December 22, 2010
When I was young, my Dad would often call me into the living room where I’d find him fiddling with the stereo. “I want you to listen to something,” he’d say, turning the knob on the receiver until he found just the right volume. “Hotel California” by The Eagles. “Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. To a twelve-year old kid, they were interruptions in Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog marathons. But as I got older I realized they were gifts from a father to his son.
I can trace my deep affection for music back to those early teen years. But at the time, it wasn’t classic rock that was getting my attention. It was hip-hop. And there was one group who influenced me far more than anyone my father ever played—Wu-Tang Clan.
Surprisingly, I had never seen the group perform live and made sure to secure tickets when their pre-Christmas show at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre—an intimate venue that usually hosts comedians—was announced. With the exception of RZA, the Clan’s de facto leader, every Wu member was slated to appear—a rarity that I would believe when I saw it with my own eyes. The opportunity was there for a night I would always remember, both as a fan and grapher.
I had been following the members on Twitter (more than half had active accounts) for several days leading up to the Boston appearance to get insight into the tour activity (e.g., who was appearing, when they were arriving into cities, when soundcheck was held, when shows were ending). Raekwon was particularly generous with information, and I monitored his tweets even more closely after he announced the Clan was en route to Boston.
Throughout the workday I watched their updates pop up about their excitement for the show and dissatisfaction with the snow which, by the early afternoon, was coming down hard. I had no leads until Raekwon posted that he was at P.F. Chang’s, just down the street from The Wilbur. It was go time.
I arrived at the restaurant about thirty minutes after his tweet not knowing if the rapper was still inside. Standing under an overhang, I only partially avoided the wet weather which was now blowing sideways. For nearly an hour I watched people come and go. Nothing. Then a small group of black men emerged. I unzipped my bag and held my hand over a folder holding an 8×10 group shot, ready to draw. As they approached I could see none matched Rae’s short, broad stature. There was something familiar about one man, however, and just as he passed, it hit me. It was U-God, another Wu member.
In an instant, a question raced through my mind. Do I address him as ‘U-God’? Should I shorten it to ‘U’ or ‘God’? Nothing sounded right.
He glanced once in my direction without slowing down. “Nah, I’m good.”
Shit. I felt like a jerk. A shivering, snow-covered jerk who just got dissed by a rapper.
“Oh, did you want an autograph?”
I looked up to see U-God walking toward me.
“How did you know I was here?”
I told him about Rae’s tweet and admitted why I was actually here. He signed my photo and I wished him well. Ten minutes later I gave up on Raekwon and headed toward The Wilbur. Two tour buses sat idling outside the W Hotel and I took shelter underneath a nearby awning. One of the buses shook from the hip-hip music blaring from within. After a while, two men approached and began to pull boxes of Wu-Tang t-shirts from the bus’s undercarriage. I introduced myself as a huge fan and asked their advice on how best to get an autograph.
“You’re doing the right thing,” said one of the guys (who, incidentally, called himself Don Wu). “Just keep posting up. Rae is in the bus chillin’.”
His advice was spot on. A few minutes later I spotted GZA walking out of the W accompanied by a beautiful young woman.
“I ain’t signin’ no thousand pictures,” he called out as I approached.
I assured him I had one and that he could personalize it (he didn’t). His companion took a picture of us as well. A few minutes later Cappadonna appeared and I added him to my photo. I was thrilled, but Raekwon—my favorite member of the Clan—remained by number one target.
A buddy I hadn’t seen since high school met me outside the W about an hour before the show. It was great to reconnect but I felt badly after seeing that he wore only a hoodie, obviously not expecting to keep me company outside in the snow (he’s not a grapher). I gave him some blank autograph cards and a Sharpie and promised it would be worth the wait.
The next forty-five minutes were eventful. Inspectah Deck exited the hotel with his honey and totally blew us off. “Let me do my thing first,” he said and took off down the street. Ok, you got it. GZA returned and my buddy got a picture with and a graph. He was thrilled and I could already see he was about to get hooked on the hobby. U-God and Cappadonna reappeared but my buddy was saving his cards for one of the bigger stars like Method Man or Ghostface Killah.
Finally, the bus door opened and Raekwon stepped slowly to the sidewalk. I engaged him politely and he acknowledged us, saying he had to run inside but would be back out to sign. He’ll do it, I told my friend. But after about ten minutes of waiting, the doorman informed us that the group had already gone out of the side entrance.
Devastated, we rushed around the corner toward the theatre. Security had surrounded the side entrance. They hadn’t left yet.
“They’re not signing, don’t even ask,” the guys in black shirts and walkie-talkies told us. Then the members—including Masta Killa whom I hadn’t yet seen—emerged with their entourage, making their way across Tremont Street and into the venue.
“Have a good show, Ghost.”
I assured my buddy that this was the spot we would get them after the show. He was excited. I wasn’t so confident.
[I’m not going to describe the show, but it was amazing. Here’s a video I shot.]
After the encore, we rushed back to the side entrance of the W, in clear view of The Wilbur and its exits. It was a good thing we hustled because before long the first members began to stream out into the crowd.
We each already graphed GZA, and my buddy let U-God and Cappadonna go in favor of bigger fish. Inspektah Deck blew us off for the second time. We turned our attention back to the street and a tall, lanky man came running toward us, a hood pulled tight over his head.
He rushed past my outstretched photo and tugged on the hotel door. Locked. He spun around and nearly crashed into me. I blurted out that I had been a fan since I was twelve years old (true!) and he grabbed my Sharpie and scribbled “MR MEF” across the photo before taking off around the corner.
Across the street, Ghostface Killah was being mobbed outside the entrance to The Wilbur and I dashed over. He was patiently taking pictures with anyone who asked and I finally found an opening to get my picture signed. The mob was following him toward the Wilbur and I whipped out my camera and handed it to my friend. The battery was dead. There was no point in using my iPhone which had no flash—the photo would never come out. My buddy whipped out his Blackberry, told me to jump in next to Ghost and snapped a picture. Moments later the rapper was inside the hotel. While I was thankful for the pic with Ghost, I also felt badly that my buddy sacrificed the opportunity. He’s a good kid.
The evening was nearly perfect—all I needed was Raekwon. But we would never see him. Perhaps he slipped by us during the Ghostface commotion. We’ll never know. We waited another half hour—and actually saw Nate Robinson of the Boston Celtics walk by with his crew—before calling it a night.
It was an experience I’ll never forget. Wu-Tang forever.