Hip-hop benediction at 5th & Monroe
Okay, this actually happened, and I was there to bear witness.
Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan did indeed play a set as part of Bar None’s weekly “Torch Tuesday” hip-hop showcase. To put this morning’s wee-hours performance into a sort of cross-cultural (read: white people) perspective, imagine Neil Young just magically appearing at a typical acoustic singer-songwriter open mic night. Or maybe the Pope casually showing up to deliver an impromptu sermon at the local Catholic parish. That comes close to approximating the level of influence and esteem that Raekwon carries among his audience, as well as the level of incredulity felt by locals. In the words of one freaked-out fan: “Am I in downtown Springfield? This is just nuts.”
The Staten Island-bred rap legend didn’t find his way to the stage until well after 1 AM, following three hours of sporadic sets by aspiring hip-hop artists both regional and far-flung, including Springfield’s Jesse James (who was nearly ejected from the club when he arrived smoking a cigar), Chicago’s oddly Dave Attell-esque Mic One (“I’m on my own dick like a schizophrenic faggot.” Um, charmed, I’m sure.), and Decatur’s intriguing, violin-wielding Tebe Zalango.
You might think that an appearance by an artist of Raekwon’s stature would easily draw a thronging, capacity crowd to a small venue like Bar None. Indeed, it was easy to picture a miniaturized version of the near-riot conditions seen in the Wu-Tang concert documentary Rock the Bells. The reality, as it turned out, was nothing so fearsome. A steep ($50.00!) ticket price combined with negligible publicity to keep the audience, shall we say, sparse.
The track-suit, ball cap and sunglass-clad Raekwon kept it positive, offering his benediction by proclaiming the younger, greener performers “real.” He humbly stated, “I bumped into fame but what matters most is the music,” adding that he wasn’t concerned about playing to a small audience as long as it had heart. His set contained the expected renditions of classic Wu-Tang tracks like “C.R.E.A.M,” solo hits along the lines of “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and even the excellent, lesser known “Eye for an Eye,” a 1995 collaboration with Mobb Deep. The crowd, such as it was, was rapt and giddy in the spell of their roly-poly hip-hop hero, all too aware that Torch Tuesday, and Springfield itself, may never see his like again.