The Wu-Tang Clan backed by The Legendary Roots Crew?! I was not going to miss it.
In all honesty, I almost did. I had no idea that the Roots Picnic would be expanding from Philly into NYC, thus I wasn’t aware that it would be headlined by the Wu-Tang Clan. My favorite group. The group that changed my life. The group I’ve written about over and over. The group of whose members I have framed concert posters, framed photos, t-shirts, rare beer, and even the purple tape in my safe.
Though I used to live less than two miles from the site of the Roots Picnic in Philly, I’ve never attended the annual festival. There was always something preventing me. I was all set to go in 2012, but it fell on my daughter’s due date, so I couldn’t go to that one. (She arrived ten days late so in reality I could have gone, proving once again that kids ruin everything.)
This time I would not be denied.
While the first day had a strong lineup, I was only concerned with Day 2, which was billed as a “Love Letter to NYC.” A few days before the show, the set times were released:
Aside from EPMD – who I’ve loved since I was nine – there was no one I wanted to see before 5 pm. So rather than spend the day there, we spent the early afternoon at 3 Sheets Saloon in Greenwich Village eating appetizers, drinking decent beer, and watching football before hopping on the train to Bryant Park, where we arrived just before five.
There was a stage on each side of the park with alternating performances.
I was fascinated to see what a Swizz Beatz performance would entail. Would he perform only his own songs from his lone solo album, One Man Band? Or would he maybe DJ a set consisting of hits he produced for others?
It turned out to be a little bit of both.
He grabbed the microphone and went through a medley of hits he’s produced and/or appeared, including Jay-Z’s “Jigga My N—a” and “Money, Cash, Hoes,” Jadakiss’s “Who’s Real,” T.I.’s “Bring ’em Out,” Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” and DMX’s “Party Up (Up in Here),” as well as his own “It’s Me Bitches” and “Money in the Bank.” It was a fine performance, but at times felt like karaoke. Still, the dude’s got a pile of hits.
From there, we were heading towards the bathroom when the beat to Nas’s epic “N.Y. State of Mind” began pumping from the 5th Avenue stage. At first we thought maybe they were just playing the instrumental, but then Black Thought began his “live mixtape” with an absolutely filthy freestyle. Forget peeing, we weren’t going anywhere. Thought then transitioned into another rhyme over the beat to Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Ill Street Blues.” After that stellar verse, he then invited the original artist onto the stage and Kool G Rap emerged to perform his classic track.
He then proceeded to bring out the following:
- Royce Da 5’9″ who did “Boom” and “Wishin’,” with Black Thought adding his verse from the song’s sequel
- Freeway for “What We Do”
- Smif-n-Wessun to perform “Sound Bwoy Bureill” and “Bucktown”
- Pharoahe Monch tore it down with “Simon Says”
- and Big Daddy Kane performed “Ain’t No Half Steppin'”
Just when we thought it was over, it all culminated in a 2016 version of one of the greatest posse cuts in history:
“By the end, Black Thought had assembled an all-star cast of rappers from the ’80s and ’90s, and they closed the set with a rendition of “The Symphony,” Marley Marl’s classic Otis Redding-sampling posse cut. Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and Craig G were all present from the original “Symphony” lineup, and they were joined by Freeway, Royce Da 5’9″, Pharoahe Monch, Smif-N-Wessun, and Black Thought himself.”
It was a hip-hop superfan’s wet dream.
At that point, we could take a breather and a pee break. As we walked, we saw Kool G Rap and yelled to him that he’s a legend. He came over, gave us dap, and kept moving.
We stayed by the 6th Avenue stage and watched from afar as Trombone Shorty did their thing with surprise guest Mystikal, including “Shake Ya Ass.” Just as that ended, DJ Jazzy Jeff began spinning on the turntables near us, but while I would’ve loved to have seen Jeff’s set, I didn’t want to miss having a good spot for Wu. As my friend said, “I don’t need to see Jazz unless he’s getting thrown out of a house in Bel-Air.”
So we made our way to the other stage to be in a good position for the entire reason I was there, the Clan.
We weren’t the only ones with this idea.
So we stood, about twenty-five rows back, dead center, staring at a dark, empty stage. The crowd grew as techs raced around the stage, checking equipment and microphones. Finally, Black Thought strolled out and announced David Byrne. About twelve people hooted and hollered while most of the crowd, many of them decked out in Wu paraphernalia, gave each other quizzical looks.
Byrne performed about four songs before giving way to funk legend Niles Rodgers, who played his own hits as well as those he wrote for others, from “Freak Out” to “I want Your Love” to “We Are Family,” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” back to his own “Good Times,” to which the legendary Sugarhill Gang came out and performed “Rapper’s Delight,” which samples the song.
At this point, we knew the Clan was next. However, Black Thought introduced a surprise guest: Alicia Keys.
Rocking a one-piece jump that was zippered low to show some skin, Alicia gave a powerful performance from her extensive catalog, including “Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” “You Don’t Know My Name,” the Questlove-requested “Teenage Love Affair,” and closing out with “No One.”
The crowd was now nervously excited. It was time for the Wu.
A blonde woman began walking across the stage. I thought to myself, “That looks like Amy Schumer.” Turns out, I was right. She was there to introduce the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, announcing that they “bring the ruckus,” are nothing “to fuck wit” and have been known to be in the “gravel pit.” She then listed each member, although she omitted Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa. She also skipped Ghostface, but he was the only member not to appear, so that was understandable.
They took the stage and were great from beginning to end.
The songs were:
“Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F Wit”
“Da Rockwilder” (f/Redman)
“Da Mystery of Chessboxin'”
“Protect Ya Neck”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s son, Boy Jones (a/k/a Young Dirty Bastard) performed his father’s part for the final two songs.
On Instagram, there was a photo that was purported to be the original Wu setlist. I believe this was the original setlist for several reasons. First, the show was running late and my guess is that they had to be off stage by 10 pm, so the set was cut short. Plus, Ghost wasn’t there, so “Daytona 500” or “Chercez La Ghost” would not have made much sense. Finally, the songs they did do were in the same order as in the photo.
It was a fantastic show, but much too short. Looking at the original set list, I can’t help but think what could have been.
Not counting solo shows, this was the third time I’ve seen (almost) the entire Clan live. The first time was the House of Blues in Atlantic City. At that show, neither RZA or Method Man were in attendance and Ghostface left with a young lady he brought on stage after one song. That night, GZA took control and dominated the performance.
The second time was at the Trocadero in Philly and all but RZA were in attendance and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever experienced – and still my favorite Wu performance. Everyone was on point, but Method Man brought the energy and led the show that night, nearly two hours of classics from across their catalogs.
This time, it was similar as once again Meth’s star power and charisma shone through, something that my friend said to me as we were leaving. He’s always been the Clan’s biggest star if not its most consistent artist (that would be Ghostface, followed by Raekwon and GZA), but he is integral in so many of their hits. He supplies the hook to “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Ice Cream,” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.” He’s (obviously) the only artist on the eponymous solo cut and is one of two along with Redman on “Da Rockwilder,” so it makes sense that he would once again steal the show. While The Roots were the backing band, the bass was supplied, so it wasn’t a completely instrumental performance but rather a hybrid of the two.
Though I the show was too short, I’d feel that way even if it were four hours long. There’s just so much classic material for them to go through.
Still, it was the perfect culmination to a pretty fantastic day.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, Medium, The Cauldron, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.