Wu-Tang Clan - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Metaphorically converting their Staten Island home base into the feudal Buddhist temples of Shaolin, the Wu Tang Clan brought a swinging dose of mysticism tinged with a hardcore mentality to Hip Hop. Fusing Islamic teachings with Eastern Philosophies, The Wu-Tang Clan’s diverse core of contributors and innumerable Wu-affiliates have made Wu-Tang into more than merely a group, but rather a global phenomenon.
Failure and frustration were early inspirations for three cousins named Russell Jones, Gary Grice and Robert Diggs. The three formed a crew called Force of the Imperial Master, which later went on to be called All In Together Crew. While the trio found intrigue from an enthusiastic underground fan-base, they found no label willing to deal with them. Splitting up, Grice and Diggs ventured into solo careers. However, despite landing record deals, the two fell prey to record industry politics and their early solo careers fizzled.
Disillusioned with the music industry, Diggs and Grice, now going by RZA and GZA (AKA The Genius) were determined to get a tight grip on their own destinies. RZA was now associating himself with fellow New York-based MCS Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface, U-God, Inspectah Deck and RZA’s cousin Russell Jones, under the infamous moniker, Ol’ Dirty bastard. While indeed interested in music, RZA’s original intentions had been to create a business network, which would allow artists to bypass the sometimes convoluted world of major labels. RZA, an enthusiast of Eastern philosophy, dubbed his network The Wu-Tang Clan, named after Wu-Dang Mountain, a hotbed for martial arts and Chinese medicine. His future Wu-Tang cohorts were amiable to RZA’s autonomous vision and with fifty dollars each to pay for recording time, the crew recorded the classic “Protect Ya Neck.” Before “Protect Ya Neck”, the term “posse-cut” had merely referred to a song which featured more than two performers; the groundbreaking “Protect Ya Neck” featured eight of the nine original members of The Wu-Tang Clan (excluding Masta Killa). RZA independently pressed 500 copies of the single and sold it directly to shops and DJs, creating a buzz which landed them a deal with Loud Records.
While it was initially released to minimal enthusiasm, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud-1993) has gone on to be considered one of the most influential albums of the 90’s. RZA coined the album title based on Islamic numerology and orchestrated Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’s collision of dusty soul samples with classic martial arts movie clips. While New York-peers like A Tribe Called Quest gave East Coast Hip Hop a jazzy feel, Enter the Wu-Tang sported menacing lyricism, which was poured over RZA’s brooding production, steering East Coast Hip Hop into dark and dank territory. Being composed of nine members, an abundance of lyrical styles emerged, ranging from the gravely yet concise Method Man to the spastic chaos of Ol’ Dirty Bastard to the lisping confidence of Raekwon. The competitive chemistry between the collective is largely credited as being one of the cornerstones of the album’s longevity. The album contains “Protect Ya Neck” as well as “C.R.E.A.M”, which is a mellow introspection about the correlation between money and poverty. Before the group had even secured a record deal, RZA had initially stated that he had planned on dominating the music industry, and as the popularity of the Clan ballooned, RZA’s plans seemed to becoming tangible.
Along with their collective deal with Loud Records, the members of Wu-Tang secured various solo deals as well. To date, each member of the Wu-Tang Clan has released at least one solo album. Method Man, who had been one of the most lyrically prominent MCs on Wu-Tang’s debut, was the first to release his post-Enter the Wu-Tang solo album,Tical (Def Jam-1994). Probably Wu-Tang’s most charismatic member, Method Man, assisted by RZA’s dark production, told murky tales of pot-smoking, battle-rapping and project life. The album also yielded a Hip Hop-rarity, with the lauded love song “All I Need.” The Mary J. Blige assisted tale expressed Method Man’s softer side but was doused with a street-sentimentality. That same year RZA formed the group Gravediggaz along with influential producer Prince Paul, who had found success producing classic albums for De La Soul. The Gravediggaz also included Prince Paul’s former band mate Frukwan from the legendary group Stetasonic, as well as Long Island rapper, Poetic. Gravediggaz put out 6 Feet Deep (Gee Street-1994) which was one of the few albums in the “horror-core” sub genre of Hip Hop, manifesting a macabre sense of humor.
The next year, Ol’ Dirty Bastard released Return to the 36 Chambers:The Dirty Version (Elektra-1995) which amplified ODB’s corybantic chaos. Raekwon followed with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...(Loud-1995) which is often regarded as the cardinal album to come out of the Wu-Tang camp. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... was indicative of Raekwon coming into his own as one of Hip Hop’s best lyrical storytellers. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... is also often credited as spearheading the mafia themes which have consistently swam through rap music and have inspired the likes of Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. Nas is also featured on the song “Verbal Intercourse”, making him the first non-Wu-Tang guest ot be featured on a Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated album.
RZA continued his sonic explorations on GZA’s ominous Liquid Swords (Geffen-1995) as well as Ghostface Killah’s debut Ironman (Epic Street-1996), which also hears Ghostface steadily adopting his now legendary esoteric delivery.
Powered by a seemingly infinite amount of solo projects and offshoots, and even a Wu-Tang themed clothing line, The Wu-Tang Clan’s long-awaited second album Wu-Tang Forever (Loud-1997) had lofty expectations. The double-disc album featured the epic single “Triumph”, which, at over five minutes long, featured nine verses. The Clan also manifest a self-awareness of their dominance within Hip Hop on the uplifting “It’s Yourz.” Various members of The Wu-Tang Clan were Muslim and the dense lyrical style on Wu-Tang Forever is said to have been significantly impacted by the teachings of Islam.
Several Clan members released their sophomore solo albums following Wu-Tang Forever such as Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgment Day (Def Jam-1998), Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s N***a Please (Elektra-1999) and GZA’s Beneath The Surface (Geffen-1999). And, despite greater commercial success, many critics felt that these projects lacked the mystical integrity that their first efforts had embodied. An exception to these critical dismissals came with Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele (Epic-2000), which has become a Hip Hop classic. Method Man also found success teaming with fellow marijuana-enthusiast Redman, with whom he recorded an album Blackout (Def Jam-1999). The pair have gone on to star in a film How High and star in a sitcom Meth and Red.
As the group began to re-form, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s real-life debauchery began to mirror the amusing debauchery which he projected on his records; between 1998 and 2000, ODB had been charged with shoplifting, possession of narcotics, driving without a license and he became the first person charged under a new California law which forbid convicted felons wearing bulletproof vests. Consequently, his comic-relief presence is virtually absent from Wu-Tang’s third album. ODB’s sole appearance comes on “Conditioner”, which was recorded over a prison-telephone.
ODB issues aside, The W (Loud-2000) is largely seen as a return to form and a rebound from several weaker Wu-Tang releases. Songs like “Gravel Pit” and "Do You Really? (Thang, Thang)" showed a cohesion within the Wu-camp which had been absent for several years. Ghostface Killah also spews one of the most heartfelt verses in Hip Hop history on “I Can’t Go To Sleep” where he goes into an emotional rage about the injustices blacks have faced throughout history.
Wu-Tang’s fourth album Iron Flag (Loud-2001) unfortunately coincided with the collapse of their label, Loud Records. Consequently, Iron Flag received a minimal amount of promotion and became Wu-Tang’s weakest selling album. Nonetheless Iron Flag was praised for its versatile musical scope, encompassing the vast range which RZA’s productions have become famous for. However, due to legal troubles, Ol’ Dirty Bastard is also completely absent from Iron Flag as is auxiliary member Cappadonna, who had often substituted in ODB’s absence.
Immediately following Wu-Tang’s debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard appeared to be the Clan’s breakout stars. However, Method Man’s lack of consistency began to take its toll on this prestige. And in 2004, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s tireless streak of chaos caught up to him and he died just two days short of his thirty-sixth birthday. Ghostface meanwhile, released several critically acclaimed albums, The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam-2003) and Fishscale (Def Jam-2006), which along with his first two highly-praised albums, saw him emerge as Wu-Tang’s most consistent member, finding a near perfect balance between gritty urban narratives and commercial viability.
The production on Wu-Tang Clan’s fifth album 8 Diagrams was perhaps RZA’s most avante garde. featuring collaborations with Erykah Badu, George Clinton, John Frusciante (guitarist for The Red Hot Chilli Peppers) and Geroge Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison. However, several members of the crew, most notably Ghostface and Raekwon, openly spoke out against the direction which, RZA had steered 8 Diagrams.
The Wu-Tang Clan cannot even be called a group; the term “clan” seems to fit perfectly. Their influence goes beyond the hardcore influence of Hip Hop and extends to their efficient guerrilla marketing that has made Wu-Tang legendary.