Return of the Ruckus
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."
U-God disagrees. "Fuck no," the notoriously bad-tempered MC explodes. "None of these groups that's out now can even compare with what my crew can do."
U-God hasn't always been on good terms with the rest of the crew; in a 2004 press conference, he claimed that RZA had promoted the solo careers of other group members while he and others were held back, comparing his tenure to slavery. Despite past differences, though, U-God is excited to be taking part in the tour. "It's been 12 years of miscommunications, 12 years of burned bridges," he says, standing on a Lower Manhattan street corner one cold afternoon. "But Wu-Tang is still the greatest rap crew of all time."
Another Clansman whose status has often been in question is Cappadonna. A Wu-Tang affiliate since 1995, Cappa released two solo albums before moving to Baltimore, where he drove a gypsy cab for a time. He's been advertised as part of the reunion, but a week before the tour was scheduled to start, he still wasn't so sure. "The biggest fuss that's going on right now is me, and how they're trying to get a meeting together to determine whether or not I'm going to be on the tour and how much am I going to get paid," says Cappa on the phone from Baltimore.
"It's only a matter of time until they figure it out that I belong to the team but I also should be respected as an individual," says Cappa. "It's still going to manifest, but it won't be complete unless I'm there. I'm the ODB of this shit. I'm the most controversial member of the Clan. Every time you hear my name, you don't even know if I'm part of the Clan or not."
Even if Wu-Tang squash any lingering internal tensions, they still face a number of challenges. The reunion won't be complete without Ol' Dirty Bastard. "There's definitely going to be an element that's missing," says GZA over the phone from his home. "We will definitely be performing at least two or three of his songs, but it's definitely different. He's sincerely missed, and it's an element that should be here but unfortunately is not. We still have to move on."
And four years have passed since the release of Wu-Tang's last group album, 2001's Iron Flag. It's daunting just to consider the logistics of reassembling the remaining rappers. Many of the group's members remain in the New York area, but Cappa and others have moved south: Raekwon to Atlanta, Ghostface to Miami. "Everyone's kind of busy doing different things," says GZA. "We're all scattered. It was kind of difficult to get everyone together."
"It's always going to be hard to put 12 people together," Mathematics agrees. "You've got a group like the Fugees; sometimes it might be hard to put them three together. Everybody is different, and we all grew up. Everybody is grown men nowadays; we all have family. Twelve, 13 years down the line, people do change."
"I've known them dudes since I was four," says U-God. "When I wrote those rhymes for that first album, I was 19, 20 years old, fresh out of prison. I'm a grown man now."
On the rooftop of a Jersey City apartment complex, another grown man is making a video. Against the backdrop of a dazzlingly bright Manhattan skyline, Ghostface and the young Def Jam r&b singer Ne-Yo stand atop a concrete-flowerpot riser, striking poses and lip-synching the lyrics to "Back Like That," the first single from Ghostface's forthcoming album Fishscale. Dazed tenants wander around and technicians wrestle with enormous lighting rigs and cranes as Ghostface, resplendent in a bright-purple fur coat and about 50 pounds of gold medallions, mimes out his lyrics over and over.
A cult figure within the group back when a ski mask used to hide his face, Ghostface might now be its most visible member. He's one of the few who still have a major-label contract and one of the few who still release solo albums regularly. Speaking about the upcoming tour as he relaxes in a hallway during a quick break from filming, Ghostface is reserved. "We did set the blueprint on how to come in and stick together as a family," says Ghost. "It's somewhat still a family, but we got a lot of miscommunication. This one's thinking this way and this one's thinking this way, and that's what brings confusion and at the same time a lack of understanding. That's what's circulating right now."
Ghost isn't sure whether the tour will lead to further group projects. "It depends," he says. "[The tour is] a test. It might be a test where niggas fuck around and say, 'Nah, I'm not fucking with that nigga.' Or it might be a test where it's like, 'You know what? I'm only fucking with niggas for paper, and if there's paper involved, we could get the paper.' Or it could be like, 'Damn, it's love, y'all. I miss you, son.' It could be any of those three, but I can't tell you what till the end of the tour."
Others echo Ghostface's tentative enthusiasm. "It's been a minute since every Clan member has been all together," says GZA. "I think something good could come out of it other than the tour, other than just doing these dates. This is a trial run."
The tour will take the Clan to venues smaller than they've played in the past, places that a few of them have toured as solo artists. "It'll be a good run for us to start up with," says GZA. "As far as promoters and booking agents, I guess they're just booking these spots so we can get something started up. But I don't think it has anything to do with our record sales or a diminished fan base."
"I was pretty upset when I seen these small venues, because I know my family is bigger than that," says Divine. "But I couldn't be the type of person to walk in and say I'm not going to allow RZA to go or I'm not going to support this because of the size of the venue. I had to take what's offered to me and say, 'Let's make the best of that and move forward.' "
Perhaps the tour's greatest question is whether this trial run will lead to another album from the reunited group; much of the Clan certainly hopes it will. "I'm sure that Wu-Tang Clan will fulfill their potential again," says Divine. I've spoken to RZA; his desire is to do another album." (RZA declined to comment for this article.)
"I would like us to do another album," GZA agrees. "The fans are still there. Wu- Tang has die-hard fans."
The future of Wu-Tang may depend entirely on how this tour goes, on whether their eight volatile personalities can fully mesh once again when they find themselves face to face for two weeks. "My wish is for the guys to really get into each other on this short run we got," says Divine.
There have already been a few encouraging signs that the Wu-Tang Clan are excited to work together again. Ghostface plans to include several collaborations with other Clan members, and most of the crew will be contributing to Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, a sequel to his classic 1996 debut album, due in April. "I'm still in the group, and I feel the same way about my brothers, even though it's a lot of other shit going on," says Ghostface.
Or as Divine says, "Regardless of what the press or anyone might say about us, we're united."
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