by Nate Fish
Saturday Feb 18, producer and architect of the Wu Tang Clan, the RZA, performed a mixed bag of songs from his extensive catalogue to an even more mixed crowd, white and black thirty-somethings who had grown up listening to Wu Tang, and a younger generation of fans who have discovered the iconic rap group more recently. The show came one month after fellow Wu member, the GZA, performed at the Winery. The GZA and the RZA are not typical CW artists. The venue typically books rock acts, and these shows represent a welcomed diversification at the Winery as the tables that normally fill the room for the dinner crowd were pushed aside to make room for the head nodding audience to raise a glass in the air and rap along to their favorite Wu songs.
The Wu-Tang clan was hugely successful in the 90’s during the Golden Era of Hip-Hop, and the RZA was, as the group’s primary producer, credited with developing a rich, recognizable sound that combined samples from Kung Fu flicks, strings, and low-fi drum breaks that played behind some of the most memorized verses in hip hop history by not only the RZA and the GZA, but Method Man, Ghost Face Killa’, Raekwon, and other members of the 9-man group and their extended network of affiliates. Back then, the Wu Tang Clan seemed to come from a weird world of their own creation. They existed in a bubble constructed with nothing more than their own personal intelligence and experiences growing up in Staten Island and Brownsville, Brooklyn, RZA’s hometown. They were amazing while they were in their self-made world, but once they stepped out of that time and place, they could be described as rudderless as everyone suddenly realized there was no returning to that fragile, ephemeral, sheltering artistic bubble.
I was skeptical, 20-plus years on, how the RZA would come off, especially in a venue not necessarily designed to host hip-hop shows. I kept thinking, “Artists are only worth a damn in their prime. Artists are only worth a damn in their prime,” for all the reasons I just listed. But the RZA looked good. It seemed the time that has passed and the realization that he is considered one of the most important producers in the world, even as some of his Wu compatriots have fallen into obscurity, had worn well on him. Artists can go one of two ways as they exit their prime, they can fall apart completely, or they can clean up. The RZA cleaned up. He was clean-shaven, though he still sported his staple side burns, and looked like he’s been working out. He looked more like Kanye West, a seasoned pro with layers of experience and jewelry, inside and out, than a member of the grimiest hip hop group of all time. He did not perform Wu Classics from either of their most successful albums, 36 Chambers or Wu Tang Forever. He appropriately stuck to his own music (See set list below). It was, after all, not a Wu Tang Clan show, but a RZA show. He was backed by a live band lead by a capable and powerful Hendrix-esque lead guitar player, a DJ, a Keytar player who had flown in from Texas for the show who also provided back-up and, occasionally, lead vocals, a drummer, and various other guest performers including a lesser known, younger rapper and several female vocalists hanging out side-stage who appeared in a semi-organized order throughout the night.
Halfway through the show, the RZA stopped to asked everyone how they were doing before breaking into a series of inexplicable covers of well known artists he had admittedly discovered late. He started with Prince, who himself performed at the Winery last year before his passing. The RZA said he first listened to, “this dude who wore tight purple pants,” in 2001, at which point we all realized who he was talking about. It seemed impossible that a man so involved with music could only begin listening to Prince, a predecessor and contemporary of his, in 2001, well after Prince had made his most important musical contributions. It confirmed the idea that the Wu-Tang Clan really had been living in their own weird world as the RZA said he hadn’t listened to Prince simply because he was “…trying to be so hip-hop.” Next was Kurt Cobain. The Rza was like, “How about this dude… Kurt Cobain?” And everyone was like… Yeah, dude, we know who he is. It was almost embarrassing that the RZA, one of the most well-known musicians in the world, at least in some circles, literally was discovering household names in music so long after their careers and even their lives were over.
But what overshadowed any embarrassment was that the RZA was openly enjoying the shit out of himself, plain and simple. His joy epitomized the popular expression often related to music, “It’s may not be new, but it’s new to me,” as he performed the Nirvana classic, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. This was not a man or an artist who thought of himself as being out of his prime, but just entering it. Totally involved with his own personal artistic and musical evolution, he was was not particularly concerned with any talk about primes or anything else as the show rolled on until 3am. It was refreshing to see an artist who could have easily stuck to the guns that had served him so well, but instead decided to expand his tastes and continue to grow. This show, for Wu Tang fans, or anyone else for that matter, was worth a damn.
First, the GZA. Now the RZA. Which Wu Member will be next? The City Winery Wu Tang Series has a nice ring to it.