This summer I work for a federal judge in Columbus, Ohio. We do some exciting things, like passing on the constitutionality of healthcare reform or deciding whether Michigan's voters are allowed to ban affirmative action in state universities (they can't for the moment, but will be free to again when the Supreme Court reverses us), but the bulk of a federal appellate judge's work, and by extension, my own, is deciding whether murderers should go free because of irregularities in their trials, whether aliens get to stay in the country, whether an arrest was wrongful or justified, whether prisoners' rights to some modicum of medical care have been violated, and so on. Virtually no one with any kind of financial wherewithal litigates before a Court of Appeals (those people settle); people who litigate in federal appellate court do so because they have no other choice but to appeal and appeal until some court, hopefully, springs them from prison or lets them stay in the country or gives them a huge judgment without which they couldn't financially subsist. So you see a lot of bad lawyers and work through a lot of uninteresting law. Often, even if the convicted murderer in jail for the rest of his life has a strong argument, one which the poor recent Harvard/Yale Law School grad assigned the case will labor mightily to persuade the court of (the grad being one of the judge's clerks), the guy's lawyer will screw all your good work up by being an idiot. So it can be a frustrating job.
Anyway, the somewhat random grouping of Slick Rick, 8Ball and MJG, and Raekwon came to a dingy Columbus club's parking lot to perform Saturday night. The place was in a terrible neighborhood, the girls seemed to have largely wandered off the set of Apache's 'Gangsta Bitch' video, there were only about 150 people, eight of them white, etc. The fact alone that these four legends could end up together in a tiny parking lot, and that kind of a tiny parking lot, is pretty remarkable. Slick Rick and Raekwon obviously didn't have the most fully realized careers, perhaps Raekwon never really had the talent or personality that his having recorded perhaps the best rap album ever made would suggest, but these still are fairly colossal figures in the history of the genre, and yet there they were in this tiny lot. And not as some kind of back to their roots gesture - this is how they make their money. I don't think an equivalent gathering of great rock artists could occur in that kind of a setting. There's still a sense in which, as dominant as "rap" is in pop music today, rap never really made it to the mainstream or got taken seriously. Particularly the latter. Millions of college-age white kids know who Dre and Snoop and 50 and Wayne are, but have no notion that rap exists that isn't made to be played at frat parties or blasted out of their cars or laughed at because at times it's even more misogynistic than they are. It's an unfortunate and, of course, vaguely racist state of affairs.
So anyway, Slick Rick performed first, and that was rather dismal. At this stage in his career, Slick Rick is no less an oldies artist than the Beach Boys. He stands there in his eyepatch and huge jewelry and does songs he recorded 22 years ago when he was young and brilliant, but today he looks and sounds like an ordinary middle-aged guy. It's one thing to be an old-school purist and quite another to find any sort of enjoyment in seeing it performed by a 46-year-old-man. At one point he did this sad little gimmick where he wanted to "test" whether the audience preferred the old school or the "new school." So he would say, "DJ, play me the best of the new school, of the last two years of the new school." And then we were supposed to cheer, but not as enthusiastically as we were supposed to cheer when the DJ subsequently put on a Run-DMC song. So first the DJ plays 'Hustle Hard,' and I'm like, what the fuck, Slick Rick is playing us 'Hustle Hard.' Then he actually goes, "do you remember this from the BET Awards?" And he starts dancing to it! I don't even watch the BET Awards, what is the great Slick Rick doing watching the BET Awards and dancing to Ace Hood? Then the next song was 'We Fly High,' another exemplar of the "best of the last two years of the new school," though it is most assuredly not from the last two years or three years or four years. And for that, Slick Rick actually briefly did the balling dance. No one in the crowd seemed to see any irony in this. Meanwhile, the women in the crowd were finding whorish ways to dance to 'Hey Young World.' So his set was an absolute torture.
Then after a very long intermission, during which the winner of some Columbus beat battle showed us how he could set the Supremes's 'You Keep Me Hanging On' to DJ Khaled-bop, 8Ball and MJG came on. That was a lot less depressing, if only relatively speaking. For starters, both have actually done notable things after their first album, so their set was way less of an oldies act and way more, unfortunately, of an unnecessary walk through their Bad Boy/Grand Hustle discography. Now I like 'Don't Want No Drama' as much as the next guy, but how much more amazing would it have been to see them do 'Armed Robbery'? Not happening. I think the earliest song they did was 'Pimp Hard.' That aside, it was an interesting set in some respects. Maybe this is just my view, but since 8Ball got older and less facile, I've felt that MJG is by far the more technically adroit member of the group - but at the same time by far the least interesting. And that was very much the case Saturday. MJG kept doing the same stop-start, precisely enunciated flow he's been doing on everything for forever, carefully mapping out every little hitch in the air with his off-mic hand as if he were conducting himself in an orchestra, and doing so with a great deal of intensity. Yet there was something strangely inessential and hollow about it. Meanwhile, 8Ball was slurring everything, practically inaudible for half of the time, but quite riveting all the same. Between the hat and shades covering his entire face and how round the guy is, the man barely seems human; he looks like a big ball that might roll off the stage if he weren't so firmly stuck in one spot. At times when I was watching him, I wondered if he didn't just lay on a sofa all day, hibernating until it was time to roll off the couch and record something in perfect double-time. (Even though he was a bit of a mess for most of the set, this performance of 'Sho Nuff' was shockingly sharp.) At one point, he just stopped doing anything and his whole crew gathered round him in a circle as MJG looked on nervously, as if 8Ball were about to give birth. I half-expected that he might - or that he was about to pass out from the heat. Unfortunately, 8Ball started to seem a whole lot less like a magic rapping fat globule and more like a regular guy when, towards the end of the set, he repeatedly reminded us that 10 Toes Down, their latest album, is currently in stores.
Then after another huge intermission, Raekwon showed up. This was a somewhat emotional experience for me. One tends to forget that Rae isn't just his solo career, but a huge part of Enter the Wu-Tang, and particularly of songs like C.R.E.A.M. and Can It Be All So Simple, both of which were staples of my late adolescence. Raekwon still looks like Raekwon, he still raps about the same and about as well, though he's obviously much less hungry, he still does random rants about seeds and respecting your elders and the future of the youth and how he loves grandmothers. That said, I was struck by a few things. He was constantly performing other people's verses - ODB's on Da Mystery of Chessboxin, Nas's on Verbal Intercourse, Prodigy's on Eye for an Eye, probably INS's on Protect Ya Neck and a bunch of other things. So little of what he did was purely solo Rae - Incarcerated Scarfaces, a couple of the new things, and that was it. And after a while it began to serve as a reminder of how inessential Rae arguably was to the music that bears his name - indeed, how inessential and replaceable all the various Wu members may have been vis-a-vis the project's real driving force, RZA's musical vision. Second, he did do a few of his new songs, and I guess I'm not sure what the purpose of new Rae in 2011 is. He does a superb job of recreating the sound of Wu in its prime, but none of it even begins to compare to the originals or have anything new to say, musically, thematically, however, that the old stuff didn't say already. I wish that Cam could have kept going on forever in the Purple Haze vein, but Purple Haze, unlike Cuban Linx, isn't a 16-year-old album. And even in Cam's case, when he still was capable of rapping well on Killa Season, there was a point, songs like I.B.S. aside, where the whole endeavor of Cam being as crazy and far-out and 'surreal' as he could possibly be started to feel very tapped-out and redundant. All that said, seeing Raekwon perform Cuban Linx, even today, is a hugely rewarding and at times moving experience.