“Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?”
“En garde, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.” –
Bring Da Ruckus – Wu-Tang Clan
November 1 loomed large on the calendar. Announced at The Anthem in DC, the night of the Black Star show on April 20th, the Wu-Tang Clan would be performing together in honor of the 25th Anniversary of their iconic Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers album. The end of October, Halloween, signaled a deadline for any new artwork to be made.
Overwhelmed at the thought of making ten portraits, I decided to let myself off the hook, and I instead focused on trying something new. I toyed with the idea of making a group piece, but quickly dismissed the idea in favor of traditional headshots. It was important to stress quality over quantity, and I purchased a wooden panel on which to attempt the first drawing.
For the past couple of years, I had reverted to black and white imagery, mostly rendered on corrugated cardboard. For the Wu-Tang pieces, I wanted a bold, fresh, and louder look. I wanted to experiment with colored pencils, and decided to invest in some Prismacolor supplies. I was hoping that I could stay tight and realistic, while emulating the look and feel of an oil painting. The woodgrain of the panel would serve as a background, while setting off the hard edges of the portrait’s contours. I cued up season one of Breaking Bad, found a strong image of Raekwon the Chef, and I set to work.
Although it took a bit longer than the cardboard work, I was pleased with the contrast between the natural color of the board, and the vivid colors afforded me by the soft pigments of the pencils. It seemed to strike the right balance, and I was reminded of the smooth oil paintings of renaissance portraiture. It was then I realized that I’d finish each piece off with gold-leaf.
As the day approached, I was spending every spare minute working on the portraits. I was bringing them to work, furiously scribbling during my lunch hour, and working into the night. It was evident, that I would only get a few of them done. I had previously made digital paintings of Method Man, RZA, and Redman, and I planned on bringing them along as gifts for each of them. Still, I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to have a piece for each member to sign. To add an additional hurdle to my time crunch, I was running up to New York City for the Bumpy Knuckles Family Reunion event at SOBs. There would very little time to make any additional work.
Using one last, desperate gasp of energy, and with a suggestion from my buddy Malcolm, I decided to pull together a portrait of Russell Tyrone Jones – Ol’ Dirty Bastard. If I could get it done in time, I would have something to show all of the members of the group. This was the best part of the plan!
I would now have seven portraits, and a G-Scale toy train car to bring with me to the show. I began to worry – How would I carry all of this stuff?
As the window of time for art-making dwindled, a few logistical pieces began to fall into place. DJ Bee, Real Fresh Radio, and KEJA Marketing (Norfolk, VA), reached out to say they’d be providing the pre-show music for the event. They have all become friends, and I was excited to find that they were offering their help. Between Feed the Scene connections, and our Real Fresh Radio family, we would obtain three backstage access passes. This would surely help to clear our path.
Three members of our newly minted mADurgency artists’ collective, Myron, Malcolm, and I, agreed to meet at the show. I precariously piled my new panels in plastic sleeves, delicately crammed the train car in my backpack, and gripped my portfolio case, as I waddled up to the entrance to The Anthem. I had everything I needed.
As I hadn’t met Malcolm, Jeremy, or Myron yet, I decided to go in alone. Upon entering the spacious venue, I went to the stage edge to gather a perspective from the floor. Immediately, I saw DJ Bee already in position and moving the early crowd. I decided to get my pass, and head backstage to get a lay of the land.
There was a lot of activity – moving stagecraft, positioning performers, and setting up security. I found a corner, and created a home base for my artwork and supplies. Surveying the area, and realizing that I was plenty early, I began to relax a bit. It was then that I noticed another person standing in the wings of the stage – DC legend, DJ Kool. Having met him before, and wanting to say ‘Hello’, I walked up to him to offer a handshake. He saw me, and began shaking his head. “How come I’m the only one that doesn’t have a dope piece of art from you!” he bellowed, with a smile. What, He remembered me and my artwork? With that, he offered his hand, and I laughed. He said, “Oh yeah, I know who you are!” It was a great moment. We talked for a few minutes, I thanked him for Let Me Clear My Throat!, reminded him about the time we met on stage with Doug E. Fresh (that’s a good story), and we agreed to connect on some artwork in the future.
More and more people were filtering into the backstage area, and it became apparent that I wouldn’t be in some small, select group of lucky fans. There were going to be a ton of bodies in this tight space.
Myron, Malcolm, and Jeremy each arrived separately, and we started to strategize the best way watch the show, while still trying to get a few seconds with the group members.
We went up to higher perch, and looked over the small crowd. Just then, a small entourage of people brushed past, and somebody who was the spitting image of ODB, was in the middle. It was his son. Quickly, I pulled out the portrait, and asked if he would add his name to the new piece. He obliged, and took a few pictures with us. It was great to get him to co-sign the image. It meant a lot that he approved.
Seconds later, with a cacophony of activity, Method Man came up the stairs and entered the space next to the stage. What had recently been a small group of people milling about, suddenly became a crowd swarm – everyone wanting a piece of Mef. Once he got his bearings, and a few people gave him some breathing room, he began addressing people who were nearby. One person gave him some CDs, somebody began recounting how he and they knew some of the same people, and I tried to hang back a bit. Eventually, Malcolm took the print from me, and got it in front of him. He took a moment, and realized that we were giving it to him as a gift. Recognition spread across his face, as I explained that he had asked for one when I met him at the Howard Theatre. He shook my hand, turned, and I put the ODB portrait in front of him. He quickly scrawled his name on it, and Malcolm snapped a few flicks. He floated out of the area, with people trailing behind him.
It never occurred to me to take the train out of my backpack, and I decided that would be the right approach. It was too cumbersome and awkward to navigate these tight spaces with something so delicate. Besides, I was having a lot of trouble organizing all the other pieces. It was going well, but it was obvious that this was not going to be a cake walk.
Just then GZA walked by. He was almost unnoticed, as he made his way towards the stage. He double-backed towards the staircase, and I managed to get his attention with the artwork. He stopped halfway up the steps, and turned towards me. His companions were complimenting my artwork, and he was saying “Where do I get one of these?”. He quickly signed the bottom of the composition, and he was back on his way.
The staff at The Anthem began organizing the crowd. They gave us direction to clear the area, and before we knew what was happening, the elevator opened. A small group of people emerged from the car, and made a bee-line toward the stage. Surrounded by other performers, in the center of the group, was Redman. He took the stage, and the crowd began to disperse. They all wanted a better vantage point.
A few of us regrouped, and hung back, taking turns going out to the floor to see the show. While Redman was doing his thing, RZA came through the remaining, backstage crowd. He leaned up against a railing chatting with a few people, as the crowd swelled behind him. It was a very cramped space, and people were working together to keep it from getting out of control. When RZA turned around, he started taking pictures with those who were asking. I decided to get up there with the ODB portrait. When I finally made it through the crowd and got it in front of him, he paused, and said “You see now, this is a beautiful thing. This lady right here (he jerked his thumb towards the woman to his left) is ODB’s sister!” It was really a cool moment, and even better that he thought to point it out to all of us. She deflected the attention, but you could tell she appreciated the acknowledgement.
The rest of the night was an attempt to enjoy the show. While we were on the second level, the Anthem crew readied the floor leading up to the stage. It was obvious that the rest of the group would be coming down soon. They erected barricades (even though we were backstage), and created a lane that allowed an unimpeded path. Any shot that we would have to meet the rest of the group would have to be after the performance.
Wu-Tang rolled out of the elevator, came up the stairs, and more or less regrouped on stage. The crowd on the floor went ballistic, and the majority of the backstage audience searched frantically for the best view. Myron and I took a few minutes to assess the situation, when I noticed Malcolm had disappeared. Thinking that he had gone out to the floor for the show, I settled into our unique spot behind a large black curtain. We could hear the show, and from certain angles, we could catch glimpses of the raucous action. It wasn’t ideal, but we were working. I was on a mission.
Malcolm reappeared. He had been back in the dressing room hallway. Now I had lost track of Myron. “I think he went to find some water”, Malcolm said. “Redman is just chilling back there.” He had finished his set, and with all of the movement and action downstairs, he had made it back to his room without notice. Malcolm said, “Let’s go!”. I had been back there a few moments ago, and took polite direction from a friendly security guard. It was his job to keep this area free of too many people. When Malcolm and I went back a second time, the guard looked up to protest, when Malcolm ‘Kenobi’ said, without breaking stride, “Oh, we’re dropping off artwork for one of the artists”. Immediately, the guard relaxed, seemingly satisfied with this explanation. We fell into a slow walk, and casually found the correct door. Without overthinking it, we knocked lightly. A gentleman that neither of us recognized opened the door a bit, and asked us our business. We explained that we had artwork for Redman, and that we were there on behalf of mADurgency and Chuck D. He pulled the door open for us to enter, as we had evidently found the correct combinations of words. We entered the dressing room, replete with a buffet of food, smoke, and around 7 or 8 people. As we rounded a small corner, there he was – Redman. He had changed his clothes, and looked relaxed and approachable. We introduced ourselves, and began a conversation about art, logo-design, our last meeting at The Howard Theatre, and plans for future connections. Red seemed genuinely interested in how I had made the portrait, and peppered me with questions about the tools, the time, and the process it takes to make a piece like this. He signed one for me, took one as a gift, and posed for a few pictures with us. We gave our information to his manager, the man who opened the door, and tried not to wear out our welcome. It was a great conversation, and a meaningful exchange. Malcolm is obviously getting good at this.
It was time to head back out to the floor. We wanted to catch the show, and see if we could finish the mission. My plan to deliver prints to Red and Mef had succeeded, and I was still hoping to get the rest of the Clan on the ODB portrait, and the Raekwon, and the Ghostface, and… Man, we still had some work to do.
When the show ended the barricades came back up. This time, we stood against the railing with the artwork. Myron held the Raekwon, I had the Ghostface piece and the ODB portrait. As they came through, they spent a few, quick moments with those who were offering kind words and pats on the back. The ODB portrait functioned like a magnet, as each member would glance up, and make their way over. U-God, Ghost, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck; one after the other. I did manage to miss Cappadonna and Masta Killa, but it was not for a lack of trying. There was just so much happening, so quickly.
Just like that, they disappeared upstairs. I think we could have pressed our luck, and headed up after them. Instead a wave of contentment washed over me; as well as exhaustion. It was getting pretty late, and I was riding high. I didn’t want to push, so we decided to call it a night.
We walked out of the venue into the cool night air. People were grabbing cabs, recounting their favorite tracks, and laughing together on the sidewalk. Myron called an Uber, we said our ‘goodbyes’ and Malcolm and I walked to the parking garage.
It was cool to have a few minutes to review all that had happened. We were shaking our heads and laughing, as we knew it would be hard to keep all the best details straight. That’s a big reason that I write all of this down. I don’t want to forget the fleeting moments of exhilaration, the worry, and the payoff for all of the logistical planning. It’s incredibly fun, but it’s not always easy.
This was a satisfying and exciting mission. I look forward to tracking down Masta Killa, and Cappadonna another time. For now, I’m going to think back on November 1st 2018 as the night we accomplished our Wu-Tang mission. – AK
@ajkatzart IG- ajkatzart http://www.katzart.com @mADurgency