Wu-Legends: GZA/Genius, Ghostface Killah & Raekwon

Newport Leisure Centre

On a mere 3 date UK tour, Newport should have felt honoured to play host to the so-called ‘Wu-Legends’, a collective that comprised a third of the original 9 Hip Hop game-changers the Wu-Tang Clan, who nearly 20 years ago dropped one of the all-time classic rap albums in Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

Recounting the tumultuous history of this group, with its ups and downs, in-fighting, crimes, tragedies and unexplained absences (even on this night the advertised Method Man was M.I.A.) is such a byzantine task it could comprise a GCSE History Module all on its own, and that’s not even counting the sprawling amount of Wu related progeny that the Wu’s musical mastermind, RZA, managed to spawn: come and go groups such as Killarmy, Sunz of Man and secondary generation Wu members such as Killah Priest and Cappadonna all marched under the Wu-Tang banner which shows just how productive and – more importantly – entrepreneurial the Wu-Tang Clan were in the 90s. These men from the hard streets of Staten Island, NY weren’t just a hip-hop collective but an empire, and to some of their fans, a religion. Only stars like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre come close to what the Wu did.

Fast forward to mid 2012, and all of us old enough to know better are still in thrall to the Wu’s blending of New York gangster rap with Eastern Kung Fu philosophy. ‘Wu-Legends’ is a nostalgia act all the way: it’s the rap equivalent of the Rolling Stones, in that all 3 artists are still producing new (and some great) music, with Ghostface Killah touring the world on the back of his rejuvenated career as a star on rap’s most star-studded label: Def Jam. But the 3 MCs present were more than willing to give the masses the songs on which their legends were built. No ‘And now it’s time for a new one’ groans at this gig.

Despite the no-show of what most would consider Wu’s biggest star in Method Man, the true Wu-heads knew that the 3 we did get were the Clan’s best lyricists who had created the best solo albums in the group’s capacious catalogue.  Raekwon, with co-star Ghostface dropped rap’s best equivalent of Brian De Palma’s Scarface in ‘Only Built For Cuban Linx’ and GZA’s ‘Liquid Swords’ created rap’s only Gold-selling MENSA application, proving that his alternative moniker of The Genius was, while bold, completely justified.

So in effect, the 3 could have come on stage to wave to the crowd and most would think it £30 well spent just to tick seeing these guys live off their bucket list. (Any chance of seeing the full 9 man line-up died with Ol’ Dirty Bastard in late 2004, and GZA has claimed that acrimony within the group has put paid to seeing any reunion in the future.)

And it was lucky that they were in such good graces with the crowd, as lesser mortals would have been booed off stage for trying to get the crowd to chant ‘Bristol!’ which apparently they not only thought was in Wales but also that Newport was a district of it. But they were immediately forgiven for this Spinal Tap moment as, this small misstep aside, the Wu-Legends didn’t disappoint. The fact we got over an hour’s worth of near-legendary tracks, and a few forgotten gems as well was extremely welcome considering rap’s well-earned reputation for under-delivering live. Everyone was jumping, many rapping along to every single word, proving that this is a rap group so beloved that its fans quote at length from their repertoire like they were Shakespeare soliloquies.

The set was diverse, and they liberally co-opted signature numbers from the other band members, proving in the process that there was a fourth Clan member that was integral to the night’s success, despite him not being there in person. He is RZA, the architect for a hip-hop sound so distinctive that when the band released their first single they immediately changed the face of the entire genre. His particular brand of hip-hop sounds so dusty, broken and murky that it is bereft of any sense of production sheen, and sounds completely raw and menacing; the perfect backdrop for these dark stories of the New York projects. It was that sound, more than anything else, that captured the imagination of rap fans, and this distinctive production method allowed the MCs on stage to take any of his productions  from any one of the band’s or the members solo albums and create a cohesive set from which it is hard to pick a highlight.

3 songs were of particular note, though – firstly GZA emerging from the wings about 10 minutes after Raekwon and Ghostface had kicked proceedings off to give a welcome surprise rendition of his greatest tune ‘Liquid Swords’. Then there was ‘Protect Ya Neck’, the tune that started it all those years ago, which saw two fans plucked from the audience to show off their skills in impersonating missing Clan members Method Man and the fallen Ol’ Dirty Bastard. To their credit, the two amateur MCs excelled, not only knowing the words, but performing the mannerisms too. On this night, these anonymous fans represented Newport well which drew praise from their idols, something their friends will never hear the end of.

And finally the Wu-Legends took their leave with the Wu-Tang’s perennial set closer. Usually a band ends their set with their most popular record, but with the Wu deciding on just one would be pointless, so instead they end their sets with the song that most sums up their legacy: Triumph.