Why We Wu

June 25, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 6 3 min read

“Wu-Tang is here forever!  Mother-fuckers!”

Old Dirty Bastard, “Triumph,” 1997

A few weeks ago, I visited friends in Brooklyn, getting a chance to do things that I rarely still do: stay up late, drink beer, act younger than I actually am.  Cloistered in a small, smoke-filled den, we spent hours on topics of interest: classic movies, comic books, that secretary from Mad Men.  We lamented the fall of Bogdanovich and the existence of Ke$ha.  Some time after midnight, conversation turned to the most salient subject of all.  We became impassioned and animated and a little bit unreasonable.  Recommendations were issued; objections made.  iPods were brandished, and the words “Camouflage chameleon, ninjas scaling your building/No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children” were heard and appreciated.

The subject, of course, was The Wu.

coverThe Wu-Tang Clan debuted in 1993 with the abrasive, perfect Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and in the years since, the group has both faded and expanded.  Their moment has long since passed, yet to a fervent core of disciples—myself included—they remain the only game in town.  Or, at least, the only one worth parsing at 2:06 in the morning.  For inveterate Wu-Tang lovers—those who bought Digital Bullet and can recite “Delirium” from Coffee and Cigarettes—contemporary hip-hop exists somewhere overhead.  Occasionally, like skywriting, a diverting act appears: Hey, look, it’s Kanye West.  Ooh, wow, Eminem.  But inevitably, the novelty dissipates and our thoughts return to the ground.  There, Wu-Tang is waiting: patient, poised, and vulgar.

covercoverOne reason they endure is a wealth of existing material: in addition to the five proper Wu-Tang records, each of the group’s ten members—yes, even U-God—has released multiple solo albums.  A few, such as Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, are canonical.  Many more are simply great: RZA’s Bobby Digital, Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Grandmasters.  But just as important is everything else: the sturdy, third-tier albums that push discussions deep into the night: “You know The Pillage?”  “Ever heard the first Inspectah Deck album?”  “No Said Date has some great fuckin’ songs.”  The Wu-Tang catalog’s depth and sprawl enables excited, cascading response.  One person brings up The W, and an hour later, someone else is defending the second Sunz of Man record.

Just as sprawling is the range of styles within the group itself.  More than any other modern act—with the exceptions, perhaps, of Miles Davis and B.B. King—the Clan has laid claim to nearly every corner of its genre.  RZA is its García Márquez, Raekwon its Richard Price, GZA its Bellow.  Method Man is a leering Jim Thompson, Ghostface Killah a slightly cracked Kerouac.  The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard remains unclassifiable, somewhere between William S. Burroughs and vintage Jack Kirby.  Together, they convey aggression, calm, dexterity, disarray.  They can be inscrutable or inane, incisive or broad.  There are rhymes about Heaven and rhymes about shit.  It’s all there.  If you want to listen to rock, your choices are endless.  When it comes to hip-hop, you can choose anything Wu-Tang and find yourself satisfied.

Then there is the music itself.  On his early productions, RZA created pressure through restraint; his was the sound of vision being reined in by technological limitation, made to twist outward.  The product was a dazing bent-metal feel, a methodical confusion behind the beats.  It’s an effect easily lost to rising budgets and digital dependence, and on duds like Tical O and Birth of a Prince, an airless clean took over.  Such pixelated ease, had it continued, could well have killed them off—it’s what nearly killed R.E.M., and has killed Terry Gilliam

covercoverBut the late-period Fishscale and Cuban Linx II were signals of renewal, roaring and cutting and hungry.  The sound might not have been as dusty or as broken as it once had been, but the result was much the same: a tightness in the throat and a clenching of the teeth.

As mainstream rap flags, growing distended and ring-toned, the Wu-Tang’s worth becomes clear.  Yet they do not rest on legacy.  GZA is working on Liquid Swords II; Masta Killa’s Loyalty is Royalty is due later this year.  After a long run of letdowns, Method Man will soon offer Crystal Meth: “I just want my classic,” he recently told MTV News.  “People always say, ‘You already got a classic first LP,’ but not to me… it’s like when your child brings home an 80 on a test.  That’s a good grade, but you know they can do better.”  Who knows what sort of marks Crystal Meth will receive.  It might be the Clan’s next stone-cold A-plus; in all likelihood, it’ll be a solid 83.  Either way, it will add a bit more grist to those half-crazed late-night discussions.  And for fans of the Wu-Tang, the conversation is the thing.

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.

6 comments:

  1. While B.B. King is surely the most important and influential electric blues guitarist of all time, he has hardly explored every corner of the blues and what he has done within the blues is certainly not analogous to what Miles Davis did in Jazz.

  2. favorite wu lyric, what’s that in your pants, aaah it’s human feces, throw ya shitty draws in the hamper, next time come strapped with tha fuckin pampers.

  3. I have to say that I was surprised to find this article here. Surprised, but pleasantly. I still remember vividly when Enter the Wu-Tang first came out. I was in high school (public) living in the birthplace of hip-hop (the Bronx.) I had grown up around hip-hop and its culture (can still remember as a kid, the WBLS van coming to my Co-Op City neighborhood on hot summer days to play some Dougie Fresh, Slick Rick, etc.) So, by ’93, I thought with my youthful naiveté, that hip-hop had peaked (with records like Slick Rick’s “Great Adventures”, the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill”, and Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” I was somewhat justified in my thinking.) But when I heard the 36 Chambers it was a revelation to me. The sound, the lyrics, the group dynamic. Everything came together in an almost mystical way to create something transcendent.

    Many people won’t be able to appreciate the appeal of the Wu. Some are put off by their gratuitous use of profanity. Others, no doubt, disregard hip-hop altogether as a substandard genre within music. But for many more, myself included, the Wu Tang Clan was and is (despite Method Man’s dubious acting career- not including the Wire) one of the most, if not the most, original and definitive acts hip-hop ever produced.

  4. Man, looks like I’m missing some albums. Is there a definitive discography of the Wu and all their offspring somewhere?

  5. Great article, it really caught me. I definitely missed something in my youth, I couldn’t handle the strong aggression in the music, so I pushed this mucial revelation for me onward untill I’d be 22, as I am now. I would have been 8 years by then.

    Kid’s don’t get aggressive from this kind of music unless they have some strong hardships, which in I saw a pattern with my schoolmates, and I figured they heard them because they wanted to be them, I surely didn’t. One of them had parents who divorced and re-married 12 times by his age of 12, beginning since he was 5, and I feared to “get” their traits.

    Still. The most successfull kids I have known and still know had all wished to get “Enter the Wu Tang”, one of my best friends is now a professional musician, former rapper and former champion in gymnastics. He heard them, played swordsmen with his friends on the school roofs, whitch they climbed up on with life in complete danger, only listening to rap and begin getting big dreams like them.

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