Raekwon, the Wu-Tang Clan’s resident slang scholar, released his new solo album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, last week; it’s the latest installment in a magnificent saga that’s now nearly two decades strong and leaves Staten Island’s finest rap representers firmly in the conversation for hip-hop’s greatest-ever group. Whether you talk influence, impact, classic albums, or just good old-fashioned rapping ability, no other crew set such high standards, and maintained them. Here are 10 (of many) reasons why New York’s hometown heroes will always rule everything around them.
1. Bringing Back (That Ol’) New York Rap
The fairy-tale version of the grand lore of the Wu-Tang has it that in the early ’90s, hip-hop was ruled by the slick g-funk sounds of L.A.’s Dr. Dre and his languid young prince, Snoop Doggy Dogg. New York rap, by comparison, was in its limp-dog phase. But then hip-hop was brought back home by a band of nine rugged rap rebels with kung-fu-inspired names and a gritty, downright dirty theme song titled “Protect Ya Neck,” released independently out of a base camp on Morningstar Road in Staten Island. That’s an over-simplification of events — rap’s watershed moments usually come to a head in more nuanced ways than that — but long before Nas, Biggie, and Jay-Z established their mid-’90s rap dominance, there was the Wu, doing the down-low groundwork for New York’s grand rap resurgence.
2. Classic Material
Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Tical, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . , Ironman . . . the first wave of Wu-Tang Clan group and solo albums hit like a stream of non-stop certified classics. It’s a run no other rap group has since been able to replicate. (Only Outkast perhaps come close.) Sure, the Wu’s discography benefits from the numerical depth of their squad, but when you factor in ensuing highlights like Ghost’s Supreme Clientele opus, the promotional version of Bulletproof Wallets, the Clan’s own Wu-Tang Forever (which would have benefited from being half as short and twice as strong, and not having the Clan dress up as the Village People for part of the artwork), Masta Killa’s overlooked No Said Date, and the warm reception given to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Part II, the Clan’s vault is rightly defined by quality, not quantity.
3. The Influence
The Wu Tang Clan’s musical influence on other rap groups is unprecedented. The flows, mafia-alias nonsense, and slang — “Don’t play me like I got a flowerpot-head, kid!” “Lobster-head-ass nigga! — have inspired a couple generations of subsequent rappers, both aspiring and often already established. (If you follow the line of reasoning Nas details in “The Last Real Nigga Alive,” then even Jay-Z’s career owes a debt to the Wu’s style.) And RZA’s early, soul-sample-rooted productions have been cited by no less a maestro than Kanye West as the prime influence on his breakthrough chipmunk-soul style.
4. My Crew Stays Winning
For a team as rowdy and outspoken as the Wu, they’ve remained effectively diss-proof. Many a rap artist has seen their career unceremoniously ended after a high-profile beef with 50 Cent, but the Wu’s shots towards the G-Unit general have been curiously tolerated: Ghost openly mocked him on the “Clyde Smith” skit, while GZA called 50 out on stage and recorded the diss song “Paper Planes,” which provoked Fif’ to issue only a few random comments about GZA’s age. In contrast, bovine-fiend 50 has set about gleefully mocking and eviscerating rappers of the stature of Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas. Similarly, Ghost and Rae’s reported hatred toward the Notorious B.I.G., which kicked off with the “Shark Niggas (Biter)” skit, played out through stealthy subliminals between the two camps — as opposed to the very public back-and-forth that Big would later go on to find himself embroiled in with 2Pac. Feuds with both Mase and Joe Budden ended remarkably quickly. When it comes to rap beef, Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing . . . well, you know.
5. Gotta Read The Labels
A lot has been written about RZA’s original record-industry master plan, which involved the Wu signing as a group entity to one label (Loud) while also allowing individual members the freedom to court solo deals elsewhere. The thinking was it would allow the Wu to spread its influence deep throughout the industry while also causing labels to compete against each other to the Clan’s overall advantage. These days, the theory doesn’t sound as revolutionary as it first did (and most Clan members have publicly dissed their labels), but even in an ever-crumbling record industry, it’s a mentality that still seems to resonate with upcoming artists, most recently with Odd Future leader Tyler signing solo to XL Recordings while his group continues to court rumors that it’s already surreptitiously signed to Interscope.
6. Underground Kings
Blowing up and actually going pop may be the new keeping it real in terms of current rap mantras, but there remains something stubbornly underground about the Wu Tang Clan’s aura. Even at the peak of the Wu’s commercial appeal, their second (and best-selling) album was promoted by a decidedly un-chart-friendly single, “Triumph,” composed of nine densely worded verses and no chorus, kicking off with the couplet “I bomb atomically/Socrates’ philosophies and hypothesis can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries.” At the height of rap’s Courvoisier-quaffing, money-ain’t-a-thang phase, the Wu came back with “Gravel Pit,” a song that featured Method Man uninviting himself from Diddy’s latest fondue party by declaring, “Can’t stand Bentleys — they cost too much.” Even when the Wu’s MCs are subjected to the token record-label-prompted crossover attempt (see: pretty much any of Ghost’s lead singles featuring an r&b singer), there’s a sense that the whole thing’s a ruse: It’s Dirt Dog and Mariah! It’s Meth and Scottish rockers Texas! Just call them the spiritual lords of the underground.
7. Better Antics Than Diddy, Even
On the basis of his infamous Grammy shenanigans alone, Ol’ Dirty Bastard will forever hold the title of rap’s greatest ever character.
8. All In Together Now
As soon as the Wu dropped their debut, rumors arose suggesting their impending breakup. They’ve never stopped since. Appropriately for a group that coined the C.R.E.A.M. mentality, these rumors usually center on a disgruntled member — often cited as Raekwon or Ghostface or Method Man — allegedly complaining about a less-than-fair apportionment of funds filtering their way down from head honcho RZA’s pockets. (Damn that troublesome Wu-Tang Productions contract!) But to date, the Wu’s only official reduction in numbers has been Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s tragic death. It’s a feat of solidarity that few other rap group greats have managed to sustain: Public Enemy kicked Professor Griff out rather publicly after he was accused of making anti-Semitic comments, E.P.M.D. had to break up to make up, N.W.A. unraveled in a brilliantly entertaining mess of diss records, and Tribe sensibly called it a day after realizing the magic between its members had long disappeared around the time J Dilla showed up on Q-Tip’s doorstep. Maybe it’s testament to their familial core — RZA, GZA and ODB are cousins — but in 2011, it’s still Wu-Tang forever.
9. Wu-Tang Is (Also) For The Ladies
Let us for a moment gloss over moments like Ghostface’s “Wildflower,” with its bitter venom about “remember when I long-dicked you and broke your ovary” and the time he “fucked you while you was bleeding,” and that song where RZA boasts about how he “used to fuck her when she menstruate/But it made her hyperventilate.” In hip-hop’s grand discography, there are approximately seven sincerely tender songs about women. The Wu, somehow, can lay claim to two of those, namely Ghost’s emotionally wrought tribute to his mom, “All That I Got Is You,” and Method Man’s ode to his soul mate, “You’re All I Need.”
10. Grown-Man Rap
Hip-hop thrives on the energy of youth. All media eyes are on L.A.’s expansive Odd Future collective these days, but beyond the group’s surface schtick about raping and pillaging small villages, its movement is propelled by the same fresh-faced-and-rebellious attitude that, say, a 16-year-old LL Cool J was bringing to rap back in the days before even Tyler’s parents were pubescent. The flip side of this is that rap artists rarely grow old gracefully — even the high priest of the industry himself, Jay-Z, sought to knock nigh on a decade off his birth certificate during his thirtysomething-rap phase. In hip-hop, experience is rarely a selling point, let alone something to be proud of. But of late, the Wu’s grown-man rappers look like they’ve managed to find a way to come to terms with their mature years. GZA is reportedly filming a sitcom about a rapper going through a mid-life existential crisis, while Ghostface has settled into being a balding, grumpy middle-aged man who likes to interrupt shows with monologues about the virtues of the olden days; his last album’s highlight, “In Tha Park,” was based around him and the Roots’ Black Thought reminiscing about previous hip-hop eras. The Wu may be the first group to comfortably embrace the idea of being the finicky old men of rap.