; these are all groups that we supported and now they’re headliners and capable of doing Rock the Bells type shows.
Independent artist are well represented on Rock the Bells. You seem to be very interested in not only what’s hot or current but you seem to be actually interested in building careers…
Acts start off on the small stages, and then graduate to the main stage. Is that the plan?
Oh, yeah. You can talk to J. Cole, you can talk to A$AP Rocky or even Big Sean. Sean came out to Rock the Bells, he was the first act out on the second stage and he’s like ‘Chang, there’s nobody in front of the stage, I hate this, it’s bumming me out.’ You gotta remember man; everyone’s got to pay some dues. It’s tough to be the first act on when there’s not a lot of people in the building. But the fact that your name’s on the flyer and we’re promoting you, trust me it’s gonna grow.
I don’t want you playing Rock the Bells if you don’t believe you could headline it. That is the real truth, because, I look at this as a marathon, not a sprint, you know? I’m very invested in their careers and I want to see them succeed. To see acts like Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, and J Cole able to headline our bill and at the same time Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, KRS-One, E-40, Too Short, and Wu-Tang Clan can all still be rockin’ Rock The Bells, that’s great!
You can’t move forward without knowing where you came from, you know? Rock the Bells will always represent the foundation and the pillars of hip-hop, as well as celebrate what’s happening now and in the future.
You are celebrating 10 years of Rock the Bells. Tell me your best memory of all the shows you’ve done.
Wow, the single best memory?
The first thing that pops up in your head.
You know the first thing that pops in my head is still the first show when Dirty [Ol’ Dirty Bastard] showed up in the building cause we had basically done everything that we could to get ODB to stage that day. We promised a nine member [Wu-Tang] reunion and he was one mile down the street at the hotel. We were struggling for hours to get him out of the hotel room and into the building. Basically, the venue is on the verge of a riot.
So, me and RZA were like ‘yo, we can’t have anybody get hurt out here’ so let’s get out there and it will be an eight person Wu-Tang performance and we’ll deal with whatever we gotta deal with afterwards. But if they don’t get out on stage we will have a full-blown riot. And this will be what the police department and my insurance agents want to have happen.
So, literally I had made the call to get Wu-Tang to stage without Dirty and while the guys were getting ready to get on stage Dirty walked through the doors and the rest is history right there, you know?
What act have you enjoyed working with the most?
The single act I like working with the most…I mean, there’s a lot of acts that I like to work with. It’s just a lot of fun to work with Tech N9ne and his camp because they’re so on point, and they’re so gracious. These guys are touring animals and Travis, the manager, who’s a partner with Tech, has this amazing rule book for anybody that’s on the road with them and if you get a violation, you get fined. I think they just do it right, man, they are just a joy to work with. They love their music and they love their show. They might have one of the most exciting shows, from a technical standpoint, in hip hop period. They’re always just a pleasure to work with. I’ve always said if I was to go out on the road, I’d want to be Tech N9ne and Travis.
What’s the one or two acts that you want but haven’t been able to get.
Oh man, you ready for a whole list? [Laughs]. Outkast, man. Outkast, Dr. Dre and Snoop…I have not worked with Kanye West or Jay-Z yet. I have never done a Fugees show. I’d say number one on my list is Outkast right now.
Has LL Cool J ever done Rock the Bells?
See, there you go. No, LL Cool J has never done Rock The Bells. But, this year on our 10th anniversary, he did the Rock the Mic Tour. So, between television, and certain agenda that he’s got we just haven’t been able to connect the dots. But we’ve had this discussion several times, you know?
This has to happen at some point, the festival is named after his song…
Exactly, right? [Laughs].
Are you shooting footage for a 10 year anniversary DVD?
We capture content for several reasons. Today, putting out a concert DVD when multiple labels are involved is very difficult. There are three major labels, and several independent labels that would comprise a Rock The Bells DVD. It’s a lot of effort, I have to have almost like a whole separate team to work on another documentary. I will say that we’ll stream the show, I think we’re gonna stream the LA show, we’ll stream a couple other shows. Truth be told I capture every show, I’ve got every show we’ve ever done on tape.
Whether or not it ever makes it to a commercial release, I can’t honestly tell you that. I know that after I pass away that’ll be the most valuable footage on the face of the Earth, and I hope one day it does get out. Outside of my tape collection, I have a serious microphone collection. If there’s ever a hip hop hall of fame, I’ll make sure I put some microphones in it.
Besides the ODB and Eazy-E holograms, what surprises can Rock the Bells audiences look forward to?
When it comes to Rock the Bells, they [the performers] want to do something special and extra. Whether it’s bring out a band or bring out some of their friends. Kendrick [Lamar] had an incredible verse on Big Sean’s record; it’s getting a lot of attention. Without giving away too much, I can guarantee you that a lot of his “frenemies”…you’ll see a lot of collaboration on those performances. There will be a couple surprise performances that are unique to every city.
I treat every year like it’s our last year. So, we’re trying to pull out all the stops and put together the best show possible because a lot of people have spent their hard earned money on these concert tickets and we appreciate it. So you know, it’s my plan to deliver.
2013 Rock the Bells Hip Hop Music Festival featuring performances by Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Wale and many, many more, Saturday and Sunday September 28 and 29 at the Festival Grounds at RFK Stadium. Tickets available here now, to order by phone call: 1-800-745-3000.