Interview with Chang Weisberg: On ten years of Rock The Bells
The founder and producer of Rock The Bells shares his thoughts on ten years of the hip-hop music festival, and why he pushes on despite the many setbacks
Words: Kevin Lee / October 17, 2013
Chang Weisberg has weathered storms, and you can see it in his face and demeanor. As the founder and head of Guerilla Union, the company that produces the annual Rock The Bells festivals, he has seen his fair share of logistical headaches and financial heartaches, stretching back to the very first Rock The Bells festival that occurred in 2004. That memorable day-long festival in San Bernardino, enshrined in its own documentary, saw Chang and his small staff tangle with city administrators, inadequate security, lax money handling, and the personal demons of the just-emancipated Ol’ Dirty Bastard, to stage a historic reunion show that became the last time every original member of the Wu-Tang Clan shared a stage together. Yet despite all the troubles, not only was there a second Rock The Bells festival a few months later, but they branched out the next year and established a foothold on the other side of California with an installment of the festival held on a city block in the middle of San Francisco.
As successful as Guerilla Union has been with establishing Rock The Bells as the premiere festival for hardcore fanatics of hip-hop, celebrating the tenth year of the multi-stage festival this year brought along a fair amount of setbacks . Ambitious plans in 2007 saw Rock The Bells expanded to 16 cities, reduced to 10 the next year, and cut down to four by 2010. In 2011 Guerilla Union dealt with a major blow as the fourth show, scheduled to go on near Boston, was cancelled outright because of low ticket sales. And while 2012 saw Rock The Bells solidify its hold on the Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York markets, this year’s expansion of the tour to Washington D.C. not only failed, but was coupled with cancellation of the New York show, both due to sagging ticket sales.
At the same time, Rock The Bells has established a firm hold within the annals of hip-hop in the 21st century. No other venue can boast being able to regularly reunite old groups that had gone their separate ways–A Tribe Called Quest, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Wu-Tang Clan, Dilated Peoples, and EPMD, to name a few. No other venue could also unite hip-hop’s original generation with its emerging young stars, allowing a look into hip-hop history and drawing the line to its current incarnation in one single day. And for a musical genre that Harry Allen once lamented was being treated as “disposable”, Rock The Bells, with its insistence of celebrating the old masters (taken to the extreme this year with holograms of Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard), the performance of entire classic albums, and the overall monumental feel of every instance of the festival, is the biggest refutation in this past decade of the idea that hip-hop is without lasting merit.
Watch video footage of the interview
We sat down to talk with Weisberg during this year’s San Francisco stop, roughly a week before Guerrilla Union announced the news that its tenth-anniversary tour would abandon its East Coast leg altogether. Though no one in the room knew what was to occur days later, the festival’s fragility, as well as its grandeur, was already front and center.
Can you say a little bit about your background, I just wanted to know how you got into hip-hop, and what led to the creation of Guerrilla Union?
Well I used to publish a magazine, definitely was about urban lifestyles and club culture, but I never really even knew I would be a promoter ever. It was just something that I kinda fell into. Getting to go out on the road with Cypress Hill in 1998 on the Smoking Grooves tour and like absorbing it, I really fell in love with live music. And you know, being on deadline, and doing articles and stories and snapping photos, it was a lot of work. Not that promoting is not, but I just think the challenge with live music, with promoting shows, the marketing, the venue, working with the acts—it was a little bit different. And I think that’s just ultimately where my heart wanted to go, and so that’s where I went.
So this is the 10 year anniversary of Rock The Bells, the first was in 2004 and it was for Wu-Tang’s anniversary. There was a film made about it that highlighted the many challenges it faced. What made you want to do it again despite all the challenges?
Ultimately I really love what we’re doing. I don’t really feel like what I do is work, because when you’re doing something you love, you’re not really working, if you’re very blessed. And you know that particular show in 2004, the first Rock The Bells, it was like a comedy of errors. We had been in that venue, we had done the Cypress Hill Smoke Out before that, but I just think the stakes and what made that show so unique was that there were a lot of fans who didn’t believe that nine guys or ten guys could get back onstage together (if you want to include Cappadonna).
Everybody who went to that show didn’t believe it, but had hope. Ultimately, through the venue being oversold, and the security not doing their job, and all the challenges that were in front of us, even getting ODB to stage 10 minutes before or a half hour late or whatever it was—the fact that all the guys showed up and there was a performance, not only gave fans hope but gave me hope that almost anything is possible. So maybe it was that energy that just kept us going and driving.
I never thought there’d be a 10 year anniversary for Rock The Bells, a fifth year anniversary, [given] that Rock The Bells started in a small club in L.A.—and it wasn’t even supposed to be Wu-Tang Clan that first year, it was like five or six of the members mixed in with Redman, and Sage Francis, and Charli 2na. So ultimately I kinda think there’s something greater going on with Rock The Bells than just me or our staff or the artists. I always feel like we’re on a little bit of a bigger mission.
“There were a lot of cities where it didn’t work to the scale that we wanted it to…You just couldn’t do a 10,000 person plus festival with multiple stages.”
And early on it was tough to get insurance for shows or to have hip-hop play certain venues, and now today there are more hip-hop tours than ever before. Like right now Drake’s out, Wayne’s out, Wiz was out, Atmosphere was out, Mac Miller was out, Kanye’s out, Jay Z’s out—the amount of hip-hop touring today versus 10 years ago has quintupled and ultimately that’s what’s good for this culture. I think live music is where it’s at for artists, it’s where they benefit the most. So it seems like the side of the business that I’m most comfortable with and maybe that’s why we’re here 10 years later. I don’t know that there’ll be 10 more. I always say that there will be a day when there isn’t a Rock The Bells and we’ll look back on every show, and I appreciate everyone, I treat everyone like it’s my last. It’s not owed to me or to the fans that’s there’s one next year, so one at a time, and hopefully there’ll be more.
In 2005 it was the first show that you did outside of Southern California, it was that block party in San Francisco, correct?
Well outside of Southern California, yeah that was the next year, where we did it outside of Club Mighty with Kamel and the guys from Ankh Marketing. Yeah, it was awesome.
Festivals tend to stay in one place, like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza in its current incarnation. What gave you the idea that you guys could work out as a tour?
A lot of things. Obviously the market was underserved at the time. There weren’t as many tours and there were no hip-hop festivals when we created Rock The Bells. Smoking Grooves was gone, the Sprite Liquid Mix tour was gone. There was no Fresh Fest. Outside of a particular artist making a tour, like maybe Dr Dre’s Up in Smoke tour or something like that, [there was nothing]. Ultimately there are fans and people who really want to support what we do with Rock The Bells, and San Francisco is one of those natural destinations.
I went to school in the Bay Area, had a good local partner who cared as much as we did at Guerilla Union, that was Kamel from Ankh Marketing, and we threw some things at the wall to see what would stick. That first show was very intimate, kind of out in the street and there was no barricade. I remember there not being a barricade and I was like, “Oh my God, this is gonna be Redman and Method Man, they’re gonna tear this place down!” But it was great, because ultimately I saw that Kamel and his team had the same passion that our team had, and it was kind of a really cool thing to just have the first genesis of Rock The Bells start outside Club Mighty that year with—I think Jean Grae was on the bill too and Supernat. My crew went up there, Kamel’s crew, we just got together, drew some plans up in the sand and we made it work that day.
Since then Ankh Marketing has been essential to the success of Rock The Bells here in the Bay Area, and by far it’s one of the most conscious crowds. I mean this crowd picks up trash, doesn’t just throw it down. The Bay Area loves hip-hop, in so many incarnations. Not just what might be on the radio but definitely what’s underground, and what happened in the 80’s and 90’s matters as much as 2000, 2010. So I think from there it was just a matter of where the demand would be.
We tried, we threw Rock The Bells across the whole country. We tried to go into 20 cities in 2007 when we had Rage and it didn’t work. People in Texas weren’t feeling east coast 90’s era hip-hop. There were a lot of cities where it didn’t work to the scale that we wanted it to, but that didn’t mean that Rock The Bells couldn’t live there. We could do Rock The Bells club dates all around the country and there would be people who would appreciate it right now. You just couldn’t do a 10,000 person plus festival with multiple stages. Coachella, Lalapalooza, they’ve got so many more genres to pull from to do something like that.
“The way I look at our company is that I’m not a promoter, I’m an artist support mechanism. I’m out here paying acts to be on a show, to be in front of an audience that cares about them.”
It’s a testament right now that at our 10 year anniversary you’ve got two days of nothing but hip-hop, three stages, and yeah, you’re not gonna be able to catch everything, but I think it’s just the energy of all the artists coming together in one spot where you just feel that positivity. Hopefully people will leave today seeing what they wanted to see, but also maybe learning about something that they never knew about.
You talked about a void in the market, and all these tours that just kind of went away. What about Rock The Bells do you think has given it such lasting power? What is the grand idea behind it all that you’ve pushed to make it work out?
I think that at the time there was a transition going on. Rock The Bells that first year was definitely 90’s era east coast-based hip-hop, and underground, what people called backpack or political or conscious or independent. I think that’s what made it special. People were going to feel an interaction between an emcee and the crowd. When we started in a club we were really into that cipher, the energy that’s in a cipher, and could we make that bigger, could we take it to a festival level. Would it translate? Putting Sage Francis and Heiro on the same bill with Mos Def and Nas? At the end of the day, I think people gravitated toward Rock The Bells because it meant a lot to them. There may not be many fans, but the ones that are [there] are true fans, and they care. And they care about it a lot.
So much so, that even now, 2013, I’ve “killed hip-hop”, because I’m supporting artists who might be on the radio or might be considered popular. The funny thing is, I supported those acts when they were on our side stages when we were doing reunions, because I think for a lot of people their fascination with Rock The Bells, and obviously with the first reunion of Wu-Tang Clan in 10 years, and then having Tribe Called Quest play, and then bringing back the Pharcyde, and Rage Against the Machine, and then asking Snoop Dogg to do Doggystyle, and then to get Lauryn to do Miseducation [of Lauryn Hill]—you always felt like there was this historical essence with the show, there’s always a first, or a last, or a reunion. It became like this wedding, and I call it, for the acts, it’s like hip-hop summer camp, for me and my staff it’s definitely a labor of love.
No one’s doing this because of their paycheck, for sure. Yeah we’re trying to make money. Yeah we’re trying to support acts. We’re on the side of the business where 80% of the revenue goes to the acts, so we’re living on 20% of the revenue. And I think that’s why people like Rock The Bells. I think a lot of people know that story, it’s been pretty well-documented. A lot of people know that we’re doing our best. Could it be better? Absolutely.
I ask any promoter to go out there, and support all these acts that we’re trying to support, and ultimately it’s not for me to judge, it’s not for anybody else to judge. I can’t make everybody happy. I’m just making myself happy. I’ve learned, after this many years, I can’t please everybody. So I’ll just please myself, at least for now.
Hopefully we’ll inspire a whole new generation of promoters or artists or people or press or blogs—so many people eat off of what we do. That’s a responsibility alone. I sit here and I look at hundreds of security guards and dozens of artists, and their PR teams and their tour managers and website after website after website after media company after media company—someone cares. And if there’s one person that we can touch that day, like today at Rock The Bells, then maybe they’ll be one next year. Maybe it will matter enough. If not then I’ll go manage or I’ll go coach football.
What was your greatest moment from Rock The Bells, and what is your greatest regret?
Greatest moment with Rock The Bells is right now. That fact that we’re talking, that we’re ten years in. I turned 40 years old yesterday, and it didn’t matter as much as the show. We’re still the same crew, my crew is still together. Because we’re not big. A lot of people are like, “Oh my God, you guys run Rock The Bells.” I happen to have like a Seal team, like 300 [the movie] who care as much as I do about something, and they believe in the vision. So we keep doing it, and that’s the most satisfying thing.
“Technology is gonna change, fans are gonna get to experience music. There’ll be more holograms, there’ll be less holograms. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I’d be curious to see it though.”
Even today, post-Rage, Wu-Tang, Tribe, Doggystyle—those are all great moments. And I’m sure to our fans that’s what matters most, and it should, because our fans are the biggest headliner. But for me, the fact that we’re still here doing this today, that’s my biggest satisfaction, that we get a chance to do it today. I treat life like golf, I’m not worried about the past. I’m not worried about tomorrow. I’m just worried about today. And if I keep doing that then I know that we might be here five or ten years from now and we might still be asking questions and talking about music.
But maybe my biggest regret is that I put so many people in very tough situations—it could be groups, it could be my squad, it could be my family. When you don’t sign up to do something, you do it for bigger reasons, and sometimes when you ask people to do things for bigger reasons. If you’re paying someone to do something, that’s easy. That’s the easiest thing to do. But when you ask people to do things they’re uncomfortable with, and you know that they’re doing it and they’re sacrificing for the greater good of something, whether it’s an act to get back together to do something for the fans, or a member of my staff to take a bullet for somebody, because there’s a lot of reasons to take a bullet for a team when you’re working together, those are the biggest regrets. Because I know the price that’s being paid by so many people that don’t really realize it.
Not everyone says thank you, not everyone says please. So there’s a lot of entitlement, the biggest thing in hip-hop is there’s entitlement. So I regret that there’s a lot of entitlement out there and that I can’t always address it. Whether it’s an act that needs 9,000 green MnMs, or it’s a manager who, when they walk in the building, they say “jump” and you’re supposed to say “how high?”—like whatever. At the end of the day that’s not gonna affect my kid who’s at home studying for his algebra test or something like that. No one asks me, “Hey, when was the last time you saw your kids playing football?” Or why when I wake up in the morning I don’t drop my son off at school, because I’m on the phone with acts and artists and my squad trying to do something that’s bigger than all of us, and that’s give people an opportunity.
For myself and my family, and for the acts, so it’s a win-win. The way I look at our company is that I’m not a promoter, I’m an artist support mechanism. I’m out here paying acts to be on a show, to be in front of an audience that cares about them. And no one else in the world is doing this, there are way more brain surgeons than there are people reuniting Tribe Called Quest.
I know you said we never know how long it will last, but can you give an estimate anyway of what Rock The Bells would look like 10 years from now?
It’s funny, we’d probably be throwing the “old school show” with Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. I don’t know.
Ten years from now? Hip-hop is as popular today as it was—we’re celebrating twenty years of Wu-Tang. I don’t think we’ll be celebrating 30 years of Wu-Tang Clan. There were so many groups in the last two years. There was like ’92–’93, amazing years for hip-hop, right? I don’t see Snoop on stage at 70 years old, rockin’ out, and I don’t see Wu-Tang Clan out on stage anymore. Maybe it’ll be Kendrick, maybe it’ll be Wiz, and they’ll be doing their classics. Maybe we’ll be seeing good kid, M.A.A.D. city in its entirety 10 years from now. That would be dope. Or maybe we’ll see Jhené Aiko doing something amazing—I hope. I hope it’s my son that’s doing it and not me, and I just show up and say, “Dude, I get it, you lost a bunch of money, and I’m here for you, and I know why you’re doing it. You’re doing it for a bigger reason.”
So nothing’s gonna change from that standpoint. Technology is gonna change, fans are gonna get to experience music. There’ll be more holograms, there’ll be less holograms. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I’d be curious to see it though. I’d care about it. I hope it’s as exciting as it is today, you know?
I see a lot of possibility for producers and emcees and artists and creative people. Because hip-hop is so much bigger than just the acts on stage. There are so many good creative people who are behind cameras and computers and writing and tattooing and making clothes. I just know so many people that hip-hop drives everything about them. Or you could listen to some music and just be at a point in your life where that just reminds you of something. To see its effect, I’m sure ten years from now there’s going to be a whole other level of fans that are just as passionate about dead prez and Immortal Technique or André 3000 and Pharrell.