Anyone who has seen the almighty Wu-Tang Clan live before would be forgiven for being a bit cynical about their sold out four-show run at the Sydney Opera House. As far back as I can remember, all nine living members of the Wu have never been on an Australian stage together. The closest we got was back in 2009, but even then members of Sunz of Man had to step in for the absence of U-God and Masta Killa.
It’s unheard of to get them all to make this trip, so the fact that the entire Clan plus the first born son of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the aptly named Young Dirty Bastard (or Boy Jones), were present this time around was more than enough to be happy about this show. Add to that fact that we got almost 30 of Wu’s toughest tracks, split into what could have easily been two separate sets – one, the entirety (well, 99%) of classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and two, a healthy dose of solo cuts from each member with some surprise inclusions scattered amongst the better known hits.
I’ve been both disappointed and uplifted by Wu-Tang in the past. In early 2009, I saw Ghostface Killah’s set descend into a lazy excuse to invite groups of girls on stage; earlier this year I saw Raekwon surprise fans in Austin, Texas, before performing two or three songs and leaving just as quickly; I’ve been ecstatic when Ghostface surprised a Sydney crowd by bringing out an unannounced Sheek Louch and performing Wu Block material a few years ago; and I’ve left completely satisfied with excellent solo sets from GZA and Raekwon in the past. Heading along to see Wu-Tang has always been a mixed bag for me, but I’ll forever be glad I went along this time.
After a rather indecisive and erratic warm-up set from DJ Mathematics, perched behind a raised cubic DJ booth in the center of the stage, Wu hit the stage 45 minutes after the scheduled start time. The wait was fine; although Mathematics cut his best choices off before they even started, he managed to fit everything from Jadakiss to M.O.P, keeping it New York heavy because, well, it’s a Wu-Tang show.
Four members were first, following an eerie introduction that had various interviews with Wu-Tang over the years dubbed over the piano melody from horror classic Candyman. RZA’s unmistakable voice rang out first, his presence following the trailer of his new film Cut Throat City. Ghostface, Raekwon, and Inspectah Deck quickly followed: all the necessary ingredients for raucous set-opener “Bring Da Ruckus”. “Shame on a Ni**a” came second, ushering in Young Dirty Bastard and the endlessly charismatic Method Man. By the time “Clan in Da Front” and “Wu Tang: 7th Chamber” hit, U-God, Masta Killa and GZA all had added their considerable voices to the dense soundscape. But this wasn’t the case of nine men shouting over one another. They are all so incredibly in-sync as a group, and can recite each others verses on command (reiterated every time you see one of them solo), that they know when to complement each other and, most importantly, when to step back.
Each emcee on stage would deliver their respective verse with confidence and power, though they weren’t all equal when it came to presence. Ghostface seemed to slink on into the background, as well as RZA, when it wasn’t their turn to step up to the mic, while on the flip Inspectah Deck, Raekwon and Method Man commanded from beginning to end.
The only member yet to appear was Cappadonna, who rushed out triumphantly for a breathless, never-missed-a-beat performance of his verse from Ghostface’s “Winter Warz” – the only non-36 Chambers cut in the first half of the set. From there it was even wilder, with all ten emcees on stage mirroring the crowds energy, charging into the album’s “Wu-Tang Sword” side with tough tracks like “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” and “Protect Ya Neck”.
The lyrical density of 36 Chambers had come across brilliantly. When all of them are together, the dynamics which have made Wu-Tang such a formidable force in the hip hop industry for over two decades is clear and effective. And that carried on over to the second half of the show, where those deft group dynamics would elevate solo cuts like “Bring the Pain” and “Glaciers of Ice” (a surprising, but welcome, inclusion from Only Built from Cuban Linx, over more obvious choices like “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and “Criminology”).
Though most of these cuts were shortened here and there, at no point in the set did it feel like we were being ripped off with the dreaded medley-style. Even when Young Dirty Bastard got to charge through three of his father’s biggest hits – “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, “Brooklyn Zoo” (!!!) and “Got Your Money” – nothing felt cheapened or dumbed down. As fans, we were getting so much value that even if there were slip ups, we wouldn’t have cared. Hell, even the fact that one of the speakers sounded like it had blown didn’t take away from the energy, atmosphere and toughness that Wu-Tang displayed as a united front.
To hammer home the message that this tour, and anniversary, was special to them, they even bought out legendary Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind who was instrumental throughout their career as the Wu-Tang Clan and as solo artists. With a celebration like that, of course there was determination and dedication; these legendary emcees were laser focused on giving us the Wu show Sydney has always wanted (needed – especially given the depressing fact that people actually paid money to see the minstrel show that is Bhad Bhabie this week), and they did exactly that.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE
Cut Throat City Trailer
Bring da Ruckus
Shame on a Nigga
Clan in da Front
Wu Tang: 7th Chamber
Can It All Be So Simple
Da Mystery of Chessboxin’
Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck With
Protect Ya Neck
Duel of the Iron Mic
Mary Jane (Rick James Cover)
All I Need
Glaciers of Ice
Uzi (Pinky Ring)
Bring the Pain
Shimmy Shimmy Ya/Brooklyn Zoo/Got Your Money
Feature image by Prudence Upton.