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Rock the Bells Organizer Talks Two-Day Festivals, Five Bone Thugs and a Tupac Hologram

Chang Weisberg talks to THR about transforming his longtime love of hip-hop into one of Southern California's biggest concert series.

Chang Weisberg Headshot - P 2012
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Promoters can often be money-hungry opportunists, but when it comes to hip-hop concerts, Chang Weisberg is equal parts fan and organizer. For the past nine years, Weisberg has put on an increasingly successful series of Southern California events feature line-ups that aren’t just captivating, but credible: from hungry up-and-comers (Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean) to indisputable icons (Nas, Ice Cube), he not only brings them in but knows them backwards and forwards.

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After almost single-handedly popularizing the trend of “vintage concerts,” in which an artist or group performs their most famous album in its entirety, Weisberg is switching things up again for this year’s Rock the Bells concert, not just by adding a full extra day of programming but juxtaposing some of those nostalgia trips with performances of newer material. Weisberg spoke to The Hollywood Reporter late last week via telephone, revealing a few new acts who will be taking the stage this weekend in San Bernadino, and discussing the process of turning his love for hip-hop into a celebration for everyone to share.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does expanding the concert to two days change the logistics or coordination of the programming?

Chang Weisberg: It took us nine years to become a real festival, like two days, because in one genre it’s hard. Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, they’re able to do three days because they’re pulling from every genre. What this did allow us to do though is not alienate fans; you can see very strong

THR: Michael Rapaport’s Tribe Called Quest documentary revealed a lot of behind-the-scenes drama that went down during their reunion a few years ago at Rock the Bells. Have there been any skirmishes like that this year?

Weisberg: I think it’s always unique, because as the promoter of the show and working with talent, you’re actually becoming a part of people’s lives. And when I say that, let’s talk about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or DMX, acts that haven’t toured in a while or there were some interpersonal issues. I work with some acts more than others, with a lot more issues on the table -- acts that haven’t been touring for a while need to rehearse and think about what their set is going to be like; I mean, it’s been a while since Eve, [Jadakiss] and DMX has been on stage together. But X has done really well with his last promotion, his last 20 shows, so I think it’s a perfect set-up here with Rock the Bells. But thankfully at this point right now, we don’t have anything going on that’s as crazy as it was with Tribe that year – although to be honest, brothers fight all of the time. Like that was Wu-Tang in every [permutation] ever, for a long time, but when they get in the building together, it’s very rarely a problem. I mean, emotions run high, but that’s very few and far between.

THR: How did you decide what the focus of this year’s performances was going to be?

Weisberg: We’re on the cusp of our 10-year anniversary next year, and we’ve been supporting independent acts that have developed into major arena acts – Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, these were on our smaller stages, and now they’re kind of grown up. And we really wanted to kind of showcase new music this year versus always going to look in the past. I mean, we’ve got some really great albums in their entirety – [Redman and Method Man’s] Blackout or Bone Thugs doing 1999 Eternal. But I just want to make sure we never ever do the same thing twice, so those amazing situations where it’s an album in its entirety is awesome, and that will always be a part of the mix moving forward. And as far as reuniting groups, like all five members of Bone on the stage, or getting DMX, Eve and Jadakiss back together, those are all really fun situations. But this year moving forward, really rap now is stronger than it’s ever been, and with groups like Pusha T, Wiz Khalifa, Mac Mill, all of these groups that have been on our bill who have not been the headliners, I think that’s really where the story is -- they’re on the main stage now.

THR: How tough was it to round up some of the older acts on the bill, like Big Daddy Kane or Salt & Pepa?

Weisberg: It was not difficult to ask Salt-N-Pepa or Big Daddy Kane or Naughty By Nature to come through; those are iconic acts that moreso than ever it felt like the perfect time for them to be a part of it. Because I think for the first time in a long time there’s going to be a lot of parents of hip-hoppers – 30 or 40-year-olds who want to go see Salt-N-Pepa or Nas and have kids who go, “that’s cool – I want to go watch Wiz and [Kid] Cudi.” I don’t know that I’ll be able to pull off a bill that’s this diverse or cross-generational again.

THR: Last year Nas performed Illmatic, and this year he’s doing a more comprehensive set of music. Is Ice Cube performing a specific album?

Weisberg: I wanted to hear Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, or Death Certificate, and he goes, “Well how about we don’t call it either?” He’s like, “I know what the Rock The Bells audience wants. I’m going to give it to them, but let’s call it a special set -- but nothing like an album in its entirety.” So I think he’s going to go through a majority of his catalog and then he also has a record that he’s getting ready to put out, so I think he’ll perform new material as well.

THR: How difficult is it to parse out who does a full album and who performs a more convention, career overview set?

Weisberg: It’s a combination of where the artist is at in their career, what projects they’re currently working on, and what would be exciting for the festival -- probably in that order, too. So it often gets discussed, and it’s always something that’s really fun to talk about, but it’s not mandatory in our discussions. So as they happen, I don’t have a preconceived number of albums in its entirety that I want to focus on, but it does come up fairly often with certain acts -- especially as it is a time when a lot of acts are having their 20-year anniversaries and whatnot.

THR: Last year you moved Rock the Bells to a different venue after there were some logistical issues with parking and things like that the year before. What steps did you take in the two years since you’ve been at the NOS Event Center to sort of ensure that doesn’t happen again?

Weisberg: Very specifically, a lot of real things. We just now announced that there’s going to be free water at the show, and many more shade tents with misting systems. We’ve got the infrastructure at the Orange Show improved enough where we can have an automated box office system for real time updates. We’ve basically put the parking on the tickets so you don’t have to pay for parking on the way in; it’s already been paid for, so the lines of the cars coming in and parking flows a lot faster. We opened up another gate for entrance, so I think there’s like a hundred stalls that you could walk into. Things like that. Those are technical production opportunities for us to improve, and I believe we have. We’ve increased the number of women’s restrooms, but not just having enough restrooms there but having antibacterial soap in the hand washing stations. With our fans,  we get to hear every little thing from them with the way social media is now, and we pay attention.

But I think we’ve really kind of dialed that in over two, three festivals. Like Paid Dues, Smoke Out, every event has been running better and better. So if last year Rock The Bells was a C+, I’d say Smoke Out was a B, and Paid Dues was a B+. So we’re trying to get it to an A status for Rock The Bells this year. Some of that had to do with which streets we’re closing off, construction around the Orange Show, which has been always an ever-changing situation. In fact, the immediate streets around, some of them had some pretty important and large-scale revamps going on. So we’ve had to work through those situations and our education on our outlets I think is even better. We know to initiate those things sooner – putting up set times up sooner too helps people plan for the day correctly, and those are up now. I mean, we definitely had some issues last year, but those are specific things that we’re doing now to make sure that we don’t make those mistakes twice.

THR: At Coachella this year, audiences flipped out when Dr. Dre unveiled the Tupac hologram. Was there ever any discussion of incorporating that technology into any of this year’s performances?

Weisberg: Definitely – post-Coachella I was inundated with multiple conversations, whether it was staff, friends, artists, managers, agents, and it was really hard at that point not to just jump on the bandwagon. I mean, when you look at the amount of attention that was paid to what Coachella was able to do with Dr. Dre and Snoop and everybody, the entertainment value, we forget there’s a lot of integrity there with Dre being there. But there’s also a lot of entertainment and wow is all I could say about what they did with Tupac and that hologram. And yes, we did talk about hologram technology with a number of acts on the bill. But I’ve always said it’s got to compel the artist enough to want to do it, not from my perspective of saying, hey, I think this is going to help us sell tickets or bring awareness to the situation. So yes, I talked to a number of artists. Me personally, I’d love to see Biggie Smalls and Bob Marley on my stage. It would be a lot of great entertainment and a possible education and opportunity and just once in a lifetime experience. So technology’s going to become more and more important to shows, generally speaking, and I think when the opportunity is right we’ll leverage technology and when it’s the right time to do it -- not just to do it. I think we could talk about a lot of hip-hop reunions that if done correctly and the technology is used correctly, it could only make the experience better and richer, and that’s obvious by what happened at Coachella.

THR: At this point how firmly in place is everything? Is there still a lot of stuff up in the air, or is it just now sort of crossing the T’s and dotting all the I’s?

Weisberg: Well, as far as from a booking standpoint, we’ve made our announcements on a daily basis we like to leak out, like the fact that all the guys from Black Hippy are going to be doing a set together. They’ll be doing their individual material, but they’ll also be doing some Black Hippy material. I let everybody know that Deltron 3030 was performing with, basically, a funky orchestra -- with a choir and a band. I just got cleared to let everybody know that Biz Markie will be performing with DJ Lance Rock as part of the “Friends.” So Lance Rock and Friends is going to be awesome -- they’re on early but it’s going to be an awesome set. So from a programming standpoint, we’re putting the finishing touches on some fun things – Xzibit has got a new record coming out, but back in the ‘90s he formed a very awesome and unique group called the Golden State Warriors with Saafir and Ras Kass. They got a song called “3 Card Molly.” Saafir hasn’t performed in maybe seven, eight years, and he’s had a very interesting series of events happen in his life. So I said why don’t we get Saafir and Ras Kass up there and let’s see this happen, not only for you but for the fans and any true hip hop heads in Southern California that’s 32 or older would probably know what that was.  

THR: Is there one artist that you feel like that was the toughest to recruit, or was the biggest get for you this year?

Weisberg: Toughest is that some of the acts on this year’s bill were [the product of] conversations that started six years ago, so the bill as it is today is a reflection of a lot of years of discussions about certain things and just divine timing. For five guys in Bone Thugs to get together, I’d say that was definitely one of the more major opportunities to be a part of -- to get in there and work with all the individual members and have it be so personal to them and understand everything that came in getting five brothers who weren’t really seeing eye-to-eye to all kind of get on the same page and know that that’s what they wanted in the first place, but there just wasn’t a conduit for it. Being that there wasn’t the same management in place or wasn’t the same agent, certain guys had kind of just moved on and others wanted to revisit, so it was like, hey, can we sit in a room together and have a conversation? So I think between Bone Thugs and having DMX on the bill, those are probably the two most just purely fascinating opportunities that have come about on this. I wouldn’t say they were the hardest, but I would just say that I spent a lot of my time really focusing on those two opportunities this particular run.