Wu-Tang's The Genius Turns Back the Clock

In a No-Nonsense Show At the Shattuck Down Low, the GZA Wields Sharp Lyrical Skills

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The Shattuck Down Low seemed like a weird place to see the GZA last Friday. You would expect the Wu-Tang Clan's Genius to play somewhere a little bit bigger than a hole-in-the-wall club in Berkeley.

The GZA isn't exactly playing big-name venues these days though. A lot of his tour dates have been at small bars throughout the country. It's not like he needs a huge stage anyway. There's no Kanye-style stage production, no dancers, no backup singers, no band, not even a set list. The Genius walked onstage with a microphone and rapped over whatever Wu-Tang and GZA songs local DJ Kevvy Kev decided to spin. The whole thing felt sort of amateurish.

But the GZA isn't exactly an amateur. He's the fucking Genius, and a founding member of arguably one of the best hip-hop groups of all time. It's hard to be nostalgic about some golden age of hip-hop since most of the audience was in diapers when Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but as the GZA stood on a barely-raised stage ceaselessly hitting brilliant verse after brilliant verse with no hooks and no repeated lines in a room full of about 200 people, something felt profoundly real.

Hip-hop has definitely evolved since it spawned from urban streets in the late '70s. But in a rap world that has become centered around popping bottles in the club and unattainably glamorous lifestyles, the GZA trades the glitz for grit and refuses to let go of his roots.

Not that the show went off without any hitches-GZA's frustration was pretty visible when Kev's transitions didn't match his flow. On one of the rockier transitions, his eyes rolled as he looked back and told Kev to stop fucking up and follow the cues over the mic. GZA's a pro, but what can you expect from an unplanned set with an unfamiliar DJ?

Still, the spontaneity was all part of the magic. Not even he knew what he was going to rap next, and a smile flashed across his face when favorites like "Labels" and "Shadowboxin'" came on. Song after song became a fan sing-along, and his legendary flow was as poised and precise as ever when he and Kev were in sync.

GZA's not much of a hype guy though, and the look on his face was less than excited as he rapped 17-year-old verses. It was hard to tell if he was sick of hearing a room full of people chant "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuthing ta fuck wit'."

There's a good chance he isn't, considering the fact that he and the other remaining members of the Wu-Tang Clan have built a hip-hop dynasty to be proud of-one that takes pride in lyrical craftsmanship. The only time he stopped the music in his hour-long stream of continuous lyrical kung-fu was to restart a song because Kev's transition missed the intro to "4th Chamber." "These songs have skits, man. The people wanna hear 'em," he said, immediately met with a roar of approval from the audience. The opening acts and the audience all had love and respect for that dynasty; some were completely geeked out. They weren't there to see smoke and mirrors and flashing lights, just a guy with a mic and some beats.

It's easy to bemoan the death of hip-hop when the form has primarily become the glorification of empty lifestyles through idiotic catchphrases, but with rappers like GZA still around, hip-hop lives. Even if it's nestled in small clubs like the Down Low.


Enter the 36 chambers with Camden at [email protected]



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