The world of hip-hop is an immensely competitive battle for the spotlight, where artists have the life spans of a dealer on the streets--sometimes literally. It is, in fact, the same street game many were born into, just taken to a higher level. A rapper can kill or be killed by a well-placed rhyme.
Public Enemy held the spotlight a while, then Ice Cube, Ice-T, and LL Cool J, followed thereafter by Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.--both of whom fell to real guns before anyone could come along and steal the mike out of their hands. Now the spotlight has shifted once again, shining bright on a chaotic collective from Staten Island with nine permanent members, all of whom are talents in their own right: leader RZA (aka Prince Rakeem), Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard (now aka Osirus), Raekwon, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and CappaDonna. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new, undisputed heavyweight champions of the rap world, Wu-Tang Clan.
What sets Wu apart from the pack is mostly the power of their numbers--nine ninja-ass mofos comin' straight outta Shaolin, each individually talented, all combining their strengths to push it over the top. The newly relocated Wu world headquarters in Jersey is hip-hop's equivalent to the Saturday-morning superhero pad shared by Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, et al. Lyrically, Wu-Tang is razor-sharp because they're still very close to the source, still running from the cops, chillin' in the Park Hill projects that they came from, and even doin' time in the penzo. Yet--unlike their predecessors NWA or the Geto Boys--Wu-Tang's rhymes point to an exit sign from the insanity, hanging just above the entrance to the 36 Chambers--a mythical Chinese martial arts endurance test that Wu transformed from escapism to their reality with their debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Embraced by everyone from Bjsrk to Hong Kong action director John Woo, and with a bangin' new double album--Wu-Tang Forever, which has already gone triple platinum in only a few months (three times what Beck's Odelay has sold in a year)--to back it up, Wu-Tang boldly claim they're here till they're ready to get the fuck out the way.
But it doesn't end there. Aside from having an unusually tight grip on the mike, Wu-Tang also have their hands wrapped around the fashion industry, which is hip-hop's twin brother and every bit as lucrative. Just ask Tommy Hilfiger or Nautica. Or ask Wu-Tang, creators and owners of a clothing company called Wu Wear, as well as a new chain of retail stores.
Wu-Tang isn't just a family, it's a corporation (for lack of a better word) based on a master plan of solo projects, profit-sharing, and world domination.
The show on the night of Monday, August 11, at New Jersey's Continental Arena was one of the hottest tickets of the year, featuring Atari Teenage Riot, Wu-Tang, and Rage Against the Machine. A line stretching around Times Square's Port Authority bus station stood impatiently waiting for the shuttle buses that would take them on the 10-minute trip under the Hudson River to the concert. Six o'clock came and went, 7 o'clock, 7:30..."Yo man, we're gonna miss Wu!" people cried out. "Nah, man, I ain't missin' Wu!" The buses were stuck in traffic, and NY transit was facing a riot.
Suddenly an Italian guy appeared with an airport shuttle bus he'd commandeered complete with a very confused Chinese driver. A mob scene ensued, and when the dust settled, 20 very lucky people were on board, heading to the show. The bus driver smiled. He didn't understand why, but he'd just made $100 in five minutes.
Wu-Tang's stage setup consisted of a vaudeville-style ghetto backdrop, complete with a liquor store and NYPD unit, as well as nine brothers bustin' out the rhymes. Opening with Raekwon's "Heaven or Hell," then bringing out the whole troupe with "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothin' to Fuck With," it was hard to tell who was who or what was what. Three stage-dives later, Wu-Tang was down to six members.
"Yo, security, I need three niggas on the stage. Bring me three niggas."
Security coughed up six, including two white guys and a girl. Then, "I got too many niggas on stage." Somebody had to go, and it wasn't gonna be Wu. A call for Wu signals went out, the audience responded with hands in the air, forming a sea of Ws. Three white people went flying, and Wu-Tang was back down to a comfortable nine again. "This shit's all about love," Raekwon announced. Then, boom! straight into the ho-song "Dogshit," "dedicated to all y'all bitches." But hold on, hold on. Let's rewind this tape.
Take it back a little bit. The scene is like this: U-God's chillin' in the offices of RCA Records. He's exhausted, about to go on tour in Europe, and the last person he wants to see is another white-boy journalist. Wu-Tang Forever, a 27-song megablast, is scheduled for release a week from now, and the band's preparing to become the subject of MTV's first ever Rockumentary on a hip-hop band. He's not in the best of moods. His only response to Wu-Tang Forever is a flat "It coulda been better."
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.
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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.