The Wu-Tang Clan is hip-hop’s most enduring family. Thanks to seemingly unbreakable bonds both artistic and familial, the now eight-strong crew of rappers is still together, despite frequent — and usually shoddily sourced — media claims that they’re about to implode due to rampant bickering over money, egos, or whether or not de facto patriarch RZA should be allowed to play guitar on their records. (The only official reduction in their number came with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death in 2004.) Along with the core Clan, which includes real-life cousins RZA, GZA, and ODB, there’s a slew of Wu-Tang affiliates and offshoots; as both RZA’s biological younger brother and the founding member of Killarmy, 9th Prince is a link between the two factions.
Off the back of his new solo album, One Man Army (out next week on Babygrande; see the video for first single “Another Summer Love” here), we got him to look back on a life growing up with the Clan in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Staten Island’s Stapleton housing projects — a situation that involved communal meals of Oodles of Noodles, freestyle sessions on the Staten Island Ferry, and the rigors of dealing with the occasional pungent whiff of Ghostface’s smelly feet.
Where in Staten Island did you grow up?
In Stapleton and Park Hill, the same place where Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, RZA, Cappadonna, and everyone came from.
You lived with RZA, your brother, right?
Yeah, at times. My mother moved out of state, and I ended up staying with him and Ghostface in Stapleton projects. My cousin Free, who was also part of the Wu-Tang, was also there. We was in the projects, we knew a lot of people, so sometimes there would be six or seven people sleeping in the apartment.
How big was the apartment?
It was a little one-bedroom.
What was the apartment like? Was it a mess?
Hell yeah, it was definitely messy! We probably cleaned it up about twice a month, but other than that you’d see beer bottles everywhere, cigars, blunts and shit, weed everywhere, sneakers and clothes thrown around everywhere. Ghostface’s feet might have stunk . . . All kinds of shit, man! It was a bunch of guys living there in a small apartment! Actually, my mother gave him [RZA] that apartment, and when she’d come back in town she’d always scream on him, asking him why it was in such a mess and there was all these people hanging about!
What did you guys eat while you lived there? Did RZA have a breakfast cereal of choice?
We didn’t eat breakfast, to tell you the truth. It was either a pack of Oodles of Noodles or some grits. Every now and then we might afford a bowl of cereal, but back then times was hard for us. I remember we used to go in the store, and I’d watch Ghostface’s back while he’d be stealing canned goods out of the store. That’s how bad we had it. Ghostface would throw on his big, oversized coat and just stack four or five cans in his coat pockets, and we’d walk out and shit. Times was definitely bad back then.
But those bad times helped inspire the Wu-Tang music, right?
Exactly. That desperation made us hungry to want to be somebody, to make something, to take care of our families.
Was there always music being made in the apartment?
For the most part, yeah, but especially Friday and Saturday nights. RZA would always be playing music, cutting up records on his turntables, DJing, and then two or three nights out of the week Shakwon, which was Method Man’s name at the time, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Ghostface Killah would come by.
Were you around when the idea to form the Wu-Tang Clan first came about?
Well, Wu-Tang’s always been together since they’ve all known each other — it just had different names, like the All In Together Now crew or the D.M.D. posse. All In Together was GZA, RZA, and ODB, so all my cousins and my brother. D.M.D. was those from Park Hill: Method Man, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, plus RZA.
What did D.M.D. stand for?
It was the Dig ’em Down posse or crew.
Who made the better music, All In Together Now or D.M.D?
I say D.M.D., cause RZA started getting better with the beats by then. All In Together Now was the early ’80s, but hip-hop had grown since then, since ’82, ’83. Once you got to ’87, ’88, when Big Daddy Kane and them came, they was better than Melle Mel and them. D.M.D. was that era, so the beats, the rhymes, the ideas were better.
Do you still have tapes of those crews?
You know what? Someone put them online, plus the early Wu-Tang demos. They still sound hot to this day. You can hear Method Man before he had the Cookie Monster voice! Back then, RZA had an on-beat flow, he was more smooth than rugged, although Deck has always been sharp. You listen to it, you hear how much they grew as artists and MCs.
Were there other local Staten Island MCs that you looked up to at the time?
Nah, we were the best local rappers! Outside of Wu-Tang, I loved Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and Kool G Rap, but Wu-Tang were the best local rappers, basically.
Was there a stigma that came with being a rapper from Staten Island?
Yeah, a lot of people felt ashamed of being from Staten Island. People would lie and say they were from Brooklyn or the Bronx. But Staten Island was always its own little world, and it was just as rough as any other borough — it was just that since we were pretty much unknown through hip-hop, people didn’t want to claim that. But we always did.
Did you take the Staten Island Ferry over to Manhattan together?
Yeah, all the time. We’d take the bus, take the ferry, go right to Manhattan. There was all kinds of things going on on the ferry, people singing, people selling books. You’d see all types of girls . . . It was always a fun ride on the ferry.
So people would perform on the ferry?
Actually, the Force MCs were one of the first MCs out of Staten Island, and they started out being a group who’d perform on the ferry boat. They then changed their name to the Force MDs and became this big r&b group, but before that they’d make their money and try to get known by performing on the ferry, singing and rapping on the boat before anybody knew them.
What about you guys?
Yeah, we’d be on there rhyming, like a little cipher in the corner. Back then we also did a lot of local talent shows in Staten Island. From my age group, it was me and this kid named Shyheim.
Were you the same age as Shyheim?
I’m older than him by one year. I met him in third grade — he used to live right next door to me. We started out playing kickball together, and then I introduced him to RZA and Ghostface, and that’s how he became Wu-Tang. Shyheim was just a talented person all around. He was the shortest dude at the show, he was bad, but girls also liked him with his pretty-boy look. He was a street kid, and his rhymes was on point.
What do you remember about when RZA scored his first solo deal, as Prince Rakeem?
Ha ha, I remember that they all went to go shoot the video and I was too young, so they didn’t bring me along! They were shooting until about two or three in the morning, and I couldn’t be out at that time. I was mad about that, definitely.
When he got that deal with Tommy Boy, did you think he was going to blow up and be rich overnight?
Yeah, we thought he was going to blow up then. At that time, these other dudes living in Staten Island, Milk and Giz, who were Audio Two, were big. I remember going to school with their younger brother when they was blowing up with the “Top Billin'” song, and their brother saying, ‘You think your brother can mess with my brother now?’ Audio Two had a song on the radio. I felt uncomfortable. But RZA finally did it. It just took time.