- 15 May 19
Billed modestly as ‘Gods of Rap’, the combined three-part arena tour of De La Soul, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan was always going to be a lofty air and one that dedicated hip-hop heads would flock to in big numbers.
De La Soul – Peter McGoran
Kicking off the one-night stint at their 3Arena was New York trio De La Soul. Buoyed throughout the last few decades by the success of their magnum opus 3 Feet High and Rising, and by their long-standing work with a range artists – everyone from Mos Def to Gorillaz – De La Soul’s work has meant that, while they haven’t always been commercially successful, they’ve remained relevant in the hip-hop canon.
And yet their set, while entertaining, feels very much like a strictly warm-up affair. The tracks on 3 Feet High sound as crisp and as relevant as ever, and the trio’s deliver hasn’t been blunted by the years, but too often they get on as if they’re the hype-men for someone else’s show. “Is the party over here? Or is the party over there?” Posdnous asks the still-trickling-in 3Arena crowd, for what feels like the 100th time during their 50-minute set. It’s fun, it’s effective, but it means that we only get to experience a few songs from their seminal album before the whole show’s over.
The best parts of De La Soul’s set come when they pay tribute to J Dilla with ‘Stakes Is High’, where the “vibe/vibration” refrain truly gets the crowd going. Following this, ‘Me, Myself and I’ makes a fitting, suitably funky end to the night.
DJ Premier, one half of the rap group Gang Starr, takes on a compere role during the intermission between each set. As well as the fact that he’s playing all the important songs from the Golden Era of hip-hop, it’s genuinely such a thrill to see old-school hip-hop DJs going berserk with cutting and scratching their records like it’s an Olympic sport.
Public Enemy – Pat Carty
Let’s face facts. If Public Enemy aren’t the greatest hip-hop act of them all – and I would argue they are – then they are certainly the most important and the most influential. 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is the genre’s high-water mark, a near perfect melding of political consciousness and preternatural production techniques. When it reached these ears in late 80’s rural Ireland, it genuinely sounded like music bleeding through from another dimension.
It’s Public Enemy Radio we get tonight though, as Chuck D constantly reminds us, a re-jigged configuration to cover for the missing original members – Terminator X is long gone, running an ostrich farm somewhere, and Flavor Flav is off doing whatever Flavor Flav does. In their place is DJ Lord and Jahi – Lord is great, Jahi is no match for Flav’s court jester-isms although he gives it everything he has. Bearing all that in mind, it’s still a pretty ferocious performance. Chuck steps down from the DJ box into a riot of light with beatboxes on the screens to tear into ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’ with the Security of the 1st World either side of him (military cut backs have reduced their presence to only two). ‘Louder Than A Bomb’ is stronger still, the greatest P.E. single that never was. Cassettes flash on the screens for 2012’s ‘I Shall Not be Moved’ (“Keep me on this track, Don’t take me off!”) – if they had ever promised to stick to just Nation Of Millions then that idea is gone out the window. Phones blaze in the air, ‘Can’t Truss It’ roars out in front of negative Jackson Pollock backdrops, into ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’. Believe it, this is still vital.
‘Rebel Without A Pause’ races by, Chuck shouts out to his radio origins while plugging their app – this, along with the very prominent Puma logo in front of DJ Lord, leaves bit of a bad taste – ‘Time Bomb’ features the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ break which is as much the sound of Public Enemy as the Bomb Squad’s original melange of noise and funk, and ‘He’s Got Game’ complete with the Stephen Stills sample takes a swipe at bling-hop “fuck the game if it ain’t saying nothing”.
“Fuck the queen…who is this chick Teresa May… I ain’t got to tell you Irish people a motherfucking’ thing… the fuckery of Donald Trump… One World, One Love… Let us all Fight The Fucking Power” The Public Enemy symbol revolves, the track is as powerful now as it was opening Do The Right Thing. DJ Lord takes the spotlight for an absolute lesson in turntablism - scratching, flashing, pulsing faster and faster until he brings the record to a halt with his back turned. “Would You Join Me Please In Welcoming… Hear The Drummer Get Wicked!” The howl of ‘Terrordome’ goes into ‘Bring The Noise’, Chuck D a cappella for the “never badder than bad” section and slowed to a crawl to call out radio stations, over thirty years later, who “call themselves black but let’s see if they play this.” The White House fills the screen for ‘Shut’ Em Down’, Chuck prowls the stage for ‘Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos’, the George Clinton squelch introduces ‘Public Enemy #1’, and a triumphant ‘Harder Than You Think’ closes things out.
You couldn’t argue with any of the cuts and yet you could still think of at least another twenty tracks that would have been welcome (‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’, ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’, etc.). Despite the app plugging, despite the constant requests for peace signs/phone/hands in the air, despite Jahi’s questionable freestyle skills, a reduced Public Enemy is still better than 99% of other acts, hip-hop or not. Lethal.
Wu-Tang Clan – Peter McGoran
Then for the main event. Wu-Tang Clan are without doubt one of the most important hip-hop collective of all time. Putting aside Enter The 36 Chambers for one second, the legacy of the band, and the innovation of solo albums like GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman has meant that over the years, the Staten Island-born group have developed an unparalleled legacy.
The glue that has always held the group together is RZA. As the production mastermind, the confident Master of Ceremonies, and the wielder of a uniquely gravelly, confrontational voice, he's always been the de facto leader of the Clan. On this occasion, RZA leads them onto the stage raring to go with ‘Bring The Ruckus’, where his “motherfuckin’ ruckus” sounds all the more punishing live as it does on record.
There’s a lot going on in any given Wu-Tang set. For a start, there’s nearly a dozen fully accomplished rappers on stage together at any one time. This means that, inevitably, there’s a lot of waiting around for each artist to get their chance to deliver a verse.
In spite of this, they've managed to work in a dynamic so that it doesn’t feel awkward or that they're crowding on top of each other. RZA - the playmaker of the set – is mainly seen racing between the centre of the stage and the DJ box throughout. Raekwon keeps to the foreground, with an eye on the audience, judging his strut and his movements by the vibe they're giving off. GZA spends much of the set up on the stage’s raised balcony (whether he’s trying to take on the statesman-like, overseeing role or just can’t be bothered getting in on the action, it’s hard to tell), while the rest of the group take up positions across the length of the stage, casually making their way to the centre-foreground when their verse demand’s it.
Absent tonight is Clifford M Smith, aka Method Man. As perhaps the most pivotal member in Wu-Tang’s debut album, his absence is made all the more noticeable (there’s half-hearted rendition of ‘C.R.E.A.M’). Equally, he was one of the most energetic live performers.
To make up for this, though, the Clan have a success story on the hands in the form of Young Dirty Bastard, the off-spring of now-deceased Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He joins them on stage during ‘Shame On A N****’ and absolutely blows everyone away. Not only does he have the same look as his father and a near identical voice, he also embodies his father's outrageous stage presence. And, given that the group’s overarching message from the past 25 years is ‘Wu-Tang is Forever’, it feels like a touching moment when someone like Raekwon or RZA clasps an appreciative hand on YBD’s back after a particularly well delivered verse (‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, in this case). This a generational thing, the Clan's legacy lives on.
Highlights of the first half of the set come in the form of ‘Tearz’, ‘Protect Ya Neck’ and ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber’, where Ghostface Killah’s verse is delivered with razor-sharp precision and bucketloads of energy. The group also namecheck their hometown and share an image of the newly christened ‘Wu-Tang Clan District’ – an actual street in Staten Island – before launching into Ghostface track ‘Winter Warz’ (Cappadonna gets his moment to shine here).
The few lowlights of the night come when the group’s crowd-vamping hits a few bump notes. RZA talks about the rise of knife-crime in other parts of the UK, and the audience turns their heads away awkwardly (look, we’re not here to explain 800 years of Irish history to the actual Wu-Tang Clan, but safe to say this comparison goes down like a lead balloon). Similarly, when the rapper/producer gives a shout-out to Conor McGregor, he gets a lukewarm response.
The second half of the set sees the Clan move away from songs from their debut album. This feels like more of a freewheelin’, laidback affair. They come together for ‘Reunited’, from Disciples of the 36 Chambers. Then they race through slightly heavier songs like GZA’s ‘Duel of the Iron Mic’, Wu-Tang song ‘It’s Yourz’, and GZA’s ‘4th Chamber’, bringing some levity by being mixing them up with Raekwon’s ‘Ice Cream’, a cover of Rick James’ ‘Mary Jane’, and a compilation of ODB’s finest tracks – ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’, ‘Got Your Money’ – delivered with aplomb by his son.
The upbeat, commercially successful single ‘Gravel Pit’ means that the set ends on a high and reminds you of the group's sheer variety.
It may not have been a perfect tri-part set, but there was enough in these shows to keep the crowd bouncing and the hip-hop diehards happy.
Photo Credit: Colm Kelly