All Tomorrow's Parties' Don't Look Back shows, in which artists perform classic albums in their entirety, has tended thus far to stick mainly to indie and rock. This year, however, rap is getting a look-in: later in May, Public Enemy will perform It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and last night at Koko, Wu-Tang Clansmen Raekwon and Ghostface Killah rolled up to lay down the science from their 1995 mafioso-ridden masterpiece, Only Built For Cuban Linx.
At a fairly prompt 9.05pm, Rae bounded on stage, rushing through a medley of solo cuts and classic Wu verses before introducing Ghostface, whose pop outshone the erstwhile headliner as he repeated the trick with a few turns from his voluminous back catalogue. After a hectic ten minutes, Rae announced that the album performance itself was to begin. Thankfully, to prevent it turning into a glorified karaoke session, the songs were spun on shuffle: thus, we began with the gravelly growl and bristling minor key piano shimmer of "Incarcerated Scarfaces", before sluicing headlong into the funereal gongs of "Ice Water". The crowd ate it up, bursting into spontaneous bouts of heavy moshing, and on the floor fists pumped the air and sent beer dregs skywards.
Rza's minimalist, dissonant, bass-heavy production, which sounds so sinister through your snugly-worn Sennheisers, became swampy in a venue whose PA system is clearly not used to experiencing boom-bap rap. The nuances of many songs were lost as rappers and DJ fought against a swarm of blown bass bins and stressed-out subwoofers. Yet softer tracks benefited: album closer "Heaven & Hell" soared majestically, while posse cut "Guillotines" crackled with energy, as Rae took it upon himself to burst the opening verse and found the crowd yelling back every word.
After a mid-set ODB tribute, the pair invited guests De La Soul (playing at The Forum tonight) to the stage. A fired up Maseo grabbed the mic and offered tributes to the mutual respect the Wu and De La held for eachother. Sadly, the grandstanding of such rap pioneers was quickly forgotten as Rae called for a "best pussy contest", which involved a number of lithe girls clambering onstage and grinding self-consciously while the DJ span snippets of raunch-laden tracks. The vaguely farcical scenes of two guys, nearly 40, bumping near a bunch of girls half their age didn't really wash with the crowd, whose swagger was snuffed in British stiff upper lipped silence. Meanwhile, a subsequent "talent" contest, where the rappers invited a quartet of hopefuls onto the stage and gave them 20 seconds to bust a few rhymes, was suitably chaotic. The American tradition of supporting your fellow city dwellers is clearly lost on Londoners, as rapper after rapper was booed mercilessly for their efforts, prompting Raekwon to (rightfully) admonish us for not respecting the balls to get up on stage and represent.
The show ended with not with a bang but a whimper, as - pressed for time - snatches of the album's remaining songs were rushed through, including a sadly truncated "Glaciers Of Ice". A hype man offered up some "motherfucking Wu-Tang towels" for fans to snap up, though how they differ from the Egyptian cotton variety in Londonist's shower wasn't really explained. After an underwhelming climax the rappers slowly stalked off stage, and the crowd gently departed without much call for an encore. A curious atmosphere reigned that tacitly acknowledged the vaguely organised confusion, erratic sound quality and sheer seat-of-pants nature of the show was an appropriate way to experience the Wu.
Photograph courtesy of Julie Palmer-Hoffman