After Laughter Comes Tears: Wu-Tang’s Ghostface and Raekwon in Taipei

The security pass of the enormous guard who later ejected me.

It’s hard to believe I was a month shy of my 17th birthday when Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) dropped in November 1993. Back then I can vividly recall running down Willesden High Road with a TDK copy in hand to breathlessly offer to my mate Jamal with the standard hip-hop imploration to “check dis shit out!”

Like pretty much anyone who heard the album back then, we both knew this was something special. The beats, the rhymes, but most of all the attitude and ethos of the Wu-Tang Clan were so different from anything that had come before and, to be honest, anything since. And let’s not forget that this was at the tail-end of the genre’s much vaunted (and sometimes derided) Golden Age.

Though younger heads now scoff at old-timers continually bemoaning the state of the industry today, it really is hard to convey what a magical time this was for hip-hop fans. The following year saw such seminal releases as Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie Smalls’Ready to Die and (the less acclaimed but no less brilliant, in my book) The Sun Rises in the East by Jeru the Damaja.

All of these contained production by DJ Premier, one of hip-hop’s most important beatsmiths, whom I was lucky to interview here in Taipei a few years back. But none of them had quite such a lasting impact as 36 Chambers. For better or worse, the album helped shape the direction hip-hop was to take through the 90s onwards.

So it is with sadness that I keep reading about the rifts within the group.

Their first release as a group in seven years (I basically gave up after The W in 2000) was supposed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 36 Chambers last year, but is now slated to drop later this year.

The first single can be heard here and, while nothing earth-shattering, sounds fairly decent. The track is conspicuous by the absence of certain members of the Clan. It’s no secret who has problems with whom. Within any group, the leader (declared or perceived) will invariably be one side of the equation with accusations of megalomania and control-freakery being the norm (think McCartney in The Beatles).

Foremost in the divisions in this case are said to be the apparently irreconcilable differences between the brains behind the Clans’ early brilliance, RZA, and the duo of Ghostface and Raekwon (particularly the latter). I’ve always loved this tag-team group within the group and while Raekwon’s 1995 first solo album Only Built for Cuban Linx has always been a critics’ favourite, I have to admit I was probably slightly more taken with Ghost’s debut Ironman the following year.

It was therefore with even more bitterness, on a personal level, that I had to put up with the idiotic behavior of some of people involved in the duo’s gig at ATT Show Box in Taipei last week.

Catch the blast of my hype verse: Ghostface Killah on the mic. (Thanks to Carlo Harris for this and the next snap).

Firstly, I’d like to emphasize how poorly the event was promoted. If not for a pal’s Facebook heads-up, I wouldn’t have had a clue that they were in town. And, while the days where I was tuned into the latest entertainment developments in Taipei are long gone, I have a couple of young Taiwanese friends who are dieheard b-boys and who also had no idea.

It showed in the ticket sales. The capacity for the venue is 1,500 at a stretch and I was told at the box office that around 800 had been sold, but I’d say this was optimistic. It wasn’t quite as bad as what I’d heard about Rob Zombie a couple of weeks before, but I definitely think they could have done better. You really had to look to find out about the show.

I didn’t have to think twice when I found out they were coming and I quickly started to think of how I might do a professional piece on the event. I’d written quite a few entertainment pieces (mainly hip-hop) for Taiwan News back in the day, but I assumed someone from Taipei Times would be covering this one.

My main job right now is for an EFL magazine called Biz, which is part of the LiveABC publishing group. I don’t consider what I do from day to day real journalism in any sense of the word, but my current manager has been very good about allowing me to put more challenging stuff in the mag (especially in terms of the mag) and is always open to different stuff.

I pitched her a story about hip-hop and business, part of which would focus on how Wu-Tang have managed to operate as both a collective and a group of individuals for so long (the more recent cracks notwithstanding). It’s no exaggeration to call the record deal that they worked out revolutionary as it allowed them to sign with Loud/RCA as a group and release solo projects on different labels.

Raekwon stayed with Loud, Ghost went with Sony and Method Man with Def Jam. GZA, who famously sent up the industry in his name-dropping ditty Labelssigned with Geffen.

As with most of my articles for the magazine, this one (which will probably be published in our June issue) is to be based loosely on another piece. The Forbes magazine article which I’ll be using can be read here

Cooking up some marvellous shit: Raekwon the Chef appears to have been enjoying a bit too much of his own cooking.

 

With an e-mail that included links to my previous work, my credentials and my story idea, I hit the promoter up for a press pass and asked whether I might be able to secure a brief interview with the artists or get in on any press conference. The fellow, whose goes by the moniker Ooh Child (I wonder if he’s ever heard the Five Stairsteps’ classic) was pretty receptive, but eventually got back and said the rappers didn’t seem interested. Fair enough – I’d kind of expected that.

He then suggested that I could rejig my proposed piece to be about his promotion business as this was their first big show. There was no way I was going to do this as, even in the short format we use for the mag, this just wasn’t something anyone would want to read about. If I’d had time to interview other promoters and people involved in the entertainment industry in Taiwan, perhaps I could have put together and interesting feature, but the work this would have required would not have been commensurate with the recompense. I’m a part-timer on NT$500 an hour for the time I’m actually in the office so, as my American pals like to say, go figure.

It soon beceame apparent that the press passes being dangled in front of me were tied to this request to “spin the article” (his words) as, once I’d said that I couldn’t do it, Ooh (baby) totally blanked me. Again, fair enough: He probably thought I was after something for nothing and, I won’t deny, not having to shell out NT$1,500 would have been very nice.

It would have been nice if he could have just responded with a “no go” to let me know where I stood, though, and – on the big night – I told one of his associates, a nice, humble fellow named Leo (the guy who gave me the attendance estimate) as I stumped up for the tickets for “cheap” section of the venue. He was a little embarrassed, apologized (which he obviously didn’t have to do) and said he’d chat to Ooh, who was the deejaying, about it.

Leo was actually an emcee with one of the opening acts and this leads me to my next complaint. Simply put, the kind of acts we got as openers for an act of this renown just didn’t cut it. A couple of the deejays just spun tunes, which were nice enough, without actually doing anything; one was actually scratching and was pretty decent (I think it may have been a Filipino that Leo had mentioned and whose name I’ve forgotten).

But the hip-hop acts themselves were just not very good. And maybe I was asking the wrong people, but many locals I spoke to had no idea who they were. I did, of course. Some, if not all of them, were either involved directly with the promotion or mates of the promoters. I’ve seen this kind of stuff before. Basically, these guys manage to convince a big act to come to Taiwan in part so they can ride the coattails of a major name. At the very least, they’ll now be able to tell the grandkids about the

I can’t be sure if they were popping out for cheap beers on the sly as I did at one stage (the bar ran out of beer by about 9 p.m. anyway, which is absurd), but it appeared that quite a few people had had enough well before the Wu got on stage at about 10:20 p.m. My friend, who pointed out groups of people ducking out, was thoroughly pissed off and left well before they got on. “This was our Rolling Stones,” he said. “And they gave us this crap.”

Gotta hand it to him: Ghostface acknowledges the fans just before I managed to grab his attention.

Once they did come on, it was a lively and enjoyable show. Raekwon, as another mate pointed out, has become very round and appeared a good deal lest energetic than Ghost. They began, unsurprisingly as they have the first two verses, with The 36 Chambers opener Bring Da Ruckus, the very first word of which is the exclamation “Ghostface!” Other standards that had to be and were included were their classic ode to the benjies C.R.E.A.M. 

and Can it Be All So Simplewith it’s Gladys Knight-sampled chorus (I never have ascertained whether they deliberately corrupted the line for the title). I was really stoked to hear one of my favourite Ghostface joints The Soul Controller,which features the Force MDs reworking of the chorus of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Going to Come as the vocal hook. (Like the Wu, the MDs hail from State Island.)

Unfortunately, things really went pear-shaped at the end of the night, when I tried to get what Ooh and co. had been able to provide. Ghostface remained on stage for quite a while bumping knuckles and signing autographs with clamoring fans.

At first a security guard was reticent to let me enter the front section, lowly cheap-seater that I was, with my ignominious blue wristband to prove it. But he soon relented and I made my way to the front. After shouting myself horse, I finally attracted Ghost’s attention. “James Baron, Biz Magazine,” I hollered. “It would be great to get five minutes with you for your local fans.” He looked me straight in the eye, nodded and said “OK.”

Excited as anything, I asked if it was all right to get up on stage and again he nodded. I clambered up (this was easier said than done as I’m a short-arse and it was pretty high) and soon after followed Ghost and an assortment of entourage, security and what-not off stage. That’s when things took a truly frustrating and ultimately gutting bent.

As every filed out of a fire exit door, presumably toward the green room, a pair of security guards – one of whom I’d bumped into earlier (see the security pass photo) – stopped me an asked where I thought I was going. I explained that I’d been given permission by the man himself, but by this time he had disappeared from view.

They told me in no uncertain terms that I was going nowhere. I tried to appeal to a Taiwanese-American guy who had inserted himself into the situation and who presumably was involved with the promotion in some way (he certainly wanted to make his authority clear).

“Time for you to go home, homeboy,” he smarmed.

“But Ghostface just agreed to give me five minutes for an interview for a local magazine. I’ll be in and out.”

“None one’s doing any interviews, buddy. Just go home.”

“If you could just ask him really quickly. If he says no, I’ll go. No problem.”

“We already asked him,” he blatantly lied. “You clearly didn’t ask him. Please, if you could just –”

“There’s no interview. Go home, now.”

At this point, a bevy of local hotties filed passed for unspecified purposes, and a rich-looking foreign couple who I’d seen earlier also got the nod of approval. I unwisely persisted, appealing and trying to explain my situation.

This guy was a real arrogant prick and eventually did something I cannot abide – patting me patronisingly. I should have kept my mouth shut but I told him not to put his hands on me. That was all they needed. The enormous bouncer then started to manhandle me. Again I objected to his touching me and he responded by asking if I wanted to fight.

“Yes, mate. Of course I want to fight. Look at the size of you and look at me.”

I’m not going to lie: I had four tallboy Asahis in me but I certainly wasn’t pissed (except in U.S. sense of the word) and I have at least one witness to this. I had enough nous to finally realise that I would get a kicking if I didn’t do one. I left, crestfallen, and soooo wanting to give the condescending tosser (who was even stumpier than me) a slap across his smirking little kisser. Instead I did the next best thing and whinged about the incident outside a family Mart with some sympathetic locals for the next couple of hours.

While I was shouting to get GF’s attention I bumped into the friend who had told me about the gig. He later related a story about trying to haggle with a guy selling T-shirts. Apparently derisive of my mate’s (excellent) language skills, he told him to “stop speaking Chinese to me.”This sums up the way everyone involved in this event came across to me, with the exception of that guy Leo: arrogant as fuck.

It’s not like my blog gets my crazy traffic. In fact, it gets bugger all most of the time, but I decided to give Ooh Child et al their write up. This was it.

At probably at least 10 years younger than me, he would have been a toddler when the Wu first made their mark. I suppose, at some level, jealousy plays a part in how pissed off I am with the way things turned out, but I’d also like to think that my attitude of basic respect for strangers regardless of their status and what they can do for me is the main reason it irks. You really never know when shit could come back to bite you on the arse.

Finally, I think this might be the last gig (certainly the last hip-hop gig) I go to for a good while. As with Bob Dylan at Taipei Arena it just wan’t worth it and, in this case, I would baulk at lining the pockets of fuckwits like this again in a hurry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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