Is the Wu-Tang Clan something to [mess] with?
Obviously not. That was made abundantly clear on Thursday night at Franklin Music Hall (the music venue formerly known as the Electric Factory) where the Staten Island hip-hop collective performed in all its oversize glory.
To what did Philadelphia owe the distinct honor and pleasure of witnessing a rare gathering of the complete complement of the Wu, all the way from star-quality leaders RZA, Method Man, and Ghostface Killah down to unsung heroes Cappadonna and U-God?
Two things: 2019, or actually late 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The group’s raucous, up-from-the-underground debut album is a classic of the genre that forced its way into the mainstream with a not-to-be-denied burst of creative energy that expanded hip-hop’s conceptual parameters while demonstrating fans' undying appetite for music from the streets.
And also, it turns out, the Wu-Tang have always regarded Philadelphia as a home away from Shaolin, as they renamed their native New York borough, in keeping with the martial arts mythology in which band members’ rap superhero personas grew out of warrior legends from China’s Yuan Dynasty.
RZA, the group’s musical and epistemological mastermind born Robert Diggs, made that point repeatedly. Back in the day, when Wu-Tang was getting off the ground, Philadelphia was the second biggest market for the group after New York. In the group’s unique way of doing things, there have only been a total of four shows on the books to mark a quarter century of Enter The Wu-Tang: opening night and again Friday at the Franklin, followed by Saturday and Sunday gigs at Terminal 5 in Manhattan. (That’ll be followed by a short European jaunt with Public Enemy and De La Soul, deemed the Gods of Rap tour).
On Thursday, the headlining set was preceded by an hour-plus DJ set that had the racially diverse, mostly male packed house of old heads happily bobbing along to Biggie Smalls and Kurtis Blow records until energy started to flag and the crowd collectively started to wonder where the Wu was.
Then, shortly after 10 p.m., RZA walked out with a bottle of celebratory champagne. And with the aid of Ghostface, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and GZA, the crew leaped into “Bring Da Ruckus,” Enter The Wu-Tang’s opening track that served as a statement of purpose and worked as a promise kept on Thursday night, as Inspectah Deck vowed to “verbally assault with the tongue … and shot your knot like a stun gun.”
What followed was an hour and 45 minutes of something the Wu-Tang are seasoned practitioners of: controlled chaos.
Yes, there were often as many as 12 people on stage, including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s son Young Dirty Bastard, unofficial member Mathematics handling DJ duties and gray eminence Popa Wu, who imparted words of wisdom to the crowd: “Don’t let anyone take your mind away from you. What you love is what you love.”
A Wu-Tang show feels anything but choreographed, but Thursday’s performance was nonetheless a smooth-running operation. You sometimes wish that the members were wearing name tags so it would be clearer who’s rapping when, but considering how much talent is assembled on stage, it’s remarkable how effortlessly the Wu ran, with momentum rarely flagging.
It’s tempting to say that the Wu-Tang are like a family, but that cliché doesn’t really fit, because families rarely get along with this little dysfunction. Maybe the key to their success is that they don’t get together that often.
Popa Wu also railed against the evils of cell phones, but the crowd wasn’t paying him much mind. Mobile devices were held high throughout the set, as Enter The Wu-Tang was performed in its entirety more or less in order, and fans were fixated on capturing the historic moment.
Which meant they caught Raekwon on camera on “Protect Ya Neck” making it clear that he’s the “rap assassinator, rhymes rugged and built like Schwarzenegger.” And also Method Man convincingly explaining the various ways that “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F- Wit” while the crowd held W-shaped fingers in the air.
More than any of his crew members, Meth serves as both a charismatic, powerful-voiced MC and group hype man, insisting that the crowd match the Wu’s energy by shaming them with the info that “the average age on stage is 48.”
He also expressed his preference for Carson Wentz over Nick Foles, and seemed eminently sensible in comparison to the supposed Zen master RZA, who handed a bottle of Grey Goose vodka into the crowd for otherwise well-baked audience members to pass around. Meth wasn’t sure that was such a good idea: “That’s a weapon,” he cautioned, only half joking.
After 36 Chambers was complete, the group carried on with later Wu material, and expressed camaraderie as they made their way through highlights of group members' solo careers: Raekwon’s “Ice Cream,” Method Man’s “Bring the Pain,” and YDB doing a respectable job on ODB’s “Got Your Money.”
Considering the momentous occasion, the show was notably unslick in its packaging: A video screen showed various permutations of the bat signal-like Wu logo, the words “Hip” and “Hop” and “Strong” and “Weak” lit up on either side of the stage.
That not-a-big-production style is thankfully in keeping with the group’s unvarnished aesthetic. The Wu-Tang special effect is their ability to work as a collective artistic organism. “It’s been a long time since you saw the Wu-Tang Clan all together at once,” is how Method Man put it in a not-idle boast. “No additives. No preservatives. Just pure hip-hop.”