Wizards of Wu

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."

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Richard Baimbridge