Emerging 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 ’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 were designed to overtake the record industry in as profitable a fashion as possible, the idea being to establish themselves 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 its 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The collective’s name was taken from a powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, and all nine members have worked 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), GZA (aka the Genius, Justice, and Maxi Million; born Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard (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 Elgin Turner).
Although RZA wasn’t one of the two founding members — GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first — the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan undoubtedly arises from his musical skills. Under his direction, the group — through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced — created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and 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.
It wasn’t always that way. Like most rappers, they began their careers trying to get ahead whatever way they could. For 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, which went absolutely nowhere. Neither did the follow-up single, “My Deadly Venom.” The experience strengthened his resolve to subvert and attack record industry conventions. He found partners in GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard. GZA 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, GZA 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, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa. 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.
The first Wu-Tang Clan single, the hard-hitting “Protect Ya Neck,” appeared on their own independent label and became an underground hit. Soon, record labels were offering them lucrative contracts. The group held out until it landed a deal that would allow each member to record solo albums for whatever label he 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 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 — GZA, 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 reenter the studio, this time as a member of the Gravediggaz, a group he founded; in addition to RZA, who was rechristened RZArecta, the group included De La Soul producer Prince Paul, Stetsasonic’s Frukwan, and Brothers Grimm’s Poetic. The Gravediggaz’s album 6 Feet Deep appeared in August 1994; it eventually would go gold. Labeled “horrorcore” by the group, it was an ultra-violent but comical tour de force that demonstrated 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 Ghostface Killah.
The 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, RZA produced the album, creating a dense, dirty sonic collage. Tical became a big hit in early 1995, as did Meth’s duet with Mary J. Blige, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” Ol' Dirty Bastard followed Method Man’s breakthrough success with Return to the 36 Chambers, 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. Tales from the Hood, a movie soundtrack featuring Inspectah Deck’s first solo track, appeared in May.
Later in 1995, the two most critically acclaimed Wu-Tang records appeared: Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords. Raekwon released his album on Loud/RCA in August 1995; the record featured extensive contributions — a total of 12 songs — from Ghostface Killah, his greatest exposure yet. GZA’s solo album was released by Geffen Records in November 1995. In February 1996, Ghostface Killah’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 soundtrack. Later that October, he released his own solo debut, the critically acclaimed, ’70s soul-flavored Ironman; the record was the first released on RZA’s new Epic subsidiary, Razor Sharp Records.
The Wu-Tang Clan finally reconvened and returned with their second album, the double CD Wu-Tang Forever, in June of 1997. Hugely anticipated, the album entered the charts at number one — selling over 600,000 copies in its first week alone — and quickly spawned the hit single “Triumph.” There were several contributions from guest associate Cappadonna (born Darryl Hill), who’d appeared on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ironman, and would later become the tenth member of the Wu-Tang Clan. The group toured extensively in support of the album, getting into a few minor scuffles with the law along the way.
In the meantime, the next phase of the Wu-Tang plan started to take shape: unearthing new associates and spinning the resulting stable of talent into a brand-name franchise. A group of Wu protégés dubbed Killarmy released their debut album, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, on Priority Records in August 1997, drawing heavily upon the Clan’s martial imagery. However, the real year for Wu-related side projects proved to be 1998. In March, Cappadonna released his solo debut, The Pillage, on Columbia. The same month, Killah Priest — not an official part of the Clan, but a frequent guest and a member of another protégé group, the Sunz of Man — made his solo debut on Geffen Records with Heavy Mental, an acclaimed album filled with spiritual imagery that established him as one of the more distinctive solo artists in the Wu-Tang orbit. In July the Sunz of Man released their own debut album, The Last Shall Be First, on Red Ant, and yet another group of up-and-comers dubbed the Wu-Tang Killa Bees released their first album, The Swarm, Vol. 1, on Priority, featuring a number of guest appearances by Wu members and associates. In August, Killarmy issued their second album, Dirty Weaponry.
Also in 1998, Ol' Dirty Bastard began a long and bizarre saga of erratic behavior and run-ins with police that found him making headlines with alarming (and ridiculous) regularity. In February he interrupted Shawn Colvin’s acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards to protest the Clan’s loss in the Best Rap Album category; shortly thereafter, he announced he was changing his name to Big Baby Jesus, an idea that never picked up steam. This was only the beginning — over the next year and a half, ODB would be arrested for a litany of offenses that included assault, shoplifting, making terrorist threats, wearing body armor after being convicted of a felony, possessing cocaine, and missing countless court dates. Plus, in early 1999, the whole Clan fell under suspicion of masterminding a gun-running operation between Staten Island and Steubenville, Ohio — charges that were never proven to have any validity.
In the midst of this legal sideshow, the Clan kicked off a second round of solo projects in late 1998. This time around, RZA curtailed his activities somewhat, making appearances but often leaving the majority of the production duties to his protégés. Still, he released his own solo debut, the soundtrack-styled RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, in November 1998 on V2; the same month, Method Man’s second album, Tical 2000: Judgement Day, debuted at number two on the charts. June 1999 saw the release of an excellent singles compilation, RZA Hits, which covered the first Wu-Tang album and the first round of solo albums (1994-1995); the very next week, GZA’s second album, Beneath the Surface, was released. September brought plenty of new Wu product: Ol' Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please, released while the rapper was in rehab; Method Man’s acclaimed duo album with Redman, Blackout!; and the first-ever solo album by Inspectah Deck, Uncontrolled Substance, which appeared on Relativity. Another Wu member made his solo debut in October, when U-God issued Golden Arms Redemption on Priority; Raekwon returned the following month with Immobilarity. Finally, Ghostface Killah issued his well-received sophomore set, Supreme Clientele, in January 2000.
However, this second round of Wu-Tang solo albums didn’t attract as much attention, either critically or commercially. True, Method Man remained a popular solo star (and, to a lesser degree, so did ODB), and reviews were highly positive for Ghostface Killah (and, to a lesser degree, GZA). But the Wu franchise was suffering from inconsistency, overexposure (they’d spawned a clothing line, a video game, a comic book, and more), and a flood of musical product that even diehards found difficult to keep up with. Their once-distinctive sound was becoming commonplace and diluted, not just through the collective’s own releases but also RZA’s many imitators; plus, by this time, Timbaland had taken over the mantle of hip-hop’s most cutting-edge producer.
Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch commissioned RZA to compose a soundtrack for his acclaimed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the results of which were unveiled in early 2000. Other than that, the Clan reconvened for a new album and were mostly quiet during much of 2000 — aside from Ol' Dirty Bastard, who unfortunately continued to spiral out of control. He spent some time in a California jail for violating the terms of his probation, but appeared to be on the right track when suddenly, in October — with just two months of rehab to go — he escaped the California facility and spent a month on the run from the law. Fans were shocked when ODB turned up on-stage at the New York record-release party for the Clan’s new album, The W, which was released with considerably less fanfare in November 2000. A leaner, more focused collection, The W featured only one track from ODB and pictured Cappadonna as a full-fledged member of the group (though he remained unnamed on their official contract with Loud).
ODB managed to exit the club after his surprise performance but was soon captured by police in Philadelphia and extradited to New York to face charges of cocaine possession. In April 2001, he cut a deal with prosecutors that resulted in a sentence of two to four years in state prison, bringing his outlaw saga to a sad end. In August 2001, RZA issued his second Bobby Digital album, Digital Bullet; November brought solo albums from Ghostface Killah (Bulletproof Wallets) and Cappadonna (The Yin and the Yang). This time, though, there was no full round of solo projects in between Wu albums; the full group (minus ODB) assembled for its fourth album, Iron Flag, which was released in December 2001, just one year after its predecessor. Despite a lot of activity for the various solo projects, Wu-Tang released only a live album, 2004′s Disciples of the 36 Chambers, during the subsequent five years. That document was one of the last places to hear Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died of a heart attack in November 2004.
In early 2007, in anticipation for the Clan’s upcoming album, 8 Diagrams, Nature Sounds issued the Mathematics-compiled Unreleased, a collection of new remixes and hard-to-find, previously unreleased songs from the group and some of its friends. It wasn’t until the end of the year, however — after a couple of delays and some criticism from Raekwon and Ghostface directed at RZA regarding the overall sound of the record — that 8 Diagrams came out. Solo albums from most members would follow, but the Clan itself would remain dormant until 2011, when the Wu-related compilation Legendary Weapons landed with some new tracks from the full group. That year, it was also announced that the Clan were working on a new studio album that would be released in 2013 to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
However, the album failed to materialize as 2013 came and went, with production stymied by a further public beef between Raekwon and RZA over the new album’s stylistic direction. Eventually they reconciled, and in 2014 the album was finally finished. Entitled A Better Tomorrow, it was released in December through Warner Bros. That year the Clan also made history with the announcement that they had recorded a secret album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, of which only one copy would be pressed and sold as a unique artwork, in a custom-made hand-carved nickel and silver box, to the highest bidder. In December 2015, controversial pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli purchased the album for two million dollars. In 2017, in addition to contributing “Don’t Stop” to the Silicon Valley soundtrack, the Clan issued “People Say” with Redman. The DJ Mathematics-produced single was the first offering from their album The Saga Continues. The soundtrack EP Of Mics and Men arrived in May of 2019 and featured songs inspired by the group’s Showtime documentary series. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Steve Huey