Review: Wu-Tang Clan makes a case for hip-hop as jazz’s successor

Some fans of Wu-Tang Clan will think this is music critic overreach.

But, after watching the rap group at the Mohegan Sun Arena on June 14, a case can be made that Wu-Tang Clan approaches its particular art form, hip hop, like jazz musicians do theirs.

Now, hear me out.

First of all, like jazz artists, at times, Wu-Tang Clan approaches its music with each of the members diving into the piece from different angles, but, somehow, each voice meshes like gears to a machine. Like jazz instruments, the voices of the members of Wu-Tang ebb and flo for modulation and dramatic effect. Like a jazz group, each voice gets a chance to solo and sometimes jam or free style.

In jazz, the instruments are used to wordlessly express emotions. Sometimes the sound is brash, full of bravado, occasionally sexual tension, and oftentimes anger and frustration.

Wu Tang Clan, because the members are working within the genre of rap and a different time, is able to invoke similar emotions but also is able to give these emotions verbal shape.

Jazz artists know the rules of music theory. But from those rules, they break the rules, subsequently setting the rules.

Wu-Tang Clan clearly knows the “rules” of hip-hop. But then it broke the rules. And, it then set the rules for those who followed.

Wrap all of these ingredients up, Wu-Tang Clan gives artistic heft to hip-hop, which has often been dismissed by those listeners who dub themselves “sophisticated.”

Enough with the overreach.

For this particular tour, Wu-Tang Clan is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album that put it on the pop culture map, “36 Chambers.” And even though there have been some membership changes since its release, most notably the absence of ODB (who passed away), the songs have held up well.

Sometimes when rap groups pull together again after their commercial zenith has faded, there is an air of nostalgia surrounding the venture. Rather than remind its audience of any innovation, these groups feed the crowd’s memories.

Yes, there is nostalgia in the reappearance of Wu Tang-Clan, and in its decision to play “36 Chambers” from beginning to end. However, there also was a reassertion of power. The members demanded the audience’s attention and admonished fans more interested in viewing the show through the video they were recording than watching the real thing straight in front of them.

Wu-Tang Clan was intent on not being just another rerun.

Wu-Tang Clan exuded an energy and musical thrust that most likely would not have been present if it was on tour merely to make a buck (although the packed house at the Mohegan Sun Arena indicated there was definitely financial dimension to their return to the stage).

Now, I have to ‘fess up at this point. Prior to knowing I was going to review the show, I never had a chance to listen to Wu-Tang Clan except if it snuck up on me at a club when a DJ began to spin it. But maybe my fresh ears were a good thing. I was listening to the music for its truth rather than my desire to join the pack who listened it because was the “cool” thing to do in the 1990s—because they were considered underground and adverse to playing by top 40 rules.

Will Wu Tang Clan be a resident on my headphones? That, I honestly can’t promise. But not because I don’t like its creations. Like the music of jazz artists like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, Wu-Tang Clan is difficult music and it challenges you. These are good qualities to have but they are qualities that can sometimes be exhausting to the listener. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate, admire, and value music unwilling to become aural wallpaper.

Speaking of comparing rap to jazz, openers The Soul Rebels make a credible case for the analogy.

The group offers rap with a New Orleans jazz brass band flavor. There are no turntables or mixing boards. There are no electric basses or guitars. There are no keyboards. The group members all play brass instruments or drums. We have a sousaphone, cornets, trumpets, saxes, trombones, etc.

And the members either rap or sing over a the funky, soulful sound.

In a way, The Soul Rebels remind me of some of the British bands of the 1980s who tried to tackle rap music. Since the English didn’t have the tradition of two mics and a turntable, yet they did have an affinity to reggae toasting (a kind of Jamaican rap), they went organic with a full band providing the musical underpinning for the rapping.

It took the crowd some time to get used to the conglomeration of tarnished brass instruments on stage. But soon enough, they were bopping their heads and getting into it.

I give Wu Tang Clan at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville on June 14 3 ½ out of 4 stars.