Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wu-Tang Clan

Sound Familiar?
“Protect Ya Neck,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Triumph”

Who Are They?
One of the most critically-acclaimed and respected rap groups of all time (and the best one of the ‘90s).

Wu-Tang Clan assembled in 1992 with RZA serving as the group’s de facto leader and producer. So what the hell’s a “wu-tang,” you ask? Well, since RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were such huge fans of old kung fu movies, they took the name from the 1983 martial arts film Shaolin and Wu Tang (sound bites from the English dub of the film appear in Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers).

Though plenty of rappers have collaborated with RZA and friends over the years, the official members of Wu-Tang Clan are RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa and the late great Ol’ Dirty Bastard. (Longtime contributor Cappadonna’s status as an official member is unclear even though RZA supposedly added him to the group years ago.)

But I have neither the time nor the space to get into all the separate entities of the group (and there are a lot, I know. I’m pretty sure I was in Wu-Tang Clan for like a minute at one point). So for now, let’s get back to the history.

In 1993, Wu-Tang released its first independent single “Protect Ya Neck,” which immediately gave the group a huge underground following. After some difficulty finding a label that would sign the group while still allowing each member to venture to other labels for solo albums, Wu-Tang signed to RCA and released Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers later that year.

The success of 36 Chambers allowed each member to negotiate solo contracts. Without delving too deep into each solo career, I’ll just say that almost every member found success on his own. Method Man even picked up a Grammy for his track “All I Need.”

After proving themselves as solo artists, the members of Wu-Tang Clan reassembled to record the follow-up to 36 Chambers, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, achieved multi-platinum status and earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album. Wu-Tang Forever’s was more similar to the solo albums than 36 Chambers and featured verses written in dense stream of consciousness form (“Triumph” in particular was considered an odd choice for a first single since it featured nine verses with no chorus or hook).

A second round of solo albums followed Wu-Tang Forever, but they weren’t nearly as well-received as the first round. Wu-Tang Fever began decline by 1998 as a result of oversaturation. Keep in mind that these guys were everywhere in the mid-‘90s. They had albums under Wu-Tang Clan, solo albums, a clothing line and even video games. Yes, video games.

Where Are They Now?
Enjoying solo careers and possibly putting out a sixth Wu-Tang studio album in the near future.

Wu-Tang Clan reconvened in 2000 to release The W, the first album without Ol’ Dirty Bastard (he was too busy being incarcerated for violating his probation, but he did manage to record a verse for “Conditioner” via telephone).

ODB began having issues shortly before the release of The W, but kind of threw caution to the wind later that year. He escaped custody while in transit to rehab, became a fugitive and was finally caught signing autographs at a McDonald’s in North Philadelphia.

But back to Wu-Tang. Iron Flag followed The W, but didn’t sit well with fans due to its light crossover vibe. Around this time, Method Man began his acting career, starring in the stoner comedy How High alongside Redman. (Fun fact: The film currently holds a dismal 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but a 420% rating among stoners.)

By 2004, Wu-Tang Clan was wearing thin as a rap collective. U-God left the group claiming that RZA had hindered his success as a solo artist. The two ended up reconciling later on and Wu-Tang embarked on an unexpected European tour. Later that year, Ol’ Dirty Bastard collapsed in the recording studio and was pronounced dead just two days shy of his 36th birthday.

Following ODB’s death, the remaining members of Wu-Tang Clan released another round of solo albums, but have yet to release another collective studio album.

But Why Wu-Tang Clan?
They may or may not be celebrating their 20th anniversary next year with a sixth studio album. According to an interview with Ghostface Killah last year, the album was slated for release by May of this year. That didn’t happen. So then GZA told us that the album would probably never happen. But then RZA said the album would probably drop next year. I don’t even know what to believe anymore. Let’s just go with next year or never.

What Does Sam Think?
I really dig ‘90s rap and hip-hop, but I am in no way an expert. So why do I like Wu-Tang Clan?

I really can’t give you a coherent answer to this question. I always feel a need to explain myself when I admit to liking a rap group/artist, which is kind of ridiculous. Yeah, I’m really into rock music in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s all I listen to. But I digress. Rap artists of the late ‘80s and early to mid-‘90s definitely had something to say. That time period is usually referred to as “The Golden Age of Hip-Hop” for a reason. Acts like Wu-Tang Clan weren’t afraid to be political or aggressive. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s hip-hop; this is the real shit.

There’s something about the grittiness of this group that really appeals to me. I can probably trace that interest back to my punk rock roots. Punk is all about channeling this rage you feel into an aggressive statement. It’s a slap in the face, and that’s kind of what rap groups like Wu-Tang Clan, or even N.W.A., were all about. Yeah, you can find the odd song about “bitches and hoes” in their discographies, but the majority of the songs deal with subjects like racism, classism and the occasional drug war.

I’m not going to pretend that I can relate to Wu-Tang songs. I’m a white girl going to college in the Midwest. I’m definitely not in this group’s key demographic. But in recent years, white college kids have become a key demographic in rap music. Think about Odd Future (arguably the modern day equivalent of Wu-Tang). That group is successful because it has such a diverse fanbase. It’s kind of baffling when you really think about it.

So let me end this entry by asking you, the reader, why you like rap music and why you think Wu-Tang Clan “ain’t nuthin’ ta fuck wit.”

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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