Rock the Bells 2013 wasn't supposed to end this way.
On Saturday night, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's set, featuring a performance by a holographic Eazy-E, went off as expected, with no evident snags that organizers must have been fearing given the still-new technology.
And for the first half-hour of Wu-Tang Clan's headlining set Sunday night, all seemed to run smooth and problem-free. Yes, it was weird and unexpected that Raekwon and Ghostface Killah never showed up, but the remaining members were poised and energetic on classic tracks like "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F-ck Wit," "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" and "Clan in da Front." At the end of the set: a widely discussed Ol Dirty Bastard hologram performing with his former group.
The beginning would prove to be the best part, though, as the music began to cut out after 10 songs, eventually shutting down entirely. Method Man, at first, made the best of it, making a few jokes and freestyling about Rock the Bells and LeBron James. When two minutes of no music became five, the rapper became agitated. "Two more minutes and I'm walking out of here, hologram or not," he said. "I'm tired of this sh-t. This sh-t doesn't happen at rock and roll concerts." It didn't help that every other member stood around and didn't offer to freestyle, ad lib or kick an a cappella of one of hundreds of Wu songs.
After 10 excruciating, awkward minutes, the sound returned and Wu-Tang gamely tried to move forward. But 30 seconds into the next song, the group, and crowd, realized the tempos were off and the vibe soured irrevocably. "I'm f-ckin' done with this speeding up and slowing down sh-t. This some bullsh-t, Chang," said Method Man, calling out Rock the Bells founder Chang Weisberg.
RZA tried to pacify the situation, invoking the spirit of ODB and telling Meth, and the crowd, "It don't got nothing to do with Chang." With DJ Mathematics scrambling to solve the sound issue, workers hustled to set up the hologram, presumably meant for the end of the set. What was supposed to be the centerpiece of the festival after months of hype and curiosity was now being prepped as a virtual seat-filler.
With the riser cleared and ready for virtual ODB to perform, RZA was forced to ad lib while technicians tried to activate the hologram. After leading repeated chants of "Ol Dirty Bastard," RZA announced, "That sound loud, Chang. I think they want to do it, eh?" He sounded like an elementary school drama teacher salvaging a play after a kid accidentally knocked down all the scenery. By the time the ODB hologram appeared to perform Wu-Tang's "Shame on a N-gga," it was the hip hop equivalent of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge incident.
To be fair, the planned hologram part of the show, with ODB performing "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" alongside his son Young Dirty Bastard, went smoothly, with the hologram dancing in jerks and fits and comically falling down. It just couldn't salvage the bad timing.
After the quick hologram performance, Mathematics dropped an unintentionally sped-up version of GZA's "Duel of the Iron Mic" instrumental, with the rappers struggling to keep up with the beat. Droves of people began to leave en masse, including Method Man, who walked off the stage and only returned at the end of the set to perform "Triumph" and "Da Rockwilder" (the latter featuring a cameo by Redman). Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Weisberg addressed the show's issues in a statement to Fuse, but tried to stay optimistic. "Unfortunately, the audio problems with Wu-Tang's set last night were the result of an equipment failure," Weisberg says. "[DJ Mathematics]' computer crashed in the middle of their performance. Fortunately, the scheduled holographic return of ODB was able to buy enough time for Mathematics to re-boot his computer and finish the show.
"No one is more disappointed than myself and Wu-Tang Clan that this happened because we all wanted this to be their crowning moment and pay homage to ODB and his family. It's hip hop; sometimes you gotta fight through unexpected challenges and we are all motivated to make next week's Wu-Tang Clan performance the best ever.
"I spoke with several members of Wu-Tang after the show and the family of ODB's estate. They were all supportive and appreciative for our efforts to mitigate the audio issues and deliver the historic virtual performance. In a way, ODB's prolific return saved the day. My heart goes out to DJ Mathematics who had to deal with a faulty computer during the set. He's always been the glue for Wu-Tang shows and we all know redemption is only a week away."
Towards the end of the 70-minute set, the group remained out of sorts. One of the members mistakenly called the Rock the Bells crowd "Coachella" before noting how Wu-Tang are festival veterans. While RZA tried to explain what happened in generalities—"It's a Sunday night and we had some technical difficulties"—Method Man was blunter. "And I promise you," the rapper told the crowd. "You will never see a f-ckin' show like this again from us. Trust me."