Emerging in 1993, when Dr.Dre's G-funk had overtaken the hip-hop world, the Staten Island, NY-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 were 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 become individual stars as well as receive individual royalty checks. Surprisingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated 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 pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem; aka Rzarecta, Chief Abbot, and Bobby Steels; born Robert Diggs), Genius/GZA (aka Justice and Maxi Million; born Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard R.I.P. (aka Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, and Osirus; born Russell Jones), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze, Ticallion Stallion, Shakwon, Methical, and MZA; born Clifford Smith), Raekwon The Chef (aka Shallah Raekwon and Lou Diamonds; born Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (aka Tony Starks and Sun God; born Dennis Coles), U-God (aka Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Baby U, and 4-Bar Killer; born Lamont Hawkins), Inspectah Deck (aka Rebel INS and Rollie Fingers; born Jason Hunter), and Masta Killa (aka Noodles; born Elgun Turner).
Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)Along with Dr.Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production — courtesy of RZA — mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbara Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.
Wu-Tang Clan - Wu-Tang Forever
The Wu-Tang Clan's long-awaited second album, Wu-Tang Forever, arrived to great anticipation, and the double-disc set does not disappoint. Where contemporaries like 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. issued double-discs cluttered with filler, Wu-Tang Forever is purposeful and surprisingly lean, illustrating the immense depth of producer RZA and the entire nine-piece crew. Each rapper has a different lyrical style, from Ol'Dirty Bastard's bizarre rants to Raekwon's story sketches, and RZA subtly shifts his trademark style for each song, creating an album of cinematic proportions. There are no great musical innovations on the album, since the Wu-Tang's signature blend of skeletal beats, scratchy samples, eerie pianos, and spectral strings remains intact. Yet the music is more nuanced and focused than ever before, balanced equally between scary soundscapes and darkly soulful tracks. The result is an intoxicating display of musical and lyrical virtuosity, one that reveals how bereft of imagination the Wu-Tang's contemporaries are.
Wu-Tang Clan - The W
After a host of disappointing solo albums and quickly diminishing celebrity (most of the latter devoted to the continuing extra-legal saga of Ol'Dirty Bastard), Wu-Tang Clan returned, very quietly, with 2000's The W. The lack of hype was fitting, for this is a very spartan work, especially compared to its predecessor, the sprawling and overblown Wu-Tang Forever. While the trademark sound is still much in force, group mastermind RZA jettisoned the elaborate beat symphonies and carefully placed strings of Forever in favor of tight productions with little more than scarred soul samples and tight, tough beats. The back-to-basics approach works well, not only because it rightly puts the focus back on the best cadre of rappers in the world of hip-hop, but also because RZA's immense trackmaster talents can't help but shine through anyway. Paranoid kung fu samples and bizarre found sounds drive the fantastic streets-is-watching nightmare "Careful (Click, Click)." Unfortunately, though, The W isn't quite the masterpiece it sounds like after the first few tracks. It falls prey to the same inconsistency as Forever, resulting in half-formed tracks like "Conditioner," with Snoop Dogg barely saving Ol'Dirty Bastard's lone appearance on the LP, a phoned-in vocal (in terms of sound and quality). When they're hitting on all cylinders though, Wu-Tang Clan are nearly invincible; "Let My Niggas Live," a feature with Nas, isn't just claustrophobic and dense but positively strangling, and singles material like "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" and "Do You Really (Thang, Thang)" are punishing tracks. Paring down Wu-Tang Forever — nearly a two-hour set — to the 60-minute work found here was a good start, but the Wu could probably create another masterpiece worthy of their debut if they spent even more time in the editing room.
Wu-Tang Clan - Iron Flag
Even when it seemed they were tearing apart from in-group miscommunication and a welter of baffling solo albums, The Wu-Tang Clan came together again like Voltron for another excellent full-length. Expanding on the strengths of their third album, The W, Iron Flag focuses squarely on The Wu's immense twin strengths: bringing together some of the best rappers in the business, and relying on the best production confederacy in hip-hop (led by RZA) to build raw, hard-hitting productions. Nothing brings a group together better than invasion from outside, and even though the flag they're raising on the cover is their own, Wu-Tang respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with guns blazing — Ghostface Killah puts it simply, "Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I'm in charge of the war!" The production is rough and ruddy, much more East Coast than their last two full-lengths (both of which were recorded in Los Angeles). Original East Coast head Flavor Flav even makes an appearance on "Soul Power (Black Jungle)," though he doesn't even attempt to trade rhymes with the heaviest crew in hip-hop. (Instead, RZA indulges him by running the tape on an extended reminiscence with Flav and Method Man talking about growing up on Long Island.) The single "Uzi (Pinky Ring)," "In the Hood," and "Ya'll Been Warned" are all excellent tracks with excellent raps and, though the vaguely familiar horn samples driving most of them sure weren't tough to record, RZA deserves a lot of credit for keeping the production simple. Even while most rappers have turned R&B overnight, Wu-Tang are really the only ones left in the hardcore game who sound like they're in it for more than money or prestige.
Wu-Tang Clan - Disciples of the 36 Chambers:Chapter 1
"They all showed up." That one line alone in the notes of the Wu-Tang Clan live album Disciples of the 36 Chambers might convince a legion of hip-hop fans to buy the record, if only to (for once) get what they paid for with a Wu-Tang live show. (Truth to tell, so so many unfulfilled promises have been made to fans that they'd be forgiven for suspecting that ODB's photo would slip off the cover on the way out of the store.) Never mind how they were all rounded up, all nine members of the mighty Wu — yes, The RZA, Genius aka The GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, ODB aka Dirt McGirt, Raekwon, U-God, Masta Killa, and Inspectah Deck, plus a few family members like Cappadonna — were assembled in one place (San Bernardino) at one time (the evening of July 17, 2004) for a show. Commemorated with a combination CD/DVD release in September 2004, the show will survive as a potent but nearly overwhelming display of East Coast firepower, 27 tracks (34 on the DVD) of Wu-Tang Clan group and solo hits packed into an hour with little time to come up for air. The sound quality is very punchy but very muddy, while the tracks feature an occasional lack of transition that would make any DJ blush. And several rounds of crowd singalongs organized around rallying calls like "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuthin' ta f' wit" or "Cash rules everything around me, dolla dolla bill y'all" aren't nearly as exciting on record. But no collective of rappers could fill a show with so many hip-hop perennials, whether group hits ("C.R.E.A.M.," "Shame on a Nigga," "Bring da Ruckus," "Method Man," "Gravel Pit") or solo shots ("Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Liquid Swords," "Shimmy Shimmy Ya"). [Although the DVD contains many exclusives, this CD edition has two bonus tracks: videos for RZA's "Chi Kung" and Cappadonna's "The Grits."]
Wu-Tang Clan - Wu Chronicles
The continuing marketing of Wu-Tang Clan product hit a new low with the release of Wu-Chronicles. Though the concept of a Wu-Tang compilation — in effect, spanning the dozen or so albums released by members and cutting away the dross — is perfect for the legion of fans who haven't been able to keep up with the collective's hectic release schedule, this disc stretches everything a bit thin, including tracks by fringe-of-the-fringe groups like Heltah Skeltah, Ras Kass, Killarmy , and some artist known as Wu-Syndicate. Yes, it's hard to argue with any album that features some great productions by RZA, and Wu-Chronicles does include some good collaborations — notably Ol'Dirty Bastard with Tha Alkaholiks on "Hip Hop Drunkies" and Cocoa Brovaz (formerly Smif-N-Wessun) with Raekwon on "Black Trump" — but for the most part it's a wasted attempt at releasing an excellent collection.