Trust me, white people wrote about black people before we wrote about Barack Obama. It just seems like more of a “thing” now. Which is weird, because we’re supposedly in the “post-race” era, where you can’t even see color unless you’re Republican or something. But evidently, us journalists simply can’t help ourselves.
Last week, in Slate, Jonah Weiner wrote one of those hopelessly academic but helplessly interesting pop culture histories, this time on the “Afronaut.” It was about how black rappers like Kanye and Lil’ Wayne are part of a black cultural tradition of using outer space as a metaphor for psychological escapism and racial pride. Then this morning, my white boss sent me a think-piece review of the hip-hop movie The Wackness in the New York Observer. The writer, one J. Gabriel Boylan, used the review to analyze a sort of burgeoning generational consensus on the “golden age of hip-hop.” (For what it’s worth—the correct answer is 1996-1998.)
Now, I don’t even really know if these two writers are white, but they sound white, probably because I’ve been reading white journalists write essays like these for as long (longer?) than I’ve been listening to hip- hop.
So I realize I’m screwed. Because I saw RZA as Bobby Digital last night at First Avenue, and now I have to write about it.
Sorry, that was pretty Wu-inside. Oops, did it again. But writing about the founding member of the Wu Tang Clan with any sort of clarity is daunting on two fronts:
(1) Even though I’ve been listening to the Wu since high school, a solid grasp of Wu antiquity takes a commitment level greater than, say, your first week with a new copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. With all the albums, solo-projects, side-projects, mix tapes, videos, direct-to-video movies, cartoons, and websites (RZA just launched wuchess.com last week), not to mention the dank tangle of cultural references the Wu makes on each project…we’re talking years of dedication necessary for a comprehensive digestion. An example from last night: while they were warming up, Stone Mecca, RZA’s opening and backing band, asked the crowd if they all were true Wu Tang fans. Everybody cheered. Then he asked if they were familiar with Afro Samurai, a manga cartoon that RZA scored in 1999. A substantially smaller portion of the crowd cheered. I was among the majority.
(2) Sometimes RZA simply doesn’t make sense. And if you attempt to make sense out of something that doesn’t make sense, the exercise will make you look foolish, no matter your skin color.
So last night, RZA was Bobby Digital, his superhero alter-ego. I’m tempted to write an essay about hip-hop’s obsession with comic-book superheroes and the metaphor of the alter ego. The Wu has always been obsessed with super heroes: on the group's first record, they rapped about Spider Man; Ghostface Killah’s alter ego is Tony Starks and he released an album entitled Iron Man (he even had a cameo in the movie); and RZA’s rhymes are littered with references to The Hulk, Mr. Fantastic, even Scooby Doo. I’m tempted, but an essay like this would require substantial research, and the only other extraneous-to-the-Wu cultural references that I can immediately tap to support my argument are a couple of Snoop Dogg tracks and a few episodes of The Wire.
Besides, alter ego or not, RZA looked very similar to how he appeared when I last saw him, at the August 2006 Wu Tang show at First Ave. Superhero or not, he wasn’t wearing spandex. He was wearing a white golf visor, and a brand new Yankees jersey, and he was holding a bottle of “crystal clear Belvedere” (the tour’s sponsor) in one hand and a mic in the other. I missed him at the Wu show this last winter when, evidently, he was feuding with the group over their reception of his beats for 8 Diagrams. RZA isn’t the best rapper in the clique, but seeing Wu without RZA is a much more disappointing deal than seeing The New Pornographers without Dan Bejar. So it was good to see him back on stage.
For the record, 8 is a good album—in their show this last December, Raekwon and Method Man didn’t rap one song off it, and in the press, they griped about RZA as if he was collaborating with the Spin Doctors or something. They were insinuating that he had gone hippie, but the beats on 8 Diagrams are just as spooky, just as minimal and urbane in that Ghost Dog-style, as Prince Rakeem’s best efforts. Digi Snacks, RZA’s new Bobby Digital album, actually seems less RZA than 8 Diagrams did, actually. Maybe it’s because of the beats, maybe it’s because Inspectah Deck is the only other Wu member on the album. And last night, to Rae’s probable chagrin, he was backed by a sort of hippie outfit; Stone Mecca is a twelve-piece jam soul band, complete with dreadlocks, bongos, and Janis Joplin wailing.
Like Noel Gallagher, I’ve never been a huge fan of hip hop with guitars. Although Jay-Z proved it could be done over the weekend in Glastonbury, England, re-creating RZA beats with guitars, bass, and keyboards seemed like a particularly daunting task. And they did have a rough start, and at a couple of points, RZA, acting as bandleader a la James Brown, stopped the proceedings to tweak the mix levels of his band and his DJ before re-starting.
Ultimately, B-O-B-B-Y was able to synergize all that live band energy to his own and make it work. He played both old and new Bobby Digital stuff, both slow jamz and slammers, he name checked ODB (of course), and he sampled a couple of Wu Tang hits (“Nothing to F**k Wit,” “C.R.E.A.M.”). Maybe, unlike Brian Lambert, this crowd--again, that peculiar 70% Caucasian/30% black Minneapolis Wu Tang crowd--needs a hero.
Discuss amongst yourselves. I don’t want to sound like a geeky white boy anymore.