I still remember, twenty-five years later, when the first Wu Tang Clan album dropped. I was twenty-one years old, in college, an avid fan of hip hop, which was entering a golden age after a shaky start in the 1980s. The record took our little campus by storm; I swear you couldn’t walk through the dorms or go to a party that whole year without hearing at least one track. Even now, decades and more later, I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite song on the album.
But of course I lived in Florida, the black hole of live music tours, so I never got to see them live. So you can imagine how happy I was to score tickets to the Wu Tang show this past weekend in Seattle. I didn’t even know when I bought them that the tour was specifically to celebrate Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), which I still have a CD copy of that I bought in college, and that I still listen to.
So you can imagine how thrilled beyond thrilled I was when I found out that not only was I going to see a band I’d loved more than half my life, but that they were specifically going to perform the album of theirs that I knew and loved best. I hardly even minded having to walk into a giant venue with tens of thousands of other people in it, a thing this cranky introvert is not typically to be found doing, because if there’s one thing I hate worse than people it’s crowds of them.
We got there early, had a couple drinks, and watched the opening band (The Soul Rebels, I think they were called, a New Orleans brass band that does hip hop covers: they were good). Then, with much hullaballoo, the main event began.
The gang was all there, far as I could tell: the Rza, the Gza, Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon the Chef, Inspectah Deck, all of them except, of course, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I thought it clever, appropriate, and moving that they let the crowd deliver ODB’s lines, because of course we all knew them by heart. We knew all the songs by heart.
But that’s where things got tricky. See, we were in the WAMU theater near the stadiums, a massive, open, high-ceilinged room (like I said, there were probably tens of thousands of people there), and the sound — oh, the sound — was terrible.
How bad was the sound? I’ll tell you.
First, I’ll say this: the sound was good enough that I could tell it was music I’d heard before, and I could tell that the MCs of the Wu Tang Clan haven’t lost a step, and are as tight a rap combo as you could ask for. Just… damn.
That said, the sound was so bad (like we could only hear the low, low, low end and (distorted) mics from one of the two massive stacks of speakers) that I could only half-recognize individual songs. Like, you know how you can kind of simul-track your memory of a song when you hear it playing far away or whatever? How your brain can take the pieces it can make out and retrofit the rest?
The sound was so bad it actively prevented me from doing that. Like, it was close enough to what I knew that it literally cancelled out any kind of possible reconstruction in my brain. I could hear that words were being rapped, hear the rhythm and know that I knew it, but something about how close but not close the sound mix made the performance surrealized the experience such that it was like I was seeing a band whose music I didn’t know.
The live experience took on an almost dream-like quality. Like I was remembering in advance, with all the detail-attrition that implies, something I’d seen years ago. Only I was there and it was happening live.
We tried moving around, but the sound didn’t get any better. Eventually I just surrendered and let the experience be what it was, a surreal irruption of dream or memory filtering the real and making it surreal, even absurd. I won’t lie, there was a kind of joy in it once I did. Like, this was nothing like the experience I signed up for, but this is what it was, so might as well make the best of it.
Anyhow, if there’s a point here, it’s that: sometimes shit gets weird, and you just gotta roll with it.
That, and don’t see shows at the WAMU theater in Seattle. The sound there sucks.