His posse usually refers to Judge Bill Gibron as Ol' Dirty Sweatsocks.
"I went and bought me an outfit today that costed me a lot of money today. Ya know what I mean? Cause I thought Wu-Tang was gonna win. I don't know how y'all see it, but when it comes to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children. Ya know what I mean? Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best! Okay, I want you to know that this is ODB and I love you all. Peace!"—Ol' Dirty Bastard interrupting Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech at the 1998 Grammy Awards
It's Friday, November 12, 2004. The Wu-Tang Clan, that seminal rap act from the '90s that helped redefined both the genre and the industry end of hip-hop, are scheduled to perform in New Jersey. It will be the second time in a year that the divergent personalities that make up this MC supergroup—RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, and U-God—will be on stage together. Sadly, the entire group is not present. Russell Jones, a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus, a.k.a. Osiris, a.k.a. ODB/Ol' Dirty Bastard, one of the outfit's most recognizable names, faces, and performers, has failed to make the gig. Coming to town for the show, as well as to help the Clan work on their new album, his flight was unfortunately delayed. And so, the show is without its clown prince of rap.
In hindsight, it seems like an omen. Less than 24 hours later, Dirty would collapse in the studio and be pronounced dead. He was only 35 years old. With his passing, the original lineup of the legendary crew, a gang of ghetto superstars with a name based in the most metaphysical of the martial arts (Wu-Tang refers to an "internal" system of kung fu that focuses on structural and energetic development over strength and dexterity—quite fitting, actually) and a belief in the devastating power of their patter, was gone forever.
Which is what makes the DVD release of Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 2, a live concert performance from July 17, 2004, in San Bernadino, California all the more significant. It was the first reunion of all the original members since a strange appearance in 2000 when a then-fugitive ODB appeared onstage in front of several dozen members of New York's finest. It signaled a hoped-for rebirth for fans of the original Clan lineup, and a chance to see one of the greatest acts in the history of hip-hop take back both the stage and the circumstances that they helped create. No one could have envisioned that it would be the swan song for the full Wu-Tang, the end of a very important era in urban entertainment. There is no doubt the group will soldier on, and like most rappers in the great beyond, Dirty is destined to have a few more CDs/DVDs in his posthumous career catalog. But something will always be missing.
Presented as an overview of the Clan's combined efforts, and of the multitude of solo albums and side projects the members have made over the last decade, this ultra-high energy showcase is a sensational—and very special—presentation of the Wu in their prime. The sonic booms bombarding the packed SoCal house consist of the following 34(?) classic chambers:
• "Bring Da Ruckus": from the album Enter the
Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
There you have it—34 tracks in 90-plus minutes (and you thought the Ramones could stuff a set list). There are definite positives and negatives to such a retrospective approach. On the one hand, everyone is made happy as their favorite juke joint is probably part of the extensive overview. Each member of the group gets a shot at a symbolic solo shout-out, and the overall feeling of the Wu-Tang ideal of a familial force is reestablished. On the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum, many of the powerhouse numbers get edited down and more or less shortchanged to fit the format. This means that instead of consisting of 34 full out forces of nature, Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 2 occasionally feels like a Wu-Tang "Stars on 45" (for those of you who don't understand that reference, consider yourself lucky). This is medley, not message-making, and the segmented sense grows disturbing after a while.
Granted it must be tough to take the stage, flash your crew signs, and strut and fret, let alone rattle off reams of complicated rhymes. And the Wu-Tang Clan aren't doing anything other rappers haven't utilized to increase their fan's buck bang (the recently reviewed Busta Rhymes: Everything Remains Raw proves this out). Somehow, in the rap arena, this kind of sound clip conceit is perfectly acceptable, and for the most part, it is not as irritating as other issues in the performance (the lack of a true stage "show," the overabundance of posse onstage at any given time). Still, it would have been nice to hear several of the classic Wu tracks in their entirety, not edited to fit some sort of short-attention-span parameters.
All minor misgivings aside however, there is no denying the energy and vibrance of the Clan as a live act. Taking the arena like rebels during a revolution, they are masters of crowd manipulation, and completely understand how to keep the show flowing and fresh. They pull off their complicated couplets with effortless skill, and cover all the career bases with ever-shifting sound and communication emphasis. There are several standout aspects of the Wu's music, aside from their well-crafted ghetto poetry, filled with martial arts movie imagery and statements of power and providence. RZA, the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang "sound," avoids samples and overtly lavish production to strip the rap backing down to some street beat basics. Heavily keyboard/piano driven and very dark, the Clan's aural attributes overflow with dread and depression, majesty and menace. The pounding of the staccato hip-hop punch matches well with the rapid-fire finesse of the verbal volleys, turning every track into a statement of respect and revolt.
Since RZA was also responsible for almost all the Wu-Tang solo shots, there is a consistency to the concert that many may mistake as repetitive. But if one pays close attention to the sonics, one can hear RZA manipulating and reimagining his style, turning it at times both funny and furious. While the Wu-Tang Clan gel well together as multi-MCs working incredibly complex rhyme schemes, there are some obvious standouts. Any opportunity to watch Method Man or ODB manifest their malfeasant magic on the crowd is automatically worth the price of admission, yet the rest of the crew—especially GZA and Ghostface Killah—redeem themselves nicely. In group mode, the individual elements all merge together to create an incredible sense of intricacy, and the frequent use of curse words only heightens, not hampers, the impact. Though far from being a Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense kind of statement, Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 2 will be, for many, the final flash of brilliance for this incredibly important group.
Visually, the concert is a collection of several video formats (analog to digital, handheld to locked-down), and the mixed media mentality is flawlessly reconfigured to the DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image allows us to take in the scope of the show while equally enjoying some interesting compositions and framing. The lack of noticeable defects, combined with detailed clarity and excellent color correction, allows us the feeling that we are actually in attendance. So does the dynamic Dolby Digital Stereo mix. Personally supervised by RZA himself, the music here is atmospheric and angry, pulsating through your home theater system with subwoofer wonder. Unlike some rap concerts that seem to bury the vocals in a deluge of sonic sludge, the Wu-Tang voices are upfront and easily understandable. A fully immersive 5.1 track is also included and goes a long way to sell the overall spectacle of a Wu-Tang show. There is depth and drama in this channel challenging presentation, with a true feeling of being part of the action. While some may complain that the music plays second fiddle to the fantastic rap skills of the crew, the auditory aspects of this DVD presentation are amazing.
Of the limited extras here, the ability to watch the concert with or without interview footage is an excellent added feature. Those not interested in hearing what the band has to say outside the stage setting can easily avoid the discussions and move on to the music. However, you will be missing a great deal of interesting historical and biographical material if you pass on the solo sit-downs (sadly, ODB is not interviewed). Otherwise, the rest of the bonuses are basic. We get a couple of videos (for two newer solo songs, not old standbys), an ad for Wu-Tang merchandise, and a commercial for the DVD. Not necessarily a wealth of contextual goodies. Only the music-alone mechanism warrants serious consideration as something special.
At some point, every band ends. No group lasts forever, at least not in personnel or popularity. Thanks to Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 2, we get a chance to see the Wu-Tang Clan as they were, and as they will always be remembered. Unfortunately, this excellent concert DVD may be overshadowed by the sad events of November 13, 2004. Indeed, while we say "Rest in Peace" to Russell Jones, his passing may also be the death knell for one of the most influential rap acts of all time. If you want to see what made the Wu-Tang Clan such significant contributors to hip-hop, check out this DVD. You won't be disappointed.
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