A willowy production assistant — headset, clipboard, and all — has just wandered out of the swirling dust and Tennessee summer heat, and into the Wu-Tang Clan’s trailer at Bonnaroo. She’s come with enough temerity, bless her young heart, to request a set list. A set list? A set list? RZA is a bit wobbly on his feet and waving around a bottle of Robert Mondavi chardonnay while exhorting Method Man to take a hit off a blunt. Meth, wearing a shirt depicting Ol’ Dirty Bastard as a kind of floating cloud god, is skeptical: “That ain’t that bomba ba!” He then points to his pal Redman, who has apparently been slacking on his moisturizing: “Your legs so ashy, I could write a Wu-Tang ‘W’ in that shit.” In the corner, a peckish U-God is living vicariously through Ghostface Killah’s description of the lasagna in the artists’ tent. “It was bangin’ bangin’?” U-God asks. “It was tight,” Ghost says. “Had the peppers on there and shit.” And in the back room, Masta Killa and a buddy are — yep — playing chess.
Through the buzz in the trailer, the peppy PA attempts to cut through the noise: All the festival’s artists are signing set lists, she tells them. Crickets. They’re being auctioned off for charity, she explains. Blank stares. Finally, Divine, RZA’s biological brother and the closest thing the Wu has to a manager, pipes up: “Um … ain’t no particular set list right now.”
Outside the trailer, just a few minutes before showtime, an MTV News crew attempts to corral the Wu in front of a camera to discuss the imminent 20th anniversary of their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Ghostface, rubbing his belly, gets it going: “I’m full right now! It’s been 20 years to the people, we still looking young, and we still ballin’ with ey’body, and we still puttin’ that work in. So 20 years from now, you gonna see us like this” — he positions himself in the middle of the crew, grinning — “chunky! Still. Doing it. Now what?!” RZA walks by, accidentally spilling some of his Robert Mondavi. “Spraying ’pagne on me and all that,” Ghost cracks. “That’s my brotha — he can do that, though.”
Then things get even sloppier. A group of men who’ve been standing shoulder to shoulder in front of cameras since they were teenagers jostle for mic time, searching for something clever to say and just a little bit of fleeting shine. RZA tries to call “cut” on the interview. A smiling Ghost defies him. “No, no, no — no cuts! We got the camera right here.” RZA, deadpan: “I’m a director! I don’t work with no amateurs!” In the background, GZA sends U-God’s lollipop flying into the bushes. Suddenly, with the crowd chanting “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” the DJ drops in and half the Clan make a hasty retreat to the stage. As the crew dissipates, the MTV correspondent gets in one more question: So, what has been the greatest legacy of the Wu-Tang Clan over these last 20 years? Cappadonna, who’s been milling around on the outskirts, sticks his head in the frame.
As with most tales of great American fortitude, the Wu-Tang Clan’s starts at the bottom. Robert Diggs spent his early life in poverty, shuttling between two-bedroom project apartments in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Stapleton, Staten Island, that were bursting with his sprawling family. “Your bed was whatever spot you could grab on the floor,” he’d later write in The Tao of Wu. “Your blankets were those gray wool mats that movers used to protect furniture.” His world was defined by hardship, not opportunity. Which is why he decided to create his own.
Diggs dreamt of a force so powerful it couldn’t be ignored — an empire. The bedrock was hip-hop, which he loved from the moment he stumbled upon DJ Jones and MC Punch rocking a Park Hill block party. On that foundation, he synthesized his dual obsessions. First, there were the kung fu flicks, from the Shaw brothers and Gordon Liu; he’d catch them at Times Square grindhouses, then expose them to his hood in packed Saturday-night living-room screenings. Just as important were the teachings of the Five Percenters, a street-based offshoot of the Nation of Islam that esteemed self-enrichment and explained consciousness through a set of lessons and codes — the Supreme Mathematics — which empowered Diggs to believe in his own inherent wisdom.
He assembled a dream team of local talent, collecting $100 from each of his fledgling wards to record and release an undeniable debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” and then led them through the country, selling it out of car trunks and pushing it on radio programmers, who lapped it up. With the industry cornered into playing by his rules, Diggs — by then known as the RZA — struck his historic deal with Loud Records: forgoing big money for the group up-front, and giving each man the freedom to sign a solo deal with the record label of his choice. The mission was ultimate cultural diffusion. Killer bees on the swarm. The Wu-Tang Clan.
Twenty years later, that impossible dream is … what, exactly? Tarnished, to be sure, by a lack of quality control and a nearly comical lack of cohesion. And since the 2004 death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, it has been marred by tragedy. But it is also still here.
Wu-Tang has promised one more, possibly one last album. New music has appeared in dribs and drabs: Last summer, a purported lead single, “Family Reunion,”1 arrived to little fanfare; just this week a follow-up, “Keep Watch,” showed up without warning. But the group has failed to deliver on anything close to a proper full-length album. And in the process, they’ve made one thing clear: This thing is broken. For as much as the group members talk about unity and foreverness, they can’t get in a room and agree. They can’t get their shit together.
1. The song has alternately been called “Family Reunion” and “Family Affair.” Consistency has never been the hallmark of the Wu.
Still, they try. And so we hold out hope. This is about pining for, yes, the glorious old days. But it’s also about a fractious group of individuals who might still very well have something remarkable in them. Call it irrational, dumb, a dangerous side effect of unbridled nostalgia. Then listen to Raekwon’s first boast on their last album, 8 Diagrams, his fleet tongue in sync with RZA’s woozy bass: “Welcome to the fish fry where n—-s get burned to a crisp / Jump out the pot, yeah, yo, I got this.” Broken, yes. Dead, no.
For several months, I chased down and spent time with all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan,2 winding my way from Brooklyn to New Jersey to Tennessee to Arizona to — of course — Shaolin in the process. It was, for the most part, maddening. As a fan, I was happy to find that a certain anarchic spirit is still rooted deep within the Wu. As a reporter, I wondered how many more unanswered calls would bring me within the legal definition of stalking. It was surreal, in the best way possible.
2. Yes, jokesters: Cappadonna counted.
The ensuing profiles are not meant to form a definitive history. And maybe — for a group that’s always existed at a hazy interval between fact and myth — that’s quite all right.
“I’m still pushing forward full strength till my energy run out,” RZA says from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s just put down the guitar to pick up the phone. He’s talking about the 20th-anniversary album, the one he’d fiercely declared in 2012 was the “one last job Wu-Tang Clan must do.” But when we speak, November 9 — 20 years since 36 Chambers was released — is just days away. And there’s no album. “The dream was to have it come out this week,” he says. “It should have came out on our anniversary date.”
This summer, while on a European festival tour, the Wu managed to record at something close to full strength. They even produced a single, “Family Reunion.” “I got optimism off [that],” RZA says. “It was so healthy. We got a lot of time on the bus to talk, to argue, to laugh, to hug, to see fans loving us.” But the unity wavered.
During scheduled off-day recording sessions, Ghostface and Raekwon would fly home to tend to solo business opportunities. When everyone was back Stateside, it was more of the same. RZA spent thousands of dollars to reopen the studio at the Wu Mansion, his old New Jersey home where much classic post–36 Chambers material was recorded, as HQ for the new album. Some members went hard. Method Man was reportedly rejuvenated. But Ghost’s and GZA’s presence was sparse. Raekwon “didn’t show up at all,” RZA says.
“I put my movie career on hold for the first half of the year because I was focusing on making this,” RZA huffs. “I went down to Memphis, I went down to Philadelphia, I came back to the East Coast. I spent a lot of money and a lot of time this year.”
More than anyone in the Wu, RZA has traveled farthest from Staten Island. While the rest of the Clan still primarily grind it out as touring artists, RZA has gone forth and multiplied: He scores movies for Quentin Tarantino, he pals around with Brian Grazer, he costars on prime-time Fox cop shows. And last year, in what felt like the natural next step in his evolution, he actually got to direct his own big, splashy kung fu flick, The Man With the Iron Fists. If you haven’t seen it, rest assured that it features RZA punching a dude’s eyeball out of his skull.
For most of the Clan, a proper 20th-anniversary album would have meant a spike in attention not seen in years. RZA, though, is plenty busy already. And so it’s only one of many contradictions here that the dude who needs this the least wants it the most.
During the Wu’s initial five-year run, RZA barely saw sunlight. “To make all those early albums took three and a half years of my life,” he told XXL in 2005. “I didn’t come outside, didn’t have too many girl relations, didn’t even enjoy the shit. I just stayed in the basement. Hours and hours and days and days. Turkey burgers and blunts.” It’s that slavish devotion that RZA wants again. It’s what Wu fans want, too. More turkey burgers. More blunts.
“We all agree — me, you, and the rest of the world — that these guys are great by themselves any fucking way,” RZA says. “But they are greater when we come together! We come together, we make platinum, G. That’s the true fucking reward for our top talent. And I say that to the guys. I don’t know who hears me.”
He pauses. “Let me get one question on you real quick?” Uh. Yeah. Sure. “You talked to the other guys. Were you feeling optimism? Or was they saying, ‘Oh, RZA thinks he know it all’?” It’s preposterous, that I might have more insight than the Abbot himself. But I understand why he’s asking. In the Wu, chaos is a way of life. Even the RZA doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Oh, uh, definitely, they wanna do this, I stammer. Everyone wants this.
A notorious control freak, RZA didn’t let the Clan hear even a snippet of 36 Chambers — not even their own verses — until it was completed. Then the day came. He gathered the crew at the Magic Shop, a studio in Chinatown, one of the first to have Pro Tools. He pressed play. They went nuts. “Everybody loved it! Especially Dirty. He’d say, ‘This shit is just … this shit is a masterpiece. We want applause. We want applause!’”
“This motherfucker,” Method Man remembers thinking, “made a fucking album.”
For the first five years, everything went according to plan. The first solo albums from Ghost, Rae, Meth, GZA, and ODB — all classics. The empire had bloomed. And then, one day, it ground to a halt.
“It was during the Rage Against the Machine tour,” RZA says. “That’s when it fell apart.” In 1997, Wu-Tang was opening for Rage, then arguably one of the biggest bands on the planet. The audiences weren’t only huge, they were also brand new, demographically speaking. But some members of the group, not sure why the Wu was playing to aggressive rock crowds, never felt comfortable. And so when Hot 97 beckoned the crew to leave the Rage tour and come home to play Summer Jam, a majority vote made it so.
The ensuing performance was a disaster. Ghost, in a sour mood because the Clan had to pay to fly themselves back to New York, shredded ’em: “Fuck Hot 97! This ain’t the place where hip-hop lives!” An unofficial Wu ban was handed down at the station, which would last for years. The logic behind leaving the Rage tour — and the chance to play to giant, international audiences3 — was to re-embrace the East Coast base. It backfired. Over and over, members of the group identify this moment as the crucial juncture, the beginning of the crumbling of the empire.
3. “It was a chance to transcend our neighborhoods,” RZA says. “Look at the audiences: Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans … it’d become worldwide.
“In the beginning, I’d fight for the ship to go in the right direction,” RZA says. “Not just yelling. Physical fights. After five years, I just didn’t have the same willpower to fight.”
The last time they came together, in 2007, the result was the sly, simmering, and thoroughly troubled 8 Diagrams. Before the album even dropped, Ghost and Rae were trashing RZA’s more nuanced, live-instrument-based productions. (RZA would miss most of the ensuing tour.) Those fault lines still stand.
RZA explains he’s become a “real musician” since the early days. These days, he writes music on guitar, then enlists veteran Memphis soul musicians — the same guys who played on the records he once sampled — to record it. Attempting to emulate the old sound would be disingenuous, he says; this is the progressive, “adult” approach. Of course, some of the other guys don’t quite see it that way. Says Inspectah Deck, “I know that fans really don’t want us to come out to a bunch of live-band shit. They wanna hear the RZArrect beats. They wanna hear the Wu.”
“I felt really personally hurt after 8 Diagrams,” RZA says. “That was my brothers and they was shitting on it. I remember, it was all of us in a room, and I said, ‘I will never again step up and do business with you.’ Then the 20th anniversary came up. I said, ‘I gotta try it again.’ I’m pushing. I’m pushing.”4
4. Part of the push stems from playing this year’s Summer Jam for the first time since that disastrous 1997 appearance. “I said to the crew, ‘Our trajectory stopped right here. Here’s a chance for our trajectory to rise up,’” RZA recalls. “The next day, [Hot 97] played ‘Family Reunion’ on the radio. But some members of the crew didn’t like the song, didn’t support it. And here we are now. Still trying to figure it out.”
At home in Hollywood, with his guitar in his lap, RZA contemplates his next move.
II. Method Man
“They used to take us to the back of that school right there and whup our ass,” Method Man says as we stroll through Park Hill, the Staten Island projects where he grew up.
There’s a camera crew trailing us, and half the neighborhood seems to be slowly orbiting Meth as he walks. But he still gets lost in nostalgic reverie, pointing out artifacts of his youth: the dirt path where his friend Toussaint was shot; the ledge he hung on in the “Protect Ya Neck” video; the fire escape where he used to throw rocks at his future wife’s bedroom window. Now he’s pointing to P.S. 57, where cops would drag the known corner boys, lay down beatings, and grab their stashes. “That’s if you got caught,” he says with a smirk.
He shows us the high fence where he once saw a guy, in mid-chase, clamber up and leap over; the fall was enough to break his legs, Meth thought, until he saw him get up and, wobbly-legged, continue scurrying away from the police. He shows us the low wall where he’d post up, hidden between trees, and call out Suweee! when a fiend would come by. He explains you’d never hand the contraband into a car window with an open palm, for fear the fiend would smack it into his passenger seat and peel off.
But he always wanted to entertain. “I hated selling drugs, n—-,” Meth says.
At 4 years old, with his mom at work, he’d have “whole fucking adventures” with the family’s 45 record player, the kind that was connected to the TV. “I used to throw on this [Chuck Berry] record called ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ and perform in front of the mirror: ‘Oh, my ding-a-ling, oh, my ding-a-ling. I want you to play with my ding-a-ling.’”
Years later, in Park Hill — where he met Cappadonna, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Raekwon5 — Meth would go public with his performance chops. First came the snapping contests, “about 15 motherfuckers going in on each other”; that was the seed of the infamous “Torture” skit.6 Then, there was MCing: “N—-s rhyming on a staircase. That’s it.”7
5. “Me and Chef had classes together in junior high. We both didn’t say much in class.”
6. For the Wu completist: Meth says, “I’m gonna give credit where credit is due. Choice, and this bigmouthed kid RZ, it was basically them two n—-s [that started it]. It was funny as hell and shit.”
7. Also: “I think Cappa was the one that was really rhyming. I think Cappa pretty much started all of us [in Park Hill].”
RZA and his cousins GZA and ODB were one unit, known for a time as All in Together Now. Eventually, that faction melded with the Park Hill crew. When Meth wasn’t in school, or at his job at the Statue of Liberty souvenir stand, he was taking dollar cabs to RZA’s basement studio on Morningstar Road. “You could pop up at any time,” he says. “He had his kid there, his girl, the whole family. But it didn’t matter. It was about music. And a lot of people sacrificed a lot to get where we at right now. Ghost took bullets in the neck for this shit.”
Before he was “Method Man,” he was “Shakwon the Panty Raider.”8 One thing that was constant was his star presence. “[Park Hill] was the only place you could buy trees at. All parts of Staten Island, even BK and Jersey n—-s, would come out [here] and be like, ‘Yo, this is my man right here, spit that shit for them.’ Ghetto celeb and shit. When it came time to come onstage, it was the same to me. Let’s go.”
8. A quick note from Meth on stage names: “It played more into the street thing. Like, if I got locked up, ‘Oh, I don’t know the guy’s name and shit, but he go by Jemele.’ There’s n—-s out here that we started giving regular names. Like, my n—- Gin, that’s his street name and shit, we were calling him Sammy. His name ain’t even fucking Sammy. Bro, we was callin’ that n—- George, his name ain’t George. Herb. We had a dude named Herb.”
On their first promo run, Wu played to near-empty clubs throughout the country. Meth remembers an early show in Texas, with a cantankerous audience led by an aggressive ringleader. “RZA, being a showman, lets him say something into the mic. Dude’s like, ‘Get the fuck up out of here with that shit!’ Threw his drink on RZA.” Sensibly, RZA responded by braining the fellow with a bottle of Boone’s Farm. “We expecting it to get poppin’ now! These n—-s running out the door, though. I’m like, ‘They can’t be pussy … Ah, they getting the guns.’” The Wu rushed to the van and peeled away quick.
But back then, violence was the norm. As soon as they’d hear “Bring Da Ruckus” — “Boom, n—-s start fighting.” At another show, ODB broke his leg. The fights had spilled out onto the stage? I ask. “Nah. Dirt did some weird shit and RZA pushed him into the crowd.”
Gradually, the clubs filled up, the checks got fatter.9 The Wu went to Europe, to Japan. “I’m like damn, there a lot of people who can’t even stand this close to Madonna,” Meth remembers thinking. “We can smell her weave. That’s dope.”
9. Meth’s first piece of jewelry was a set of gold teeth. His second was a Rolex bought with his fee for a guest verse on Foxy Brown’s “Ill Na Na.” He’d asked her camp for “25,” as in $2,500; they paid him $25,000.
Meth says the Rage Against the Machine tour “changed everything. The scale tipped and it got to be mostly white people.”10 The problem was that the Wu didn’t get “what the whole rock-and-roll thing was. We liked doing our little club dates. They had a lot of perks. Things I don’t want to talk about, but yeah — we liked that shit.”
10. A bit more context on that: “I ain’t hating, though. It’s all good and shit, but you know, black people, go out and see your peoples sometime and shit. Y’all let the white people get all the good stuff all the time.”
The tour fell apart. “But I mean, it’s been happening since the first fucking tour,” Meth points out. “Ever since RZA hit the n—- in the head with the bottle of Boone’s.”
Meth marvels over the gates erected, the walls raised, the dirt paths long since paved over. Every few feet, he hands out a hug or a photo or dap. At one point a guy races across the street, with a ratty stroller, to greet him. Meth, all smiles, tells him “Get that baby out the cold!” The fellow grins, and points down, and we note that what’s actually clumped in the baby seat is a jumbled pile of canned goods.
It’s time to go. Meth is shooting The Cobbler with Adam Sandler right now, a “damn difficult-ass” drama, and he’s running late for a tune-up with his acting coach. But as his driver idles, in a big black SUV, he can’t help but politick a bit longer with his old buddy Trembles, then with a young kid he instructs to “write some rhymes,” and finally with an ice cream truck driver who promises “on everything that I love” to hook Meth up with free chocolate chip.
Meth hops in the SUV, turning once more to face the crowd, and to bum a cigarette. Someone jokes about how he should be sparking a blunt instead. As he ducks into the car, he shoots back, smiling: “I know better than to walk through here with trees! Got locked up last time I did that.”
Raekwon’s pied-à-terre is a carpeted apartment in an upscale South Jersey complex called the Alexan CityView. Down the street from a Staples and a Stop & Shop, it boasts a basketball half court, a tidy blue-neon-lit pool, and the as-advertised city view, pocked by a cluster of giant construction cranes. A front lounge boasts neat flora, an unlit fireplace, a zebra print couch, a mini fountain, and, overall, the distinct vibe of a particularly well-kept Embassy Suites. I walk in past pretty young pregnant women, Indian teenagers wearing Vans, and one jolly white guy pointing to a vaguely defined area just above his crotch and explaining to his pals, “I’m only fat from here to here.”
Rae greets me with the sideways V sign. His apartment is spotless, bordering on unlived in, except for a pink plastic bag containing a bottle of Tide and a Dutch Masters.11 He lives full time with his family in Atlanta — he’s got an 18-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 4-year-old — but has just returned from a Wu show in Istanbul and is crashing here between tour dates. “They don’t like foreigners over there too much,” he says. “But it’s fun when you get that check.” He’s in Adidas track pants, socks, and shower sandals, a white V-neck stretched over his sizable gut; he moves swiftly, but with a bit of a waddle. As we talk, he continuously pours a handful of M&Ms from one palm into another.
11. When he eventually rolls the Dutch, he’ll make sure to carefully drag all detritus into the pink plastic bag.
A few months from now, Raekwon will tweet a terse response to the comments RZA makes to me about Chef’s lack of commitment to the Wu album: “Yea i just read that rza article? Shit is funny to me.” (He’ll add: “I love u rza, u know what it really is.”) This evening, he offers a fuller appraisal.
“I would be the first one to say that we cannot leave everything in RZA’s hand no more,” Rae says. “He has done his job to the greatest of his ability when we were younger, but now every man plays an imperative role in this situation. His plan was to do a more humble album. We was like, Nah. You can’t do that with the hardest group in the game.”
Of “Family Reunion,” Rae says, “We knew that wasn’t no single.” The anniversary album’s tentative title, A Better Tomorrow, wasn’t approved by the group before it was announced, which created dissension early in the process, something the fractious Clan could scarcely afford. “It’s like getting the United Nations to all agree on one fucking thing,” Rae sputters. “Italy ain’t having it. Japan is on some shit. You know what I mean? Now, here it is, the 20-year anniversary that’s so decoratedly respected that we might not even be on time for this shit.”
Raekwon’s classic verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” is actually a second draft. The crew told him, “You could knock it a little bit better. Talk about what you know — talk that talk,” Raekwon recalls. “So I’m like, aight, they ready for my story on this one.” His light bill was overdue at the time, and so he was in the dark that day in his apartment, with a little recorder, crafting those unforgettable lines: “I grew up on the crime side … ” The Clan flipped when they heard it. “You start feeling like your crew is accepting what you about and what you love. It was the family I never had.”
Rae grew up without a father; his mother was loving but overworked.12 “Come home and hug me — that’s all she could offer.”13 With little in the way of parental supervision, RZA and GZA were de facto role models. “It was like, ‘Wow, you dealing with a guy that could write the Bible of rhymes in his mind, and a guy that’s cinematic with wordplay,’” Rae says. “You stick your arm in that world, you pull it out, and the next thing you know, your arm is gold. It was always challenging, being critical of one another. That’s what made us the best.”
12. “[I was] sitting down with Meth the other day and talking to him, and he said his pops was mean. He said, ‘Yo, I was scared of my father.’ Like, wow, at least you had a father. I met my father one time. I met my father and I never seen him again.”
13. Drug dealing was an obvious route. It was also, in part, an inspiration for his famous culinary moniker. “Crackheads would call the best base ‘flavor,’ so all these different dudes added Flavor to their name. But for me, they just named me the Chef.” Still, it’s something Rae’s repentant about today. He takes pains to clarify: “I didn’t sell drugs to no pregnant people, I didn’t sell drugs to no kids.”
For years, the model held. “RZA was the airplane driver, saying what’s on the menu. He’d come in, get drunk, and smash it, and he made us all stars.” Soon, the floodgates opened. A group of kids who grew up dirt poor reaped the rewards of their hard work. “We were renting cars and spending excessive money and buying every Avirex jacket that we could find.”
And when it crumbled, it happened gradually. “After a while, we started treating our babies like they was adopted.”
As the ’90s wore on, certain factions within the group felt RZA had overextended the brand, slapping the Wu-Tang “W” on inferior product. He also hired relatives as Wu empire employees, making him accountable for his extended family’s well-being. At the same time, he was still running point with the record labels while trying to corral his exceedingly brasher, richer, and more famous Clan.
ODB was rarely present. Meth would show up looking “dusty” for Wu dates, Rae says, even though he was “fresh as ever” when touring with Redman. Meanwhile, group meetings would devolve into passive-aggressive bickering. “I gotta jump up and defend myself because I know they talking about me,” Rae remembers, almost laughing. “‘What the fuck you mad at me because I got five cars! That’s what the fuck I wanna do with my fuckin’ money! And I’ma get five more after this shit!’”
For RZA, the pressures of being chieftain were intense. And, despite his gruff talk, Rae is thoroughly sympathetic: “Having to be in these buildings and they deadlining him … Your crew is not seeing the way it used to see and paperwork is changing … [There’s] a lot of shit that takes away from your [ability] to really feel like, ‘Yo, this my brother still?'”
Whatever happens with this album, some might see Rae as a villain. But he has dug in only because he still believes in the power of the W. “It’d be different if I felt like we was washed up,” he says. “But nah. These dudes — we like robots, man. I run with the crew that’s the eagle, you know what I mean? We was almost the Beatles. But we had more Beatles, though.”
As the light fades over the Alexan, the Chef takes a call.
“Peace. Whadup, Mike. You by Staples? Yeah, stop at the store and get some tilapia for me. Get some Frank’s Hot Sauce. And um, what’s the name, Wesson’s vegetable oil.” A pause. Apparently, Mike is lobbying for olive oil instead. Rae shoots him down, chuckling: “Yo, bro, listen — could I eat the way I wanna eat, man? Mike, man, grab the fucking oil. And, um, some Sazón Black Pepper. And some cornmeal. We gon’ fry this fish up. I got a taste for fish.”
“No cameras?” U-God asks from the backseat of a black gypsy cab. “You had me come all the way out here by yourself?”
“Here” is Howard Houses, the Brownsville, Brooklyn, projects where U-God grew up. This is his first time back since the Wu took off; clearly, it’s an occasion he feels deserves a more expansive form of documentation than me and my tape recorder. But he drops it, pointing my attention to the old, befuddled Caribbean man in the front seat: “This is my driver.”
I nod. The man stays absolutely still. Then U-God clambers out of the car, and the man comes to: Someone need to pay for this? It turns out U-God meant “driver” less in the “chauffeur” sense of the word, more in the “literally the person who drove me here” kind of way. The MC grabs a Velcro wallet out of the back pocket of his lightly bedazzled jean shorts, indicating he doesn’t have any cash. “Stay here. Don’t. Go. Nowhere,” he instructs the driver, against feeble protestations. “We goin’ to the bank.” I trot behind U-God, suggesting there might be an ATM in the supermarket across the street.
“Nah, nah,” he says. “I just said that to get him off my back.”14
14. For the record, U-God did eventually pay the dude.
It’s an early summer afternoon, the first day the Howard pool is open. Over by the stone chessboard tabletops, an old-timer in a straw boater and a towel over his shoulder lolls by. Down the path, a young girl in a hot pink dress warmly squeezes a head-wrapped older woman in a wheelchair and in possession of not all that many teeth. “Auntie!” As a breeze flutters the leaves, it feels downright pleasant. But U-God — gray flecking his stubble, his blue T-shirt reading “FAME” — feels the need to warn me. “It’s still a hood, man,” he says. “N—-s will chop your head off and cut your nose off and throw shit in your butt and burn your hair on fire. I could just feel it out here. It feels like death.”
When he was 8, he saw his mother get robbed. “N—-s punched her in the face and all that.” The small park in the middle of the Houses was home to “a lot of wars.” Rumbles and shootouts between the Howard locals and the Tomahawks,15 and “projects against projects.” But there was music, too. “The handball park right here, this was the jams,” he says. “All day.”
15. According to this website, at their prime, the Tomahawks were led by a guy named Champ who was “Known To Own A Horse & Ride That Sucker All Over The Projects Dressed Like A Wild West Outlaw.”
U-God split his childhood between Brooklyn and Staten Island, first meeting RZA while the Abbot was DJing a party at the Stapleton projects. They connected because “he had Mathematics and he was smart.”16 At the time, someone from, say, Park Hill wouldn’t necessarily have the cojones to venture out to Stapleton. But U-God had his brother’s father’s brothers in his corner: “They was stabbing n—-s, fucking n—-s up, shooting n—-s up.” By affiliation, U-God was official all over Shaolin.
16. U-God, on the importance of smarts: “I’m attracted to minds more or less than with a physical attraction sometimes. If a woman has a great mind, I might even overlook … she got a fat ass, and she got an ugly-ass grill, I might overlook that because she’s got intelligence.”
We’ve wandered — past eggshells, blunt-wrapper sleeves, kids playing hide-and-seek, a busted box TV, and a copy of an Evasive Angles: Big Chubby Latin Girls DVD — to the lobby of the exact building where he grew up. We’re about to head up to his old apartment but, when I suggest taking the stairs to avoid the ancient-looking elevator, he balks at the whole endeavor. “You supposed to be popping up with cameras anyways. You gotta make ’em feel like, ‘Oh shit, what’s this?’ That’s why I said, you ain’t got no cameras? That’s what you supposed to bring. A camera.”
We walk back outside, and, again, a more pressing matter catches his attention. “That’s the second time that police helicopter is following today, man. You saw that shit, right?” I shrug. “Like, where did it come from? You saw it looking at us, right? It just came. This is the second time, dog. What’s going on with that hip-hop police? They follow me everywhere. It kind of drives me crazy.”
These days, U-God’s relationships with other members of the Wu are amicable, if stilted: Raekwon is “tired of hanging around me”; Ghostface has been rebuffing his offer for a full-album team-up, called Goldie and Ghost, for years. “Whatever. I don’t care,” he says. “Maybe when I was a little younger, it might’ve bothered me. I felt entitled. Nine egos, nine dudes, nine everybody thinking they the shit. [But] I’m not entitled to nothing but what I put work in for.” RZA and him “go through it,” but “I love this n—-. He saved my fuckin’ life. He gave me a purpose. Nobody better be disrespecting him in front of me.”
Right now he’s focused on his new solo album, The Keynote Speaker, which he promises is his best work to date: “I’m Muhammad Ali. I’m hitting that speed bag like braaaat. I’m punching n—-s in the face with this one. Before this year is all said and done, you’ll put me up there with the five greats of all time.” Pause. “Or the top five most underrated motherfuckers ever.” Further plans: “After this, I’m going into movies. I’m ill. I took classes and all that already. Put a camera on me, I got that aura.”
Of his day-to-day, he says, “I’m smoking, I’m drinking, I’m having fun, man. I’m goin’ suck on the baddest titties on the planet. Right now, this might be my last 10 years on the planet. You can do what you wanna do in this world, man.”
V. A Brief Interlude With Ghostface Killah17
17. After roughly six months of emails, calls, texts, and on-my-knees pleading with various representatives, I never secured a proper interview with Ghostface Killah. One hopefully illuminating side note: Ghostface’s main point of contact is a guy once memorialized on record for his propensity for the sexual technique of fisting. Also, while we’re here, a representative text from my myriad attempts to set up an interview: “He’ll call you in 30 from an unlisted number.”
The show’s over in Tennessee, the sun has set, and most of the Wu have scattered. But RZA and Ghostface are still on the clock, slated to perform at the Bonnaroo Superjam later this evening, and right now their presence is required at rehearsals. While RZA’s mind-set can still be best described as turnt up, Popa Wu — the elder statesman of the Wu-Tang affiliates — has been tasked with shepherding the duo along. “Starks and RZA gotta go,” he calls out. “Starks and RZA gotta go.”
With MCs, publicists, and various hangers-ons along for the ride, an idling white transport van fills up quick. In the crush, Popa Wu encounters an old female friend, wearing leopard print, and the two huddle close to reminisce. Meanwhile, one of RZA’s buddies has cajoled the driver into popping in a CD of his raunchy original work, and RZA’s excitedly singing along almost directly into Ghostface’s ear, like a little kid messing with his big brother. “I swerve the pussy, I curve the pussy, I even muthafuckin’ chauffeur the pussy.” Amid the chatter, it’s Ghostface who’s first to notice we’re stuck. “That’s mud? That’s mud right there? Let me see that. Oh nah. Oh nah. We gotta get outta this.”
A flurry of rain, it seems, has rendered our path intractable. Now, the transport van’s wheels are futilely spinning in place. We’re already late and, as the driver hopelessly revs the engine, panic has set in. “Let’s get out and push!” someone yells, and a couple dudes promptly hop out and proceed to rock the van uselessly. A wooden plank materializes and is shoved under a tire. Still stuck.
Undaunted, a second white transport van has been called in, and this one stays out of range of the muddy quicksand. The crew carefully traipses into the new vehicle, with me bringing up the rear. By the time I climb in, the seats are gone. As I linger in the doorframe, with various voices not so politely shout-recommending that I get out and walk, Ghostface notices my mute despair. “You trying to sit?” I mutter a confirmation, and he makes his bench mates, Popa Wu and his female acquaintance, shove over to make room for me. I sit, and mutter my gratitude. “Just talk. Just talk,” Ghostface explains, instilling a lesson it’s never too late to learn. “That’s all you gotta do! Just talk.”
VI. Masta Killa
The reason Masta Killa is here, 20 years on, can be traced back to a single verse written on a single night. He wasn’t just the ninth man through the door; he almost never made the team at all. It’s a plucky tale, and as he recounts it now — while we catch some college basketball on a late Saturday afternoon at Barclays Center — he does so with practiced ease, but not without marvel.
Through GZA, his buddy from Brooklyn, Masta Killa started hanging around Ol’ Dirty and RZA,18 traveling out to Staten Island to play chess with the Abbot.19 One night, RZA invited him to the studio. But at the time, Masta Killa was in a night school GED program, and he was on thin ice — one more absence and he’d be kicked out. He begged off. The next day, as they were setting up the chessboard, RZA popped in a tape from the previous night. It was “Protect Ya Neck.” Masta Killa lost it. “I had never heard MCs in a symphony like that. I’m like, rewind. Rewind! And once I heard that I knew I was never going back to school.”
18. For the Wu completist: The producer True Master was the one who linked Masta Killa with GZA.
19. Of his game these days, Masta Killa says, “I gotta go back to the drawing board and rebuild. I beat so many people for so long, that, you know, GZA can see my left hook coming now, RZA sees my uppercut. When we was on tour [this summer], RZA and GZA, they beat me up real bad. I won a couple of games from GZA, but I think I didn’t win one game from RZA the whole tour.”
He went home, with a mission. “I gotta make this team. Somehow, some way, I gotta make this team here.” For the first time ever, he collected his thoughts and actually put pen to paper; then he brought the results to RZA, who told him, “If you can learn how to say that, you might could have a job.” That first verse he ever scribbled down — “We have an APB on an MC killer / Looks like the work of a Masta” — ended up on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” the last track to make 36 Chambers. Masta Killa was in.20
20. According to Killah Priest, who was then just another guy hanging around RZA and the Wu, he could have had that “Chessboxin’” spot if he hadn’t fallen asleep in the studio.
Early on, it was all about scrapping. For the “Protect Ya Neck” video, RZA needed someone to fill in for a decapitation scene. “All of the other little homies that was there, nobody wanted to do it,” Masta Killa recalls. “Nobody wanted to make sure the team won.” So Masta Killa happily put his neck on the block. “Nobody wanna get they head cut off? Here, cut mine off.” And it rolled on from there. “The first Wu show actually was in East New York, at the Showboat. And I ain’t perform that night, but I gave everybody they haircuts. Then we went state to state, 12-passenger van, somebody always slobbering on your shoulder. I didn’t perform every night. But they needed a driver. It was all about winning.”
Masta Killa hasn’t been feeling well, and the wafting aroma of fried food (he’s a noted vegetarian) in the arena isn’t helping. He wants to go home, get some rest. Over the sounds — the sneaker squeaks, drunk dudes, a marching band playing “All of the Lights” with great fervor — he wishes my family a happy holidays. But before he goes, we talk about the future.
“To tell you the truth, brotha, when we started doing this thing, it was fun. It was so much fun. And if me and the rest of the brothas are not gonna have fun, then I wouldn’t mind just closing the chapter. I’d rather go out like the gladiators we supposed to be, like the mighty Wu-Tang, than go out like the Little Rascals.”
Not that he’s particularly reflective about it all. “They say Wu-Tang Clan is a legacy. And I respect that. But I don’t wanna really look at it like that right now. Maybe when I’m 60, 70, and I’m sitting with my great-grans, and they throwing some of my old songs on. Maybe it might hit me then.”
VII. Inspectah Deck
“What about the quiche?” Inspectah Deck wonders out loud, as he scans the menu at an Israeli restaurant in downtown Manhattan. “You know, I get teased for eating quiche when I get around my Wu-Tang brothers. ‘You eat quiche?!’ Quiche is good, man!” “Against All Odds” has just ticked over into “Lovesong” on the overhead speakers. Deck’s female companion is seated beside him, tending to some business on an iPad. He goes with a salmon sandwich and an Orangina.
Where the casual Wu observer might see Deck as just one of the out-of-focus guys, the true Wu-ologist has always appreciated his craft. And, as it happens, his relative anonymity is actually a byproduct of his abilities. “I don’t know if they designated me the Derek Jeter of the crew,” Deck says. “But, you know: I’m always leading off, man.” Going first means having to set the table properly. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously.
He explains the process: “If Ghost is on this song, I gotta say some crazy shit. Like, what person you know talking about going getting ready to kill something, but I gotta stop at Maria’s for a butter almond ice cream?21 If Meth is on this song, I gotta bounce. Him, Masta Killa, Cappadonna — they experts at rhyming to the back end of the beat, in saying shit that goes off and then comes back on.22 GZA is graphic and very technical. He talks about air jacks, compressing steel. I’m like, damn, I got all these dudes on this track. I gotta bomb atomically.”
21. It’s a reference to Ghost’s verse on Raekwon’s “Ice Water”: “My sweet tooth got a n—- throbbin’ / Ready for robbin’ / But first hit Maria’s for a butter almond.”
22. “I’m a to-the-snare rapper,” he explains of the difference between his and Method Man’s instincts. “I can come on the 1, 2, 3, or the 4, but it’s mostly always to the metronome. Other times, I could find that little space in between each click where it sounds a little off but it’s still on beat. I’ve been practicing that, actually, for the new Wu-Tang album. ‘In between the metronomes’ might be a way to describe it.”
The reference, of course, is to Deck’s opening verse on “Triumph,” one of the greatest first verses in hip-hop history. That track was recorded at the Wu Mansion, in the middle of the night, just RZA messing around with sounds, organs, and ooohs, layers on layers, as Deck watched. “He’s throwing certain things backwards. Chopping the front off. Making it work like a carpenter,” Deck recalls. “He had that one sound. Like a bell, like a sprinkle. The drums and that sprinkle — it sounded crazy.”
When RZA asked if he had rhymes for it, Deck knew he’d need something “powerful — like if they sold it, it’d be 6,000 milligrams in one pill.”23 Not usually one to recycle verses, Deck made an exception, pulling out a special dart he’d dropped on a Tony Touch mixtape (with the blessing of Touch).24
23. Furthermore: “Coming up early, there was a little doubt. ‘Like, yeah, Deck’s nice, but … ’ I [had to] say something that when people heard it, [there was] no more doubt.”
24. Thank you, Tony Touch!
U-God remembers that night. “Deck had slid off to the pizzeria. N—-s came up in there, he already bomb atomically. I’m like, ‘How the fuck am I even gon’ compete with this shit?’ This n—- just slaughtered this.”
Raekwon says, “He just melted it. And after that, we was like, ‘Yo, don’t fuck the record up. Don’t fuck it up.’”
“They pretended like, ‘Yeah, that’s all right, that’s all right,’” Deck says, fighting down a smile. “I had no idea verses were rewritten or anything like that.”
During the European festival dates this summer, “we’d talk about everything, man. We’d look at how lemons can alkaline any water. We’d study the power of wind.” Still, it wasn’t enough. He says recording the album overseas was “cool, but the vibe wasn’t what we needed. Brothers’ attention was scattered.” As much as Deck craves it still, that old in-house competition that catapulted “Triumph” to glory is gone.
He’s disheartened. But he says he has faith in RZA. “The nucleus has separated,” he says, speaking softly in dim, flickering light. “But it’s temporary. Once RZA throws up that Batman symbol, that Wu-Tang ‘W,’ it’s goin’ be on again. And I can’t wait.”
VIII. Ol’ Dirty Bastard
“We met in Brooklyn, New York, in a place called Linden Plaza,” says Icelene Jones of the first time she laid eyes on her late husband, Russell Jones — a.k.a. Unique Ason, a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus, a.k.a. Dirt McGirt, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It was her sweet 16, and ODB was crashing with some buddies. “I open the door and he says, ‘We’re here for Tracy’s birthday party.’ And that’s my nickname, Tracy. I said, ‘Y’all sure Tracy invited y’all to this party?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, she’s our homegirl! She invited us!’ I said, ‘I’m Tracy and I did not invite you!’ and I slammed the door right in his face.”
Icelene’s excitable voice is crackling through a speakerphone in a corner office on the 20th floor of a midtown Manhattan high-rise. She’s calling from her home in Georgia, and I’m in the office of the lawyer for the ODB estate, a frumpy, kindly older fellow named Donald David.
Icelene has been caught up in legal issues since nearly the moment ODB died in 2004 from an overdose caused by a mixture of cocaine and the prescription painkiller Tramadol. Opposing her are Cherry Jones, ODB’s mother, and Jarred Weisfeld, ODB’s manager at the time of his death — and according to David, “a parasite.”25 The priority is a proper release of A Son Unique, a posthumous ODB album. The estate believes the masters are in the possession of Damon Dash, who signed ODB to Roc-A-Fella Records shortly before Dirty’s death. But Dash has never played ball with the estate, leading to extreme measures. Explains David, “Dash has apparently abandoned the house that he was living in. We’re in touch with the landlord to see whether our materials are there.”
25. It’s a view others share, in large part because Weisfeld worked his way into ODB’s inner circle while the rapper was imprisoned and at his lowest point. As the Village Voice put it in 2008: “lonely, addled rapper meets trust-fund assisted, fame-hungry opportunist.”
Last summer, Icelene says she approved the ODB holograms that appeared at Rock the Bells, only to see Cherry publicly campaign against them. Meanwhile, Weisfeld is pushing forward a biopic that would focus, bizarrely enough, primarily on his relationship with the rapper. “Icelene has more guts and more gumption than anybody I’ve ever dealt with,” David says. “She has fought every inch of the way.”
In the summer of ’91, Icelene married ODB — whom she called Unique, his Five Percent–bestowed “righteous name”26 — at Brooklyn’s City Hall. They were living in a shelter at the time, so Icelene dropped the kids off with family. “My cousin gave me something to wear. He put on pants and a shirt. Cherry was our witness, and that was it. No reception, no nothing. We went back home to the shelter.”
26. “Unique” is tattooed on her arm.
ODB would practice in the bedroom, Icelene happily egging him on. “I started helping with his hairstyle, what he was gonna wear, what he was gonna say,” she says. “We would practice in the bedroom. I was his no. 1 fan. I was like, ‘You gonna make this happen.’”
Just two years later, he did. For Icelene, the tipping point was at a locally televised gig at the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem, with an overstuffed stage where the Wu did “Protect Ya Neck” for their newly adoring fans. “I remember news reporters, magazines — you couldn’t even hardly get into the place. I mean, girls were pulling at [ODB’s] pants, begging him, ‘Please, take me home!’”27
27. Note the video below: ODB is in his reading glasses. Also, at this point, Ghostface is still rocking a stocking mask onstage.
For a time, the family hung as tight as the Von Trapps: “It was like we was soldiers and he was the captain. When he moved, we all moved. No games, no smiling.” Meanwhile, ODB was developing his beloved madman persona. “This dude would literally crash a car and borrow somebody else’s car to crash another one,” a smiling Raekwon recalls.
But when ODB’s drug habit grew out of control, that same recklessness made him unruly. Icelene would beg RZA and the others to interfere, but “everyone felt that he was grown, that he’d get it together, that he’d be all right. I felt like I was on my own, and he wouldn’t allow me to tell him what to do. He was the king of his castle.”
“We grew up smoking dust,” Rae says. “It feels like you drunk 50 bottles of Jack Daniel’s and someone spinned you around in the air for a fucking hour and then sat you down.” The rest of the Wu kicked the habit by ’90, ’91. But ODB was stuck.
By the time he went to prison, in 2001, at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, for an incredible string of parole violations — stealing $50 sneakers, running red lights with crack in the car, making “terrorist threats” at a nightclub, shooting at cops28 — “it was a hot mess,” Icelene says. “My husband would tell me he was getting death threats. He had to get out of there. He needed help for drugs, and they put him away.”
28. Read this eye-opening 2002 prison interview from the Guardian for full details.
When he was released, Icelene and the Clan planned to take him away from the industry, give him time to relax with family, and allow him to get back to being himself. It never happened. Dash, Cherry, and Weisfeld “snatched him up,” Icelene says. “They took him in another direction. And that’s what messed him up.”
In the last few years, Icelene dreaded every phone call, fearing horrible news. When that call did come, it was from her son, Barson. “He said, ‘Mommy — I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, Mommy. They’re trying to resuscitate him.” He was at the old Wu studios, 36 Records LLC, on West 34th Street. “I thought this man could not be taken out of here. He had nine lives. He was so strong to me. When I got to the studio and seen his body, I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to make him get up. I couldn’t believe it.”
I ask Icelene for a memory of her husband, one that comes to mind more than any other. She answers quickly.
“I think back to when we were young. We had to walk past this building, Building 5, and that’s where all the Gods and Earths were. They were men and women that were studying in the Nation of Islam, that knew their lessons. And when we walked past them, he made sure he knew his — how much the planet weighs, how far we are from the moon — and it made him feel great. Because you had to be a positive person — you couldn’t smoke, drink, nothing like that — to walk past them with your head up high. He taught me from a young girl how to respect myself. And he didn’t speak like no other guy that I knew. So I just fell in love with him.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve spoken about astronomy or the planets or things of that nature,” GZA the Genius says from his studio in Jersey City. “We were always scientifical in our raps.” GZA’s explaining the logic behind his concept album Dark Matter, an “epic poem” telling the story of the universe. An idea he’s had for a while, it “spread like wildfire” after he mentioned it during a lecture to the Harvard Black Men’s Forum in late 2011.
In the years since, he’s dotted the country with his new gospel: taking part in an MIT workshop on the “evolving culture of science engagement”; helping to spearhead a New York City–wide public school program melding science education with hip-hop; lecturing at UC Riverside, the University of Toronto, and even NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he also got a VIP tour. “They doing great work out there, sending satellites into space,” he assures me, nonchalantly.
Back home from solo shows in California and dates in Canada with the Wu, he’s spending his days “gathering information, writing, listening to music. A little bit of reading, and maybe some television here and there.” And, while he’s planning on getting up with RZA soon, he’s mostly been alone in the studio. This is his baby, and he seems in no rush to finish it.
As for the Wu album, well, GZA’s not too concerned if it ever does happen.29 There’s a peaceful apathy there. “It’s kind of hard to grasp, or understand, the magnitude of this obsession,” he says of the attention around the 20th anniversary. “It would be great to do another album, come back with a banger. But I don’t think we have anything to prove. We proved it already.”
29. The rambunctious recording sessions in Europe prevented him from “really getting anything off. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate when you have several people writing to a beat, when they’re doing it out loud. I like to write in a room with just the beat playing, and it’s quiet. I can get my thoughts down.”
At the age of 11, with his 8-year-old cousin Robert in tow, GZA started going to block parties. The local acts, like DJ Jones and Grandville, were great. But journeys to the Bronx, where the MCs were far more advanced, were truly inspiring. The journey from Staten Island was arduous, but thrilling. “Getting on the bus, knowing you only had the boat, the train, and another bus left … it was like traveling through to paradise.” They’d study techniques, the way the MCs could flip a nursery rhyme like “Old King Cole was a merry old soul” into a dope lyric. Then they started constructing their own.
Early stage fright prevented him from rocking the block parties, but GZA never feared battles. He’d seek out competition, sometimes with RZA or Killah Priest along, sometimes alone. “It was like a kung fu flick,” he says. “We’d walk to another neighborhood, and we’d look for MCs. They’d have 30 people with them, but I always had the heart and the courage. I’d battle the best in every neighborhood. And I came out on top on the majority that I can remember.”
GZA’s the first to admit that he’d never have predicted his present-day preoccupation with science education. But he does see some kind of through line from then to now. “One of the basic principles when you dealing with Mathematics and Islam: Seek knowledge.”
At the MIT science and culture workshop, GZA delivered a statement on the “writer’s job.” It’s “a special one,” he explained. “You’re trying to draw them in, bring in those that are listening to your world, captivate them with your imagination, but also to learn. You want anything you say to be worth saying. You want to reach their mind and then reach their heart. That’s what I want to do.”
“Rap, it’s a childhood passion,” he says now. “Writing rhymes, it’s something that I was doing before rap records even existed. And I will continue to write until I can’t write anymore.”
“I have yet to understand the value of Arizona,” Cappadonna says, with a heavy heart. “I have yet to understand why God brought me here.” It’s a blisteringly hot summer day in Tempe, and we’re in the kitchen of a dilapidated ranch house — huge, smudged bongs; windows blacked out with garbage bags; at least one portable solar-powered stove, still in the box — inhabited by an affable thirtysomething aspiring rapper named Dre. Capp’s wearing long Dickies shorts, a white-and-brown striped polo, and a Yankees cap. He’s smoking a blunt he’s carefully wrapped in a few layers of paper towel.
As the unofficial 10th member of the Wu Tang Clan — and therefore technically a member of the comically voluminous chapter of Wu affiliates — Cappadonna can’t ever fully avoid the stigma of a “weed carrier.” But if he hadn’t been locked up on a drug charge at the time of the recording of 36 Chambers, he’d have been official since day one. Several of the Wu members even credit him with teaching them how to rap.30 And if anything, his value as a supporting player during the Wu golden era is likely underrated. This is the man who once rapped, “I love you like I love my dick size.”
30. “Capp is a fucking star, G,” says Method Man. “He can go into Target and come out looking like he spent a million dollars.”
Capp has eight kids (and one grandchild!) in New Jersey, Atlanta, and Maryland, and is now reluctantly living in Arizona raising his youngest son, whose mother is a native Southwesterner. They reside in a well-manicured home purchased by his wife’s grandfather, who happens to be the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. But it’s too hot here, he complains, too lackadaisical. Capp’s got one more message to deliver, in the form of The Pillage 2: The Angel Strikes Back, the sequel to his gold-certified 1998 debut. And he’s not so sure this is the mount from whence to deliver it.
Meanwhile, he practices his message on me. Almost every direct question I ask is rebuffed and spun into a bit of The World According to Capp. He is exhaustively garrulous.31
31. At one point, during a rare lull, he breaks the silence with: “My palms is itching! There’s money coming!”
On childbirth: “They say I was created in His image. So I’m able to do the things that God can do? Make cars that move and boats that sail and planes that fly? And bring forth a new me from the womb?”
On telekinesis: “One time I sat there and I convinced myself that I’m gonna make this door close. All I concentrated on was making that door close. Guess what? The door closed.”
On confrontation: “I went to war one time, and I literally felt the blood in my veins turn to metal, to the point where my enemies looked at me and bowed down. One of them started crying. The other one gave me $2,500.”
After a while, I give up on asking questions and just let him talk.
Fresh off an early prison stint, a young Capp worked security at the Park Hill Projects. One day, U-God brought him by RZA’s basement studio,32 where they were working on what would become Raekwon’s early smash “Ice Cream.” Jokingly, Capp asked to get on the beat. RZA’s response: “Pop off!” He wrote his “dart” in five minutes. It landed him his solo record deal.
32. While he’s known some members of Wu-Tang Clan since preschool, he met Method Man in junior high in Park Hill, when a mutual acquaintance brought him to the staircase to rap. “He was like, ‘This my man Clifford, he just moved around here, he rocks.’ I was like, Clifford? We don’t deal with nobody with the name Clifford.”
In the early 2000s, Capp went through a rough patch. He’d drifted away from the Wu, and found himself broke and driving a gypsy cab in Baltimore. One night, with nowhere to sleep, he tried to rent a $100 hotel room, but was $20 short. The front desk wouldn’t give him a break on the difference, and he spent the night in his car in the hotel parking lot, crying. “I couldn’t believe that I’d asked God for help and He didn’t respond.” He would eventually come back to the Wu. On Ghostface’s excellent reunification cut “9 Milli Bros,” Capp steals the show with a nod to the bad old days: “Diggler, a.k.a. the cab driver / Drop you off in the middle of fire.”
Now, he flashes back to the beginning, when he was the mentor. “They won’t reciprocate the love,” he says. “They won’t teach me. Every time I need them to do a verse, they don’t wanna do it.”33 Of the chatter about a new Wu album, he says, “I’m done with talking, yo. Only thing I wanna do is deliver these messages now. I’ma have a thousand angels with me at all times. They gonna break ya legs, ya arms, choke you to death, n—-! I ain’t talking ’bout no soft-ass angels.”
33. He also laments the lack of business opportunities taken, back when the Wu could do no wrong. “I’d have established more conglomerates. More economical power. Wu Bodegas! I mean, damn, is that fucking hard?”
Later in the afternoon, after enjoying some fish tacos, Dre, Capp, and I get in my rental Impala to buy weed. We drive past sharp, looming mountains and endless desert and storage lots to a neat subdivision, where we meet a septum-pierced man named Syllables who greets us on the street.
The transaction completed, Cappadonna leans back on a parked Cadillac and impromptu jots out his vision for a future wardrobe. “Might have to do salad-colored button-ups. Slim in the waist. Tomcat-style with the big shoulder and the sleeves that turn up, Mexican-style. It’s all about evolving, nah’mean?” I make a small-talky comment about the mountains, and Capp insists we get a better look, so we drive up to the base of one, then trot out and walk the trail. It’s rocky, rough, and full of giant cacti that glower with a rooted agelessness. The setting sun, burning red, gives our faces a glow. Downtown Tempe is far in the distance; out here, in the expanse, they can’t touch us. Capp, as buoyant as he’s been all day, insists I take a photo with a cactus. He takes my phone, tells me where to pose, snaps away. Then he points to the ridge: “We could climb over, probably see some people bonin’.”
Finally, with the sun gone, we drive back to Capp’s house. He pulls a couple of beach chairs out in front of the garage, one each for me and Dre, and hands over a couple of tall glasses of cool, delicious honey lemonade. He gets started on the last blunt of the day, smirking about how the father of the Indian family next door sometimes comes over to get high with him. He’s got his Yankees fitted off, and it’s remarkable how much older he looks with his close-cropped, graying hair exposed. It’s quiet as a perfect breeze blows. “Serene,” Cappadonna says. “It ain’t so bad in Arizona, once the heat goes down.”
If you ever find yourself grasping for a potent case history of the benefits of free-market competition, you could do worse than the Wu-Tang Clan. It was calculated internal engagement, and that competition made them sharper, hungrier, fiercer. It created and cultivated an unprecedented pool of talent. It drove them to their greatness. That they now lurch forward, a once-proud conglomerate gone to seed, might then only be right. The tenets of free-market capitalism birthed them. The allure of the free market splintered them to near smithereens.
But aren’t they beautiful in their dysfunction? They climbed out of the slums of Shaolin. It was never gonna be pretty.
It’s impossible not to wonder what could have been. But that thought should be trumped by what was — that this even happened at all. Across 15 hours of interviews, not once did any member refer to a fellow Wu brother by anything other than some loving corruption of the RZA, the GZA, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, the Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, and Method Man.
The Bonnaroo crowd had been raucous, the vibe spirited, but the set had hiccups. RZA found more Robert Mondavi, much of which wound up on the front row, the stage floor, and down his gullet. “He Bobby. He Bobby. He ain’t RZA right now,” Divine would cluck, referencing his brother’s crooked superhero alter ego, Bobby Digital. “He lookin’ soggy.”
The trailer is a typical backstage bacchanal. Girls in flannel shirts wrapped around jean shorts, coolers of Corona, trays of Tootsie Rolls, split packs of Backwoods. GZA, a bottle of vodka in hand, announces plans to check out Paul McCartney. Popa Wu — his button-down shirt open to the snaking chain tattoo on his chest — shouts, “Where’s the whiskey?” Making myself scarce in a corner, I almost accidentally crush a loose dime bag underfoot.
RZA’s still enjoying himself. He lets out a goofy primal scream, letting U-God snatch the sunglasses from his head. But there’s a simmering tension from the set.
“We had to carry you through that,” Deck tells him. RZA chuckles. “‘Impossible’ came on and you was like, la la la.” Then Meth does an impression of RZA onstage, his eyes rolling around his head, an invisible bottle spraying in all direction. RZA starts laughing hard. “Fuckin’ with the liquor and shit,” Meth cracks, “don’t act like you don’t know!” It’s a familiar kind of squabble. Not aggressive, or bitter, or mean. It is, perhaps, almost comforting in its familiarity. And as Meth bugs his eyes out, and staggers around the trailer, RZA’s just about cackling.
Lead illustration by Michael Weinstein.
All photo illustrations by Eli Neugeboren.