For some time now, there have been murmurs of Wu-related unrest. Even before we watched on YouTube as Raekwon relayed mutiny fantasies to a somber Miss Info, it seemed an implosion was mounting. Ghost didn’t get paid, RZA was playing guitar . . . and all this sans ODB.
So at Hammerstein Ballroom on January 12, when the Killa Beez made a New York crowd wait for nearly three hours, people were a little tense. Anxious, optimistic chants deteriorated into demands to start the show, which deteriorated into chants of “Bullshit!” By 10 p.m. cadres of seventeen-year-olds in Hollister shirts tired of yelling for a refund and started screaming the names of their favorite football teams instead. For every friendly-faced kid in a well-worn yellow W shirt asking the impatient crowd to show respect, there were seven other kids screaming for RZA’s head one minute then frantically jerking their Ws in the air the next. The members of Wu-Tang finally came on at about a quarter past ten. RZA was not with them.
First, it must be said that it is difficult not to enjoy a Wu-Tang show. Seeing Method Man effortlessly spit a verse mid-crowd-surf, for example, doesn’t get old. The actual experience of seeing all of them (except, in this case, not all of them) together is a treat. But this potential is also what makes an evening spent with Wu-Tang frustrating these days.
To many, Wu-Tang is more an abstract ideal than an actual group of people. As the ninth-graders standing in line recognized each other from homeroom and swigged vodka from Poland Spring bottles, I did the math: These kids were toddlers when Wu-Tang Forever came out. Is Iron Flag the last album they bought? Was Iron Flag the first album they bought? Have they ever bought an album?
It is, perhaps, not this crowd whom Method Man addressed when he asked how many people in attendance were true Wu-Tang fans and how many would purchase “anything” they put out. The answer to this question became clear.
The guys mentioned 8 Diagrams only once, and the crowd cheered louder at the mention of Big Doe Rehab and Cuban Linx II. They performed no songs from the new album, sticking to their standard one-verse-long medley of hits: one song from 36 Chambers; one song each from GZA, Rae, and Ghost solo records; one song post-36 Chambers; repeat. They brought Erykah Badu and Slick Rick onstage, only to have them wish Raekwon a happy birthday and then slink off.
Of course, the fact that Wu-Tang was onstage with Slick Rick in New York should have been the topic of the previous half-dozen paragraphs. Instead, the thing I remember most is Capadonna’s Nascar Pepsi jacket. Some of the greatest rappers in the world share a stage but don’t venture beyond a well-worn Vegas-style hour-long barrage of classics. More and more, the wait at the beginning seemed like a nudge toward New York’s go-home-at-midnight venue procedure.
Ultimately, the guys don’t look too unhappy onstage. They feed off an energy that is still there, even if it is sometimes for an ideal rather than a group. It is important for that ideal to still exist, especially in this town. Homeroom may have been rolling deep, but instead of Cuban Linx they get Fishscale, and that ain’t bad. As an onlooker said to two feuding men in the crowd who finally decided to settle their dispute aurally: “Yeah, it’s all Wu.”