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This is not a review: My Wu-Tang, from Shaolin 1993 to Bluesfest 2013

By Jason Yung on July 17, 2013

As we stood in the Bluesfest rain, waiting for the Wu to show, I asked the group of teenage girls next to me: what’s your favourite Wu-Tang song? Blank stares. “Ummm, I dunno.” There we were, those who were infants when Enter the 36 Chambers dropped, mixed with those who held Wu-Tang as rap Gods. The dichotomy was not lost on me.

Everyone who grew up listening to Wu-Tang talks different. Since ’93, the Wu-Tang diffused the phrases “nah I’m sayin?” and “nah I mean?” to every corner of the earth, to every class and race. It was the Staten Islandization of the globe. The Wu-Tang, their attitude, their slang, and their intensity was drilled into our heads – especially in the days of the Walkman, when I left the house with one tape, and turned it over and over again. Twenty years ago, Wu-Tang dropped 36 Chambers. It remains the only album that I have continuously listened to since grade 9. What’s always stuck out for me on that album, is an interview clip appended to the end of Can It Be All So Simple. The interviewer asks: “what’s your goal in this industry?” and the entire clan responds, talking over each other, excited for the future.

Raekwon: “Cuz right about now, I ain’t braggin’ or nothing, but yo the Wu, the Wu got somethin’ that I know that everybody wanna hear. Cuz I know I’ve been waitin to hear, you know what I’m sayin? But straight up and down, till we get the goal, we gon’ keep goin’.”

Method Man: “Yeah, cuz we tryin’ to make a business outta this man, we ain’t tryin’ to – know what I’m sayin’ – affiliate ourselves with them fake ass A&R’s and all that. We tryin’ to make our shit so that when our children, all our seeds and whatever, they got somethin’ for theyselves right there.”

Ghostface Killah: “We ain’t tryin to hop in and hop out right quick, know what I’m sayin’? We out for the Gusto and we gon’ keep it raw.”

Photo by Andrew Carver on flickr.

Photo by Andrew Carver on flickr.

And so spoke the young warriors of the Clan, their entire careers and lives ahead of them, full of purpose and conviction. Those off-the-cuff remarks would set up what played out in the story of Wu over the next twenty years: business versus rawness, the journey versus the goal, what everyone wants to hear versus what everyone’s heard. And for a long time, Wu-Tang lived up to its word. But by the early 2000s, Wu-Tang was a decaying empire, failing to make quality albums after Wu-Tang Forever, offering nothing more than one or two catchy tracks off the horrendous albums The W and Iron Flag. Individually, the separate members of the Wu-Tang thrived with wave after wave of successful solo albums. And true to Method Man’s word, the Wu-Tang became a viable business, the Wu-Tang Corporation, which expanded and invaded all conceivable areas outside of music, Wu-Tang clothes, a Wu-Tang cartoon on television, even a Wu-Tang video game. But as the Wu became a viable financial entity, their popularity waned.

Like all great empires after a period of conquest, their undoing was hubris and division. Creative differences, egos and personal conflicts prevented the Clan from uniting for tours. Wu-Tang performances of the past were plagued by no-shows, stand-ins and less than energetic performances. So when I heard Wu-Tang was coming to Ottawa for Bluesfest, I was sceptical – that is, until my neighbour saw them at Bonnaroo and told me the entire clan (save the late O.D.B.) showed up for this tour. I was excited: Wu-Tang, reunited, and on tour! It was once in a lifetime. So I gathered some friends and we painted the Wu symbol on our faces, a gesture of our faith and appreciation. Someone commented that if I was to build it up too much, maybe I’d be disappointed. But disappoint, they did not.

Stepping on the stage to a roaring crowd, they opened the set with The Mystery of Chessboxing – “A game of chess is like a sword fight *swish-swish* you must think first, before you move”. To the delight of the hardcore fans, they damn-near played the entire 36 Chambers album in order. (I recall the set list with difficulty, because I was nearly in a religious trance the entire show.) I’ve blasted Wu from my home speakers, car speakers, cassette decks, CD player and mp3 players – but hearing the bass of C.R.E.A.M. out of those massive Bluesfest speakers was something else.

The crowd was a tad disappointing, as many did not know the lyrics to the song that the Clan tried to elicit response from.

Method Man: “Clan in the front!” (expecting “Let you feet stomp!”)

*points mic to crowd*

Crowd: Silence

Me: *shakes head*

Of course, I must admit I missed some lyrics too. There’s nothing like needing to actually shout out lyrics to reveal how much you sorta just mumble through most rap songs. I felt like I was personally disappointing Method Man, and I didn’t want to disappoint Meth. Method Man had to personally say to the crowd “don’t just stand around, get into it, because what you give to us, we will give back to you.” (Later I would realise a number of out-of-place looking flannel-clad girls were just there to get a good spot for the country singer afterwards.)

Photo by Andrew Carver on flickr.

Photo by Andrew Carver on flickr.

But despite all that, the Wu killed it. They kept it raw. Their onstage persona was commanding. Method Man, in particular was every bit as charismatic as his reputation. He ordered the crowd to make a mosh pit, and a human hurricane ensued (nearly crushing me). At one point, they played a rendition of The Beatles’ Come Together and had the entire crowd roaring “come together, right now… over me.” A particularly touching moment was when they did a tribute to the Old Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004, using the beat of Dr. Dre’s The Message. The Message is a beautiful tribute to his brother who died, probably Dre’s most emotional song.

Sometimes I wonder why I, and all diehard Wu fans, have such a visceral connection to the Wu-Tang. After all, growing up in a middle class suburb without shootings in my neighbourhood, I can’t relate to growing up in the projects of Shaolin (Staten Island). I can’t relate to slangin’ or shooting mofos for intruding in my neighbourhood. Maybe it was because the messages of the songs were generally positive. C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rule Everything Around Me) is, in actuality, about how life is struggle, and only by working hard can you survive. Or maybe it was just the rawness of the beats. Or maybe it was because, for those who grew up with Wu in their blood, we remember when we first heard Wu-Tang, when your crew was young and everything was lovely – when you just needed a car speaker and a parking lot curb to have a good time.

I think that every crew made and lost has a little Wu-Tang in them. In youth, we all formed like Voltron and made beautiful music… for a time. But, like the Wu, the 36 Chambers was a product of a specific place and time. Like the Clan itself, we all grew up, graduated, and strove off on our own. Our friends all set out with solo careers in whatever field of life we pursued. Some, like Method Man and Ghostface rose to the top. Others, like U-God and Cappadonna remained jealous of the spotlight shone on others. Individuals became more important than the collective, and egos and jealousy ate away at unity – and suddenly, the original dynamic was no more. What comes together, must divide. We were all The Clan, The Clan was us.

But then, something happened. How did they reunite this year to deliver stunning concerts? (Reviews of this year’s performances were a far cry from Wu-Tang reviews of previous year). There is even talk of a 20th Anniversary album, tentatively titled: A Better Tomorrow. Something happened, something changed. Was it because now, in their 40s, the family men of the Clan rose above personal conflict? Why now? Asked about this by Montreality last month, the RZA said, “To me, it’s time for a family reunion, not only of just us as a Wu-Tang Clan, but all the fans and people around the world. Don’t ever forget your family, yo. The working title of the album is called A Better Tomorrow. And that’s because we had some good times, we had some bad times. But if tomorrow can be better than today, then it’s worth reaching for.” It got me thinking: if the Wu can reunite despite all their differences, maybe all the little Clans all over the Earth who have grown old and divided could also do so?

A tenuous linkage – perhaps. Maybe I’m just still coasting off my post-Wu high. After the concert, my arms sore from putting up the “W” up in the air with my hands for an hour, I felt like a Shaolin Monk who finally completed the 36th Chamber. I felt like a life milestone had been met.  Rap group, commercial enterprise or metaphor for humanity, whatever – Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing ta fuck with.