I'm ostensibly talking to Chang Weisberg, the hip hop impresario behind annual summer festivals Rock the Bells and Paid Dues, about the recent announcement of this year's Rock the Bells lineup, which includes Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt and E-40 & Too Short.
But really, the only rappers on anyone's mind are Ol' Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E, gone in corporeal form but alive, well and performing at this year's festival as "original virtual performances" alongside Wu-Tang Clan and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
"We want to put on a show that may never ever happen again," Weisberg tells Fuse of the performances. Inspired by Tupac's re-emergence at last year's Coachella, Weisberg is planning "months of pre-production and lots of rehearsals," working with RZA, ODB's mother Cherry Jones, Eazy-E's widow Tomica Wright and Bone Thugs on the upcoming shows.
Weisberg spoke to Fuse about building off Tupac-ogram, the process of creating two avatars and why Eazy-E and ODB may not be the only deceased rappers to appear at the festival.
When did you first have the idea for Eazy-E and ODB's performances?
What initially sparked my interest was Gorillaz’ performance at the Grammys. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been chasing them down for a couple of years and that started my curiosity, but it wasn’t until I saw what Dr. Dre had pulled off at Coachella that just had me dumbfounded. Literally during the performance the first weekend, my BlackBerry was inundated with, “Oh my God, Chang! You’re going to be doing this at Rock the Bells!” I was so jaw-dropped and impressed by the Tupac performance; it was one of the ultimate hip hop performances I’ve seen in my life. I was sitting with [Coachella Founder] Paul Tollett and Dr. Dre’s family and I think I ran 20 feet to the left, then 20 feet to the right.
Were ODB and Eazy-E your first two choices?
I’ve worked with Wu-Tang Clan the last 10 years; I’m part of the team and they treat me like a partner. ODB’s last performance was our first festival. Since the Tupac phenomenon intrigued RZA and the rest of the members, they entrusted me and ODB was the number one opportunity because of that relationship. Last year, Bone Thugs entrusted Guerilla Union with all five members reuniting. Through that process, I became so close with them, that the conversation—and I’ll put this out to you—are you aware of some of the musical history for Bone Thugs?
In terms of their connection to Eazy-E?
With multiple artists. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is the only group to have recorded music with Eazy-E, Tupac, Biggie and Big Pun. So, they’re a natural amazing well if you’re thinking about producing something like what we saw at Coachella.
Are you suggesting we may see other holograms besides Eazy-E and ODB?
I’m suggesting that right now, I am doing everything I can to make Cherry Jones and Tomica Wright give me approval. Once they say, “Chang, I’m good with this,” then sky’s the limit because I’m having lots of conversations right now. You asked me why did I pick these two icons? Well, I kinda feel they picked me. But those are very specific reasons why working with Bone Thugs, Tomica Wright and Eazy-E makes such logical sense.
Will the performances look similar to Tupac or are you purposely trying to differentiate them?
The actual execution of what happened at Coachella set a certain bar and it’s our hope to leverage production techniques, technology and resources to hopefully elevate the end execution of what’s going to happen at Rock the Bells. Yes, we will use similar techniques, but there are new technologies and procedures that are going to help us create an original virtual performance that will give as lifelike a performance as possible.
Ideally, what features would the rappers' upcoming appearances have that Tupac didn’t?
Let’s break down the facts: When Tupac performed, it was literally a cameo with just Snoop performing. So there’s one live performer and Tupac. So right off the bat, you’re talking about Wu-Tang, an 8-member ensemble performing with a virtual performance. The script will be completely different than what Tupac and Dre did. We already have the understanding that when the tour kicks off in Los Angeles on September 7 and 8, they’ll be certain performances and we’re already scripting that they’ll adjust throughout the course of the festival run. We’re not going to try to repeat the same performance every night.
How much of a direct role will you have in planning out the actual performances?
Ultimately, RZA will direct what is happening with Wu-Tang Clan and Tomica and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony will join forces in making sure that Eazy-E’s performance is separate and unique. I’m going to provide headphones, turntables, a stage, sound and lights; what they decide to do with it is up to them. I have to be Switzerland. Neither camp will know what the other is doing; I’m just going to make the resources available for both to creatively attack the opportunity at hand. What they decide to do with those resources will only be limited to what they’re capable of imagining. I won’t share one script with the other camp; it’s like having two brides at the same wedding and I don’t want anyone to steal anyone else’s thunder.
Why do you call them “original virtual performances” instead of holograms?
There is a technical difference. My definition of “hologram” started when I was a 6 years old and I watched Star Wars and R2D2 spit out a holographic image of Princess Leia. To me, a hologram is an actual virtual production that is realistic, lifelike, but not real and tangible. It’s something that my eye can see, but it’s not something my hand can feel. Various levels of hologram technology right now are not at a place where I could have nine members of Wu-Tang Clan perform onstage at Rock the Bells. But conversely, technology, visual effects and production techniques are so advanced right now, that I could create something that absolutely looks, feels and operates to the level of what people’s understanding of what a hologram is.
Were Tomica and Cherry on board immediately or did they need convincing?
I didn’t have to sell anybody. The Coachella phenomenon was worldwide and there were a lot of groups that contacted me and asked, “Are you working on this, because if you are, we’d like to talk to you about it further.” I didn’t have to step one foot outside of my own house to work with the groups that I wanted to work with.
If they had said “I’m not comfortable with this,” would you have scrapped the respective avatar?
Of course. Ultimately, we’re dealing with music and likeness issues. The people that we’re speaking to control, and are protecting, those rights. We’re talking about two of the most revered icons in the history of music, so I have to be very sensitive of that fact. It didn’t take a lot of convincing, though. What it took was a lot of facts. I am 100% confident that the technology and the production of what we can do can successfully make Cherry and Tomica proud. That’s the standard I’m going by.
What’s your response to those who say we should let the dead rest and using virtual avatars ruins their legacy?
I’d say that based upon all the information that we know and working with the people who are closest to the deceased parties, it was mutual and something that they want to do as long as it can be done with compassion and respect. To the person who says we’re not honoring them: I’ve never seen Eazy-E perform in my lifetime. Whether it’s right now or the year 2519, listening to music is only one way to experience and enjoy it. The number one way to experience music is to be in the presence of the people that you admire that are performing the soundtrack of your life. Doing what we’re doing will give future generations the ability to experience these two icons in a unique way forever. If it’s authentic enough to please Cherry and Tomica, that’s all that matters to me. You cannot judge what you have not seen.
If all goes according to plan, would you want to explore more holograms past Rock the Bells?
It’s our hope that the work that we do with the festival continues after the festival as long as the opportunity is special and unique. I‘m working with the James Brown estate. I’m working with TLC. I’ve never seen Bob Marley, Duke Ellington or Marvin Gaye perform. It’s a supply and demand world. Sky’s the limit.