by Oscar Medina
An embattled RZA celebrated the release of the new Wu Tang 8 Diagrams record with a sold-out performance last night at the Independent that proved to some that RZA has gone straight crazy while to others that he is and and will remain an innovative force in hip-hop. With the recent scathing remarks by fellow hustler Raekwon calling RZA "a hip-hop hippie" and Ghostface's equally disgruntled “he’s fumbling the ball”, you could tell after last night's performance that the RZA is no longer holding back, for better or for worse.
Walking into the Independent last night you'd think you just walked into the Cannabis Cup because the clouds of smoke emitting from that place was enough to give anyone permabake. Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist was dropping classic hip-hop jointz, getting people riled up for RZA's imminent appearance. What he had in store for them was not what many had expected.
Donning a khaki suit with Japanese designs and a white tennis headband, the RZA came full force with a band that consisted of a live drummer, bass, guitar, percussion, and a DJ who held it down for the rest of the night. Launching into a set that began with sound effects from an Ennio Morricone score, the RZA's group played a medley of tracks from his Bobby Digital alter ego to classic Wu Tang material.
What impressed and shocked many was his liberal use of guitar in the performance, at times sounding like a funky mix of Hendrix and Maggot Brain-era P- Funk. Local promoter Damon Johnson called it "a betrayal of everything hip-hop stands for" and said that the RZA has "gone white," while drummer Terence Howard said "that's the reason I've always respected RZA, because he always reinvents himself." Whatever your view may be of RZA's new-found love for rock and psychedelia, this is not the first time a prominent hip-hop artist has flirted with a rock band set up, Mos has done it, and Run-DMC practically laid the groundwork for this template.
By the middle of the set, it was obvious that some didn't feel the whole rock/jamming element of RZA's band and slowly filed out of what for them was a disappointing show. As I talked with a few of those early casualties, they all echoed the same sentiment, basically that they expected a traditional DJ and mic setup and a hope that a few Wu members would show up for an impromptu appearance; instead what they got was a full-on arsenal of blues-funk-rock-tinged versions of RZA's discography.
To those haters, I have to ask: What else do you expect from a man who mastered the whole soul-funk-samples-with-gritty-breaks paradigm a decade ago? You'd have to be crazy to believe that someone who has successfully composed film scores, was a mastermind behind some of the most lauded solo hip-hop records ( Liquid Swords, Only Built for Cuban Linx, Tical) not to mention the Wu's output, makes haphazard artistic decisions. No, everything with this man is calculated down to the last detail, and last night was no different.
For those in the other camp, the show was exactly the reason that they will continue to support RZA's vision, namely because it breaks with hip-hop purism and envisions something broader. The crowd who stuck around was treated to an unhinged RZA as he marauded across the stage, singing and rapping. At one point he busted open a bottle of champagne and sprayed the people around him while later pouring whiskey from his bottle into some of the audience's cups. As the set closed with "Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit" the mood was bittersweet, as you just knew the record released yesterday is the last we will get to hear of the WU.
Better than: living in the past
Personal Bias: I like hip-hop producers who are tired of sampling soul and funk
Random Detail: RZA gets down on guitar