I guess U-God is the only one doing press on this tour
It would be easy to say that Wu-Tang Clan has peaked — that its best period is behind it.
It's not just that Ol' Dirty Bastard died in 2004, or that members have dabbled with solo projects over the years to varying degrees of success. The group has now been together for nearly 20 years, making it positively prehistoric in hip-hop.
Against the members' better wishes, they've become elder statesmen. But despite not having released an album in three years, the group's new tour makes a defiant claim on relevance. Appropriately, it's called the Rebirth Tour.
On Sunday, the group performs at Sonar, its second show in Baltimore this year after an appearance at Summer Spirit Festival this summer. All members except RZA will be at the Sonar show.
But what are they offering now? Will people come to see the group out of respect, or just looking to have fun? And can the show be worthwhile without its lead producer, who's shooting a movie in Europe?
U-God said the group stands far above everything else in a marketplace flooded with dance-influenced hip-hop that's neither provocative nor fun. The argument for relevance is simple, he said: The group delivers what no one else does
"We'll put on a show of uptempo, hardcore, raw hip-hop," he said. "With real lyrics. No synthesizers, no speech-coders or vocoders or whatever that's called."
The changes in rap that have inevitably come with the years haven't necessarily been for the best. Actually, U-God said, sounding typically opinionated, the genre has hit rock bottom.
"Hip-hop is at an all-time low," he said. "The art form has taken a different direction. Everyone's worried about hit singles. It has so many types of music now, it's oversaturated."
Asked to name who he thinks is innovative today, U-God could only name one person: Kanye West.
"There aren't too many people who are trying to push the envelope," he said. West might have "made some messes for himself" — maybe even to sell records, he suggested — but he's interesting.
He said the problem is that the record labels aren't rewarding artists who take risks; they're too happy making money off fluff. He suggested that millennial hip-hop is a product of apathy and the recession.
"It's hard out there," he said. "If people are writing songs to escape the madness, I can get that. But music-wise, they gotta get more creative. … We need that jolt again."
Though he's characteristically eloquent in diagnosing the genre's ills, he's less forthcoming with a prescription. In the 1990s, it was Wu-Tang that would have stepped in to agitate the conventional big-sellers. But since Ol' Dirty Bastard's death in 2004, the group has changed dramatically. The only constant has been touring.
On this tour, U-God said, the group is cracking open its catalog, something it hadn't done before. The tour is a stab at figuring out how to deliver for fans, and also how to keep it interesting for themselves. At least, he said, the show combines two things that are sorely missing from hip-hop now.
"The people in power just want the techno sound and stuff, and people want hardcore rap," he said. "But you have to have ying and yang. There has to be a balance between dance and good, raw rap again. That's what's really needed."