Ever since it was announced earlier this year, the appeal of the Gods of Rap tour hasn’t waned in the slightest: a trio of the greatest-ever East Coast hip-hop acts – and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier on hosting duties, no less – all performing across four jam-packed hours in a venue that, for many, is a mere train ride away? You just had to be there.
The line-up for this all-star tour of rap veterans has brought together the mouth-watering forces of the Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy and De La Soul for a run of UK and European dates this month, which kicked off tonight (May 10) at London’s SSE Wembley Arena. It’s up to De La Soul to open proceedings with the venue sadly only two-thirds full, but their enthusiastic efforts to get the party started do eventually pay off. “Where’s hip-hop tonight?” they ask those of us who’ve managed to make it through the arena’s snail-paced airport security set-up and then shaken off the temptation of a pre-show drink, before the trio continue their charm offensive by describing the expectant crowd as “truly great musical lovers”. Aw, you guys.
The group’s innovative debut album ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ turned 30 earlier this year, but that record forms part of an ongoing and rather miserable tale that has prevented De La Soul from benefiting from the digital boom which has revolutionised the music industry over the past 15 years. Licensing troubles, protracted label beefs and increasingly stricter legal issues surrounding sampling have dogged the digital release of much of their discography for many years, with the group telling fans back in March that they believe they’d only stand to receive 10% of any royalties from potential streaming and download sales of their music. There’s been plenty of support, though, for De La Soul’s plight, and when someone in the crowd tonight proudly waves their precious vinyl copy of ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ at DLS rappers Trugoy and Pos, they both break into a reassured smile. Maybe one day, you hope, they’ll catch a break: you can just imagine the kind of huge streaming numbers that the effervescent ‘Me, Myself and I’, the highlight of their short set this evening, would rack up alone.
After Premier breaks up the interlude between acts with a fist-pumping throwback set which honours the likes of Phife Dogg, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and the late Nipsey Hussle, it’s then time for Public Enemy – or, should we say, Public Enemy Radio – to hit the stage. Sadly with no Flavor Flav in tow, this iteration of one of hip-hop’s most influential and proudly outspoken groups intends to go back to basics by, as Chuck D explained in March, “bringing it back to the foundation of hip-hop. One DJ, and some microphones!”
- Read more: Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “When we first came to the UK, we wanted to spill blood on the stage”
Given an hour to do just that, the Public Enemy Radio experience therefore opts to maintain an admirable intensity throughout. Chuck D may be nearing his 60th birthday, but his stage presence is as commanding as ever as the signature fuck-em-all ferocity of ‘Don’t Believe The Hype and ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ winds the clock all the way back to 1988. Not that Chuck is stuck in the past, though: before proclaiming “2019!” at the very start of ‘Fight The Power’ (yes, it has been a full three decades since the original was released), he’s out here blasting Donald Trump and declaring “fuck the fuck out of Brexit”.
Backed by the dexterous DJ Lord and accompanied by two of the group’s auxiliary S1W dancers, Chuck and fellow MC Jahi continue to turn it up with the always-stirring ‘Bring The Noise’ and the brilliantly polemical ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. Their now-customary closer ‘Harder Than You Think’, the 2007 track which brought Public Enemy into the streaming age when it was used by Channel 4 for their 2012 Paralympics coverage, then triumphantly unites the now-packed arena as one.
It can’t be too easy following a performance like that, but, if there’s one group of certified Rap Gods who could pull off such a feat, it’s surely the Wu-Tang Clan. Continuing to celebrate the recent 25th anniversary of their seminal ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ album, most of the collective – including Young Dirty Bastard, the son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard – are present and correct tonight, but it’s a little disappointing when it becomes clear that Method Man hasn’t signed up to be a part of this tour (he hinted at a few reasons behind his no-show on Twitter earlier this week).
Still, the chance to see the likes of RZA, GZA and Ghostface Killah on stage is always a privilege, and bearing witness to the Wu rattling through the essential likes of ‘Bring da Ruckus’, ‘Clan in da Front’ and ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ never fails to disappoint. Along with a healthy supply of ’36 Chambers’ material, their 30-song setlist is strewn with Wu-related classics: we’re talking ‘Duel Of The Iron Mic’, ‘Reunited’, the glorious set-closer ‘Gravel Pit’ and, before that, a frenetic late burst of energy from Young Dirty Bastard as he dives into the crowd during a frantic rendition of his father’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ and ‘Got Your Money’. The others look on, all grinning – maybe a full Sons of Wu-Tang band might be a good idea in the future after all?
“You’re looking at classic hip-hop right here,” RZA, who acts as chief conductor and bottle-sprayer throughout, tells us during one of the few brief pauses in the set. Hip-hop and rap may often feel like it’s hurtling further and further away from its roots, but special occasions like tonight give credence to the maxim that, sometimes, the old ones really are the best.