Enter the Wu-Tang, 20 Years Later: Who Ya Got?
Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most important cultural documents of a generation: the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album was crafted in a dojo in Staten Island, New York — better known as Shaolin — by a nine-man collective (sorry, Cappadonna) with a staggering amount of talent, and it was released into the world on November 9, 1993. Mystical, lyrical, fantastical, aerobic, hysterical: They were an evolutionary flock of young guns with old souls. To celebrate the group’s debut — which launched a swarm of solo careers, a hive of affiliated artists, a clothing line, a loose philosophy of life, and a few terrible movies — we asked nine Grantland staffers to represent for their favorite member of the Wu, just as they did back in ’93.
Chris Ryan: Back when Wu-Tang got big, saying Method Man was your favorite Wu-Tang Clan member was like saying Han Solo was your favorite thing about Star Wars. Like, of course. You almost had to make an exception. “OK, I mean besides Meth, who is your favorite?”
Yeah, the answer is still Method Man. Just like the answer is still Han Solo. Meth was definitely the guy in Wu-Tang Clan who could lean back in his seat, stall a little bit, and smoke Greedo with a smirk on his face. I don’t know if any rapper has ever been so magnetic, let alone while making that magnetism feel so natural. In the years after Enter the Wu-Tang, Raekwon would make better solo albums, Ol’ Dirty Bastard would become a larger cult hero, Ghostface would capture the imaginations of critics, and RZA would become known as the group’s de facto auteur. But Method Man was the star. In a group of rappers who played fast and loose with nicknames and identities, he was the one whose name would be an instantly recognizable song title. “C.R.E.A.M.” was the hit; “Method Man” was the anthem.
If you jumped me in a parking lot and asked me to rap my favorite Method Man line, I’d probably choke. But if you put on a Method Man song, almost any Method Man song — especially anything off Enter, Tical, Wu-Tang Forever, and Blackout! — I’d be able to rap every line.
Blessed with one of hip-hop’s greatest voices, Meth used his rasp to squeeze the most blunted charisma out of the most mundane lines. He didn’t rap in bars, he wrapped in hooks. Every stupid line — “Don’t eat Skippy, Jif, or Peter Pan” — became something to scream at the top of your lungs. “Hey you, get off my cloud, you don’t know me and you don’t know my style” doesn’t mean anything, and yet with Meth’s delivery, it’s one of the great opening lines of any rap song.
There’s a reason Meth is the only guest on Ready to Die; he’s the only one who, at the time, could match Biggie’s world-swallowing charisma. That he was able to project that kind of personality while in a group of such wildly varied talents only made his star brighter. One of the great pleasures of Wu-Tang was the way individual talents resonated in the collective. Nobody burned brighter than him.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Molly Lambert: Sure, everyone knows how cool and funny and great the Wu-Tang Clan is, but there’s one thing about them that gets lost in the shuffle: They were babes. And if you were into grimy hip-hop in the early ’90s and also had crushes on boys, there’s a pretty good chance you had a crush on the entire Wu-Tang Clan. More like the 36 chambers of my HEART! Now that I’ve ruined Wu-Tang for everyone by comparing them to a boy band, let’s go deeper into that idea. Meth is the obvious heartthrob, Ghostface is the bad boy, RZA is the sensitive one, GZA is the older brother type … are you still reading? Here’s where I admit that I had a huge crush on Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a.k.a. the crazy one. For the same reason somebody arbitrarily prefers the bassist to the lead singer, O.D.B. was always my favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
I can’t really explain it. It doesn’t have to make sense. I loved his voice and his singsong delivery, how close it veered to sounding unhinged. He was the group jester, and I am a sucker for class clowns. Wu-Tang was always funny, but O.D.B. was hilarious. My imaginary connection to O.D.B. continued through the “Fantasy” remix and Shawn Colvin stage-storming phases of his career, and I bawled when he passed on too soon. In one of the coolest crews ever, he was both the Keith Richards and the goof.
Amos Barshad: GHOSTFACE CATCH THE BLAST OF A HYPE VERSE.
Before “Scooby snack, Jurassic plastic gas, booby trap,” before “Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot,” before “I said a Banana Nutrament, man … smart dumb n----- and shit running around here,” there was just GHOSTFACE CATCH THE BLAST OF A HYPE VERSE. Those eight words — followed by a potent little verse that pings between Tricky Dick and Yasser Arafat and David Koresh — kick off “Bring da Ruckus” and the monolith that is 36 Chambers. First the sword blades whirr, then RZA talks his shit, then Pretty Tone sets it off right. GHOSTFACE CATCH THE BLAST OF A HYPE VERSE.
Along with the Wallabee Champ’s many, many triumphs — treating the rules of the English language like something just a tick above well-intentioned suggestions; making slinging crack sound equally harrowing, instructional, and like quite a good bit of fun — this pulls rank. In order for Wu-Tang to be Forever, it must first be birthed. And here it said “Hello world” with a double-barreled shotgun cocked and planted squat between our eyeballs. Blow! Ghostface. Hype verse. Blow spots like Waco, Texas.
Alex Pappademas: The narration that opens Genius’s Liquid Swords is from the samurai film Shogun Assassin, released in 1980. Shogun Assassin was actually a patchwork of two films — the first 10 minutes of Sword of Vengeance, the first installment of Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf & Cub series, followed by 75 minutes from the second Lone Wolf movie, Baby Cart at the River Styx — created for the English-language market by director Robert Houston, previously best known for fighting cannibals in The Hills Have Eyes. So two Japanese movies (themselves based on a manga series that inspired Frank Miller, among countless others) become an American movie, whose narration — written by Houston to tie the story together, voiced by the son of the guy who drew the poster — becomes a VHS-hiss-drenched epigraph on a rap record created in the ’90s in a Staten Island townhouse basement. “The point is not roots but connections, the more far-fetched the better,” the critic Geoffrey O’Brien once wrote in an essay about the lounge-music revival. “How far from its point of origin can an artifact wash up? How wildly can its original intent be distorted while remaining tantalizingly recognizable?”
This is where Genius comes in, our guide to this landscape of detached signs and signifiers — one second we’re in feudal Japan, watching murder through a child’s eyes, and then with a soft and sudden pause-tape-style edit we’re in the present, listening to him and the RZA trading gnomic admonitions over a Willie Mitchell break. Gotta flash ’em back. Was Genius — born Gary Grice, among the first neighborhood guys to hip RZA to the Lessons of Five Percent Islam — really a genius? Or a deadpan role player whose number got called at what might have been RZA’s most intense moment of creative ferment? At least on this record, as the line between the 10304 zip code and the Wu’s Shaolin Island of the mind goes fuzzier and fuzzier, both possibilities seem equally real.
Bill Barnwell: I’m not here to argue that Raekwon is the most talented member of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’m not going to suggest that Raekwon is the most successful member of the Wu-Tang Clan. What I can back, though, is the idea that nobody embodies the output of the Wu more than Raekwon the Chef. You trace the path of the group as a whole and you trace Raekwon’s path and they’re almost perfectly parallel. There’s Raekwon leading the way on “C.R.E.A.M” and holding the closing spot down on “Triumph,” Wu’s two biggest contributions to pop culture. (It’s almost definitely true by now that Rod Strickland is more famous for being the last two words uttered in “Triumph” than for whatever he accomplished during his basketball career.) Then, for his solo debut, Raekwon released the stunning Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … , unquestionably the best solo record to come from a Wu-Tang Clan member. (Popa Wu records excepted.) OB4CL inspired about a million albums, nicknames, and personae, and while 99 percent of those projects were terrible, you can’t fault the original. And then Raekwon went through a decade or so of bad records and club appearances before everyone started hankering for good Wu-Tang Clan product again. That got Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II into our lives, and while it doesn’t live up to the original, it’s still so much better than it could have been.
What I’m saying is this: There’s no more Wu-Tang Clan member of the Wu-Tang Clan than Raekwon.
Rembert Browne: “RZA has a lot of things going on in his brain, you could tell that.”
That’s what Chris Gehringer, mastering engineer at the Hit Factory, had to say about RZA in Spin’s behind-the-scenes oral history of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). For me, it’s the perfect quote about the leader of the Wu, the man arguably too talented to ever just do one thing with his life.
But it extended beyond talent. With RZA, it has always seemed to be about curiosity and discovery — seeing what else he could pull out of the body and the brain he was given. And seeing if he could get those around him to come along for the ride.
Yes, he’s an exceptional rapper, and yes, he is one of a handful of hip-hop producers who flirt more with being “composer” than “beat maker,” but he also played Chuck in Funny People, because why not.
He’s Bobby Digital, he’s a movie director, he’s an author and a philosopher, but unlike most who branch out to seemingly overextend themselves, RZA hasn’t slipped. His ability to find new passions hasn’t watered down the man with whom the world became familiar two decades ago.
But with all that he has become, if there needed to be one artifact to sum up everything that is RZA, born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, named after a slain president and his slain younger brother, it’s the 2:02 intro of the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever.
Strip away everything and you have this manifesto. And behind it, a man, unabashedly the heart and soul of a movement, one that actually will be forever.
Andy Greenwald: I admit it’s a little on the nose for a website specializing in sports and pop culture to make the following point, but bear with me: In rap collectives, as with championship teams, not everybody can be a star. More importantly: Not everyone needs to be a star. Inspectah Deck (a.k.a. The Rebel INS, a.k.a. That Dude Who’ll Sit Back and Watch You Play Yourself and All That, Right?) is the quintessential glue guy. He’s on nearly every track of Enter the Wu-Tang yet is barely mentioned and rarely quoted. He’s never cited as the best member of the Wu-Tang Clan, yet he’s far from the worst. He’s an irreplaceable part of the whole; separate them and both are fatally diminished.
Inspectah Deck is the first voice you hear on the lead singles from both the first and the second Wu albums: On “Protect Ya Neck” he works consonants like a speed bag (“deep in the dark with the art to rip charts apart”); on “Triumph” he bombs atomically. This can’t have been a coincidence. In a Clan full of hyperactive free-associators, preening peacocks, and brilliant, terrifying lunatics, Deck stood out for his simple declarative style. He’s the ideal party starter, yes, but also a perfect party host: the plainspoken smoothie who greets you at the door, takes your (Wu Wear) coat, and fills in the awkward silences when the masked gentleman on your left starts yammering about ziti and the guy on your right is Streetlife. There’s no shame in being the dude who connects dots like this, though there’s also not much glory.
Deck was always so precise with his p’s and q’s that he’s the only member of the Wu-Tang Clan I could ever picture having a career outside of rap. He could be an auction master at Sotheby’s maybe, cracking the gavel like a snare. I could see him running the chef’s table at some dimly lit Staten Island boîte; he’d be the guy reciting every obscure ingredient and explaining just how, exactly, he managed to bake the cake and take the cake and eat it, too.
I mean this as a compliment — there’s riding the beat and then there’s the way Deck would bounce in and out of every pothole — but I can see how someone might take it the wrong way. Deck’s contributions to the Wu were so easy to overlook that even RZA managed to do it. Uncontrolled Substance, the Rebel’s solo debut, trickled out like an afterthought in 1999 and he hasn’t been thought of much since. (His most recent solo release is Manifesto Redux, a dubstep version of his most recent solo album. Now that you know this fact, let’s never speak of it again.) That’s a shame. Deck’s dogged flow is timeless as a koan and twice as simple. It sounded amazing in 1998 on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds” and it sounded amazing 11 years later on Raekwon’s “House of Flying Daggers.” It doesn’t matter the time or place. Inspectah Deck will still take you to court.
Sean Fennessey: There are stars and geniuses and maniacs and masterminds and monks and glue guys and bottom-rung dwellers in the Wu-Tang Clan. There’s also a forgotten man. His name is Elgin Turner, a.k.a. Masta Killa, a.k.a. the high chief Jamel Arief. Masta Killa was the last member to join the group, edging out Killah Priest. According to Killah Priest, he fell asleep the night “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” was recorded in ’93, while Masta Killa stayed up all night and finished his verse. The song ends with the Masta’s first recorded verse — a rigid catch-my-breath exercise — cinching his membership and a place in history. (For what it’s worth, Killah Priest had a nice, underrated solo career.) And you can hear M.K.’s eagerness, his anxiety, his youthful lack of restraint. “We have an APB on an MC Killer!” Seven couplets on one of the most important albums of the late century. That’s all he got, all he needed.
Tutored by GZA, Masta Killa would become an almost serene presence in the Wu and distinguish himself later in his career. He appears on every classic album; true to form, he was the final member to release a solo album, 2004’s long-delayed, legitimately excellent No Said Date. His verse on “Triumph,” the archetypal Wu experience, features the one line I never, ever forget: “The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.” Masta Killa never rushed, never drew attention to himself, and never asked for more than he needed. He was the selfless samurai. There’s hardly any information available about his personal life (other than his vegetarian lifestyle) and even less about his time before the Wu. I could never argue that he was the best member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Being the best probably never occurred to him. Masta Killa just wanted a quiet life in the spotlight. Doesn’t sound so bad.
Hua Hsu: Even Shyheim had a hot single. Even Deck was everyone’s favorite for a minute. Even Masta Killa put out a good solo album. Even Sunz of Man made “Intellectuals.” U-God is the Wu-Tang Clan’s ninth-best rapper and 11th-most interesting personality — I at least wondered about Divine’s and Oli “Power” Grant’s inner lives, even if I had no idea who they were. About a decade ago I was assigned a Wu-Tang feature for a skateboarding magazine, and the only member its label gave me to interview was U-God. The whole time he just sighed into the phone. The sky seemed to turn grayer and grayer each time he spoke. He tried as passive-aggressively as possible to tell me what he truly thought about the rest of the guys, who were somewhere else busy not being interviewed for a skateboarding magazine. He kept telling me about RZA’s iron lung and weird fetishes. When I told him I liked him on “Careful (Click Click),” he brightened up, belly-laughed and shouted “THAT’S ’CAUSE YOU’S A MURDERER-ASS N----,” which cracked me up. A few days later, the magazine folded.
U-God appears twice on Enter the Wu-Tang — a drowned-by-shouts, intermission-ish bridge on “Protect Ya Neck” and leadoff duties on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” before an overzealous Rebel INS comes thisclose to cutting him off. There’s a miniaturized boom to U-God’s voice, a pro forma gruffness at odds with how witty/unpredictable everyone else sounded. At times, even they seemed to disregard him. On “Triumph,” the Clan’s in the back, zoning out as U-God obliviously sips on ginseng; again, RZA shows up with his fake-ass bee wings, crashing the booth a nanosecond too soon. U-God is the one who gets talked over. He’s the duty-bound soldier who gets left behind to do the press nobody else can be bothered to do. He is the member of Wu-Tang whose Wikipedia entry rarely gets edited. He is the one who has to sue for back pay.
But there is no Wu-Tang without U-God, and all the other people who are more like him than Ghostface. My favorite U-God-related moment comes on “Heaven and Hell,” Rae and Ghost in unison: “TELL GOLDEN ARMS MAINTAIN THE FORT.” U-God clicks his flip phone closed and saunters off into an adjacent verse. The Clan’s songs are built on these little specificities: a store owner named Mike Lavonia, the color and smell of a project stairwell, the cadence of “SUUUUUUUU!” The attention to detail is what made Shaolin mythology seem so real and yet so unknowable. U-God is like “Don Rodriguez from the Bronx” come to life, or blue-and-cream Wallabees on sale at a mall near you. My second-favorite U-God-related moment is this episode of MTV’s Cribs. “Good life flaunted.” Stuck with the littlest kid’s room, he’s just happy with his blowy shirts, his autographed photo of Little Richard, his taste of the bourgie life. For that moment, he seems fine being the one who maintains the fort. He is a middle-aged man from Staten Island who still makes his living by rapping.