Thirty years ago, Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith teamed up for “Walk This Way,” proving to the mainstream that hip-hop and rock-and-roll had more commonalities than contrasts. The song also paved the way for three decades of rap-rock collaborations, with very mixed results. For every “Judgment Night” soundtrack there’s an album like Lil Wayne’s “Rebirth.” For every Rage Against the Machine, there’s a Limp Bizkit. And while Banks & Steelz — the pairing of Interpol frontman Paul Banks and Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA — never reaches Fred Durst and company’s repugnant lows, it will probably go down as a misstep for both artists, an answer to a question nobody asked.
On Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club, Banks, RZA and Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick trudged their way through “Anything but Words,” the group’s just-released debut album. In matching black blazers, Banks played guitar and sang as RZA rapped while manning a synthesizer and occasionally a tambourine, the latter a particularly strange sight from the man who told you to protect your neck and bring the ruckus. Compounding the incongruity, RZA spent most of the night anchored behind his gear, an emcee forced to work the crowd with his hands tied behind his back.
As they launched into their set with “Ana Electronic,” the trio seemed to be on different pages: Either Banks’s angular riffs or RZA’s synth arpeggios were out of tune, with Barrick’s rhythm unable to serve two masters. Things improved as the night went on, but all three were never in the same pocket. Instead, the pendulum swung between songs that better suited either Banks or RZA, but never both.
While exacerbated by their uneven live performance, the problem with Banks & Steelz is systemic: As much as they want to cross-pollinate the post-punk revival and New York hip-hop, neither Banks nor RZA is willing or able to find much common ground, despite their previous attempts. This isn’t Banks’s first foray into hip-hop: In 2013, he took a break from Interpol to release a widely panned mix tape with an unprintable title. Nor is it RZA’s first flirtation with rock, as he has worked with the Black Keys on both their “BlakRoc” album and his “The Man with the Iron Fists” soundtrack.
RZA’s songs with the Black Keys weren’t exactly groundbreaking, but blues rock and hip-hop proved to be more familiar bedfellows than the traditions from which Banks & Steelz are pulling. It’s a lesson they learned for one of the night’s highlights, “Love and War,” a melancholy ballad — featuring RZA’s falsetto singing! — that you can actually dance to. As RZA told the crowd, “If you’re not having a good time, then you’re wasting your time.” But while the guys onstage might be having a good time indulging their collaborative fantasies, the rest of us have to settle for another milquetoast entry in the rap-rock discography.