in 1993, when Dr. Dre's G-funk had overtaken the hip-hop world,
the Staten Island, New York-based Wu-Tang Clan proved to be
the most revolutionary rap group of the mid-'90s and only
partially because of their music. Turning the standard concept
of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan was assembled
as a loose congregation of nine MCs almost as a support group.
Instead of releasing one album after another, the Clan was
designed to overtake the record industry in as profitable
a fashion as possible — the idea was to establish the Wu-Tang
as a force with their debut album, and then spin off into
as many side projects as possible. In the process, the members
would all became individual stars, as well as receive individual
Surprsingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo
projects elaborate on the theme the group laid out on their
1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
Taking their group name from an powerful, mythical kung fu
sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, the
crew is a loose collective of nine MCs. All nine members work
under a number of psuedonyms, but they are best known as:
the RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem, as well as the Rzarecta,
Chief Abbot, and Bobby Steels; b. Robert Diggs), Genius/GZA
(a.k.a. Justice, Maxi Million; b. Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard
(aka Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt; b. Russell Jones,
circa 1969), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze, Ticallion Stallion,
Shakwon, Methical, the MZA; b. Clifford Smith), Raekwon the
Chef (aka Shallah Raekwon, Lou Diamonds; b. Corey Woods),
Ghostface Killa (aka Tony Starks, Sun God; b. Dennis Coles),
U-God (aka Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Baby U, 4-Bar Killer;
b. Lamont Hawkins), Inspecta Deck (aka Rebel INS, Rollie Fingers;
b. Jason Hunter), and Masta Killa (aka Noodles; b. E. Turner)
wasn't one of the two founding members — Genius/GZA and
Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first — the vision of the Wu-Tang
Clan is undoubtedly due to the musical sklls of the RZA.
Under his direction, the group — through its own efforts
and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced
— he created a hazy, surreal and menacing soundscape out
of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, minimal samples. Over
these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard,
updating the old school attack with vicious violence, martial
arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound
was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.
wasn't always that way. Like most rappers, they began their
careers trying to get ahead whatever way they could. For the
RZA, that meant releasing a silly single, "Ooh, I Love
You Rakeem," on Tommy Boy Records in 1991. On the advice
of his label and producers, he cut the humorous, lover-man
single that went absolutely nowhere. Neither did the followup
single, "My Deadly Venom." The experience strengthed
his resolve to subvert and attack record industry conventions.
He found partners in Genius and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Genius
had also released a record in 1991, the full-length Words
from the Genius on Cold Chillin', which was preceded by the
single "Come Do Me." Both records were unsuccessful.
After the failure of his album, Genius teamed with an old
friend, Ol' Dirty Bastard, to form the crew that would evolve
into the Wu-Tang Clan within a year.
RZA quickly became part of the crew, as did several other
local MCs, including Method Man, Ghost Faced Killa, Raekwon,
U-God, Inspecta Deck, and Masta Killa, who rarely raps. The
nine rappers made a pact to a form an artistic and financial
community — the Wu-Tang Clan wouldn't merely be a group, it
would be its own industry. In order to do this, they decided
to establish themselves through a group effort and then begin
to spread the word through solo projects, picking up additional
collaborators along the way and, in the process, becoming
stronger and more influential.
first Wu-Tang Clan single, the hard-hitting "Protect
Ya Neck," appeared on their own, independent label and
became an underground hit. Soon, the record labels were offering
them lucrative contracts. The group held out until they landed
a deal that would allow each member to record solo albums
for whatever label they chose — in essence, each rapper was
a free agent. Loud/RCA agreed to the deal and the band's debut
album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, appeared in November
of 1993. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was both critically
acclaimed and commercially successful, although its financial
success wasn't immediate, it was the result of a slow build.
"C.R.E.A.M.," released in early 1994, was the single
that put them over the top and won them a devoted following.
The group wasted no time in pursuing other projects, as a
total of five of the members — Genius, RZA, Raekwon, Method
Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard — landed solo contracts as a result
of the success of "C.R.E.A.M." RZA was the first
to re-enter the studio, this time as a member of the Gravediggaz,
a group he founded; in addition to RZA, who was rechristened
the Rzarecta, the group included De La Soul's producer Prince
Paul, Stetsasonic's Fruitkwan, and Brothers Grimm's Poetic.
The Gravediggaz's album, 6 Feet Deep appeared in August 1994;
it eventually would go gold. Labelled "horrorcore"
by the group, it was an ultra-violent but comical tour de
force that demonstrated the RZA's production prowess. Shortly
after its release, Raekwon released his first single, "Heaven
and Hell" on the Fresh soundtrack; the song was produced
by RZA and featured Ghost Face Killa.
first Wu-Tang member to become a major solo star was Method
Man. In November 1994, he released Tical, the first official
Wu-Tang solo album. Again, the RZA produced the album, creating
a dense, dirty sonic collage. Tical became a big hit in early
1995, as did Method's duet with Mary J. Blige, "You're
All I Need (To Get By)." Ol' Dirty Bastard followed Method's
breakthrough success with Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty
Version, which appeared in March, 1995 on Elektra Records.
Thanks to the hits "Brooklyn Zoo" and "Shimmy
Shimmy Ya," the record became a gold success. Out of
all the solo albums, it was the one that sounded the most
like Enter the Wu-Tang, although it did have a more pronounced
comic bent, due to Ol Dirty's maniacal vocals. Around this
time, Ol' Dirty Bastard became instrumental in the formation
of the Zoo, a group of Wu-Tang protegees. Tales from the Hood,
a movie soundtrack featuring Inspecta Deck's first solo track
appeared in May.
in 1995, the two most critically-acclaimed Wu-Tang records
appeared — Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Genius' Liquid
Swords. In August, 1995 Raekwon released his solo album on
Loud/RCA; most of the record featured extensive contributions
— a total of 12 songs — from Ghostface Killa. Genius' second
solo album was released by Geffen Records in November 1995.
In February of 1996, Ghost Face Killa's first solo track,
"Winter Warz," appeared on the Don't Be a Menace
to South Central While You're Drinking Your Juice in the Hood
Clan finally returned with their second album, Wu-Tang Forever,
in June of 1997. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine