Hip hop, according to the sampled interviewer at the end of the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), is “music you gotta touch and feel” and though he hadn’t “had the chance to see y’all”—the Wu—“live yet” he remained sure they’d deliver the goods. This is a sentiment I’ve shared since hearing Enter the Wu Tang in rural Vermont some 12 years ago, though I was slightly less certain about what it would be like to see them live. This tinge of skepticism stemmed primarily from the sheer size of the Wu and the intricacy and intensity with which they exchange verses, the seemingly impossible spectacle of nine members spitting staccato rhymes over grimy beats all on the same stage.
The Wu-Tang Clan have for more than a decade achieved something few hip hop crews—and popular musicians generally—can claim: a continued relevance that negotiates both mainstream financial success and underground credibility. This is not to say that there haven’t been road bumps, like less than stellar solo albums and later group releases, but individually and as a collective force their presence is felt globally by music fans and industry alike. Building an extensive and eclectic world of references based on Kung Fu film samples and mythology, Wu-Tang turned Staten Island, NYC into a Shaolin monastery where “Timberland-footed” gangsta rappers trained. The Wu’s interweaving of badly translated Hong Kong dialogue, NYC street slang, Five Percent-er rhetoric, eerie string samples and American popular culture constructed a thickly complex sound that sparked and maintains a devout fanbase.
Between their historical significance (many critics claim they buoyed the New York hip hop scene during the G-funk era) and the expansion of their empire, there has been music, television (appearances on Chappelle’s Show, the ill-fated Method and Red), movies (How High, Ghost Dog, Garden State), movie music (Ghost Dog, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2) and death, but not a lot of group touring. I was excited to put my skepticism to rest when the Wu came to First Avenue earlier this month as part of their ODB (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) Tribute Tour, the founding Wu member who died in November of 2004.
Within the first 10 minutes of the performance, any doubts I had vanished. All eight surviving founding members (the RZA, the GZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, U-God, Inspecta Deck, and Masta Killa) along with Cappadona took the stage to chants of “Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang.” Called out to deliver individual verses in a 10-minute medley, each MC stormed on stage rocking classic rhymes with enough energy to match that of the audience. With the standing-room only crowd screaming word for word, the GZA kicked the first verse from Liquid Swords, Ghostface came on screaming “Ghostface, catch the blast from a hype verse!” from “Bring Da Ruckus,” and U-God killed “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” (“Raw, like cocaine strait from Bolivia”).
With the tone set, the energy never fell off. Moving through the material from Enter the Wu-Tang (“Shame on a Nigga,” “C.R.E.AM,” “Method Man,” “Can It Be All So Simple”) and the solo albums (Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Glaciers of Ice,” and “Ice Cream;” Method Man’s “Bring the Pain” and “Da Rockwilder;” Ghostface’s “Cherchez la Ghost;” the GZA’s “Cold World” and “Shadow Boxing;” the RZA’s “The Rhumba”), every line came off on point and every voice in the crowd followed along as the crew finished off with “Itz Yours” and “Triumph” from Wu-Tang Forever. Though the club was unbearably hot, the hour-and-a-half-plus performance was evidence of the group’s lasting influence as the audience never missed a fill-in or call-and-response moment.
Approximately three-fourths of the way through the show, the expected and appreciated ODB tribute came with everyone in the group and club singing “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Well handled and moving as this was, for me the most fitting testament to Ol’ Dirty came earlier. Unmarked, unannounced, and unsolicited, the crowd, with just the first lyrics as prompting, carried ODB’s entire verse from “Shame on a Nigga” with the MCs on stage providing the vocal support. From “Ol’ Dirty Bastard live and uncut” to “well then Shout!” every rhyme came from the masses loud and on beat testifying to the persistence of his music and passion.
If there were down moments on the stage, and I feel obligated to mention them, they were the performance by the young Wu (whose names I must cop to not knowing) and the hauling on-stage of women to grind through “Cherchez la Ghost.” Both of these moves are staples of live hip hop spectacle that consistently make me cringe. Far be it for me to discourage the development of early careers, but child rappers seem, current subjects included, gimmicky and exploitative anytime they appear onstage with established acts (or at the behest of major promoters). Similarly, hip hop shows thrive on crowd participation and the Wu certainly brought this with call-and-response routines and even stage diving; with that said, bringing girls up to strip and gyrate induces flashbacks to bad videos and, in my opinion, reinforces the division between the artist and their audience by reinscribing the distinction between those who are desired and those who desire them, not even to mention the overt sexism of such displays.
Perhaps my reaction reflects my own inability to embrace these dimensions of the genre and so-called culture I align myself with but, in each case, I can’t get over a feeling of disappointment. I suppose every popular aesthetic contains this sort of problematic kernel, but these instances in no way diminished the night or challenged the unequivocal answer to the speculations voiced on Enter the Wu-Tang Clan. If given a chance to take in these Shaolin monks, let your feet stomp!