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Wu-Tang Clan: Disciples Of The 36 Chambers
This review was written and published one day before the passing of Russell Jones, A.K.A The Ol Dirty Bastard. I'm sad that he never got a chance to get his career together again and create another album as brilliant as the first Wu-Tang Clan album and his first two solo releases. I hope this troubled but exciting performer finally has a chance to rest now.
Arriving on the scene at a time when the West Coast was delivering the most popular hip-hop, Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan hit hard. Their debut album "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" delivered shockingly spare music and a round-table of powerful vocal performances from a stable of nine MCs, including quite a few unique and memorable rappers like boisterous Method Man, lyrically complex GZA, rough-and-tumble Raekwon, and wild-and-crazy Ol Dirty Bastard.
Thanks to a groundbreaking record contract, the Clan members were free to pursue solo contracts while still recording together under their group name. This led to a few classic albums and a lot of forgettable ones. Still, ten years later the best of their work sounds up-to-date even if they've fallen a little bit off the radar (except for producer RZA, whose Kill Bill and Ghost Dog soundtracks have brought him a whole new career.)
The Wu-Tang clan were known for their live-wire concerts early on (although my own attempts to see them were mostly disasters thanks to poorly-planned club shows that I don't feel like talking about) so it only makes sense that their attempt to get back in the spotlight would center around a live release. Disciples of the 36 Chambers is an interesting release that blends pseudo-documentary and concert. (The show took place on July 17th, 2004 in San Bernadino, California.)
There are two ways to watch Disciples: As a concert only or punctuated with interviews. Either way is pretty cool. The interviews are fun since the Wu-Tang members don't always say what you expect them to say: Early on RZA expounds on the influence martial arts have had on the direction of the band only to be followed by U-God saying that he couldn't care less about martial arts.
It's this lack of cohesiveness that made the diverse styles of the Clan seem so unique. And, while certainly not the best live show ever recorded, Disciples does a nice job of getting the manic quality of a Wu show down. The show starts with a flurry of hits off the first album, including "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," "Clan in Da Front." "C.R.E.A.M.," and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' Ta Fuck Wit." This is a high-energy sequence, made extra fun by the energetic bounce of some of the Clan members.
What follows is a clever selection of tracks from other Wu-Tang albums and various Clan-related solo albums. From GZA's excellent "Liquid Swords" are the title track and "Duel of the Iron Mic," two unsympathetic boast tracks that deliver live. From Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" (which heavily featured Ghostface) comes "Incarcerated Scarfaces" and "Criminology," two tracks with killer hooks and samples. Method Man performs the spare "Bring the Pain" off "Tical" and "M.E.T.H.O.D. Man" off "Enter the Wu Tang," which he uses as an opportunity to head out into the crowd. Ol Dirty Bastard's incredible first solo album is represented by "Brooklyn Zoo" and "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," both amazing (and amazingly weird) tracks.
With nine regular members of the band, the question of a live show is how well they can collaborate. In this performance, they do quite well, finishing each other's sentences while still emphasizing certain MCs on certain cuts. It's not always smooth (and there are still way too many extra people on stage, as is the case at most hip-hop shows today) and they do give in to the tendency in hip-hop to just do bits and pieces of songs. Few songs are performed in their entirety, with most consisting of little more than a verse and a chorus. (The Clan's first single "Bring Da Ruckus" only really serves as music to walk onstage by, which is disappointing.)
And they don't have the knowledge of how to structure a show for maximum dramatic impact: It's just hit-hit-hit-hit with no organic flow: Perhaps a break about 3/4 of the way through with some of the excellent ballads the members have recorded (like "You're All I Need" and "All That I Got is You," neither of which is performed) would have made the show seem more dynamic, instead of being more like a punk show that tends to run out of steam at times.
Still, it's basically a good show. But even in this wild crew some members perform consistently better than others. Method Man is his usual bouncy self, growing more and more lively as the show goes on. U-God is surprisingly spry for one of the less well-known guys. Masta Killer stands out as delivering smooth rhymes. And Ghostface and Raekwon pace the stage like tigers in a cage, snarling their verses. The surprise star here, however, is RZA, who seems really excited to be on-stage and gives the most live performance. Never the most talented rapper in the group, RZA has developed an interesting, scratchy-lisp of a style and, more than most of the rest, seems to really want to perform.
With a group this big there are bound to be some less-than-stellar performances. GZA, who might be the best lyricist in the group, shows the same problem he has on his recorded performances: He starts out strong and then seems to lose interest and eventually just peters out. Inspectah Deck does a good job, although he doesn't draw much attention to himself.
And the story with Ol Dirty Bastard is, of course, more complicated. The group wild-man, who has had serious problems over the last few years, he seems overly medicated here, alternating between standing comatose at the back of the stage and sitting slumped on a monitor. When it's his turn to rap he does a good job but it isn't until well into the show that he starts waking up and offers his trademark croons during other parts of songs. It's quite a welcome change when he starts in with his "Ohhhhhh-oooooohhhh-ohhhhhh"s late in the game and, even then, it's good to see him back.
There are some other performers on the bill, although most will be confounded by who they are. The only credited guest is Cappadonna, a frequent collaborator in the Raekwon-Ghostface clique. Redman also makes an uncredited appearance during Method Man's "Da Rockwilder" and does a little stagediving of his own. (Meth and Red, who've now collaborated on stage, record, TV and film, are a great pair. Their own shows are always live-wire acts.)
But for the most part the emphasis is on the Wu who prove here that they've still got plenty of vitality. If they can streamline their efforts and put together a really exciting, raw group album then they may reclaim the spotlight.
The non-anamorphic video is quite nice, with sharp images and bright, vibrant colors (the better to sell their Wu Wear jerseys by, I'd imagine.) The editing is fast paced and helps up the energy level when the performers lag.
Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 are included. They are both fine mixes, with the 5.1 adding definition to the sounds. But for many of the songs the backing tracks are afterthoughts (they're tight on record but drowned out by the cacophony of voices here) and the rappers' microphones are stressed out. This isn't audiophile sound, thanks to tough source material, but either audio track should do nicely for getting that live feel.
The only real extras are a couple of music videos. When I saw the button for this section I got giddy: Would the classic videos all be on here? Alas, no. Only Masta Killa's "Old Man" and RZA's "Chi Kung." However, both of these recent videos turned out to be keepers: The former for its pumped up music and hysterical Sanford and Son tribute (and Ol Dirty's return-to-form crooning) and the latter for RZA's chop-socky wackiness and croaking-vocals.
There are some pathetic additional extras: Commercials for the DVD you're already watching and a merchandising section that consists of a snapshot of Raekwon wearing a Wu Wear jacket and an illegible ad for a Wu-Tang's Greatest Hits CD.
Not necessarily a landmark night for music, the Wu-Tang reunion concert has some fun and high energy moments. Fans of the Wu will likely enjoy seeing the guys sweating and working but musically it will probably make them want to go back and throw the best albums on again.