LL COOL J wearing red hat and suit.

LL COOL J at Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, Aug. 5, 2023.

Photo courtesy of Rock The Bells.

Rock The Bells 2023: LL COOL J, The Roots, & More Celebrate Hip-Hop’s Birthday

LL COOL’s second annual Rock The Bells festival had its issues but featured great performances from iconic rappers like Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., Queen Latiah, and more.

LL COOL J’s Rock The Bells festival manages to reignite a magic that’s long been lost with the modern-day rap performance. Artists nowadays perform over a backing track, often opting to adlib instead. Rock The Bells reminds fans of the art of controlling the crowd.

This year’s festival, the second after last year’s debut, was last Saturday. It was again held outdoors at the Forest Hills stadium in Queens, New York. Outside of the venue were patrons mixed with bootleggers selling shirts for $15 dollars a pop. Getting in the venue was a breeze, and upon arrival was a large grass area with food vendors, a Bud Light shack that was pushing terrible alcoholic seltzer, a subway train entrance photo op station brought to you by M&M's, and a Charmin — yes, the toilet tissue brand — station handing out free packets of baby wipes. The food options were covered by E-40’s Goon with the Spoon Ice Cream, Nas’ Sweet Chick, and some other options that consisted of cheeseburgers and fried seafood sandwiches. As one could expect, the lines for everything were daunting, but the festivalgoers were pleasant enough to make the experience bearable (My only real complaint is $14.50 for a 16 oz can of Bud Light).

Slick Rick performs during Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium.Slick Rick performs during Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, Aug. 5, 2023.Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage.

The show

I managed to make it on time for Brand Nubian’s set, which opened with “All for One.” Grand Puba, Lord Jamar and Sadat X strutted around the stage performing only a couple of songs before wrapping up. I would soon find out that time constraints and rescheduling would be a constant issue throughout the festival. Immediately after Brand Nubian cleared the stage, a Duck Down flag marched down the stage. Boot Camp Clik — Tek and Steel, Rockness Monsta, and Buckshot — performed together for the first time in years. They were militant, delivering their verses to the hungry crowd of Forest Hills with the seriousness of Halal cart cooks.

One of the best performances of the festival came from Slick Rick, who was wearing exaggerated chains, an olive green vest with pants that stop at his ankles, and matching wallabies. While going through classics, like “Hey Young World,” “Children's Story,” and “Mona Lisa,” it’s impossible to not notice Rick’s undeniable allure as an artist and performer. The older folks pushed themselves to the front as they recited every word.

Swizz Beats and Friends was next on the bill. And, to be frank, I should have gotten another $14 Bud Light instead of staying for the set. Swizz, who was wearing a green leather Ruff Ryder outfit, played the role of a DJ Khaled-like hype man, which got boring real quick. As for the “friends” portion of his set, he brought out ex frenemy Beanie Sigel, which had some slight charm to it.

Ludacris wearing green glasses and a gucci shirtLudacris at Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, Aug. 5, 2023.Photo courtesy of Rock The Bells.

Growing pains

The festival’s sound issues took center stage when Rakim started to perform. His mic consistently cut out throughout the performance, making the legendary MC hardly audible. It’s a shame considering it’s a celebration of 50 years of hip-hop, and one of the GOATs can’t get a working mic until the tail end of his set, which was already rushed and condensed. This is where the show dipped in quality as several acts had their sets cut, or entirely removed altogether. De La Soul was one of the major acts set to perform, but due to what seemed like sound issues on stage, the set was canceled.

Method Man and Redman picked up the energy of the festival immensely with their fun, party-infused charisma. They go through individual milestone songs, with Method Man’s self-titled track off Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) making the stadium erupt. Meth and Red’s chemistry is wholesome, a subtle reminder of how some friendships stay true as the years pass. What seems to be a growing theme with each artist is the sentiment that they have a limited amount of time to be with the fans tonight.

Queen Latifah wearing black outfitQueen Latifah at Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, Aug. 5, 2023.Photo courtesy of Rock The Bells.

All Hail the Queen

The highlight of Rock The Bells was not LL Cool J, but Queen Latifah. Accompanied by a live band, the Queen permeated an aura that was merely untouchable. The Queen didn’t skip a beat, flexing her lyrical prowess as an artist. She brought out Naughty By Nature, who hasn’t performed since before the pandemic and Big Boi who revived his glory days of Outkast, playing André 3000-less versions of songs that are still fun, but a lonely emptiness lurks behind each track. Watching Queen Latifah bring together these legends to be celebrated defined what it means to be the Queen MC.

Coming after Queen Latifah is not easy, but Ludacris gave it his best shot. Luda combined his strip club anthems with commercial classics like “Get Back” and “Move Bitch.” He sounded great, wearing green sunglasses and a white Gucci shirt that paid homage to the artists before him.

Run-D.M.C. were the final acts to perform before LL COOL J hit the stage. The duo controlled and commanded the audience. It was as if everyone in the crowd were under their hypnosis, stuck under complete mind control. In this current climate of hip-hop, making the crowd move and giving them a night to remember is a relic of the times. Run refused to get off stage, not caring for time constraints and saying “fuck you” to the organizers.

LL COOL J’s appearance rivaled that of a WWE superstar. He came out in a full pose, red bucket hat, a Rock The Bells vest, and red shorts/pants. Several chains dangled off his neck, as he stampeded his way up and down the stage. He was backed by The Roots, with Black Thought providing back up verses and vocals for LL. What else can you say — LL COOL J held it down.

Rock The Bells was a fine ode to hip-hop. It wasn’t perfect, however. Ideally, a day-long festival would have more activities outside the music, or perhaps holding Rock The Bells indoors to shield from blistering heat could be considered.


Anthony Malone, is a music journalist based in Brooklyn, NY with a love and passion for everything hip-hop, especially from NY. Rap music is his life and he couldn’t want it any other way.