Live Report: Rage Against the Machine and the Wu-Tang Clan in New Jersey

Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J., August 20, 1997

Though the Wu-Tang Clan/Rage Against the Machine tour has played in the media as an All-Star Game of agitprop, it's more like the World Series of boisterous, boot-stompin' beats. On one side is rock's most didactic band, the card-carrying Marxists of Rage Against the Machine; on the other is hip-hop's most surreal crew, who promote a barely comprehensible ideology centered around numerology, Hong Kong action movies and their Wu-Wear line of clothing. Whether or not the two groups have anything in common politically depends on whether the Wu-Tang song "C.R.E.A.M." -- which stands for 'Cash Rules Everything Around Me' -- is an ode to class conflict as the ruling force of history or a paean to the invisible hand of capitalism.

But who cares if Rage calls for revolution Marx-style now and Wu-Tang just wants to sell more copies than Kinkos? Judging from the Wednesday night show at the Continental Airlines Arena, which German techno-punks Atari Teenage Riot opened, the tour is simply the testosterone-heavy yang to Lilith Fair's yin. Call it the Cain Fair: A festival so absent of the empathy supposedly returning to rock that some attendees continued to crowd-surf during intermission. Though the audience adored both Wu-Tang's sophomoric shenanigans and Rage's furious punk, the most cheers were reserved for Rage frontman Zack De la Rocha when it was announced that the show would go on despite a mid-set ankle injury from landing on a monitor. And why not? To a crowd that seemed to view rock as an extreme sport, playing with pain was the ultimate evidence of dedication.

Though the Wu-Tang Clan's music is dense and textured, its set also had the manic pace of a sporting event (as well as enough MCs to field a baseball team). In front of a set that looked like a Disneyland rendition of urban America, the Wu-Tang Clan spent less time performing songs than it did requesting applause, having audience members hold lighters aloft and, at one point, asking "all the muthafuckas who want to change the world" to take their shirts off. (The group later took arena rock antics to a new low by asking the women in the audience to do the same.) Though a few songs came off effectively -- especially "Reunited" and GZA's "Liquid Swords" -- nearly everything innovative about the group's music was lost amid the sheer spectacle.

Rage Against the Machine wisely concentrated on their music, pausing their pummeling assault only briefly for De la Rocha to rant about police brutality. (They also stopped the show for about 15 minutes so the frontman's ankle could be iced and taped up.) Beginning with a supercharged "People of the Sun," Rage fused elements of rap and rock with such seamless precision it seemed they were less a band than a terrorist cell. Although a bit of the Wu-Tang's personality and interaction between members might have helped their set go down smoother, their only significant musical misstep was an ill-advised cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that substituted misplaced anger and a metallic grind for the song's empathy and intimacy.

Part of what generated anticipation for the Wu/Rage tour was the possibility of a collaboration between the two acts, but a Rage Against the Machine encore featuring Wu-Tang leader/producer RZA featured neither the righteous indignation of the former nor the musical innovations of the latter. Backed by the slowed-down riff to Rage's "Freedom," RZA asked the audience to put their fists in the air and "hit 'em high;" taking his turn at the microphone De la Rocha told the crowd to "give it all up for the peoples of the Wu-Tang Clan."