Wu-Tang forever?

U-God's solo album is only the latest in a series of Wu-Tang Clan misfires

"It means I bring earthquakes. I put earthquakes on wax. It's how I master my art," he says of "Rumble," adding that the song is not a reference to the world's end, a theme Method Man constantly explores. "Nah, I'm not thinking about no fucking apocalypse. My shit is about redemption, which means kill, breed, redeem."

The controlled insanity that comes out in Hawkins' answers is indicative of the way that the Wu-Tang Clan has spiraled out of control. The rap sheet on Ol' Dirty Bastard, for starters, includes battles with drug addiction and frequent drug-related arrests on both coasts, including a recent dust-up involving the artist occasionally known as Big Baby Jesus making terrorist threats at a House of Blues in Los Angeles. (He's currently going through rehab...again.) Hawkins says he's tried to confront ODB about his problems but admits, "He's his own man."

And ODB isn't the only troublemaker in the group. After the Wu-Tang Clan dropped off a much-hyped tour with Rage Against the Machine in 1997, it faced a lawsuit after four members of the group allegedly beat an employee of Loud Records at a tour stop in Chicago. Unfortunately, some members of the Wu-Tang Clan have apparently fallen into the trap that seems to afflict so many rappers -- they started acting out the hyper-violence depicted in songs like "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit." On top of all that, members were implicated in a gun ring operating between Staten Island and Steubenville, Ohio. So far, only the band's manager has been convicted of any crime; he's serving 33 months behind bars.

Personal problems are just one aspect of the uncertainties facing the Wu-Tang Clan. The proliferation of everything from solo albums to video games and comic books indicates the extent to which the group has flooded the market, and that doesn't even take into account the band's own line of Wu-Wear clothing. Method Man has even confessed that he didn't know a Wu-Tang video game was out until someone asked him about it. ("He's on the road so nobody should ask him that shit," Hawkins explains. "He's always on the fucking road so he doesn't know what the fuck is going on.") For a group that once waxed nostalgic about the simplicity of the past (see Enter the Wu-Tang's "Can It Be All So Simple"), the Wu-Tang Clan has spun a complex web of product that shows little in the way of quality control.

Early on, however, you could be guaranteed that the Wu-Tang stamp of approval was really a sign of excellence. The RZA was the first one to record outside of the group, and his first project, the Gravediggaz, is one of hip-hop's more underrated entities. Featuring Prince Paul (De La Soul, Chris Rock), Stetsasonic's Fruitkwan, and Brothers Grimm's Poetic, the group's debut 6 Feet Under was the soundtrack to an unwritten ghetto horror movie. The first true solo effort by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan was Method Man's Tical, an album that had a menacing tone and established the charismatic Method Man as the Clan's true star. Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, released in 1995, succeeded on account of its twisted sense of humor. Solo albums released that same year by Raekwon and Genius also stayed true to the Wu-Tang aesthetic.

All of which set the stage for the Wu-Tang Clan's second album, 1997's Wu-Tang Forever. Accompanied by an onslaught of media tie-ins (videos, in-stores, etc.), the album sold some 600,000 copies in its first week alone. A double album, Wu-Tang Forever could have been pared down to half its length and twice its quality, but the band was making a statement. No one names an album Forever without an agenda in mind.

What kind of statement the group was trying to make is hard to say, though this much is certain -- the Wu-Tang product hasn't slowed or gotten any better, hitting a plateau that threatens to be its final resting place. This year's slew of albums is downright mind-boggling: Method Man (Blackout!, a long-awaited team-up with Redman), Genius/GZA (the disappointing Beneath the Surface), Inspectah Deck (the tepid Uncontrolled Substance), and Ol' Dirty Bastard (Nigga Please) have all released solo discs, and Hawkins maintains that the group is preparing to release another Wu-Tang Clan disc next year.

"We getting that together as I'm speaking," Hawkins says. "Music is being formulated right now. Everybody gets their solo shit out of their blood, and it gets easier because everybody did what they needed to do and we can come back as a family. There's always competition, you know how it is, but we're still a family. That's why we do solo shit. Since we do get it out of our blood to go solo, we have the option to come back together again. And when we come back tighter, it's always greater because everybody wants to see us together."

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