It must constantly defend itself against misguided censors disguised as social crusaders, timid record companies and toothless radio programmers. After nearly two decades, it continues to fight old-guard music purists who refuse to consider hip-hop valid music and wish that it would just go away. In some cases, hip-hop artists have even faced legal challenges to their rights of self-expression.
But, more often than not, hip-hop is its own worst enemy.
Consider the case of Wu-Tang Clan. At the moment, this Staten Island collective should be hip-hop's crowning jewel. For a genre that in the last 12 months has had to endure the killings of Tupac and Biggie, the imprisonment of Death Row label chief Suge Knight and the rampant whole-cloth song sampling of Puff Daddy, Wu-Tang has offered a ray of hope. Its exciting, if bloated, double set Wu-Tang Forever reaffirmed its prowess and massive popularity, and spoke of the group's commitment to elevate hip-hop above the mire of gun-toting, 40-ounce-drinking, sex-boasting stereotypes.
Yet, for some reason, Wu-Tang's members seem intent on proving themselves the worst type of hypocrites: righteous talkers whose actions show that they don't give a shit about their fans.
Last month, Wu-Tang unceremoniously left a much-ballyhooed tour with Rage Against the Machine, amid a flurry of innuendo. Most speculation focused on a regional promotions manager for the group's label, Loud Records, who accused members of the band of kicking and beating him in their dressing room after an August 30 show outside Chicago. When Wu-Tang pulled out of the Rage tour shortly thereafter, the natural assumption was that either pending legal troubles or Wu-Tang's unruly behavior had caused Rage to give it the boot.
Nothing of the kind, Wu-Tang insisted. The group was merely concerned because some members were not showing up for gigs, and they wanted to correct the problem before pressing on. Well, based on the evidence of the group's September 20 show at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, the problem has not been corrected, and may be getting worse. The group showed up without Method Man--its biggest star--as well as Ol' Dirty Bastard and GZA, and proceeded to perform as though nothing was amiss.
It wasn't a complete shock. Rumors of group instability had local promoters at TMC Presents holding their breath in the days leading up to the show. Besides, Wu-Tang has a history of disappointing Phoenix. On two separate occasions, Raekwon has been booked for solo shows here, and both times he's canceled. The group's rep is such that promoters are unable to get cancellation insurance on it. But the band's behavior on the day of the show indicates a special kind of arrogance and apathy that plays into the complaints of every hip-hop opponent on the planet.
Wu-Tang was expected at the Coliseum around 2 p.m. for a sound check, but at noon, its management called to say the group had missed its flight from San Diego and would be very late. TMC's Ty Carter offered to charter a flight for the band, and take the cost out of the bonus money it would receive if it broke 5,000 in ticket sales. But Wu-Tang refused, and instead took the cheap route, renting a van. For the next eight and a half hours, TMC heard nothing from Wu-Tang. Carter and his TMC partner Peabody Scott went out and performed an opening show with their group Know Qwestion, still unaware whether their headliner would show. Finally, at 8:45, Wu-Tang members called to say they were in town. Unfortunately, Wu-Tang labelmates Tha Alkaholiks arrived 45 minutes late for their show, leaving a painfully long gap after the Know Qwestion performance.
When Wu-Tang finally arrived, it offered TMC no explanation for the absent members. The whole thing was treated like standard operating procedure, which, in the case of Wu-Tang, it unfortunately has become.
In any other musical genre, this would rightly be seen as a career-threatening disgrace. When Keith Moon missed a Who show in the mid-'70s, it not only damaged the band's reputation, it so angered Pete Townshend that some say he never forgave Moon. When Sly Stone or Jim Morrison started flaking out and forcing cancellations, fans left them in droves. Stone's career never recovered.
Yet Wu-Tang goes from city to city, putting on half-assed shows, treating its fans with absolute contempt, and leaving local promoters to mop up the damage.
Some might say that the Wu-Tang show amounts to a no-harm, no-foul situation. After all, Wu-Tang got paid, TMC made a profit, and the majority of the 5,000-plus fans had a good time and got a reasonably energetic performance.
But those people are wrong. There was a victim in this mess. The same victim who gets a black eye every time Wu-Tang or one of its peers acts like the music is so undeserving of respect that it can be packaged in any form, and the crowd will beg for more. The same victim who suffers every time a rapper earns a headline over an act of violence instead of an act of musical creativity. That victim is the tattered reputation of hip-hop itself.
Shades of Gray: Fans of local honky-tonk troubadours the Suicide Kings might have noticed a strange new moniker showing up in ads for their Wednesday-night showcases at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Sure enough, these Kevorkian kowboys are now known as Lucky Ofay and the Gray Boys. It might take a little getting used to, but a great band by any name is still a great band, right? The switch came about because a California heavy-metal band had the rights to Suicide Kings and threatened legal action.
Who's in town: The Big 6 bills itself as England's premier beat combo, and it's not just self-promotion. The group's September 22 show at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale was a brilliant mix of swinging rhythms that practically dared you not to dance. These guys lean heavily on Louis Jordan-inspired jump blues, but they'll throw in some rude-boy riddims just to keep you guessing. They even did the impossible, transforming Slade's "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" into a brassy swing number. They'll be back in the Valley for a Saturday, October 4, show at the Rhythm Room, and shouldn't be missed.