With each year, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s offerings grow more diverse. Purists may balk at its ever-increasing inclusiveness, but locals who value variety over boundaries will be grateful for the opportunity to see Herbie Hancock one night and LSD Trio another. It’s a stretch to bring Wu-Tang Clan—one of this year’s headliners—into the jazz orbit, but that’s not to say there’s no connection. If the New York rappers exist at a remove from, say, bebop, it’s a distance that can easily be bridged: you just have to think of acts like the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron.
The first Wu-Tang Clan album dropped in late 1993; Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a rough, raucous work laced with loud vocals, harsh ghetto storytelling, and snatches of English-dubbed martial arts movie dialogue, and it set the hip-hop world on fire. Soon the group, which then consisted of nine men, spread its tentacles with solo projects from Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and others, and by the mid to late ’90s their place in the rap canon was firmly established. What Wu-Tang brought to the game—besides their kung fu swagger and leader-producer RZA’s harsh, trebly instrumentals—were lyrics that pushed the bounds of possibility.
From early in its history until quite recently, rap was defined by virtuosity and competition: the best rappers, from Kool Moe Dee to Rakim to the Wu-Tang guys and beyond, saw their peers as opponents of a sort, and they seemed to want to outdo each other. You wouldn’t know it by the slow, drowsy mumbling that’s so big in today’s North American rap scene, but there was a time when being “lyrical” really mattered. Wu-Tang Clan may have taken that spirit to its limits, and on June 23 its skills will be on full display at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. For many, the concert will be a throwback, but let’s hope there are plenty of novices in the crowd as well; they won’t be able to rap along, but what they hear just might blow their minds.
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival: June 21-July 1, visit coastaljazz.ca for details.
Wu-Tang Clan play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre June 23.
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