Every music fan has a handful of albums that were epiphanies to them, recordings that forever influence their listening habits, their expectations of art and to a certain extent, their lives. "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers" is one of mine. Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut showed me that music can be more than catchy, or beautiful, or loud, that it can possess an unquantifiable energy that makes the world beyond your headphones fall away.
It's apropos that the Staten Island crew took its name from a kung-fu movie, because "36 Chambers" possessed a violent grace unlike anything before or since. De facto bandleader RZA crafted drum sounds that sounded like bones cracking, and all nine MCs rapped over them like their lives depended on it. While Wu-Tang has since released several great albums along with some astounding solo projects, it hasn't quite been able to recapture that raw, mood-altering vibe of its debut.
On record, at least. Because during its show the day after Christmas at the Town Ballroom, the legendary collective possessed more energy than artists half its age.
This was my first time seeing the group live, and I was disappointed to learn that Ghostface Killah and Raekwon (two of the finest lyricists in hip-hop, let alone the Wu) wouldn't be performing. But when the truncated group took the stage and popped off one "36 Chambers" classic after another, it was all I'd hoped for -- a stage crammed with talented rappers, ranging around and trading couplets, feeding off the delirium of the sold-out crowd.
No group since Duke Ellington's has had a deeper bench. The absence of Ghostface and Raekwon, as well as the whacked genius Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004, meant Wu-Tang was down three one-of-a-kind artists. It didn't matter, thanks to Inspectah Deck's commanding baritone, RZA's wild, mush-mouthed rants, Cappadonna's steady syncopation and, most especially, Method Man's infectious exuberance.
The charismatic, gravelly voiced rapper is one of Wu-Tang's biggest stars for good reason. On Monday, the 40-year-old more than made up for the absence of his peers, flailing around the stage, spewing water, crowd-surfing, grinning mischievously all the while.
The set pretty much went chronologically. The "36 Chambers" section segued into a suite of tunes from the 1997 double LP "Wu-Tang Forever," with a lone cut from 2000's "The W" thrown in -- the groove-happy "Gravel Pit." A tribute to ODB brought down the house, with the crowd raising lighters and cellphones in the air before moshing to the raucous "Brooklyn Zoo."
The venue was insane throughout, with people rattling railings, throwing up W signs and generally behaving as if their minds were melting. That ever-elusive energy was right there on stage, which explained it all.
"Hip-hop is missing fun," Method Man pontificated late in the set. "Since when are the hip-hop fans too cool to jump?" A torrid "Protect Ya Neck" ensued, and we all jumped like kangaroos.
When it was all over, and the house lights came on, Method Man remained on stage. He gave his water bottles, headwear and towel to the fans. He exhorted them to chant "Wu-Tang." He smiled like a man who wouldn't rather be doing anything else. I knew I wouldn't leave until he did.
Monday night in the Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.