To a casual observer, Wu-Tang Clan appears to have about 40,000 members. Sure, we all know the original ten-man crew — Rza, Gza, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspektah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadonna — but then there are a whole slew of acolytes, childhood friends, lackeys, and hangers-on who also claim the Wu-Tang imprimatur. That would explain the chaotic nature of the rap crew's shows, which always feature at least a dozen people onstage at all times. Four have microphones, two have video cameras, at least three are groupies. Then there are always six or seven guys just standing around, bobbing their heads listlessly and trying to look important. Resembling towel boys on a court sideline — some do, indeed, carry hand towels for the rappers — they make the show look less like a show, and more like a large spectator sport. Ghostface's Thursday night show at Slim's was no exception.
One funny thing about Ghostface: He's generated a more bizarrely fervent cult of adoration than any other Wu-Tang rapper. He appears to have no fair-weather fans. If you like Ghostface, you own every album in his oeuvre. You learn all the lyrics by rote. You might arrive to shows brandishing a vinyl copy of his 1996 LP Ironman, as did one particularly zealous person in the front row. Ghostface grabbed it mid-song and beamed.
He deserves the hype. Forty years old, and quickly approaching what, in hip-hop years, counts as the autumn of middle age, he still looks like a hyperactive teen. He's produced several classic joints and a spate of terrific mixtapes, out-rapped Raekwon on last year's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Pt. II, and even tried his hand at AutoTune-laden R&B (ergo, the 2009 travesty Ghostdini). His voice is higher, raspier, and more distinctive than any other rapper in Wu-Tang, and he picks odd topics to cover — not just drug runs and sexcapades, but barbershops, childhood whippings, and odd complaints about gold diggers. He'll describe a scene in minute, girly detail, making his lyrics a lot harder to memorize than those of say, Ludacris or Chuck D. So it was encouraging to see a group of die-hards in the corner at Slim's, quoting every rhyme and name-checking every track. Real Ghostface heads don't just know the obvious hits like "Be Easy" or "Fish." They also know the B-sides, the material from relatively obscure mixtapes (like 2007 joint Hidden Darts), the songs that sound more like monologues, because they lack a traditional hook-verse structure.
Diehard fans comprised a small but committed minority at Slim's, where many people seemed too drunk or high to follow the action. The crowd was typical backpacker: 80 percent male, two-thirds white, pretty nerdy. Many people scratched their heads and turned to their cell phones when opener Sheek Louch (formerly of the New York emcee trio The Lox) got onstage with his requisite three hypemen (one of whom was an actual hype man — the other guys just sorta stood there). "Who are these guys?" asked a preppily dressed hipster, leaning against the bar's water cooler. "They're awful." Indeed, Sheek failed to wow the audience with his catchy rendition of "Ride or Die Bitch."
Sheek is actually a very capable emcee, but he's done little of note since forming the Lox with Styles P and the more commercially successful Jadakiss, back in 1994. Combining a hard snare with a sample from Betty Wright's "Tonight Is the Night" might have been his greatest accomplishment. The resulting track, "Good Love," got a few minutes' play at Slim's. It was the only number that didn't elicit boos.
Ghostface fared a lot better, despite his top-heavy entourage. The rapper emerged wearing a large parka and beanie, as his DJ played the opening horn part to Stacy Lattisaw's "Love on a Two Way Street." Ghost took the mic and introduced a few lackeys, the most important of whom was fellow Wu-Tang emcee Cappadonna, who wore a large gold medallion. Groupies hung around in the back corner, looking bemused. A couple guys flitted around the stage with cameras, a practice that's particular to hip-hop shows. (It's a genre fixated on self-canonization, after all.) Ghost cycled through his hits. He shed the parka and the puffy vest underneath, revealing a thick hooded sweatshirt. Surprisingly unassuming, he ceded the stage to Cappadonna at several points during the set.
Then, of course, there were the girls. It's become routine in hip-hop to bring female fans onstage for at least one song, even for rappers whose female audience is small enough to fit in a single restroom. Ghostface is one such rapper. The members of his harem varied in quality. Two could dance, but most of them shuffled around awkwardly, and some looked too drunk to know what was going on. Ghost's DJ played samples of well-known slow jams, and he attempted to freak some of the groupies before they limped offstage. Everyone else looked bored. Ghost tried to wink at his audience and laugh, but it didn't work. Fans in back yelled for more music.
Seen live, Ghostface is more interesting than most rappers. He has such a huge catalog that he can rap for an entire evening, and not hit all of the A-sides. Problem was, he started after midnight at Slim's, and got called off shortly after 1 a.m.
"They want us to leave, right? We got curfew and shit," Ghost chortled.
"Let's just fuck around and give 'em one more song," a hype man said.
"Daytona 500!" shouted a fan in the back.
"Toney Awards!" someone else yelled.
Ghost ignored them and launched into "One," a song from his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele. The fans grumbled, but rapped along with him, anyway.