Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium celebrates 50 years of hip-hop with star-studded lineup

Rock the Bells hip-hop festival
LL Cool J with Queens Borough President Donovan Richards at the 2023 Rock The Bells Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Queens Borough President’s Office

The 2023 Rock The Bells Festival took on a special meaning as it celebrated 50 years of hip-hop with a star-studded line-up at Forest Hills Stadium on Aug. 5.

Thousands attended the sold-out music festival as hip-hop royalty such as Methodman & Redman, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Run DMC, Ludacris and LL COOL J — among other starts — took the stage and performed their hit songs, proving once again why hip-hop has prevailed for 50 years.

It was the second year the hip-hop music festival took place on LL COOL J’s “home turf.” The Queens native founded Rock The Bells in 2018 as “the preeminent voice for classic and timeless hip-hop,” honoring the genre’s culture and core elements.

Fans had a blast at the 2023 Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 5.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Many in the crowd felt nostalgic listening to yams from their favorite artists as they took a trip down memory lane.

Concertgoer Tara described the festival’s line-up as the “anatomy of black excellence” and looked forward to seeing Queen Latifah and MC Lyte.

“I’m originally from Brooklyn. But I live in East Brunswick now,” Tara said. “[Hip-hop] reminds me of growing up in Brooklyn, East Flatbush.”

Musician Mic El said hip-hop was his “era” and the music he grew up on.

“This is everything to me,” El said. “This is what gave me a voice and being able to reach out to people. Being here, it just touches my heart in a different way that we can have an event of this nature and music of this genre that lasts this long, and it’s just gone worldwide. It’s beautiful.”

Rapper Buckshot told QNS that the 50th anniversary of hip-hop was the “birth of the rebirth” and said the genre was going to outlast anything.

“We saw [hip-hop] born 50 years ago, and now we see the birth of an anniversary, which means that there’s a next one coming after this. So this will be 100 years. Hip-hop is a culture,” Buckshot said.

QNS caught up with Paradise Gray, architect of the X-Clan, legendary producer, and hip-hop historian, as he entered the festival grounds with his daughter. Gray joked that 50 years of hip-hop meant “he was getting old.”

“They said we was a fad. That we would never last, that we didn’t have no talent. And that what we did was steal from other people.” Gray said when asked what 50 years of hip-hop meant to him.

Gray quoted rapper KRS-One, “50 years down the line, you can start this, ’cause now we are the old-school artist.”

Chris Smith’s favorite performers were Methodman & Redman, but he was looking forward to LL Cool J. He said hip-hop was “here to stay” and shared that he listens to Rock the Bells Radio on Sirius XM every day.

“I was born in 71. Hip-hop is my life,” Smith said.

Fans had a blast at the 2023 Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 5.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The nine-hour-long festival was a family affair for Dorinda Bagwell, classic music video director of “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect, who brought her two sons and nephew.

Bagwell said what made hip-hop so special was the poetry and how the genre connected people.

“There’s nothing like from the hip-hop world of knowing every single lyric of a song and chiming in on the high points, and everybody has a connection to a certain spot or lyric in a track and in a jam,” Bagwell said. “That’s what makes hip-hop special — we all can connect on those keywords and any other songs.”

Bagwell recalled that mainstream radio refused to play hip-hop when she was growing up. She and her friends would listen to “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show,” which played underground hip-hop on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR-FM, during the midnight hours.

“The rest of us in the community were tuning in and you could only hear it at [midnight],” Bagwell said. ” I have those memories of falling asleep looking at the radio to hear hip-hop music.”

Fifty years later, hip-hop has its last laugh at the nay-sayers who said it wouldn’t last, as the genre doesn’t tire at uniting all ages and races.

One concertgoer pointed out the positive atmosphere among the diverse crowd of fans that had come together to celebrate hip-hop and its place in music history.

“Life could be so simple,” he said, referring to the laid-back and uniting vibe, courtesy of a genre born on the tough streets of the Bronx 50 years ago.

Fans had a blast at the 2023 Rock The Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 5.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann