Wizards of Wu

How Wu-Tang Clan won the world

He slumps down in his chair and continues, saying, "I think we were stressed. It's like the labels take the fun out of it, man. I mean before, we could just do whatever we wanted to. Now it's like they're yankin' your fuckin' nuts."

Slowly, several more members of Wu-Tang Clan are filing into the room, including Raekwon, with backward Reebok cap and jeans hanging down low from his waist. The ultra-smooth CappaDonna slinks in with goggle sunglasses strapped around his head, followed by more journalists, all white and all asking the same questions. But Raekwon and CappaDonna are willing to talk, and they lead the conversation wherever they want it to go.

Asked about the violence plaguing hip-hop right now--the same violence that was (and in many ways continues to be) responsible for Wu-Tang's success, CappaDonna says, "When you go through hell, you gotta come out right one day. You know you been there, but now it's time to bring something to the table that's positive. That's why we don't even think about havin' guns in our videos right now. We put the hold on that shit, 'cause the way that shit is, little kids start doin' the shit they see on TV. It's more than just rhymin' now. Now it's more like a job, like I'm teachin' and shit, because I got, like, kids lookin' at what I'm doin'."

The members of Wu-Tang all come from the projects of Staten Island, which are among the poorest in New York City. (The group takes its name from a deep love of kung-fu and related disciplines. Band members call Staten Island Shaolin, which represents the Buddhist, or external, school of martial arts; their name comes from Wu-Tang Mountain, which represents the Taoist, or internal, philosophy.) CappaDonna is realistic both about his past and about what people expect from Wu-Tang--essentially the standard hip-hop formula of drugs, guns, and bitches. But the real power of Wu-Tang has been their ability to transcend the expected. This is a band that's into numerology, chess, and democratic socialism. A band that's recorded with Bjsrk and even rapped in French. Yet they remain true to the homeboy mentality, despite the fact that a growing percentage of their fans are white suburbanites.

"This is hip-hop," CappaDonna says. "Nobody's gonna be into sittin' down and bein' all calm about shit. So you gotta have a variety of things to touch everybody. And that's how we built the album--see, if you listen to the album, you got bruthas like Masta Killa just droppin' crazy jewels. And I'm with it, 'cause it sounds right. But I don't wanna go down in history as a negative. I'd rather be able to bring about a positive."

On the subject of solo projects, and the predictions that a band with so many members is bound to fall apart, CappaDonna says, "To not have one of us in the clan amongst each other--that shit'll really hurt us. That's us, man. That's why we named the album Wu-Tang Forever, because Wu-Tang is gonna live."

Indeed, the solo projects have so far only served to strengthen Wu-Tang, and a large percentage of the proceeds goes straight back to the Wu-Tang family, where it's divided on a sliding point scale based on individual album sales and participation. So far, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard (aka Osirus), Raekwon, GZA, and Ghostface Killah have all put out successful solo projects, with releases from Inspectah Deck, U-God, and CappaDonna forthcoming. The master architect behind all of this is, of course, RZA, with Raekwon carrying an equally heavy burden as a guiding voice.

But perhaps the main reason for Wu-Tang's ultimate success is that no one is a "token" member. This definitely ain't the Backstreet Boys. It's nine individually talented voices (and sometimes more) all coming together under one mighty nation of Wu.

Wu-Tang Forever is perhaps the first realization of that massed talent, making Enter the Wu-Tang strictly a sophomore effort. True, many of the tracks on the double album are throwaways, but when it hits, it hits hard and straight, the way only Wu-Tang can do. Songs like the six-minute Wu anthem opener "Wu-Revolution" set the pace for later jewels like "Bells of War," "Cash Still Rules...," and "Impossible." Like Wu itself, the album is a gluttonous feast for the senses, packed tight with rhymes and original beats.

"I see [Wu-Tang Forever] bein' like the Mercedes," Raekwon says in a voice so smooth it almost makes you feel like you're riding in one. "You know how they changed their whole model this year? That's how we changed our music. And I'm tellin' you, man, this album is killa. This shit's right now. Oh-mah-Gawd, we graduates now."

Wu-Tang Clan, together with Rage Against the Machine and Atari teenage Riot, play Starplex on Friday, September 5.

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