But I Was There: The Smokers Club Tour with Method Man and Redman
For what feels like a truly immeasurable number of reasons, the existence of the Wu-Tang Clan is a monumental feat in hip-hop. Consider the genesis of the group: a couple of kung-fu-obsessed cousins in Staten Island recruit some friends and start rapping to each other with a full-fledged five-year plan to take over the music industry. An unparalleled debut album gives way to a flood of solo records, each more outstanding than the others. Individual personalities coalesce and gestate inside the Clan before embarking on a crusade to change the way people think about how music happens and why. On November 22nd, at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, we had a chance to bare witness to this pursuit, as one of the Clan’s most prominent members and his most trusted associate spat and spun the crowd into a full-fledged ruckus as if it were 1994.
What I’m really trying to say is this: from the slums of Shaolin, Method Man and Redman struck again.
Through a friend of a friend, which is the best way to acquire any information, Blog Serf James Vasiliou and I first heard of The Smokers Club Tour’s forthcoming stop in Asheville, North Carolina. Given that the mountainous town lay about a two-hour drive from our current locale, we decided to make the pilgrimage in order to see a pair of hip-hop luminaries. Going to a show with connections to the Wu-Tang Clan is a wholly unpredictable experience. Wu-Tang’s wide reach and incredibly diverse appeal means that its members, perhaps more than anyone this side of Beyonce-era Jay-Z and any-era Kanye West, enjoy a universal visibility and recognition that most of their contemporaries do not.
Wu-Tang’s status as a brand, originally conceived by RZA and carried out in the mid-1990s as part of a strategy to overtake multiple industries, allows it quintessentially American airs of authenticity, truth and justice among hip-hop fans. The group’s 1993 debut album, Enter the 36 Chambers, is as legendary and necessary as any in the hip-hop canon, and the host of subsequent solo records solidified RZA’s reputation as a producer and manager as well as the power and skill of the individuals. Not being down with the Wu is akin to not being down with breathing air; it simply isn’t a viable way to go about living your life with any viability.
Among members of the Wu-Tang, of course, Method Man stands apart. His solo debut, 1994’s Tical, was the first solo Wu-Tang release, an important note given that he was one of the Clan’s most distinctive and productive members over the course of 36 Chambers. With miles-long charisma, the kind which charms your dealer into giving you something extra for your troubles, Method Man approached his verses with the tenacity and focus of a former boxer. He is also notable for his acting appearances, notably as Cheese Wagstaff in The Wire, which is quite seriously the greatest television show of all-time. What makes Method Man great as an actor is that it never really feels like he’s acting, which is the hallmark of either his own star quality, the roles he chooses to pursue or some combination of the two.
Eventually, he teamed up with Redman, one of the most notable in a long line of “Wu-Tang associates” and a member of the influential group Def Squad. Redman seemed to key into something that the original Wu-Tang could not, allowing Method Man the kind of space and push-back wordplay he needed to truly flourish. Together, they made How High, collaborated on a short-lived television series and released the Blackout! albums together.
All this in mind, James and I, along with our friend Alex, headed to the Orange Peel expecting some kind of transformative display. As soon as we arrived, naturally, James realized he had forgotten his ticket. Alex and I decided to head inside and wait, testing to see if we had arrived just in time to miss the litany of opening acts. When we found out we had, a temporary moment of jubilation overcame us, coinciding with a realization that we both needed to go to the bathroom.
I wouldn’t mention this, except as to provide a guide for anyone who plans on going to the men’s bathroom at the Orange Peel during a hip-hop show anytime in the near future. In a word: don’t. Being out of college for only six months gives me some perspective on how low the quality of public bathrooms can stoop at times, but this one was among the very worst: a vomit-filled urinal was the first indication that things weren’t going everyone’s way that night, and the people who surrounded it to talk about it – which, yes, they actually existed and chose to spend their pre-show time that way – are not the kind of people I’d invite to an ugly Christmas sweater party, if you can dig what I’m planting. Alex called that bathroom “hell itself,” I referred to it as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and we got out of there.
The best part about that experience was a giant, inflatable can of PBR which stood outside the door like a gaudy lawn ornament and greeted everyone with a bright, presumably affordable shine. The only things missing were a Christmas countdown calendar and some plastic flamingos. The Orange Peel’s marketing team seems to understand its target audience.
James returned in more than enough time for the show. We spent a significant amount of time fighting our way from the merchandise table to a more central position which would afford us a better view of the festivities. Don Lemon might’ve noted that the smell of marijuana was in the air, but that was to be expected on a tour with a title like this. When the lights went down, a pair of DJs emerged to spin classic hip-hop records before the wordsmiths came onstage.
What makes any Wu-Tang record excellent is its tendency to sound like an open forum at a party. The atmosphere of 36 Chambers is that of a RZA-hosted party in which anyone can grab the mic and spit a verse or two at any given time. It is celebratory and triumphant, and it opened the door for so many records that followed. Illmatic isn’t the perfectionist record we know it to be now without the Wu-Tang Clan, and Biggie Smalls may have been viewed through a markedly different lens without the Wu.
It was this kind of atmosphere that made the Smokers Club Tour stop in Asheville such an enjoyable time. The rhymes were crisp, the words were clear and the beats kept the crowd in motion. What follows are notes I typed in my phone as the show went on, featuring direct quotes from Method Man. Excuse any inappropriate language, but I will present it all for the sake of authenticity:
– Redman chugging honey
– “Everybody say, ‘FUCK YOU, REDMAN!’ So ODB can hear you!” – Method Man
-“I like your weed, but I LOVE your style.” – MM
-“Yo, you showin’ up a little bit.” – MM
-“For everybody that had their hands up, love is love. For everybody that didn’t have their hands up, grey hoodie in the middle…fuck yo life, n***a.” – MM
-“Clear a space for a mosh pit in the middle. Black people, move out. These white boys get crazy.” – MM
-“She say she want us to go to Branson. We ain’t doing no Branson. Fuck that.” – Redman
-“They say this ain’t no country for old men, but I got a nice spot right here in Asheville, North Carolina.” – MM
Following the show, which was well-rounded and hit on all the expected notes given the performers’ backgrounds, both Method Man and Redman approached the crowd for autographs. In the first wave, Method Man came to our side of the stage, and against all odds, Alex got Meth to sign his ticket. He would say later, as we were walking up a crooked street in downtown Asheville, “This is what it feels like to be alive.” This was before a man claimed to have freestyled with Redman as a way of attempting to sell us cocaine, which he called gack. We dubbed him the Gack Man and moved on with our gack-free lives.
I was fortunate to secure the signatures of both Method Man and Redman on my ticket. I even had an exchange with Meth concerning his time as Cheese Wagstaff. SPOILER ALERT to any of you third-rate, third-world plebeians who still haven’t watched The Wire despite my infinite insistence:
“Where my cheese at?”
“You know Cheese is dead.”
“We did it for Prop Joe.”
“You damn right we did.”
Wu-Tang is for the children. Here endeth the lesson.