Wu Tang Clan
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One of the buses pulling past Brixton Academy tonight is emblazoned with an advert for The Expendables, a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and a host of other ageing action heroes in what is – presumably ironically – being called ‘the greatest cast ever assembled’. However, the crowds queuing outside are here to see another dream team entirely, albeit one you also might think are similarly past it. You certainly can’t help but harbour some doubts about the Wu-Tang Clan’s much vaunted return to the live arena, with all eight of the core members supposedly present and correct. Especially since their shows have been so notoriously half-arsed in the past, with only two or three of the Clan anyone knew actually bothering to turn up, the rest replaced by an entourage of non-entities called the sort of things like Big Gay Mule or Cybernetic Tiger you get from entering your name on the hilarious Wu Tang name generator website.
Still, reservations aside, the chance to see even just a few of the Wu in a room together is one any hip-hop fan of a certain vintage is going to grasp, particularly after the acrimonious fall-out following their last album 8 Diagrams convinced many that that was the last we’d heard of them as a group, even as they continued to churn out innumerable solo albums. None of which had quite the same magic they conjured during their mid-Nineties heyday, which the hordes of people crammed into the Academy are clearly hoping against hope they’ll capture again tonight.
The first signs aren’t good however, largely because – as is seemingly standard practice for big name American hip-hop acts – the Wu are nearly an hour late getting on stage. When the lights eventually do go down and each member of the Wu is announced one by one it’s a bit like school registration, waiting to see who will turn up. The RZA – check. GZA – check. Raekwon – check. Ghostface Killah – check. U-God – check. By the time Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck make their entrance it’s almost too good to be true – until you realise that Method Man isn’t among them. Something the rest of them pretend we haven’t noticed until right near the end of the show when The RZA makes a belated apology on Method Man’s behalf to explain that he’s filming CSI somewhere.
Of course, there’s one other original member who has a slightly better excuse for not being here. The spirit of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard is only directly invoked once, with the requisite lighters and mobiles aloft tribute before his remaining comrades do a collective rendition of his star turn ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’, but his presence can still be felt. Largely because – just as everyone was praying – The Wu’s set draws so heavily from early albums Enter The 36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Forever, made when Ol’ Dirty Bastard was an integral part of what was then the most potent hip-hop group in the world. It skips almost entirely over their later lacklustre LPs like The W and all those other ones you didn’t buy. There can be few opening salvoes more effectively energising than ...36 Chambers’ three stand-out tracks ‘Protect Ya Neck’, ‘Clan In Da Front’ and ‘Bring The Ruckus’ delivered in quick succession, even if it quickly becomes obvious that The Wu are afflicted with a problem that – for once – isn’t entirely of their own making. Namely that the sound – from where we’re standing at least – is absolutely awful; a soupy mess which means some of the most intelligent rhymes in hip-hop delivered by some of the best rappers on the planet just come across as indecipherable shouting, the taut beats of ‘Reunited’ as fuzzy as if DJ Mathematics’ decks were covered in cotton wool. It comes to something when the lubricious sleaze of ‘Ice Cream’ sounds almost identical to the raucous rabble-rousing of ‘Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing To Fuck Wit’, and you can really only tell which track is which when the choruses kick in and those lucky enough to actually be able to make anything out through the murky soundsystem begin bellowing the words back at them.
Still, the show itself almost makes up for that, with Ghostface seemingly having replaced ODB as their most flamboyant front man, although Raekwon and the rest also put the effort in, hurling their towels out into the crowd or spraying champagne over the baying front row. The energy of the audience never flags either, every song greeted by a sea of hands raised in the W symbol – or is it the Wac-A-Wave? – and spontaneous mosh pits breaking out during the aforementioned ‘...Nuthing To Fuck Wit’.
Which means that, barely an hour after they first got what they came to see, the near capacity crowd are brought crashing down far too early when ‘Gravel Pit’ finishes and The RZA announces that ‘we’ve got to go now’. Even if they hadn’t turned up late, spending the final five minutes of what could be their last ever UK show talking about their latest film projects and T-shirt range would be a serious test of goodwill, but everyone seems prepared to forgive them when they finally conclude proceedings by rapping over the bassline from The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. That tonight’s show was often as pumped up and muscular as Sly and Arnie means that The Wu aren’t entirely expendable themselves just yet, but they’re still not utterly dependable either.
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