By Steve Weinstein
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By Lindsey Rhoades
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The last time the Wu-Tang Clan performed, one member didn't show up. The long-running Staten Island rap collective had packed nearly 10,000 fans into New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena, but Ol' Dirty Bastard, the group's troubled but beloved court jester, was nowhere to be found. "There's no one bigger than the Clan," said Method Man from the stage, "and when you see Ol' Dirty Bastard, tell him that." Method Man never got the chance to deliver the message himself; Dirty died the next afternoon in a Manhattan recording studio.
"I'm going out for ODB, man," says Divine, CEO of Wu Music Group and younger brother of enigmatic group leader RZA. "I'm going out to make sure my cousin's children can be fed. It's our responsibility, under any condition, to make sure his children are paid homage. He paid his dues. The ultimate price in this family is death. He should never go unrewarded. His children should never have less than what our children have."
For the first time since 2004, the Wu-Tang Clan are finally gearing up to step onstage together. The eight surviving original Clansmen, along with longtime associates Cappadonna, Street Life, and Mathematics, are heading out on an 11-date East Coast tour that will bring them to New York's Hammerstein Ballroom on February 14. But much has changed since Dirty died, and even more has changed since the brief but glorious moment when a sprawling crew of grimy, hyper- articulate knuckleheads could come out of nowhere bringing a virtually impenetrable cosmology equally informed by Five-Percent mysticism, kung fu movies, and street-corner crack sales and becoming the biggest thing in rap.
When the Clan released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in 1993, its frantic, dense lyrics and claustrophobic beats stood in stark contrast to the clean, slow-winding G-funk organs running rap at the time. There was nothing remotely radio friendly about the crew's sound, but its unorthodox structure (nine core members and a small army of affiliates) and wild, scattershot energy were mysterious and compelling enough to draw in legions of urban rap purists and suburban skate punks. The three-year stretch after the group released its debut album remains perhaps the greatest winning streak in rap history, as Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, GZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah released a series of gloriously unhinged solo albums.
The gold and platinum records that line the walls of Wu Media's offices stand as reminders of the crew's early-'90s salad days. The Chelsea space seems as much like a clubhouse as corporate nerve center and recording studio; a TV surrounded by VHS tapes (Ninja Scroll, Wall Street) sits a room away from an unplugged pinball machine and the couches where several of the young artists on Wu Latino, a hip-hop and reggaetón indie label run out of the office, sit sprawled.
Because each of the Clan's eight rappers maintains a solo career, each has his own management. Wu Media is an independent entity with no formal ties to any of the group members' various managers and record labels, and to hear Divine tell it, there's no love lost between himself and the managers.
"This tour was put together by Banger and K," explains Divine. "Banger is Inspectah Deck's manager, and K is Raekwon's manager. I was brought in at the eighth inning because there was no clarity; there was no structure," he says. "If you're coming back together, then you have to look at things from a different perspective."
The group's original contract with Loud Records was revolution ary in that it allowed for the different Clan members to sign solo deals with whatever label they chose rather than Loud itself. Rappers were able to receive royalties both from group projects and their own solo projects, and before long, all nine had contracts with almost as many labels. "Now it's the norm," says longtime Wu-Tang DJ and producer Mathematics, on the phone from a midtown studio. "Everybody come in with a crew and they want to go solo, or they come in solo with a crew, and they want a Wu-Tang deal. They don't really call it that no more."
This approach worked beautifully for years, but in the late '90s, a series of loosely affiliated side projects diluted the Wu-Tang brand and left the group looking fractured and unfocused. In the years that followed, Clan members and affiliates like U-God and Cappadonna gave interviews complaining of missing royalties, and the group seemed to drift further apart. Some of them were still putting out music as dense and potent as ever, but they were doing it independently of each other; Ghostface's 2004 solo effort The Pretty Toney Album remains a late-period masterpiece, but it includes no guest appearances from fellow Clansmen, something that would've been unthinkable five years earlier.
In the meantime, the rap crew archetype that Wu-Tang established has gradually become a dominant trope in rap, as collectives like 50 Cent's G-Unit and Cam'ron's Diplomats have built on the blueprint of the tight-knit group of solo artists. "Rap has adapted that mentality," says Divine. "G-Unit and Dipset are doing wonderful because I see those guys continuing to be consistent like Wu-Tang was. The only thing that Wu-Tang right now has failed to realize is that your brand hasn't been tarnished based on your performance; it's based on the fact that you don't want to perform. And you allow other groups like that to take your spot."