At some point, Cheech and Chong simply stopped being cool. Perhaps the tipping point came in 1983, shortly after the release of their fifth film, Still Smokin', and more than a decade into their string of comedy records.
Some film buffs argue that the precise moment of unhipness arrived between the pair's period farce, The Corsican Brothers, and Cheech Marin's first solo film outing, Born In East L.A. Most everyone can agree that Tommy Chong's subsequent Far Out Man failed miserably.
Likewise, 2001's How High—a feature-length film and accompanying soundtrack—proved to be the beginning of the end for next-generation tokers Method Man and Redman. It was an homage from one up-in-smoke duo to another. Only two years earlier, Method Man and Redman launched their blunted brand with the platinum-selling Blackout! LP. They should have let the joint burn out after that beginning. But How High and the pair's self-destructively unfunny (and summarily canceled) sitcom Method and Red found the pair pushing the goofy gimmick to multimedia excess, past the point where people just stopped laughing. The joke has been over for about 15 years, though Method Man and Redman are now on tour, enjoying one more very late victory lap.
Neither rapper has landed bona fide commercial success in the music business in many years, though, like Marin, Meth has enjoyed a solo acting career, most notably in a pivotal recurring role as Cheese on The Wire. Cheech and Chong managed to keep their own joke going for more than a decade; but by the time Method Man and Redman released Blackout! 2, a sequel meant to commemorate 10 years since the original, they'd more or less smoked the grass of public opinion. Not one of its 17 songs became legitimate singles.
Fortunately for Meth and Red, stoners can have short memories. The pair's latest tour, dubbed World Wide Rollers, is sponsored by the light-up-lifestyle website The Smokers Club; the package places the pair atop a bill that features nasal Cypress Hill frontman B-Real, jazz-loving up-and-comer Mick Jenkins and brawny insurgent Berner. Those last two are the only thing standing between this tour and the complete nostalgia of '90s alt-rock reunion roadshows like Everclear's Summerland and Sugar Ray's Under The Sun.
Always an inevitability for any form of entertainment that once sold so well, legacy rap is becoming its own cottage industry; every year, more concert packages like this seem to occupy small-to-mid-sized venues and theaters across the country. The Hip Hop Legends tour, for instance, paired DMX and Ja Rule with justified ancients Rob Base and EPMD. Last year's Kings Of The Mic toted Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Public Enemy across America, like rappers riding in an RV caravan.
The appeal is obvious, even if it runs counter to hip-hop's origins. Hip-hop began as the progressive sounds of the urban underground and grew to become the dominant force in contemporary music, all the while pushing forward in multiple directions. In recent years, though, those directions have become codified into isolated units, as the many factions of rock 'n' roll did earlier. Rap fans have self-selected their artists and eras of choice. If you're stoked about World Wide Rollers, you probably haven't ponied up for a major-label rap record in years. It's all about vintage hits and fresh one-hitters.
At least Meth and Red earned the right to chase nostalgic bucks, as they essentially godfathered the stoned status quo of modern hip-hop. In music as in everyday life, marijuana has become a banal vice, gradually inching towards toleration and inevitable legalization with every election cycle. While hip-hop has taken to harder drugs like lean and molly, pot has become entrenched, perhaps more consistent in hip-hop than alcohol. Turn on your radio and try to identify an artist who doesn't boast about smoking. Young Thug proudly defined it as his raison d'être on breakthrough single "Stoner," while Wiz Khalifa spent an entire verse extolling the recreational practice on "We Dem Boyz."
But continued interest in Method Man at all points to hip-hop's growing love of its bygone icons.
In spite of his irrelevance, Method Man has endured in large part because of his participation in infrequent Wu-Tang Clan re-ups. More than two decades after their debut, cultural fascination with and fixation on the Staten Island crew remains. The often-tentative alliance has taken the show on the road a number of times, including last year's Rock The Bells tour, which featured a quizzical and sacrilegious hologram version of the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. Still signed to major-label deals, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon release solo records that garner critical praise.
Some of this interest has to do with old-fashioned drama. Even before the 2007 release of 8 Diagrams, the fifth Wu-Tang LP, tabloid-level gossip and interview asides had documented rampant dissent and unrest in the Wu-Tang ranks, fueling will-they-or-won't-they rumormongering about the release of new music. RZA and Raekwon have taken potshots at one another over the direction of the group.
But Meth has often come across as one of very few sure things, the affable rapper happy to participate even when others are bickering in the press. He's the goofy uncle who keeps cracking jokes amid holiday familial drama. You want to like him.
Still, it seems that our actual appetite for new Wu-Tang is much lower than appreciation for the idea and legacy of Wu-Tang. RZA's gimmicky attempt earlier this year to sell only one copy of the unreleased Once Upon a Time in Shaolin LP for $5 million sparked an ambitious and highly publicized Kickstarter campaign. Fans raised a whopping $15,406. The last time a Wu-affiliated project of any sort went RIAA Gold was 2004, for Meth's Tical 0: The Prequel. Publicity for A Better Tomorrow, the crew's imminent new album, launched with a surprise group appearance on The Daily Show. But you'd be hard-pressed to hear any of its "singles" outside of Spotify.
This, then, is the worst nostalgia, one that insults artists by duping them into thinking people still care enough to open their wallets when they don't. Maybe Method Man is just shrewd to team up again with his pal Redman and get the most he can from this fleeting moment. The rest of the Wu mostly lacks this option, as very few have discernible and marketable identities outside of Shaolin. Even if he's still telling that same damn stoner joke, Method Man might have the last laugh, his sidekick Redman in bleary-eyed tow.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Puff, puff, passed"