Even if the Wu-Tang Clan is a peripheral blip on your music radar, you probably at least have a vague notion that they’re nothing to fuck with, especially if you’ve seen more than a couple episodes of Chappelle’s Show. Their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), became the prototype for over a decade of hip hop style. The large, extended family of rappers, the slang, the mafia themes, the Cristal, the hardcoreness of it all that came to dominate nineties rap music can be traced back to ideas germinated in the so-called Shaolin Land. Of course “Wu-Tang” the term and corporation now represents an extensive honeycomb of killa beez, side projects, solo albums, video games, clothing, etc. The first wave of solo albums in 1995 produced the very best examples of Wu-Tang products and remains relevant almost 15 years later. Both Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and GZA’s Liquid Swords are considered by fans and critics as the pinnacle of Wu-Tang achievement and deserving of spots on any best-of list, hip hop or otherwise.
By the time the majority of you read this, GZA/Genius will likely have performed Liquid Swords in its entirety at the Englert Theatre, April 1. What is a hip hop audience like in a state that’s 94 percent white with a population density of 52 people per square mile (as opposed to the 74-percent white New York–the birthplace of hip hop–with a population density nearly eight times as large as Iowa’s)? In Iowa City specifically, many of us migrated here from smaller towns, bringing rural experiences to a city with urban amenities.
The easy, naive answer to this question is that we’re a bunch of peaceful honkies who can’t relate to the stark depictions of violence supposedly glorified in such albums as Liquid Swords. The album is a gritty, criminological exposition of urban life which draws thematic elements from martial arts cinema, particularly the 1980 movie Shogun Assassin. But it neither celebrates nor condemns that lifestyle. GZA’s expertly crafted allusions present a nuanced and honest portrayal of doing battle in many forms, lyrically, physically and spiritually. The man versus man references to samurai, chess and street life intertwine to create the narrative conflict necessary for any great story. It is no more alienating to Iowans than another work that samples Shogun Assassin, Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent Kill Bill series.
The dubious indictment of hip hop culture by Iowa City police Sgt. Mike Brotherton in the January 3, 2009, Iowa City Press-Citizen article, “Bar Survives Turbulent Start,” exposes the persistent misconception that continues to linger around hip hop and one that seemingly stems from those who do not appreciate the art form. “We have problems with hip hop,” Brotherton said. “It’s a cultural thing across the country. Hip hop has always been associated with violence.”
Of course correlation does not imply causation. Listening to hip hop doesn’t necessarily make a person violent, and violent people do not necessarily listen to hip hop. The suggestion from our local authority figure that hip hop breeds violence is certainly not a great advertisement for the scene. Brotherton was talking about Los Cocos, the new bar on the southeast side that regularly plays hip hop.
Most fans of the genre are able to see through the simplistic world-view that hip hop begets violence. Most local emcees are not crafting rhymes about thug life anyway. They’re writing lyrics about their life here in Iowa, just like the writers from the polar opposite end of the local popularity spectrum, the folk/alt-country musicians.
One would think that as a native of Southeastern Iowa, growing up along the Mighty Miss’, Greg Brown’s “Mississippi Serenade” would be more immediate to my experience than GZA’s “Killah Hills 10304.” But the imagery conjured in lines such as:
Gonna cry like a fish, talk like a bush,
When the breeze blows, I’ll follow it somewhere.
Sounds equally native and foreign to me as:
In his left leg, even underwent surgery
They say his pirate limp gave him away
GZA evokes images even more distant to us Iowans than his 10304 zip code, those from Medieval Japan. Romanticism rules our aesthetic whims. A one-time event of going down to the fishin’ hole or rumored gunshots in a bar’s parking lot get monumentalized by our imaginations.
I think more people in this town enjoy hip hop music than actually show up at the hip hop shows. Whether they feel like poseurs or think a gun might get pulled on them, I don’t know. I know we’re allowed to enjoy beats as well as banjos here, being situated in a small city that is culturally more akin to Chicago than anywhere else in Iowa.
Hopefully, the inclusion of such a legendary act as part of the Mission Creek festival, alongside this area’s more traditional bands, will be a catalyst for IC hip hop–proving, once and for all, that we have a crowd for this.