Back in October, I took to these same pages to question why Method Man—a veteran, remarkably talented rapper from New York, preoccupied with defining “real rap”—joined a Smokers Club tour that featured a bevy of also remarkably talented Southern rappers, more influenced by Memphis, Houston or New Orleans than, say, Staten Island. Maybe weed and good musical taste was all that linked the artists together, but Method Man—that night’s headliner and final act—felt out of place. Not last Saturday night.
We’ll skip the Wu-Tang Clan history and pleasantries with the exception of this: They’re the marquee rap collective to ever come out of or represent the genre, and the sound they culled from New York in the ’90s was (or, hell, is, as per the packed house) distinctive, gritty, captivating and plain exciting. They haven’t lost it.
The breakneck, roughly 75-minute set featured the Clan (sans Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, who were sorely missed) flipping through their catalog of classics: “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing ta Fuck Wit,” “Clan in Da Front,” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin,’” and “Shame on a Nigga.” And that was just the four-song suite of openers.
Pausing only once, briefly, for producer and Clan DJ Allah Mathematics’ dizzying DJ interlude (which, my having already seen it once this year, lost some of its initial jaw-lowering qualities), the Clan was prototypical Clan: a controlled chaos in the form of artists rapping and rhyming on and over one another. And, had their lyrics not been seared into my brain from years of listening, the whole thing might look and sound like an impromptu cypher. Method Man, ever the mercurial showman, climbed on the crowd, spit water, took and smoked a concertgoer’s blunt (and threw it back into the crowd—sorry to that guy); RZA did his double-time (and borderline triple-time) flow over a slew of his own productions; GZA and his unimpeachable lyricism fit nicely between the supporting roles of the dynamic Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa.
During the pauses between songs, where the Clan (and Method Man in particular) addressed the crowd, a certain phrase kept being thrown around. Similar to Method Man and his rants here in October, “real rap” was the Clan’s point of contention. They’re either not happy with the state of the genre, which, given recent and pretty staggering left turns, has left rap fractured; that, or they’re trying to solidify the fact that Wu-Tang Clan = real rap music, which is one of the most superfluous claims in all of rap. Even as such signifiers limp toward irrelevancy, and the people that use and defend “real rap” become all the more insufferable, and as some of the most technically gifted rappers produce nothing more than boring technical marvels (see: Shady 2.0 cypher), the Clan’s obsession with the idea is not for naught. So whatever Meth (and the rest of the Clan) purport real rap to be, they’re still the embodiment of it.
They don’t really need to tell us that—although they did, too many times. We’ve seen them define their understanding of the genre’s purity for years: bold and far-flung sample choices, posse cuts, rattling drum kits, grimy street lyrics, technical lyricism. But their ’93 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) could never again appear on a greatest-of-all-time list or top-100-albums-of-the-’90s collection, and the record (or Return to the 36 Chambers, or Liquid Swords, or Tical, etc.) would still find ardent and welcoming fans. Ardent enough fans to fill Northern Lights almost 20 years after the group’s New York incarnation. So as long as Wu-Tang Clan are around, they are “real rap”—with whatever weight or meaning that phrase still carries or implies in the closing weeks of 2011.