It’s impossible to overstate the significance of the Wu-Tang Clan. With a career that has already spanned almost 30 years, nine group albums, 91 solo albums (either as solo artists or as part of a non-Wu group) and more members than the U.S. Congress, the hip-hop supergroup is doubtlessly one of the most influential musical artists of its era.
In 2007, the group’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival marked a poignant moment of its journey, coming almost 15 years after its breakout classic “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and three years after the death of founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The Montreux performance itself serves as both a testament to the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan, though aging, has not lost a step, arriving on the stage with the collective force of a soccer riot.
After making headlines in the mid-‘90s for their brash delivery, Heisman-level wordplay and adoration for ‘70s kung-fu and blaxploitation films, the MCs in Wu-Tang Clan are now hip-hop elder statesmen. That status feels weirdly appropriate for Montreux, a major festival that since 1967 has celebrated the legends of Black music.
Though rap is relatively new when compared to other genres that have dominated popular music over the decades, it is now at least 40 years old. Acts like the Wu are playing the legends circuit, usually the end of the line for a music career. Yet as they arrive on stage, the Wu-Tang Clan MCs still exude a brash confidence befitting hip-hop newcomers while flashing the lyrical deftness of seasoned craftsmen.
The group emerged from the era where “MC” stood for “Move the Crowd,” and that mission statement still applies. It’s rare to see any iconic music act still delivering the goods after its prime, but this show evokes a performance at an iconic New York City club like the Tunnel rather than one at the prestigious Miles Davis Hall at a jazz festival.
Switzerland gets the full roster: RZA, GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah and Masta Killa.
The performance also marks a rare latter-day Wu feat: A show where the whole Wu-Tang Clan is present. For the uninitiated, that’s not a normal thing. In recent years, fans have gotten used to piecemeal Wu-Tang Clan shows. Maybe three guys show, maybe six. Not this night. Switzerland gets the full roster: RZA, GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah and Masta Killa.
Also joining the party are some of their extended family members: Cappadonna, Streetlife and the vastly underrated DJ Mathematics. This rare gathering delivers a set heavy on the group’s classics, flavored with solo gems, including a mini-set of Ol’ Dirty Bastard hits such as “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”.
ODB didn’t let a silly thing like not being alive stop his presence from looming over the show. The gifted, troubled, chaotically unpredictable MC died of an accidental drug overdose in 2004. But the surviving members carry on as if he’s with them on stage, the whole clan serving as hypemen for their fallen bandmate. Sadly, it’s not something that we’ve seen often as rap grows up. For every Wu-Tang Clan, there’s a supergroup that either had a falling out with a key member or let money, drugs or a combination of both ruin its career.
Wu-Tang Clan integrates its late friend’s music into the performance without resorting to solemnity. A clear statement blasts from the speakers: ODB is one of us and he’s here with us tonight. In 1997, the Wu-Tang Clan titled its second album “Wu-Tang Forever.” That declaration goes double for Ol’ Dirty Bastard and his place in the band’s ever-evolving legacy.