The Wu Tang genus of the species paranoid-conspiratorial pomo-negritudus is broad enough to encompass everything that Sun Ra, George Clinton, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and the Black Arts movement stood for while redressing Amiri Baraka’s scary allusions to the Black Arts as practiced by Aleister Crowley in creepy ninja cloaking.
In fact, the entire Wu trip could be boiled down to the catchphrase Black grunge— the best answer yet to the question “How do you say angst in hiphop?” Like le grunge blanc, Shaolin Island’s most anxiety-ridden MCs have probably overshot their quarter-hour of infamy and could probably stand to give it a rest, but while the clock may be ticking, the late-stage cash register knows no limit. Meaning that while the world may not have shed tears had there been no Bobby Digital album, no Tical 2, no Inspectah Deck or Killah Priest debuts, and now no GZA’s Beneath the Surface, contractual obligations and agreements to put negroes on demand otherwise. The GZA album is Wu by Numbers, with only one RZA-produced track to call its own— and that not even the best of the lot. That title would go to the obligatory Method Man guest spot, where he proves once again that there’s no substitute for pheromones. Producers Mathematics and Arabian Knight do damn fine RZA imitations, but as Wayne Shorter once said to the cat who complained that Coltrane played like scrambled eggs, “Depends on who’s doing the scrambling.” RZA earned genius props not for four-square musical masonry but for his elegantly fucked-up sense of construction— reminding us of artist David Hammons’s insinuation that Black folk in the South build houses right on that cusp of immaculate construction and imminent collapse.
For this reason perhaps (and perhaps
because of how Wu stock has recently been plunging down, down, down on hiphop’s big board), RZA, a wise man, has wisely made available The RZA Hits to remind us, and hopefully himself, how many of the fast-receding century’s hiphop revelations have derived from his design-conscious auteurism. I mean, got-damn, y’all: “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing To Fuck Wit,”
“Protect Ya Neck,” “C.R.E.A.M.” (Wu-Tang Clan); “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Brooklyn Zoo” (Ol’ Dirty Bastard); “Liquid Swords” (GZA); “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Ice Cream” (Raekwon); “Bring the Pain,” “All I Need,” “Method Man” (duh . . .); “All I Got Is You” (Ghostface Killah featuring Mary J. Blige). Can we talk legacy? Need we be reminded (and RZA knows we do), his notions of hiphop sonority were one of those paradigmatic moments in 20th-century composition like Stockhausen, Coleman, Hendrix, and Reich that made a programmatic virtue of error, extremity, and ellipsis. While my first idea of the definitive hiphop noise is the infinitely repeating digital loop of a stylus stuck in the groove of a scratchy record, my second is the muffled systolic/dystolic thump you hear steaming from a black-windowed vehicle idling on the boulevard or receding into the distance.
As much as RZA’s sonic (and symphonic) Orientalism mesmerized us, it was also his realization that muted bytes could be as hypnotic as bombastic ones. On “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” he turns what sounds like the annunciatory whistle of a switched-on Mac and a guitar harmonic into an essential melodic motif; on “Bring the Pain,” three separate keyboard parts play a mesmerizing game of call-and-response at a volume level low enough to make walking on eggshells seem an infernal racket by comparison. RZA has attributed his microsonic acuity to losing his hearing for a spell as a child; when it returned, his auditory nerves were on some bat-shit, straight-up Daredevil style. As his production for the first salvo of Wu releases proved, RZA also had band-leading and arranging skills of the Ellington/Clinton stripe, where music is developed with a very specific understanding of orchestra members’ idiosyncrasies: stark loonytunes for cutup cartoon cutout Ol’ Dirty, highly detailed operatic stage dressing to complement the hermetically verbose Raekwon, clinically incisive backbeats for rhyme researcher GZA, pulse-pounders for goofball lover-man Meth, heart-wrenching project dirges for the surprisingly lachrymose Ghostface Killah.
If Miles Davis had put the Last Poets on Agharta, the prince of darkness might have preempted RZA as he has everybody else concocting experimental sound these days. But as Miles was one of only three jazz trumpeters (Don Cherry and Lester Bowie being the other two) capable of inventively blowing over funk, the wonder of the Wu and hiphop in general really lies in devising a vocal music as compelling as the ambulatory ambient stew broiling beneath it.