Live: RZA

While I wouldn’t say that my expectations were particularly high for RZA’s July 5 show at Webster Hall, even someone with no idea of the greatness of the Wu would be pretty disappointed. Admittedly, I haven’t been to many hip hop concerts. There was Pharoahe Monch and the Teriyaki Boyz back in September, which was supposed to be headlined by MF Doom. I think he was planning on carrying out an elaborate hoax, sending in a look-a-like who would wear his mask and make a poor attempt at lip syncing with his raps. As far as I can tell the concert promoters wouldn’t let Bizarro Doom up on stage and Rakim showed up instead, albeit four or so hours after the show began, although I was too tipsy to really care by that point. Other than that I haven’t seen much hip hop performed live, although Saul Williams’ performance at my school this past year might qualify.

Accepting that I might not know what I’m talking about, RZA’s show was real weak. It opened with a performance by Stone Mecca who were the main culprits. The LA based group plays R&B and soul style music live which should be reason for encouragement enough. Sadly they failed to deliver. Other than performing a powerful sounding live rendition of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money,” they had a pretty bad sound up on stage. Granted technical difficulties were partly to blame. One of the amps was producing feedback for the first few songs of their set and it took some time for one of the Webster Hall techie guys to finally fix it. All the same the voice they used on their keyboards had a corny, Sam Ash-keyboard-section flavor and it always prevented the other instruments from blending together to form anything effectively emotive.

None of these flaws are unforgivable of course. The vocals and lyrics, however, were. I don’t think anyone in the audience was really feeling it. Their back up singers were mediocre and far too often one of them would decide to come to the fore and sing-talk to the audience about ‘our love,’ or something just as embarassingly assuming and personal. Of course the audience was made up mostly of the cargo shorts wearing high school stoner dude-bro sect with a handful of macho guidos thrown in for variety. Their response was always “WU!!! WU!!! WU-TANG CLAN!!!” which all the performers that night readily co-opted. It was as though simply invoking the audience to remember that one of the performers there that night was affiliated with the Wu was enough to deceive them into accepting it as Wu-Tang Clan material even though it was something else entirely. This continued on throughout Stone Mecca’s set, until, finally, a DJ came up and played an amazing set. One of the few exciting moments that night came when he mixed mixed the vocals from Nique La Police (scene taken from the excellent La Haine) into one of the most intense loops I’ve ever heard.

The DJ did his thing and I forgave the opening act for being the opening act. My excitement began to mount as I waited for RZA’s set. The turntablism I was then enjoying got me all excited for bad-ass samples and beats to make your body move. When he cleared off I was taken aback–Stone Mecca was coming back onto the stage, plus one member: RZA himself.

I stood in denial through the first couple of songs. Finally it dawned on me that this would be the show. RZA’s not much of a rapper. In fact, I always found his raps on Wu tracks to be comically bad, but endearingly so. He does what most producers-turned-poor-MC’s do, taking on a highly stylized delivery that gives them the artistic license to bend and fumble any two words together so that they rhyme. Kanye West is notorious for doing this. I always loved his tendency towards verbosity, a rare thing in mainstream rap. Any ‘r’ sound gets turned into an ‘ah’ or an ‘eh’ or even an ‘uh,’ so that he raps “puhpendikulah to da squeh, we stand bold like fleh, escape from yo dragon leah, in patikulah,” making sure to throw in wordy bits like “cerebral cortex” and “right ventricle.”  I like that. He’s doing something different, I think.

And I can’t help but think that that’s what he was trying to do that night, but I wasn’t feeling it. It was some faux-soul balladry that he was definitely not able to deliver the goods on. I mean, producers can try to rap, and it’s cool, you cut them a little slack, but singing? That’s completely different territory. After almost half a dozen tunes that all carried the same motivational theme, my friend and I gave up and retreated.

I don’t know what to think in retropect. Was that a hip hop concert? Or was RZA staking out new territory, if unsuccessfully? I’d like to know what the two hundred or so mall rat psuedo thugs from Jersey thought… I’m going to reserve any judgments on RZA and co. until I can see them live and together (minus the great, late, ODB, RIP). Of course, Ghostface alone would be a fine substitute. I know he wouldn’t let me down.

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