The unexpected combination of hip-hop, dark humor and kung-fu made Wu-Tang Clan unlike any group before it. Their breakout album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), turned 21 this past Sunday. The day before the group’s 1993 hits were celebrated along those of A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and others at “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition.”
Held at the San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the program was a nod to the mash-up practices intrinsic to rap music. DJs, videos overlaid with beatboxing and dancing accompanied the hip-hop orchestras Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) and Kev Choice Ensemble as the headline acts.
The space was cleared out to make a dancefloor, with the DJ turntables in the corner, flanked by two stages and above, a large video screen. In the videos shown, we heard favorite hits and specific memories of ‘93 from various Bay Area figures such as Chinaka Hodge and Boots Riley.
My first CD that I got in 3rd grade was Missy Elliott’s Under Construction. I remember listening to “Back in the Day,” and realizing that there was a time before mine when music was supposedly way better. The song, featuring Jay-Z, opens with, “What happened to those good old days / When hip-hop was so much fun.” A dramatic crescendo in the chorus rises with the line “Hip-hop has chaaaanged.” It had been over a decade since The Cabbage Patch, nine years since the golden year and people already missed it.
The night was a testament to the timelessness of the best year ever for rap and hip-hop. The show began with an explosion of a performance from Young Gifted & Black, many of whom weren’t even alive in 1993. The crowd circled around the group of local youth whose rap step-routine featured KRS’s “Sound of Da Police.” Their rap step-routine set the energy-level bar high. Dancers also performed in the crowd and on top of platforms throughout the night during sets by 25 local MCs.
The two stages hosted alternating sets from Kev Choice Ensemble and Ensemble Mik Nawooj, similar in that they performed instrumental renditions of iconic hits but differing in their collaborations and stage presence. Kev Choice, once the music director for Lauryn Hill, led a constantly rotating lineup of performers on stage backed by the ten-piece band. Choice rapped some verses when he wasn’t at the piano. EMN’s leader, JooWan Kim, also led from his grand piano, head-banging his long locks as he conducted his mini-orchestra which featured a clarinet and flute.
It was rad to see a hip-hop orchestra with fervent, punk-ish MCs refusing to just be a gimmicky trend like those coffee-shop acoustic renditions of “Get Low.” Actual crowd-riling dancing and call-response also came when the women MCs such as Coco Peila and RyanNicole took over Kev Choice’s stage. They sang E-40’s “Captain Save a Hoe,” which was incongruous because with their style in both delivery and fashion. These women were antithetical to the hoes referred to in the title of the song — they didn’t need saving and definitely don’t need anyone to take them to the Durant Square mall in Oakland.
Nostalgia’s easy, and not necessarily bad. Sadly, Ice Cube can now be labeled as a middle-aged family movie star. Some of the people at the event at YBCA are probably some of the first hip-hop lovers to get old. I’m vaguely familiar with the rap snobs that can dominate blogs and Nas concerts, paralyzing our generation into just appreciating NWA but being too terrified to talk about it. We weren’t there, we don’t understand, and never will. It’s kind of bizarre and perverse — hip-hop is something so closely associated with youth, sometimes rebellion, and fresh creativity.
I expected to be intimidated by the crowd at YBCA — I was only alive for two months of 1993. But the best part about “Clas/sick” was the crowd, and the collective vibe was nothing like the aforementioned pretension. The crowd wanted to be there and were dancing, smiling and cheering each act. They weren’t there to lament how bad hip-hop is today (which it’s not). People might have come for a dose of 1993 nostalgia, but the program took the inspiration of 1993 and riffed on it enough to create an undoubtedly contemporary event without a beat of boredom. It was a good day.