Last night I saw the future of hip hop, and it was deeply rooted in the past. As I stood at the front of the stage, surrounded by fans in their twenties, it occurred to me that Ghostface Killah, whom we were all waiting for, had earned his massive rap credentials over a career that spanned almost their entire lives. From their perspectives, the standard he’d set was as sure and certain as the sun and the stars. He’d always been there and he’d always been a dope MC. I can remember, however, when Ghost was, quite literally, the rapper without a face; the yet to be seen member of the groundbreaking and charismatic collective known as The Wu. So the anticipation for his appearance last night was almost like it was when he first stepped on the scene in 1992. The stage had been set by a litany of rappers and performers; warmed up by a slate of turntablists, a beatmaker and at least two of Philly’s most promising upstarts. The future, escorted by a bandleader, entered the stage at about 12:30AM.
Adrian Younge is a throwback musician. The multi-instrumentalist fronts a band called Venice Dawn and composes scores to blaxploitation films that never existed. Over a year ago, after his collaboration on an album with William Hart of The Delphonics (Adrian Younge Presents: The Delphonics), he met with The Legendary Ghostdini to conjure up a hip-hop concept album, the likes of which the world has never heard before……kinda. It made sense, too. The Wu-Tang sound, pioneered by RZA has been replete with lush samples, the most lush of which appeared on some of Ghost’s solo work. His most popular songs evoked layers complex emotion because he wrung so much out of the careful arrangements from sixties and seventies soul artists, like Mr. Hart. Two years ago, The Roots released the album Undun, which was my favorite hip hop release of that year. Evolutionary hip hop taking a first stab at the concept album, it was cinematic and, characteristically, technically tight. Ghostface and Adrain Younge’s project, 12 Reasons To Die was way beyond that, and may prove to be more successful. In execution, it can be summed up as Lalo Shifrin meets Eddie Hazel meets Ennio Morricone - meets the most lyrical Tony Starks. This is uncharted territory.
On Sunday, The Blockley, a former restaurant turned nightclub, that abuts a piano bar and an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet was packed, wall to wall with die hard Wu-Tang fans. Quite a few of them performed as opening acts, all of whom professed their admiration and honor for Ghost, saying how they’d grown up listening to him. While the performances were entertaining and well received (notably from Philly acts, Voss and Chill Moody), there was no mistaking who the crowd turned out for. When, after three hours of openers and shout-outs from the stage to the crowd, Adrian Younge and Venice Dawn finally hit the stage, the room literally felt like it was going to explode. Some readers may remember in years past, that kind of wait usually resulted in agitation, unrest and maybe worse, this night was all love. All Wu. Venice Dawn, complete with a male and female vocalist, treated everyone to about forty five minutes of musical fireworks. It was loud. It was jazz and rock and funk, but most of all, it was a new hip hop, for a new generation. I heard a few in the crowd, ecstatic by that point, expressing things like they’d be fully satisfied if they didn’t even see Ghostface. This was a performance so unexpected, so beyond the price of admission, one realized then that this night was special. So as not to spoil the theatrical story the show would unfold, it must suffice to say that Adrian Younge left his keyboard to announce the rise of the Ghostface Killah. And so it was.
Ghostface came to the stage, so many “W’s” in the air it was hard to tell if we weren’t there to see some sort of ritualistic genuflection. He walked into a room full of so much respect it would have made the hardest thug shed tears. That he was rocking a Phillies sweatsuit, I’m sure made this crowd even more proud. Exuberance isn’t enough of a word to explain the atmosphere, and, per usual, Ghost returned the favor. Accompanied by the way more than competent Killah Priest, and backed by an extraordinary band, this was the show hip hop has been waiting for - not just this audience. It was a thematic stage production as one might see from Janelle Monae, and it was the tight musicianship seen from The JB’s of the mid seventies, but it was pure, unbridled hip hop. In addition to performing songs from his new album such as “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah” and “The Sure Shot” (which the crowd recited every syllable to), he also performed classic hits from his catalog, as well as Wu-Tang. He gave one fan a chance to rock the mic in the place of the late ODB. Again, so much love. I could say so much about his energy, his own reverence for the classic material, and his ability to evolve and push the boundaries with his new songs. This is a veteran MC who does not at all seem content to rest on his well earned laurels. All of his signature boastfulness couldn’t hide his own humility and appreciation to his fans. He stayed for about forty minutes after the show to sign autographs and pose for Instagrams while still on stage. The twenty-somethings, utterly satisfied, those older feeling validated seeing the genre mastered by one of our own, this is the maturity and continuing evolution of this art form, right in front of us. Wu-Tang forever.