Halfway through Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's set at Rock the Bells 2013 Saturday night, the members of the Cleveland hip hop group cleared the middle of the stage to allow a riser to appear, empty. We all knew what was about to happen.
Nearly 18 months ago, Tupac rose from the grave at Coachella to perform alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in a creepy feat of technological acumen. Rock the Bells founder Chang Weisberg was there and told Fuse earlier this year that he was "dumbfounded" and his BlackBerry was "inundated with, 'Oh my God, Chang! You’re going to be doing this at Rock the Bells!'"
If the idea of an Eazy-E hologram was inspired by Tupac, who coincidentally was mortally wounded on this day in 1996, the execution couldn't have been more different. Hologram Tupac, true to life, was all manic energy; slightly unhinged and gesticulating in the same grandiose movements that characterized the real 'Pac. Hologram Eazy-E, appearing as 1988's "We Want Eazy" played in the background, has smoked much more weed than Holo-Pac. His movements are more measured. He slowly shuffles back and forth, head down, like a kid who just got busted by his parents for dropping expensive china.
He is, however, no less enthralling or mesmerizing. I don't know if Moore's Law also applies to holographic rappers, but Eazy-E, introduced by original N.W.A. member DJ Yella, looks more realistic than 'Pac. His movements are less clunky and more fluid, without that weird thing that made Tupac look like he was always walking on a slow treadmill. By the time the beat drops to N.W.A.'s classic "Straight Outta Compton," the crowd at San Manuel Amphitheater has lost their collective mind. "I never thought I'd see Eazy-E!" said the guy in his early 20s in front of me. As Bone Thugs-N-Harmony told Fuse earlier in the day, Eazy's appearance was conceived, in part, to introduce him to a new generation of fans too young to have caught him the first time around.
On what would've been Eazy's 50th birthday, his holographic doppelgänger performs his solo track "Boyz-n-the-Hood" and the Bone Thugs collabo "Foe tha Love of $" before slinking away while the music still plays. With 'Pac imploding and disintegrating in the air after his performance, Eazy could learn how to make a less anticlimactic exit.
Eazy-E Hologram with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
But damn, this was a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony show first, remember? Taking a cue from Jay Z, the group entered to Oasis' "Champagne Supernova," repeating the line "Where were you when we were getting high" as thick clouds of smoke began to blanket the air. Bone Thugs were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album Faces of Death, though the 50-minute set would be bookended by 1994's Creepin on ah Come Up EP and 2000's BTNHResurrection (new song and set closer "Everything 100" notwithstanding).
Hip hop reunions are usually performed amid various degrees of tension and animosity, but the group seemed genuine and joyful to be performing with each other. Each member hopped and bounced when moving across the stage, engaging each other and performing one of the highest-energy sets of the day. With seven small screens projecting cityscapes and optical illusions behind them, any perceived issues with the departure of Layzie Bone are moot tonight.
Saturday's set seemed as much an attempt at legacy-correcting as reunion (Er, re-reunion; the group hoped to feature the hologram when they reunited at last year's Rock the Bells, but were unable to finish the planning in time.) At the height of their success in the mid- to late-1990s, the group had back-to-back number one albums—1995's E. 1999 Eternal and 1997's The Art of War—with 2000's BTNHResurrection peaking at two. They've sold more than 16 million albums, won a Grammy for "Tha Crossroads" and got Biggie to fast-rap.
Yet in the canon of classic hip hop groups, you rarely see their name alongside Wu-Tang Clan, The Fugees, etc. Sales, of course, are only one small piece of a legacy, but it takes a Greatest Hits set to realize that the group, relative to their peers, haven't gotten the accolades commensurate with their influence and popularity. Potential career revisionism aside, thousands of fans got the closest they'd ever get to a deceased hip hop icon. That was good enough for one night.
1. East 1999
2. Thuggish Ruggish Bone
3. 1st of the Month
4. Days of our Livez
5. Change the World
6. Resurrection (Paper, Paper)
7. Straight Outta Compton
9. Foe tha Love of $
10. Tha Crossroads
11. Everything 100