It’s always been clear to me that there is an immediate connection between hip-hop and the Asian martial arts. The samurai carries two swords, one of short length for quick attack, called the wakizashi or tanto, and one of long length for heavier, more sustained attacks, called the katana or tachi. Similarly, the graf writer carries the pen or marker for quick tags and the can for bombing and piecing. The B-boy or girl has the uprock and downrock and the freezes, suicides and power moves. The MC freestyles, and he also writes. The DJ scratches, cuts and fades and also selects sets. The short, and the long. The immediate, and the planned.
There are many hip-hop artists out there that personify this, but, there’s only one group of people in hip-hop that I feel not only encapsulated the relentless pursuit of martial arts-level perfection but was also very clear about that drive. It’s a name so powerful, so full of, that it can scarcely be spoken without becoming a chant. You know it. And when I came to the show that spent itself out in a blaze of warrior energy at the Beauty Ballroom on Monday, Oct. 15, it was clear the audience knew it too, because I heard this name chanted endlessly, passionately, reverently.
Wu. Tang. Wu. Tang. WU. TANG. WU. TANG. WU! TANG! WU! TANG!
As was made clear right off the bat, this was no mere concert, but a special throw-down for the RZA, Wu-Tang’s leader and a brilliant artist. This show was brought about as a celebration of the fulfillment of RZA’s life-long dream to write and direct a film, which, fittingly, is a kung-fu flick called The Man With the Iron Fists. With the blessing of the one and only Quentin Tarantino, and stars like Lucy Liu, Russel Crowe and the RZA himself, Iron Fists is a film with a built-in level of ultimate badassness. And in order to fully blow it out for an event in his life of this magnitude, RZA went and called in a huge amount of talent to play the show.
Kickin’ shit off right
Kickin’ shit off right with a party vibe and heaps of fun braggadocio was Round Rock/Austin’s First Class Fresh, a group of five youthful rappers that also go by the cleverly penned name of the Off the Chain Gang. Hugely energetic and all about partying, these guys bounced all around the stage, taking turns on the mic and spittin’ about clubs and strippers to a crowd that was still piling in. First Class Fresh is sort of like a boy band, in that each guy had his own unique voice, personality and look, but more like if a boy band rapped, and they actually had talent and miles of swagger.
Following up that club-centric energy was another local named Ndeo the Blindsider, who took the stage saying, “Y’all ready for some real motherfuckin’ hip-hop? I didn’t come here to spit no bubblegum shit.” NDEO and his backing man had a fast, aggressive cadence that contrasted hugely with First Class Fresh in that it spoke all about life lessons, politics and social issues as opposed to partyin’ and clubbin’ it up.
In a similar vein, also-Austinites OT23 came up next with more hard hitting verses on society and living in it, this time with three dudes jumping on the mic. Big, huge bass beats on simple rhythms backed their shouting style that featured lines like, “My chick’s got a .38 in a Prada bag” and tracks that talked about the pain of life, and they even received a bit of an impromptu “OT!” “23!” chant from the receptive crowd.
At this point, DJ Ocean, who’d been holding it down on the decks ’til then, left the stage and DJ Chupacabra took over for Kosha Dillz‘s set. Dillz’s flow was littered with impromptu verses that he’d throw in the middle of pre-written tracks, like “Cellular Phone,” and it was clear that he took his style seriously, but took himself with a grain of salt. Dillz also brought locals SubKulture Patriots and Dubb Sicks onstage for a nice little collab, which seemed to be the spirit of the night.
Then, we had Eyenine, a growly-voiced white kid with absolutely massive hair and an incredibly fast delivery. He seemed to me like that one hippy kid you know who actually does very obviously have ADD, but instead of picking up a guitar, he picked up a mic and a rhyming dictionary. The last time I saw someone rap so fast, I was watching Busdriver. The kid’s brutal flow definitely got the audience pumped up for the main event.
Freestyle legend takes the stage
Though the openers were all great, you could tell the difference between them and the next three guys right off the bat. NYC’s DJ Skane backed the three legends we were about to see, the first of which was the freestyle god known as Supernatural. Instead of bringing some tracks off an album, Supernatural said, “I specialize in the art of freestyle. I just wanna rap with y’all tonight,” and then performed three freestyle feats, each of which was more impressive than the last.
For the first, the man would rhyme a few bars and then point the mic at someone in the audience, who would say a word that Supernatural would seamlessly incorporate into his next flow. The second had him rapping a few words, then spinning around and coming back in the style of a different famous MC. This seemed almost too hard for even him to pull off, but when he busted out as Slick Rick, then Busta then Biggie, both his voice and style were perfect.
Finally, Supe had us in the front rows pull out shit from our pockets and hold it up, and he’d walk around grabbing shit randomly and rap about it on the spot. The objects ranged from a mint to a blunt (which he held onto for a while) to business cards, about one of which he rhymed “Freestylin is hard/You need to get a better font because I can’t read your card.” The audience ate these displays of creative prowess up with huge, unbelieving cheers for every bar, and I have to say that it was one of the most fun and impressive things I’ve ever seen in live music.
“Wu! Tang!” chants get loud
Following up the mind-blowing freestyles of Supernatural, a true Wu-Tang member launched onstage, and the respect and excitement were palpable in the building. Coming out to the loudest “WU! TANG!” chant yet, U-God came out from backstage and told us how RZA had asked him to come for his movie release, so he went 18 hours in the bus to get there. As opposed to Supernatural’s jokester persona, U-God stalked the stage like a tensed panther, keeping a straight face on and stoically taking in the mad respect he was receiving from his fans.
U-God went hard on the Wu, rappin’ his parts in “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” “Winter Wars,” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” “Triumph” and “Itz Yourz” along with the hooks and even a few of the other members’ verses. He also dropped a bit of his own shit, “Dopium” for instance, and the crowd was surging forward to get at the man during the whole thing. U-God seemed a little exhausted from his journey, but his flow was on point, and it was easy to see why RZA said in an interview recently that U-God might be the Wu member most on top of his game right now.
Before the man of the hour got up and did his thing, we were treated to a clip from Iron Fists that, according to DJ Absolut, had never been seen before. The clip, when it finally played, was definitely worth the wait, and the film looks like it pulls tropes and ideas from all throughout the history of kung fu films, updating them with a slick modern look and excellent production value. I think RZA might have knocked it out of the park with this one.
The electric energy of RZA’s arrival
Maybe it was the build-up of energy from so many great artists doing a set before, or maybe it was just his magnetic personality, but when RZA strode onstage, there was a current of electric energy in the crowd that buzzed, snapped and snarled like little I’ve felt for another performer. It didn’t hurt things at all that the man asked if we’d have a drink with him (with some poured out to lost friends, of course) and started passing around bottles (Grey Goose, Hennessy and champagne) for the audience to “sip and pass.” Shit got so wild, I could no longer take notes, which allowed me to just take in the legend’s set without distraction.
And a hell of a set it was, going from some Gravediggaz shit like “1-800 Suicide” early on, to some of the best of Wu-Tang like “Tiger Style,” “Shame on a Nigga” and “Reunited,” then repping his alter-ego Bobby Digital with joints such as “Drink, Smoke + Fuck” and “You Can’t Stop Me Now.” Between tracks, the obviously passionate man would stop and tell the audience about how much completing this project meant to him along with the story of the Clan and how they went from being these disparate individuals to a single, powerful unit.
One particularly epic moment went down when RZA told the audience that he wished ODB was there to see him succeed and asked the audience, though (in his words) he knew it was selfish, to put one finger up and say “I’m proud of you RZA.” Throughout his set, RZA kept pulling up the dudes from earlier in the night to join him, such as having Eyenine, Supernatural, Absolut and Kosha come up for a powerful rendition of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” which was a testament to both his humility and his prowess at crowd interaction.
And the crowd, seeing someone that was instrumental in creating the music that changed their lives, was more than willing to comply. After they did, RZA dropped into ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” as a tribute to his man, the Bastard. The back and forth between RZA and the crowd was non-stop and had a special, unique feel to it all night, with almost every member screaming every word of every track along with the man and acquiescing to his every request (such as a chant of “RIP! ODB!”).
In fact, the last time I saw something like this was standing in a field in Indio, Calif., watching Radiohead follow the Pixies, and that was for 50,000-plus people, as opposed to the few hundred that could cram into the Ballroom. When RZA would pop champagne (holding it like it was his cock) and spray it all over everyone, it seemed almost like the crowd took it as a hip-hop baptism from the high priest of beat and rhyme.
I think that the crowd would have stayed at the Ballroom happily for another six hours or more, but shit had to wrap eventually, and RZA knew just how to do it. After blasting out “You Can’t Stop Me” as a kind of concluding statement to the night’s focus on completing his dream, RZA pulled U-God back on stage to a “WU! TANG! WU! TANG!” chant that was the loudest and most passionate the crowd could give. The two just stood there, still and mighty like stone lions, nodding their heads and taking it in. Before he popped the last bottle and both started signing an endless barrage of items, RZA gave us a mission: to go out and talk to the people who weren’t there, saying “You tell them hip-hop is forever. And Wu-Tang is forever.”
Wu-Tang for life, mothafuckas.