Published Dec 01, 2001The influence of the Wu-Tang Clan on hip-hop cannot be dismissed lightly. The group revolutionised the sound and business of hip-hop in the early '90s, and their hybrid style that meshes insular street poetry with martial arts lore only deepens their mystique. Despite their ups and downs and waning influence, this Staten Island collective can still push the boundaries and their legacy as one of the most innovative and original groups the genre has ever produced will likely stand untested.
Gary Grice aka the Genius aka the GZA learns how to rhyme in a Brooklyn junior high school, tapping on lunchroom tables for beats and battles fellow students. GZA aka Maxamillion aka Justice is the lyrical mentor of the Wu-Tang Clan and is the most respected figure within the group, known for his painfully meticulous approach to writing rhymes. He would pass his skills onto his cousins Robert Diggs (Prince Rakeem/RZA) and Russell Jones (Ol' Dirty Bastard).
The trio came up in hard conditions. RZA was one of ten children and his mother didn't even have a bank account until his success. The three moved constantly around New York when they were young, but when they got together they would hone their hip-hop skills, making up beats, rhymes and routines: at ODB's house, which had a turntable, keyboard and drum machine in the living room; in a neighbour's basement; or lyrically battling kids in different neighbourhoods. Ol' Dirty Bastard was known as the Specialist and was primarily a beatboxer, although Rza later taught him how to rhyme. RZA's moniker was the Scientist and he was an MC and DJ while the Genius/GZA was an MC. The changing of names and identities was a constant with the crew even before they became famous. GZA learned about the Five Percent Nation, a splinter group from the Nation of Islam, through a family friend now known as Poppa Wu, and shared the beliefs with his cousins. Those teachings prove to be very influential and GZA, RZA and ODB adopt the names Justice, Rakeem and Unique respectively. The trio form a group called All In Together Now named after one of their routines. On Saturday mornings the trio would watch Kung Fu specials on TV and every weekend the Genius/GZA would go to the cinema to watch martial arts movies, which had caught on since the demise of blaxploitation movies. The morals and discipline shown in the films and the relevance of films such as Shaolin and Wu-Tang were clearly very influential on the trio. The trio later applied the Wu-Tang sword style to their lyrical style, equating their tongues with swords, and they dubbed Staten Island their home base Shaolin. The influence of the martial arts movies grew so pervasive that in Staten Island towards the end of the decade, the word Wu-Tang came to symbolise anything that was considered cool and it was even a nickname for Olde English beer. RZA used the term to apply to the burgeoning crew of friends around the trio in Staten Island. Many lived in the Park Hill and Stapleton projects and attended school together. Crew members worked at a variety of odd jobs. Comic book fanatic Method Man worked at the Statue of Liberty, Ol' Dirty Bastard got his name working at a garage and the Genius worked at a nuts and bolts factory, while others hustled on the street. All In Together Now played dingy venues and emerging leader RZA taught the crew about the Five Percent Nation, which was already a noticeable element in hip-hop of this era. The group got together to hang out and rhyme on the street or to record at RZA's house.
Genius and Prince Rakeem secure record deals with Cold Chillin' and Tommy Boy respectively. Genius signs with Cold Chillin' because it's the home of artists such as the popular Big Daddy Kane. However, his first single for the label was "Come Do Me" a throwaway R&B ditty that misrepresented his album Words From The Genius. Genius shops Method Man to the label execs, but they pass on him, and Genius's association with the label soon ends. Prince Rakeem releases a dubious single entitled "Ooh We Love You Rakeem," to lacklustre response. ODB, the other member of the original All In Together Now, is forced to move into a homeless shelter with his wife and child for six months.
RZA is put on trial for attempted murder after shooting a man. RZA claims self-defence. He faces eight years in prison but is found not guilty. Tommy Boy Records decides they will not be releasing his album and turn their attention to House of Pain. Stung by the rejection yet determined to make the most of his narrow escape from jail, RZA incorporates the company Wu-Tang Productions and signs his crew of childhood friends to contracts. He tells the members to come to the studio with $100 and the best verse they had. The result of this recording session was "Protect Ya Neck." Not since the Juice Crew have there been so many MCs on a record - part of plan to showcase all the MCs. The song's menacing aura, the hunger of the MCs and the martial arts samples would become intrinsic ingredients of Wu-Tang Clan music to come. The original group members appearing on this track are Prince Rakeem/RZA, the Genius/GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Inspectah Deck/the Rebel INS, Shallah Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah and U-God/Golden Arms.
After the indie release of "Protect Ya Neck" creates some buzz, the single is distributed on Loud Records. The new release adds the single "Method Man," featuring Method Man and his distinctive rhyme style. With his husky voice and the sound of him sucking his saliva back due to a legitimate drooling problem, the charismatic Method Man instantly becomes the most popular member of the crew. The group signs with Loud Records and orchestrates a unique deal for hip-hop artists similar to type of deals brokered by George Clinton's P-Funk groups. All Wu releases are deemed to be 50 percent partnerships with Wu-Tang Productions and each Wu member with solo deal must contribute 20 percent of their earnings back to Wu-Tang Productions, a fund for all Wu members. Each member is allowed to sign deals with other labels. It becomes clear that this was RZA's plan all along and the impetus behind releasing "Protect Ya Neck." This becomes a prototype deal for the many rap collectives who attempt to emulate the Wu's in the coming years. The group records its debut album in a cramped New York studio. RZA plays his uniquely dusty and arcane beats for group members and the MCs who like the beat get to rhyme on each one; those who throw down the best verses stay on the track. This healthy competition leads to "Meth vs. Chef," which eventually surfaces on Method's album, because he and Raekwon were battling for who should have the track on their album. The group releases Enter The 36 Chambers in November. Reactions to RZA's off-kilter production and the raw style of the MCs are extreme, initially polarising hip-hop heads - some love it, others think the production was just plain bad.
Sales of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) are steady; when the group releases the melodic narrative single "C.R.E.A.M.," sales and interest increase. After a positive article appears in Rap Pages magazine, satellite member Masta Killa punches journalist Cheo H. Coker, because the group takes offence to the article's accompanying artwork - something the journalist had no input in. A flood hits RZA's studio in Staten Island, decimating many of the beats he had lined up for several Clan solo albums - approximately 15 beats per MC. Most immediately affected is Method Man's Tical. Many of the beats are redone very quickly, apparently affecting the album's sound quality. The first of Wu solo albums, Tical - Meth's own name for weed - is dark and foreboding. Other Wu affiliates start to appear; Shyheim the Rugged Child, a teenage MC who grew up close to the RZA, releases an album. Other affiliates such as Sunz of Man and Killarmy also emerge from a network of as many as 300 members. RZA also comes out as part of the Gravediggaz, a group put together by Prince Paul, composed of artists who were frustrated by their treatment by record labels. Prince Paul and Frukwan were former members of Stetsasonic and RZA and Poetic were former solo artists, all once signed to Tommy Boy. The group's debut album 6 Feet Deep is unfortunately misunderstood by the media; tagged "horrorcore," it's compared to other inferior groups dabbling in macabre imagery at the time. In Queens, ODB goes out to the store at two a.m. to get ice cream and notices people following him in a car. He flees but can't shake them, so he resorts to jumping a fence with three rottweilers on the other side. The owner comes outside and ODB crawls into the house through the doggy door. Inside, the owner calls the police at ODB's request. But ODB is so intimidated by the dogs that he jumps through the glass pane of a second-floor window, and suffers broken bones, cuts and bruises in the fall. Police who arrive on the scene claim he was under the influence of drugs. ODB is charged with burglary. The woman tries to drop the charges but police refuse because of Dirty's previous criminal record. While in hospital, Dirty starts to receive death threats. The day after checking himself out of hospital, ODB is held up in the street in Brooklyn. After turning to run, ODB is shot in the back and the bullet comes out through his stomach. Also this year, U-God's two-year-old son is caught in the crossfire of a gun battle as he plays outside his babysitter's house. He survives despite losing one of his kidneys.
Ol' Dirty Bastard's solo album Return To The 36 Chambers features his maniacal improvisational style and off-key singing. ODB does many of his recordings in one take. Just before the record is released, Ol' Dirty allows MTV to follow him travelling in a limo to pick up food stamps, probably in reference to the welfare card on his album cover. Method Man's profile rises with the remix of his "All I Need" duet with Mary J. Blige, though he despises his new found "heartthrob" status. The song eventually wins him a Grammy. His duet with Redman, "How High," is also a hit, solidifying Method Man as Wu's most visible and popular member. Raekwon the Chef's Only Built For Cuban Linx, a concept about about a drug dealer's life that features RZA's best beats to date, becomes the most critically acclaimed Wu solo project yet. Lavish living and the crime underworld are referenced throughout. The mystique of the Wu-Tang Clan is deepened by the adoption of crime boss aliases and the crew name Wu-Gambinos. The album introduces a flurry of words to the rap lexicon; many artists imitate its materialism without the Wu's complexity. It features Ghostface Killah, who until now had covered his face in every public appearance, and Nas, the first non-Clan MC to appear on a Wu-related album. The Genius releases Liquid Swords, a dense, highly visual record filled with vivid narratives from the Clan's mentor and is notable for "Labels," a vicious diss to the record industry. Expanding corporate ventures include the Wu-Wear clothing line, launched by group executive producer Power, on Staten Island; a manicure shop called Wu Nails opens up next door, run by the RZA's sister Sophia.
With the help of his brother, RZA buys five acres of land surrounded by cornfields in central New Jersey. The house, dubbed Wu Mansion, provides a recording environment away from the distractions of New York. The house contains stacks of kung fu videos, an elaborate chess board (a GZA obsession), and a state of the art mixing board. Ghostface Killah capitalises on the buzz of his appearance on Raekwon's album with his solo Ironman, a black superhero concept album that is much more soulful than previous Wu albums, featuring '70s soul group the Delfonics and Ghost's infectious verve. ODB interrupts a performance by the Roots. He was initially welcomed by the band, but when he wouldn't leave the stage and give up the mic, a scuffle breaks out between ODB and Roots lead MC Black Thought. ODB announces that he is changing his name to Osirus, a name taken from Egyptian royalty.
For the second Wu-Tang Clan album, RZA wants to release an album called The 8th Diagram, inspired by the film The Eight Diagram Polefighters, an kung fu classic. He wants to pursue a opera concept, incorporating some of the new wrinkles to his production, but Clan members are unreceptive. They record Wu Tang Forever instead. The album was one of the most anticipated hip-hop records ever, reaching number one on charts world-wide. The double CD lacks the cohesion of previous Wu-Tang releases, and despite strong sales, die-hard Wu fans are disappointed by the amount of album filler. The group goes on the road with Rage Against the Machine but their participation does not last long. Several key Clan members are missing from many shows and the crew rarely perform all together, a frequent problem for the Wu over the years. Eventually the Clan drops out, citing internal conflicts. ODB's wife has him arrested for failure to pay child support for three of his 13 children. Ghostface Killah travels to Africa on a spiritually life-changing trip. On his return, Ghostface is arrested by police for weapons possession; he fails to appear in court after suffering a bout with malaria.
Wu releases are largely devoid of RZA's production, but the Clan remains in the news thanks to Ol' Dirty Bastard. While in a studio with associates in Brooklyn, ODB hears a car accident and they lift a car to free a four-year old girl trapped underneath. Ol' Dirty visits the hospital to check on the girl without identifying himself to the child's family. Days later, at the Grammy awards, ODB is miffed when Wu-Tang Clan lose the Best Rap Album Grammy to Puff Daddy. As Shawn Colvin walks on stage to accept her award for Song of the Year, ODB rushes onto the stage and grabs the microphone to say, "I went and bought an outfit today because I figured Wu-Tang was gonna win. Puff Daddy is good, but Wu-Tang is for the children." Soon after, ODB announces he is changing his name again, this time to Big Baby Jesus. A couple of months later ODB wakes up at a cousin's house to find a .45 revolver pointed at his head. He is robbed of money and jewellery and is shot in the back, suffering an exit wound through his arm. Six hours after he is admitted to the hospital, ODB checks himself out, setting off the fire alarm as he leaves through a rear exit. Three days later, ODB is arrested for shoplifting when he allegedly tries on a pair of $50 Nikes and walks out of the store wearing them. Later this year, ODB is ejected from a club and arrested for making terrorist threats to bouncers outside House of Blues in West Hollywood. A week later, ODB is ejected from a Berlin, Germany hotel for "lewd behaviour" after apparently hanging out on the balcony nude. ODB is also a featured artist on the hit single "Ghetto Superstar" with Pras and Mya, a collaboration that came about because he stumbled into the wrong studio. Cappadonna, the official tenth member of the Clan, who first appeared on Raekwon's album, releases The Pillage. Wu affiliates Killah Priest, Sunz of Man, and Killarmy release records that only the capture the interest of die-hard fans. RZA releases his solo album under yet another alias, Bobby Digital, a flashy character based on his youth, while Method Man releases his long-awaited sophomore record Tical 2000: Judgement Day, almost a year late. Reaction to both records are mixed and the musical impregnability of the Wu is questioned.
ODB is pulled over by four plainclothes police officers for driving erratically without his headlights on. When he gets out of the car, officers allege that when they identify themselves he starts shooting at them. ODB maintains he was only holding a cell phone. The police claim to return fire and ODB gets back into his truck and drives away. The truck is hit by eight bullets, but none of the passengers are hit. ODB is arrested and charged with attempted murder; charges are dropped a month later due to a lack of evidence that ODB ever fired shots. ODB announces that he is filing a lawsuit against the police department for the incident. Soon after ODB is arrested for wearing a bullet proof vest; he drinks chocolate milk throughout his court proceedings. Less than two weeks later, ODB is arrested for possession of crack cocaine after police ask him to move his double-parked vehicle. When the drugs are discovered he asks the police officer to "Make the rocks disappear." By now, ODB has accumulated a series of missed court dates and warrants are issued in several cities. On more than one occasion he shows up at the wrong court due to mixed up dates. After being arrested for crack and marijuana possession again later in the year, ODB enters rehab just ahead of the release of his second album N****a Please and is later credited for time served when he is sentenced to rehab for a year. Ghostface Killah goes to prison for a 1995 robbery charge instead of fighting it in court, delaying the release of his second album. Raekwon follows up his classic debut album with Immobilarity, which does not feature Ghostface or RZA in any visible role, and it is met with a thoroughly underwhelming response. Genius releases his third solo album, the solid Beneath The Surface, recorded in only four weeks and featuring a crisper, cleaner production style from RZA proteges than Liquid Swords had. Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance is released, but buzz around him as the Wu's most underrated lyricist has already subsided. U-God also releases his first project, Redemption, to indifferent reception. RZA releases RZA Hits, a compilation of Wu-Tang hits, and Wu-Chronicles, a collection of collaborations, B-sides and unreleased tracks from Wu-affiliated artists. The flurry of mediocre solo albums leads many to believe the Wu is on the decline. Method Man remains as popular as ever, and is invited to appear on Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life Tour with Redman. The duo record their Blackout! album while on the road, and release it later in the year. Raekwon, Method Man and Power appear in James Toback's film Black and White. A new video game, Wu-Tang Shaolin Style, features every member of the group with their own distinctive fighting style.
Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele is the first Wu-Tang release in some time that features RZA in a hands-on role; it's the best-received Wu release since Wu-Tang Forever. "Cherchez Le Ghost," featuring U-God, becomes a bonafide pop hit. RZA records and releases the score to the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai, in which he has a brief cameo. GZA, who has directed several videos for himself and other Wu-affiliated groups, reveals he is working on a Wu documentary. A Village Voice cover story exposes Cappadonna's manager Michael Caruso's dodgy past as a government informer who brought down high-flying New York club owners, suggesting that he also informing on the Wu-Tang Clan, who are being investigated for gunrunning by the FBI. He is fired. Work on a third Wu-Tang Clan album begins. The W is recorded in L.A. to avoid distractions and the entire Clan stays in a house formerly owned by Warren Beatty. The album has a leaner, less obtuse feel than Wu-Tang Forever and is a return to their earlier form. ODB escapes custody while being transported from a rehab centre to an L.A. court and is considered a fugitive. At a record release party for The W, ODB, his face hidden by an orange parka, isn't recognised until he's introduced to the crowd. With police officers present outside, ODB performs briefly and then flees, fearing capture. Six days later ODB causes a commotion signing autographs in a McDonalds in South Philadelphia. Unaware of who is causing the ruckus, the manager calls the police. When the cops arrive, ODB mistakes them for fans until they draw their guns. ODB flees the restaurant but is stopped while trying to start his vehicle. After presenting a fake ID, he admits who he really is and is arrested.
Method Man marries his long-time girlfriend, the inspiration behind his biggest hit "All I Need." He films a movie with Redman about two weed-smoking students called How High (due out in December) and works on his third album, a prequel to his first album Tical. ODB is put on suicide watch after it's reported he may have hurt himself while in custody and he wears bandages on his wrist in court. He is eventually sentenced to two-to-four years for crack possession and two years for violating probation when fleeing rehab, to be served concurrently. ODB was in the studio while on the run and will release The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones in early 2002. The Dirty Story, a best of ODB compilation from his former label Elektra, is released in the fall. The RZA had planned to record a joint album with ODB before he was caught, but instead releases his second Bobby Digital album, Digital Bullet, which is much stronger yet more overlooked. He works on RZA Goes To Europe, an album featuring an array of European hip-hop artists. RZA produces a solo album for Masta Killa, the only Wu-Tang member yet to release a full-length album, due next year. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon's plans to release a Cuban Linx Part II while recording in Miami results in two new solo records. Ghostface Killah releases Bulletproof Wallets at the end of the year, while Raekwon will issue R.A.G.U. early in 2002. Cappadonna releases his second album The Yin and Yang with minimal first tier Wu-Tang participation. The release of a Greatest Hits compilation by Cappadonna, one of the less regarded members of the group, fuels rumours about whether he is still in the group, a rumour fuelled by the fact that he does not appear in the promotional photo for the new Wu-Tang album, tentatively titled, Iron Flag, due at the end of the year.