3.30.2011

Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past

Where and what: Wu-Tang Clan “Rebirth” Tour, Sherman Theater, Stroudsburg, PA January 1, 2011

Who: 8 out out 9 of the Wu Tang Clan plus some Wu cousins

The word: Long time friends "Elp" and "'Lish" offered tickets last minute (ayo, thanks again!) The venue was close, a stage I actually spun on four years ago for some sort snowboard-Red Bull promo party. This would be foolish to pass up.
Heading north, I listened to a long ago aborted comprehensive ARM 18 mix series called “Enter the Wu-brary.” Compiled in 2002 from wax, radio dubs and a healthy dose of Audio Galaxy swipes, the series met its maker when a crashed hard drive sizzled, snapped and caught fire. Protons Electrons Always Cause Explosions.

Listening to the first two volumes of this mix, hit singles (“Bring the Pain,” “CREAM”) sounded rugged and raw, I repeat, rugged and raw, astonishing me the Clan impacted MTV and urban radio 15 years ago. I nodded seriously to classic album cuts (“Rawhide,” “Ice Water”) that detailed the mythology of the Wu and fast-forwarded through obscure mixtape fodder that seems like fast food now (“American CREAM Team” or “Grid Iron Rap”). The music was the uncompromising and unabashed sound of 90s east coast hip hop and yet unique unto itself as the Clan has no imitators.

With the game and soul
of an old school flick
I could not think of any single pop cultural antecedent of what this crew has accomplished so here is an elaborate bloated allusion: The Wu Tang Clan from the 1990s had the bravado of the Furious Five, the kinetic energy of Kung Fu, the funky noise of Public Enemy, overseen by a producer/MC who had the meticulousness of a Stanley Kubrick.

Give an Ezra Pound
and a bear hug
The group was a rapping Wild Bunch, with their lyrics expressing an astonishing range of experience, emotion and spirituality akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But their song structures and verses were never straightforward, always broken and oblique with an E.E. Cummings or Ezra Pound flair. Lastly, the group had a sleazy, drug induced charm that made them counter culturally appealing, like Jagger and Richards in Northface
jackets and Lugz.

Older Gods
Rap concerts are notoriously long, loud, tardy anti-climatic affairs. Rap music has thrived on using studio trickery to create an almost cinematic experience during playback, see above ride to the concert. This rarely translates well live on stage unless you are seeing old school veterans whose singular purpose is to rock the crowd. So if you go to such an affair, you prepare for the worst and find yourself amused by whatever scraps are thrown the audiences’ way.

Syracuse’s Woodfellas were the undercard. (There is a challenge to this group's credentials.  See comments below)  To their credit, they executed their performance well but were undermined by their material that made 90s white rap groups The Goats or Blood of Abraham sound truly dynamic and talented. While their posse of supporters were thick in one section, ultimately the biggest mock cheer came up as they left stage and their signage was removed and the Wu “W” banner descended.

Can you hear him now?
The Wu sent out LA the Darkman to hype up the crowd. LA is a long time Wu affiliate that always sounded better freestyling on radio than on anything he ever released. But there was a palatable excitement of a white audience when a real rapper walked on stage; “real” as in outfitted impeccably in sagging jeans, oversized leather jacket, hood up, eyes hidden and conspicuous gold chain glowing in contrast to his dark features. This is the type of perverse fascination that equates black skin with alluring danger that Richard Wright wrote about in Native Son 70 years ago.

For LA, "warming up the crowd" meant rapping menacing gun talk over his pre-recorded lyrics. For a little bit. Most of the time, he chanted “Turn me up, soundman, turn me up” endlessly on beat. I thought it was his new single. Over and over again he rapped “Turn me up, soundman, turn me up” until front of house obliged and brought the volume up to a rumbling earthquake. When he did rap, LA showed lyrical dexterity that far outshined the plodding Woodfellas and did, I suppose, increase the anticipation for the Wu.

Old testament
New testament
Surprisingly, the Clan hit the stage maybe 10 minutes after LA the Darkman, getting the show on the road by 10:30 pm. This had to be some sort of rap concert world record. The Clan began by ripping through the first 3 tracks of 36 Chambers non-stop: “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame On a...” and “Clan In Da Front.” They continued the frenzy with other highlights from the first LP, celebrated singles from solo LPs (“Liquid Swords,” “Bring the Pain,”) and a half a dozen Wu Tang Forever cuts. The performance was crisp, each song not lasting more than a few verses, 3 minutes tops. Each rappers performance was surprisingly tight and coherent, save some flubs by the GZA and the hoarse voice of Inspecta Deck. There was little pauses or asides between songs, pressing the show forward with an enjoyable wonder-what-song-is-next vibe.

Clan in the front
Cappa (left) thirsty for his catalog
Rae (right) rapping criminologist
Each member arrived on stage to much fan fare as they kicked their verses: the bulldog Raekwon, colorful Ghostface, verbally nimble Method Man, stately GZA, the focused energy of Masta Killa, the happy-to-be-here U God and the inconspicuous Inspecta Deck. Other notables were Meth side kick Street Life, Poppa Wu sermonizing over the O'Jay's “Family Reunion” and, to be sure, Cappadonna. He stood on the wings, bending back and forth to the beat like a rag doll until he could ferociously rap verses from “Ice Cream” or Forever favorite “For Heaven's Sake.”
When I die, my seed'll be ill like me
The Clan saved their most genuine hype for two unexpected special guests. First, was a teenaged Young Dirty
Use the Force
Bastard (left) who rapped his father material (“Brooklyn Zoo,” “Shimmy Shimmy Y'all”) with a mix of reverence and insatiable fervor. It was a reminder that at the height of Wu’s accession, ODB provided unpredictability and an irrepressible spirit, a welcome foil to the precision and seriousness of some of the Clan’s other MCs. The other guest was current northeast PA residents, S.I. transplants, the Force MDs (right) who appeared on stage after a lengthy and lauding introduction by Ghostface. There was no "Daytona 500" though- actually anything from Ironman- which was somewhat of a disappointment.

Speaking of catalog, what was clear was the “Rebirth” tour was not about a re-imagination of the Wu but actually about cementing the status of Wu Tang as it was during the mid 90s. There was not one song from any of the hit and miss Wu Tang LPs of this decade: The W, Iron Flag and 8 Diagrams. There was nothing from any solo members albums or guest spots from this decade, notably Ghostface “hits” or celebrated songs from Raekwon's Cuban Linx sequel.


countercountercountercounter

Wu where? The unopened 21st century chambers

The Rebirth tour's intent is to ensure the back catalog of the Wu Tang Clan is understood as classic and undeniable today as it was then. There was very little, “Yo, I got a new album coming out and here's the first single...” type promotion from any of the members save for a moment at the end. In fact, there were two gracious monologues by Raekwon and Method Man thanking fans for their fandom. Meth went so far as to say that Stoudsburg was “liver” than Pittsburg but maybe he tells every crowd. Regardless, these are effective tools to oblige a fanbase.

Boom, and this,
yaknowhati'msayin?
any color you want
From a performance point of view, the Wu is not the Cold Crush but nor are they Jim Jones. Method Man and Young Dirty were by far the most energetic, running back and forth on stage, Meth literally stage diving and being carried by the crowd while he rapped. Ghostface (right) gave an occasional obligatory colorful editorial (“Turn off these fucking white lights, man. Make ‘em all purple and shit. Yeah, yeah, keep ‘em like that.”) The Clan’s DJ, Allah Mathematics gave the obligatory 45 second “kick off your shoes” lightning quick scratch routine in which he literally kicked off his Timbos while cutting and scratching with his feet.

GZA (left) and Deck (right)
authors not actors
of modern day operas
But otherwise, most members stood in place uninterestingly. There was a moment during “Duel of the Iron Mic” where all the members circled Inspecta Deck on one knee in deference to Deck's lament: “Plus shorty's not a shorty no more, he's livin heartless / Regardless of the charges, claims to be the hardest / individual, critical thoughts, criminal minded / Blinded by illusion, findin it confusin” The choreography highlighted the intent of the lyrics well. I am not suggesting the shuffle step and roll like the Temptations but a more coordinated stage show would go a long way for a visually more dynamic show.

I was told by Audiogoldrush partner Boogieman that sometimes the Clan's music doesn't necessarily translate to overseas audiences; Wu tracks lack melody, rumbling and booming, short clipped loops move in and out of the mix randomly. Earphone masterpieces to be sure but there are no spirit to move your limbs other than to nod your head when hearing the Clan. Hearing their music at 500 million decibels I have to agree. But only a few songs had any sense of musicality, these were tracks entirely propelled by the cleanly looped soul/R&B samples underneath such as “'97 Mentality.” There is no doubt; the Wu Tang is driven by the personality of each Clan member and their respective lyrics, period.

The absent Abbot
Which is why the RZA's conspicuous absence was inexplicably ignored by the Clan. Maybe it's old news. Nonetheless, the RZA's name was dropped only once during roll call, he was never acknowledged in a meaningful way and songs abruptly ended when his verse was due next. Judging the enthusiasm exuded by the attending Clan members, I could help thinking that the RZA has such a strong, sanctimonious personality the rest of the Clan was happy to play while the Abbot was away. Do financial and aesthetic disagreements still linger? Does it matter if by the close of the show, the crowd is rapping Triumph line for line ecstatically?

The RZA graduated from being simply a rapper and producer a long time ago and so maybe it was inevitable. The last song of the night was oddly “Da Rockwilder” by Method Man, sans Redman as the other members began to stroll off the stage. Along with RZA's absence, it was the only moment where you could see where the pieces of the Wu Tang puzzle begin to crack, where solo careers, different 'hoods, motives and priorities began to pull at the seams that keeps this thing together. Really, it was evidence that these dudes are bonded primarily by songs like “Protect Ya Neck” that are almost 20 years old. When you hear of a successful nationwide, 8-week tour playing such “oldies,” it is hard not to realize that the future of the Clan's music is preserving their past.


All live photos above from Sherman Theater, 1/1/11
Above video showcases DJ Allah Mathematics, Poppa's Wu sermon
and Forever favorites "Reunited" and "For Heaven's Sake"
from Rebirth Tour Chicago stop, 1/8/11

3 comments:

  1. Awesome write up / retrospective on the Wu. I can't believe it's been twenty years of that particular strain of music, vibrating around and scattering across the universe in hyped radio waves. I like the descriptions you gave of each members contribution, though Golden Arms "happy to be there" stung a bit haha - I had a moment with his "Dopium" record! lol

    It's kind of bittersweet to have RZA be a no show for a tour labeled WU, he has moved into some other entertainment industry zone, but I think that would make his return to the stage that much more of an electric experience. He was on the island last year for the Staten Island Film Festival, showing clips of the Bobby Digital movie. The beat goes on.

    Whut up Force MDs!!

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  2. the article was well written except you got the wrong WoodFellas group!!!! They are knock off white dudes from PA and not the "real" WoodFellas who Mixed latin brothers from NY n LA. We have never performed in PA!!! They got that show off our name! the promoter contacted us after telling us the mistake. I think you should def. clarify this and edit. We also opened for the Wu's Method man, but that was in NY and we killed it!

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  3. Blunt Trax: thanks for the input. add any websites if you want in the comment section to set the record straight

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