Wu-Tang style

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

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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