The concept of “real” hip-hop was something that never sat well with me. The idea that someone could arbitrarily discount some hip-hop as fake on account of subject matter or vibes differing from anything that draws a direct line from on an era long gone is a little ridiculous. All of that being said, I’m confident that GZA and Killer Mike touring in celebration of the legendary Liquid Swords is about as hip-hop has a show could ever get.
The tour came through Cleveland at the Grog Shop on Tuesday in celebration of the venue’s 20th anniversary. The Grog is celebrating with a 2 week long bender featuring some of the biggest shows to come through the club in a while, notably their biggest hip-hop show of the year with GZA and Killer Mike.
Opening for them was Bear Hands, who spun instrumental hip-hop for about 30 minutes. And by spinning hip-hop beats I mean he’s playing music through his laptop while not making much of an effort to look like he’s actually djing. He abruptly jumped around between songs sounding like trying to be all the things big instrumental hip-hop right now, jumping between Clams Casino atmospherics to thunderous TNGHT horns. The crowd wasn’t too receptive, but granted a crowd there to see Liquid Swords probably didn’t want to see some indie dude in a snapback play on his laptop for a half hour.
Up next was Killer Mike. As far as hip-hop goes in 2012, it doesn’t get much better than him. Stomping El-P beats blared through the speakers as he flew through choice cuts from R.A.P. Music with an energy untouched by almost anyone else touring these days. His vocal prominence is unmatched, hitting every bar with precision and clarity, while his actual physical presence is more commanding than any rapper I’ve ever seen.
Killer Mike has one of the best albums of 2012 under his belt, and he’s been on tour in support of it almost all year with no signs of losing any steam. Kudos to him, he deserves the spotlight for R.A.P. Music. Following Killer Mike as an opening act isn’t something any old rapper can do, El-P was able to do it on their Into The Wild tour, and sure enough GZA was up for the challenge also.
Liquid Swords is an album that came out when I was 3 years old. Alongside albums like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, 36 Chambers, and the better solo albums from the Wu-Tang Clan, they stand as something like a right of passage for anyone educating themselves on ’90s hip-hop. As far as albums go Liquid Swords is about as cold and unrelenting as it gets, and in a live setting the tracks hit just as hard.
As far as “GZA performing Liquid Swords in its entirety” though, it isn’t entirely true. About half of his hour-long set consisted of album cuts, but the rest of notable entries to his Wu-Tang catalog. With his status as a rap legend he could have done anything and the crowd would have eaten it up. It could have been an hour of Wu-Tang call and response chants and it would have been a hit. In comparison to Killer Mike, GZA stepped on stage with a greater poise and intent, he just knows his songs will crush a show. “Liquid Swords”, “Cold World” and “Shadowboxin’” all knock just as hard in a live show as they do recorded, all while GZA maintains his menacing stare over the crowd.
After a blistering 60 minutes of almost non-stop music, the show was over. As far as “hip-hop” goes, it was probably the most hip-hop show I’ve ever seen; raw beats, sharp lyricism, rowdy crowd, loud music, and a constant fog of weed smoke. As far as I’m concerned GZA turned the club into a time machine. It wasn’t 2012 and we weren’t in Cleveland, the year was 1995 and Liquid Swords was brand new. Ultimately, that’s what makes it an undeniable classic; 17 years can pass and it still cuts with the same chilling force as it did in 1995.