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Tuesday, September 6,2011

Wu-Tang style

Are Lady Wu-Tang hip-hop’s first true cover group?

By Quibian Salazar-Moreno
photo by Aaron Lopez
See photo caption at the bottom

After almost a year of bumping “Protect Ya Neck,” “Tearz,” and “Method Man,” The Wu-Tang Clan took the hip-hop world by the throat when they released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on Nov. 9, 1993. Eight members deep on their debut, The RZA, The GZA, Ol Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah and Method Man, The Wu-Tang Clan consisted of a cast of characters who all had a signature voice, style and personality that fused together to create some sort of super-group of unknown superstars.

The album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), spoke on the realities of living in New York City in the early-’90s over gritty, raw, unstructured, Kung Fu flick-inspired beats produced by The RZA. Each member rapped with a hunger, passion and charisma that mesmerized the listener, making hardcore underground hip-hop fans pick their favorite member as if it was some sort of boy band. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) went down in history as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

But that album was just the beginning. In the years that followed, each member would release critically acclaimed albums of their own. Method Man’s Tical, Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Links, Ol Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, among others, solidified Wu-Tang’s presence and influence on hip-hop throughout the 1990s. They inspired and spawned many affiliated groups like Sunz of Man, GP Wu, Killarmy and so many other groups and solo artists that a Wu-Tang Affiliates Wikipedia page had to be created. But none of them could capture that energy and excitement of the original Wu-Tang Clan.

With most revered bands and groups comes the case of cover bands. Led Zepplin has a few. As well as Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Prince, The Time and other musical icons. Some of them are good, some of them not so good. But the purpose for the majority of these collectives is to honor the music that inspired them. In the hip-hop world, however, it’s taboo as an artist to rap lyrics that aren’t yours, so the cover groups honoring hip-hop heroes are few and far between, if there are any at all. The closest you get is karaoke at a bar or recent karaoke video games like Def Jam Rapstar. But it appears the tides are changing.

Lady Wu-Tang is an all-women Wu-Tang Clan cover group consisting of Denver-based rappers, poets, DJs and performance artists, giving tribute to one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Ru Johnson, a Denver-based journalist who covers the Colorado hip-hop scene, came up with the idea for the project while on a trip to Chicago last year.

“'Bring Da Ruckus’ scrolled through my iPod while I was walking through the city. I was like this is dope, there really hasn’t been a huge posse that has sustained for years like Wu-Tang,” Johnson says. “So then I started thinking about what would happen if the real Wu-Tang were all women in the first place? Like, would they be able to do some of the outrageous things that make them such an epic group in hip-hop history? Then I was like, I know a bunch of girls who rap and who are performance artists, so what if we did that? What if we actually created an all-female Wu-Tang Clan and did the 36 Chambers album as a cover show?”

Johnson flew back to Denver, connected with her business partner Michelle Mata, and started contacting women within the local music and arts scene. She ended up putting together a mix of well-known women who have been putting in work on the Denver arts scene for years: Bianca Mikahn (Raekwon the Chef), Suzi Q. Smith (Method Man), DJ Manizer (GZA), DJ Bella Scratch (Inspectah Deck), Isis Speaks (Ol' Dirty Bastard), LadySpeech (Ghostface Killah), Xencs L. Wing (RZA) and Ralonda Simmons (U-God and other vocals).

“The good thing is that they are these amazing poets and artists in the city, but we have access to them individually. I know a lot of the girls personally,” Johnson says about casting the group. “We tried to take who they are as people and put that right into their character.”

The idea was just to do a one-time tribute show honoring the Wu-Tang Clan at Denver’s Walnut Room last January. But the response was more than overwhelming. The show was sold out and the doors had to be closed, preventing even some of the group’s family members from seeing the show, according to Johnson.

“It was exciting, it was validating,” says LadySpeech, a poet who hosts a bi-weekly poetry night at the Gypsy House in Denver. “Knowing that we sold out the show was dope and real vindicating, it was real satisfactory. And my people don’t know I have a lot of different hats that I wear and it was really good to like show and prove, like ‘I can do this too, muthafuckas! I can rap too, bitches!’ So doing that show was dope. It created such a fire up under me and I fell back in love with Wu-Tang.”

“It was amazing, it was absolutely amazing,” adds Suzi Q., an award-winning and world-renowned poet. “As a poet, I’ve performed for some really large crowds before; I think the largest is around 30,000 people. But a poetry audience doesn’t respond the way hip-hop audiences do. And having that many people excited about hip-hop in Denver was really great, having that many people excited about Wu-Tang is really great, and having people supporting women in that way was really exciting. Then engaging with the crowd and having people rush the stage, touching people’s hands, that sort of real audience interaction and it felt like it was this big collective experience, and sometimes I miss that with poetry, because your audience is snapping at you or whatever. You get the occasional “Uh, mmmm … spit!” but it’s not the same rushing out your seats to the stage kind of experience.”

But being in a cover group isn’t as easy as some may think. It’s more than just memorizing lyrics and songs. It’s an immersion. There’s an attitude and a way that each member of the Wu-Tang Clan carries themselves. So for most of the women, the group was a call to let go of some of their own inhibitions.

“I had to learn to be less reserved,” says Isis, also a poet and lead vocalist for the funk groove band Ten Pound Elephant. “In poetry, everybody knows me as Isis, she’s so professional and now I get to completely show my other side, which is I like to cut up! I like to act a damn fool. I’m fun, I’m funny, I’m not always so stuffy and it actually taught me in my own work as well to just relax and have fun. As long as you got the words and music there, all you need to do there is act a damn fool. And that’s what I did. I got a gold grill for the show, I tricked out a little bit of my wardrobe choices and wore some things that were a little bit more risqué than what I would have normally worn, just because it helps me channel my ‘I don’t give a fuck’ side.”

With the success of the Walnut Room show, it was obvious that Lady Wu-Tang had to continue. They’ve only done a few shows since January’s Walnut Room show, but they continue to immerse themselves into Wu-Tang lore. And within that lore, the women, who for the most part take pride in their womanhood, found the need to accept the male chauvinism within the Wu-Tang Clan’s music.

“For me personally and what I’ve seen other girls do with their process is tapping into that aggressive nature and that rage that lives in us too,” LadySpeech says. “It’s an awesome opportunity to flush out anger, aggressive and be all over the place and to exercise that part of ourselves. I think it’s a real ridiculous and cool political statement to make. There’s a lot of guys who didn’t realize how chauvinistic and how some of their shit is real fucked up towards women, until they saw women doing it. I like being able to be aggressive on stage with a reason and not being looked at like, ‘She’s a bitch’ or any other derogatory term used when women choose to break off in their power. Having this vehicle gives us a reason and gives everybody else a reason to watch us and stay with us. It always makes me question a lot of my own politics around my femininity and around my womanist ideals and some of the beliefs I’ve held to and why I believe in them and what it means to be a woman in hip-hop.”

“I don’t think their lyrics are super-misogynistic,” Suzi Q. adds. “I think it’s all tongue-in-cheek, like ‘Ice Cream.’ We do that song and I have a great time with it. It’s not something I would generally say in my own everyday life but I understand. So I don’t take myself that seriously. I think hip-hop has to represent the grand scale of everything that we are. I think we are light and we are shadow, we’re all of it, so it’s balancing that for me. So I think it’s a representation of truth, if it’s sometimes accurate like everything is sometimes, then I’m good with it. I don’t think it’s super disrespectful to all women, I think it’s something that’s humorous and I have a sense of humor.”

“Honestly, I just think the fact that we’re doing it is basically turning the chauvinism on its head,” Isis continues. “We have so much fun with ‘Ice Cream,’ like ‘I love you like I love my dick size,’ we all revel in saying those lines. I’m very much pro-woman and anti-patriarchy, I mean, my name is Isis, that is very much who I am, but I take with me the fact that chauvinism comes from the greatness and power of women. So if we weren’t amazing, if women weren’t magical and wonderful and the shit, there would be no place for chauvinism. There would be no place for patriarchy; there would be no place for the oppression of us. So naturally we use that as a celebration of who we are as women and we have fun with it.”

Wu-Tang members Raekwon and Method Man have caught wind of Lady Wu-Tang, and even saw some video of their shows, and have appeared to approve of the act. Even so far as much as some talk for some sort of collaboration with some of the Wu-Tang Clan. Whether it’s a show, video or recording is an unknown, but for the women, they’re enjoying the ride so far.

“I have no idea how far it’s gonna go but I’m down to ride it to the wheels fall off,” LadySpeech says. “It’s turned into something that’s pretty incredible. I really like what it’s done to some of the women in the community and how it has empowered a lot of them in different capacities.”

“You know, the sky’s the limit and beyond that,” Suzi Q. adds. “We don’t really know [how far it’ll go], but we’ll go where the opportunities take us.”

On the Bill:

Lady Wu-Tang opens for Jean Grae with DJ Mr. Len at the Fox Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 8. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance, $16 day of show. $2 extra for under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.

PHOTO: (L-R) DJ Manizer, Suzi Q. Smith, Isis Speaks, LadySpeech, DJ Bella Scratch, Xencs L. Wing, Ralonda Simmons, Bianca Mikahn

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