I had a very depressing realization recently when I realized that the Wu-Tang Clan have been around for just about 15 years. I remember when the Wu-Tang Clan were the hot new thing on the block, dangerous and weird in a Clive Barker-meets-Steve Ditko by way of Boogie Down Productions way -- there was quite a bit in their early material that was confrontational and resistant in a way that still hasn't been fully digested by the music world at large. Now, of course, the Wu have become a kind of institution, for better or for worse, with dozens of spinoffs and affiliates and a pile of questionable solo releases all emanating outward from the original recordings. The early stuff is still pretty damn good, and there has been quite a lot to like in the raft of solo material released in the wake of 36 Chambers -- even though, it must be said that not all Wu members were created equally, and many of them simply don't have the skill or charisma to shine on their own in the way Ghostface or the RZA are able to do on a consistent basis. But even given these caveats, there's been a lot of good music released under the group's auspices these last 15 years.
I've always wanted to see them live, however. As long as there's been a Wu-Tang Clan people have been talking about just how singularly unclassifiable Wu-Tang Clan live shows are. I must admit that I have had less-than-sterling experiences with live hip-hop in the past. There are few things in this world quite as bad as bad live hip-hop, horrible in a way that makes even excellent artists seem like idiotic ciphers. There are, of course, of the Roots and Public Enemy. I was also able to see Run DMC back in the late 90s, before the death of Jam Master Jay, and they put on a pretty good show as well. (Certainly they were much better than the rest of the old-school groups they were packaged with on that tour, folks like the Sugarhill Gang and Whodini who came on stage to lip-synch for 20 minutes and collect their paychecks. Kurtis Blow had some pretty good breakdancers, however.)
In any event, there's still something wildly strange about the idea of the Wu-Tang Clan performing live. For one thing, there's at least nine of them, sometimes more, but often less. Part of the fun of any Wu-Tang show must be the anticipation over seeing just who is actually going to show up on any given date of the tour, which is certainly not something you can say about any other headlining act of comparable stature. Assuming the correct members of the group actually show up in the correct place at the right time, which is nowhere near resembling a sure thing given their track record, you've still got about a dozen people -- the group, their DJs, and assorted hangers-on -- milling about on the stage. Only one rapper can perform any given time, for obvious reasons, so you're left with 10 or so people wandering around a large performance area and getting up to who knows what while waiting to spit a verse or two. Add to this the fact that pretty much every member of the Wu-Tang Clan can be considered in some way shape or form to be an outsized, eccentric personality, and you've got a recipe for pure unadulterated chaos.
Thanks to the wonders of Youtube I am finally able to catch a fleeting glimpse of just what live Wu-Tang actually means, and it's pretty bizarre. Everyone in the group, save for the dearly departed Ol' Dirty Bastard, appears to be present for this 2006 show. Triumph is one of the groups best posse cuts, and one of the only tracks in their deep repertoire which could truthfully be sent to spotlight every member to the best of their ability. Certainly, based on the evidence presented in this clip it's easy to see that some of the members of the group are better performers than others. Ghostface shines, as you would expect given his well-earned reputation as the group's standout talent, but Method Man also impresses, showing a bit of the charisma that made the early phase of his solo career seem so promising before he crashed and burned in a foggy haze of deodorant commercials and sitcoms. The standout performance, however, is undoubtedly the RZA's -- never exactly an even-keel type on his best days, here he seems to be two seconds away from losing his mind at any given moment, gripped by a feverish intensity that renders his peculiar mixture of half-baked Five-Percenter ideology and stream-of-consciousness free association simply riveting.
They just don't make a rap like this nowadays. Maybe that makes me seem like something of a crotchety old man, but I can't be the only one who looks at pretty much the entire spectrum of modern hip hop, with a few notable exceptions, and sees nothing more than a vast wasteland of shrunken personalities miming formulaic claptrap in a feverish desire for seemingly nothing more than to sell more units than Carrie Underwood.
Best line of the performance? Right at the end, when the chef Rakewon make sure to remind the screaming fans that they do indeed have merchandise tables positioned at the back of the auditorium.