May 08, 2011
A week ago, quick posts started showing up all across the internet, informing us that, “Gil Scott-Heron is dead.” In recent years, the legendary poet/musician had struggled with fairly public substance abuse problems and had triumphantly returned with his first full-length of new material in 16 years with last years, I’m New Here (XL recordings). Although the title track was a cover song from the 2005 album, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love by SMOG (aka: Bill Callahan), it’s inclusion on the album and, perhaps more significantly, as the album’s title, were clearly decided upon for profoundly personal reasons. With lyrics like “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around” and the titles of such other songs as “Me and the Devil“, “Running“, and “The Crutch“, it was evident that Heron was turning to more introspective subject matter than such politically driven classics as “The Revolution Will Not Me Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon“. Often referred to as “the godfather of rap,” Heron‘s last collection of new material came with the album Spirits in 1994 and contained the lead-off track “Message to Messengers“, which criticized the direction of hip-hop and what he saw as superficiality and destruction of/within the artform. Just as I’d like to view I’m New Here as his last big statement before his death, his warnings and pleas to the hip-hop community were one of his last big statements before his extensive gap in productivity. Around this time, another album called, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was really beginning to pick up steam.
Released just a few months prior to Spirits, the Wu-Tang Clan‘s debut album went on to set the rap game on it’s ear and leave a permanent dent in it’s foundation forever. Whether it was the change that Scott-Heron had hoped for is difficult to say. They were still rapping about gold, murder, and drugs, but they were also bringing an undeniably cinematic element to their tracks, showcasing a new level of craftsmanship, and placing a hefty amount of importance on lyrical content. The first wave of Wu-Tang member solo releases solidified their permanent spots as instant legends with classic after classic after classic being released. The second wave of solo releases was less successful and members like U-God and Masta Killa fell further into the background. The power of the 9-member Clan was their versatility and, once the “Killa Bees” had scattered, both their individual strengths, as well as their individual areas of potential weakness, became more pronounced. Out of those original few, I gravitated towards GZA‘s highly lyrical Liquid Swords, an album that has maintained a consistent spot in the running for my favorite rap album of all time. Others, who are more drawn to Raekwon‘s mafioso-themed gangsta rap, would argue that his first solo album, Only Built For Cuban Linx, may be superior. One thing is for sure, they are both classics and, while Gil Scott-Heron most likely would have identified more with the intellectual approach of GZA and Liquid Swords tracks like the Killah Priest-penned, “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)“, it would be hard to deny the purpose or relevancy of RAEKWON “the Chef” presenting a vivid outlook on the drug game that ultimately sucked Scott-Heron into it’s depths. After finally getting the opportunity to catch RAEKWON live last month, it would also be hard to deny that, even at this point in his career, he is still an incredibly vital figure for the rap industry that exists today.
When I heard that RAEKWON was performing at the Nectar Lounge, I did a bit of a double take. Even after confirming that the advertisements were actually pertaining to that RAEKWON, I still had some skepticism. The first issue was that the Nectar Lounge is only a few blocks from my home. Most people wouldn’t see that so much as an “issue” as they would a convenience but, considering that things don’t generally come together that smoothly for me, it might have been a sign that it wasn’t really gonna go down. Next was the fact that Nectar isn’t a very large venue and their calendar can be rather inconsistent. It’s a small space and holds just as many themed DJ/dance nights as anything else. The final and main factor that made me a bit skeptical is that the members of WU-Tang are notorious for bailing out and canceling shows. I tried to see Inspectah Deck once at Chop Suey and the show ran all the way up until his start time, before they finally admitted that he wasn’t gonna arrive and gave out refunds. Ghost Face has canceled at least 2 consecutive shows in the area that I’m aware of. After successfully seeing GZA live a few years ago (read review here) and considering that I wouldn’t even have to travel outside of my own neighborhood, it seemed like a no brainer. If RAE didn’t show up or the show was terrible, I could easily just walk back home.
I got there early enough to catch opener Havi Blaze. As for his delivery, he was actually surprisingly solid, unlike most openers, so things were looking up. Next came another local rapper, Fatal Lucciauno. I’ve seen some clips of him in the past and was hopeful, but I was not feeling his set in the slightest. He’s a stocky figure that moved around the stage awkwardly trying to get the crowd involved. At one point, he started a rant about Tyler the Creator and Odd Future, calling them Satanists and introducing an unnecessary religious angle/tirade into his set.
It was pretty obvious when The Chef‘s gigantic tour bus finally rolled up in front of the small club in the neighborhood of Fremont. DJ Swervewon had been providing beats for the openers, but the new DJ was now up on stage taking the helm. Once the phrases “Son” and “Word is bond” came out of his mouth, there was no question that he was part of RAE‘s crew. Everyone was finally getting optimistic. This guy explained that the headliner would be coming out soon but, before he did so, they wanted to introduce an artist that had been signed to Raekwon‘s label. I honestly wasn’t impressed and it was beginning to drag the fuck out. I felt bad for us in the crowd, but I didn’t feel great for the DJ who had to hold off the mob either. After that unannounced MC went through a few more songs than expected, the DJ had to keep spinning tracks at an extremely inopportune time in the night. The flyer said 8pm. It was easily already past midnight and we were listening to pre-recorded music. “Raekwon’s on his way, ya’ll!” Then, another 10 minutes or so of records, “Raekwon’s almost ready ya’ll!“. Finally, after what seemed like forever and what felt like something that might inevitably end with another cancellation, RAEKWON finally entered the stage. The Wu-Tang legend distributed super dramatic, gaudy posters that featured an image of himself restrained with thick gold chains in a crumbling metropolis. Basically, it’s the type of image that I would have jokingly produced of myself. A stack was handed to the front row, who passed them back, distributing them like science tests. Everyone was sharing; this could only happen at a “gangster” rap show in Fremont.
The ridiculous posters wouldn’t have meant shit after all of that wait, if RAEKWON didn’t really bring his “A” game, but he did. Seeing a seasoned performer of his caliber, after waiting through that entire lead up, was impressive and the superiority of his skill level was beyond noticeable. Kool Keith is another legendary rap figure that is notorious for not showing up for scheduled appearances. I’ve seen a show in which Keith left the stage dead empty between the previous act and himself for a full hour, only to come out and talk shit about the lack of skill in his opening acts. Keith did deliver at that performance, but in recent years, and his last performance especially, he has fallen off hard. He doesn’t really engage the audience and he basically phones it in. At a Seattle show in February -advertised as a live performance of Black Elvis: Lost in Space in it’s entirety- Keith had a goofy young white kid without rhythm come out and spit a few bars off of the album, before proceeding with the same random segments of the same random tracks that he performed the last time that I saw him 3 years ago. The rap game is arguably even much worse than it was in the early Nineties when Gil Scott-Heron was complaining about the state of the industry. The volume of genuine new talent has been dwindling at an alarming rate and many of the veteran rap stars have either stopped performing, fallen off terribly, or have died. RAE made the point of giving props to recently deceased contemporaries like Nate Dogg and GURU, but the most impressive part was that he proved that his own passion for his craft is still very much alive. WU-Tang are not only innovators from the past but, based on what I’ve experienced, they are still very entertaining live performers that take pride in their craft and are passionate about forming a tangible bond with their fanbase. What they are not is the type of “entertainers” that are content with simply going through classic tracks in medley form, saying very little, and walking off the stage unaffected.
I hadn’t planned to write a review of this show and still don’t plan on getting too much further in depth. Even when I began typing this piece, it was simply going to be a post of a short photo set (featured below), but there are a few things that I wanted to make clear about what could be expected from a WU-Tang solo show in the year 2011. The first is that, although you might have to wait for it to kick off and you might be leery about attending one, you’ll be glad that you made the effort. These guys are still skilled and they still tear the shit out of the venues, reminding you why you liked them in the first place, while giving you new reasons to come out and see them. It isn’t like seeing the 80+ year old bluegrass legend, Earl Scruggs propped up to play the banjo for nostalgic reasons (super depressing stuff, by the way). Another thing to point out is that RAEKWON is still producing some fresh worth-while material, as evidenced by his 2009 sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II. He doesn’t limit himself to new material or even to classic tracks either. The show blended a good variety of new with the old and, much like the GZA set that I experienced before, he shows that there is a tendency to do a song or two of their WU-Tang cohorts that aren’t performing with them. Perhaps the most important thing to bring attention to, however, is that, although the Rap world is flooded with terrible bullshit, huge stadium shows, and flashy nonsense, it’s still possible to attend an intimate club show by one of the most cinematic and resilient MCs from a crew with, arguably, the greatest collection of lyrical talent ever assembled and still have it come off impressively, even in the current musical climate.
Although the sound could be much better, I feel that the following video still reasonably demonstrates these points. The first song featured is “Rock ‘N Roll” from his latest release, Shaolin VS Wu-Tang and the clip ends with a version of the Wu classic, “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit” from 36 Chambers. In between the tracks, RAE makes a point to express his viewpoints about the necessities of quality beats and substance of lyricism in hip-hop. He might still be rapping about crack and murder, instead of political injustices in the vein of Heron, but his influence, depth, and artistic ability are undeniable.
Check out the following photo-set: (click images to enlarge)