Bad Brains + GZA: 19 April 2012 – Philadelphia


The Trocadero Theater stunk like punk that night. Bad Brains were in town and so were their long-standing fans. The show was sold out and sweaty. Mohawks and studded jackets filled the house, but they stood next to curious music fans. Everyone wanted a glimpse of a band so mythical and influential. When I was a wannabe skate punk I feared kids wearing Bad Brains t-shirts. Where did they get them? They were so threatening, yet fascinating. They knew something I didn’t know. It was a band you heard about, but never actually heard in the days before music sharing. I knew that the Beastie Boys and Henry Rollins were fans when I was just an awkward teen, and that was enough for me. This show was going to be important.

Having the GZA as their opening act made the night just a bit more special. Another iconic presence from the ’90s, with an album that shines bright in hip-hop’s lexicon: Liquid Swords. I needed to get close. I placed myself next to some legit punks and some semi-nervous ’90s hip-hop heads like myself. Dudes in their thirties dusted off their black Wu-Tang t-shirts. The GZA was almost an hour late, but we didn’t care. Then the lights dropped.

As soon as the DJ started playing the dialogue from the kung fu flick Shogun Assassin, which is heavily sampled on Liquid Swords, the crowd quivered. And there the GZA stood, decked out in ‘grown up’ clothes. Nice jeans and Kenneth Coles. He could have been in an ad for Ben Sherman. Next to him stood a not so recognizable member of the Wu Tang Clan, Masta Killa. His hype man, whose hype ended after the second song due to sound issues.

The GZA and Masta Killa opened with their verses from Wu-Tang’s “Wu-Tang Forever.” Then they jumped into ‘Duel of the Iron Mic’ and the crowd went bananas. Grown white men ogled at the stage and sang along as they had flashbacks of loading a cassette into a Walkman. The GZA looked just like them too. He was older and wiser, but he was ’90s New York hip-hop. This was a time when rappers kept their shirts on. The kids today don’t remember when rap had storylines and character development. The GZA brought us all back. He rapped a bit slower and the sound wasn’t great, but the crowd yearned for him. He did almost every song off Liquid Swords and sprinkled in some classic Wu-Tang as well as an ode to Ol’ Dirty Bastard with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”. Before he thanked the crowd he noted about how crazy it was teaming up with a band like Bad Brains.

Then the Bad Brains came on. The GZA wasn’t fucking around.

When you see a bunch of older men sauntering onto the stage, most of them wearing sweatpants, you don’t expect to see such fire. Lead singer, H.R. sheepishly thanked the crowed for coming out as he clutched onto a shiny blue guitar. Then the music started. The crowd turned into a swirling, bubbling pool of lava. The band hardly flinched as the crowd seemed to mercilessly beat the shit out of each other. I know this was moshing people, but this was fucking nuts. These people were just as old, if not older than me! I hoped they had ice packs ready in the freezer because nobody was leaving unscathed. Men and women stomped their feet and flung their fists as they methodically ripped through classics like “Pay to Cum” and “I against I”. I stayed out on the outsides of this lava pool, but couldn’t help from taking my eyes off the stage to make sure I didn’t get pummeled. My photographer was in the danger zone. He was in the stationed behind the meathead bouncers collecting crow-surfers. I saw a kid in a Circle Jerks t-shirt come crashing down on his back. I thought my night was ending short with a trip to the ER. He brushed it off without flinching. Their energy was a numbing agent. Nobody felt pain that night, Everyone felt the influence of the hardcore punk pioneers playing before them.

Bad Brains played some of their reggae influenced songs, but this was a punk show.

H.R. seemed to stare past the crowd as he peacefully wailed through their set. He often dropped his guitar and held his arms at his side, palms out. He looked like a punk pop-pop admiring the work of the kids before him. This was a show that you end up being proud of. Maybe it was the fact that both of the acts left an incredibly deep impression on their genres. I can’t wait for someone to ask me about the Bad Brains ten years from now. It’s going to be nice to say, “Oh yeah. I saw them”.

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