Sunday, April 15, 2007

How the GZA Grew Organically

Sun, Apr 15, 2007 at 5:05 PM

gza.JPG Last night's GZA and Killah Priest show at Oakland's 2232 MLK club revealed something about the staying power of hip-hop: namely, that if a medium isn't allowed to grow organically, you'll eventually grow out of it. The median age at this show was, admittedly, several years older than you'd expect to find on Saturday night at a funky arts warehouse. Still, attendance was a lot sparser than it should have been, capping off at roughly a hundred. This was only the second time that a member of New York's much-exalted Wu-Tang Clan graced a hip-hop venue in Oakland, and last year's show -- in which Killah Priest performed by himself, for an equally nonexistent audience -- definitely paled in comparison. So everyone remembers, at least. Still, those who did make it kept their spirits up. Recent improvements at 2232 -- including a new sound system and disco ball -- made the show seem more like an actual spectacle, and club manager Andrew Jones was all a-tizzy discussing plans to expand downstairs, adding a gallery and performing arts space, and essentially resurrecting the oft-mourned Oakland Box Theatre that used to live in the space now occupied by Uptown Nightclub.

The night kicked off with DJ Sokrates spinning a seamless mix of old-school backpacker beats (plus one hyphy song by the Team), which inspired one girl in the audience to do a gawkish interpretive dance, combining jerky pirouettes with extravagant arm movements. Everyone else sat in the booths and waited for something really great to happen.

No dice. The opening act was rap trio Ironfist, comprising three guys without visible tattoos whose lyrics referenced OGs, gangstas, and "back in the day." One of them even mentioned something about being 27 years old and a low-life, even though none of them looked a day older than fifteen. While some audience members scratched their heads at the implausible nature of these claims, others danced approvingly. The Ironfist emcees seemed satisfied, closing out their set with some kind of charming, self-deprecating statement, in which they referred to themselves as "dirty south boys just trying to make it over here in the Bay." Definitely a crowd pleaser.

Then came emcee Nac One, who rapped about four songs (one too many, really), clad in what appeared to be a Spider-Man shirt. He said he's been in the game since 1988. Perhaps this show was poised to be the high point in his career. The last opener, 2232-affiliated Delinquent Monastery Crew , performed a rap that included the line tricks are for kids. Two out of three Delinquents wore stunna shades.

But once GZA and Killah Priest came on, the show really started to pop off. Priest, who wore an orange jacket over a Che Guevara T-shirt, livened the crowd with "Fake Emcee" off his Heavy Mental album, and followed with "AIDS" and "When I'm Writing" off Black August , which inspired the afforementioned interpretive dancer to jump onstage and get down with her bad self. Other Wu-Tang affiliates flanked the stage like handsome sentinels, bobbing their heads and folding their arms across their chests. When GZA got onstage around 12:15 a.m. -- insisting that, incidentally, he "don't need no fuckin' intro" -- he smiled at the dancer (who'd thankfully quit the stage by then, but still would not be stopped), and even complimented her. "You got the coolest motherfuckin' dance. It's like that hip-hop-pop-rock-urban shit." GZA said he recognized traces of that dance from a Flintstones episode. At that point she bashfully stepped away from the stage, but proceeded to dance harder. She was soon joined by two friends with equally cool motherfuckin' dance moves.

It was, unquestionably, an intimate show. Intimate enough to glimpse the tatoos on Killah Priest's forearms, which included a bird of prey. Intimate enough to see GZA, who sipped beer between his verses, step aside at one point to blow his nose and type something into what looked like a BlackBerry. The tightest emcee in the game looked a little bored that night, even when he launched into numbers from Liquid Swords , which caused some audience members to all but piss their pants with excitement. GZA kept taking the crowd's temperature and asking if everyone was having fun, and frequently cut songs off so that he and Priest could rap a cappella, which may have been his way of staying awake. Towards the end of the show, GZA lost his train of thought in the middle of a rap monologue about a man preparing to jump from a sixth-story window. "Hold up, hold up," he said. "How that go?"

But the crowd forgave him. DJ Sokrates said he'd first heard most of these songs on a mixtape he'd gotten in eighth grade, and to hear them performed live in Oakland was nothing short of amazing. Many fans had committed GZA's whole oeuvre to memory, and rapped along with him the entire night. And the interpretive dancer kept going, even through the hookless a cappella numbers, which didn't exactly swing.

The GZA may represent a nostalgia-based medium. But at least he's inspiring some innovations. In dance, that is. Rachel Swan

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