During the summer of 1991, cousins Robert “Bobby” Diggs and Gary Grice were trying to get busy and do the impossible. They had both released pedestrian mainstream hip-hop debuts that year which bricked — the Will Smith-like theatrics of Prince Rakeem’s Ooh I Love You Rakeem EP and The Genius’ heavily tampered Words from the Genius LP — and were each dropped by their major labels shortly thereafter. The two relatives hailing from Staten Island — along with their other cousin, Russell “The Specialist” Jones — had already begun to make waves in New York’s underground rap scene under the joint name of Force of the Imperial Master, and weren’t about to allow these flops hinder their careers. They reformed and were reborn; they even outright changed their names, ditching their previous monikers for more fitting titles: Diggs became RZA, Grice was now the GZA, and Jones became Ol’ Dirty Bastard. No longer satisfied with mainstream success, Diggs decided to make music that was in stark contrast to what he released under his Prince Rakeem alias; none of that “R&B; Rap and Bullshit,” as he put it. He assembled five more local rappers from Brooklyn in order to form the Wu-Tang Clan, a closely-knit collective of lyrical ninjas who stood in opposition to how commercialized the genre had then become. Their minimalist sound was a grimy, sample-heavy collage of sorts, where RZA essentially recorded their freestyle battles and added some off-key beats, Shaw Brothers’ film dialogue, and drum patterns into the mix; to this day, “Bring da Ruckus” still sounds like it was recorded in a sewer, with the pounding echo of a makeshift drum (an empty paint can in Diggs’ studio) closing out the increasingly unsettling production.
Now, while older cousin Grice was most likely always the mastermind of the Wu-Tang Clan — and the one with the overall ideology required for the establishment of the group — he recognized early on that Diggs was a far better candidate for a leadership position; as a producer and businessman for the group, Diggs was able to simultaneously materialize and nurture eight different ongoing and fledgling solo careers, while always maintaining a strong interest for the entire group dynamic to re-emerge every once and a while. Call it cult-like persuasion abilities, or keeping an iron fist over his interests; either way, the fact that RZA was still able to flat-out serve up relatively solid careers for the majority of the members, even the B-leaguers (U-God, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa) who still feel unappreciated to this day, is a testament to how far Diggs was able to rebound once able to indulge in his most outre interests. Which, say what you will of the many stagnant creative projects made on his behalf over the past few decades, but the run he embarked on from 1993 to roughly 2001 reflects a seldom-touched era of marketing savvy and artistic freedom, where each new Wu-Tang release somehow became an even bigger international event than the last. This was all up until RZA really began phoning it in on the production side of things (slapping together a few soul samples, calling it a day; maybe call up DJ Scratch?), and soon Wu-Tang group releases started to feel more like myth-building contractual obligations than legitimate albums with any shred of cultural relevance or credibility.
But before all that could commence, Diggs first had to kick things off for everyone involved, including the other clan members. Which gave the Wu’s debut album, the appropriately named Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the near-herculean task of successfully introducing and establishing eight different MCs to the world, each with a different demographic pull in mind. It’s a burden that ultimately speaks to the record’s wide-ranging versatility, where you can have two rappers like the wise sage guru GZA and frat bro Method Man — perhaps not coincidentally, the oldest and youngest members of the group respectfully — who have wholly distinct worldviews, personalities, and delivery styles, each occupying their own solo tracks amongst all of the other noise. “Clan in da Front” might even be the hardest GZA has ever sounded on the mic — next to his verse on “Bring da Ruckus,” that is (“My Wu-Tang slang is mad FUCKin’ dangerous”). There’s some level of continuity amongst the structure of the tracks — Inspectah Deck usually goes first, GZA last, Ol’ Dirty Bastard infrequently pops up — but it ends there; they’re unkempt entities, allowing extra verses to sneak in before a chorus proper or having a beat switch itself up more than half-way through a given track.
In fact, bringing “da motherfuckin’ ruckus” was always Wu-Tang’s M.O. above everything: there are usually up to five affiliates being thrown onto a track at any given time, with each member engaged in verbal combat to grab your attention by any means necessary. Their debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” is ferocious in this regard: in under five minutes, you get Inspectah Deck’s “so uhh, tick-tock and keep tickin’” line; Raekwon comparing his rhymes to Schwarzenegger; Method Man’s hooting and hollering; U-God’s nonsensical bridge (“grab my nut, get screwed”); Ol’ Dirty Bastard coming “straight from the Brooklyn Zoo”; Ghostface Killah’s Pablo Escobar stories; RZA’s blunted snarl; and GZA’s closing remarks on the state of the record industry. They follow immediately one after another, with no breathing room in between; their verses bounce off the last one like they’re fighting for their lives. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” follows a similar model, this time in two arrangements: first, a more relaxed mood as the clan spits over a looped guitar lick; then, things become aggressive once their raps are placed over a distorted bassline on the second part.
While every Wu-Tang project has one or two stand-out performers whose contributions across several songs make them stand out amongst the rest — here, it’s undeniably the hook-king and runaway star Method Man (with choruses on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” and, of course, spelling his own name and doing some Dr.Suess sing-a-longs on “Method Man”) and the rugged, always reliable Raekwon the Chef — there’s plenty of fun to be had at keeping a scorecard running on an individual track basis. “Shame on a N***a,” for example, is dominated by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s fierce star power (he asks, via his sorta sing-song-y delivery style, “do you wanna get your teeth knocked the fuck out?”) even as Method Man and Raekwon do their best to play the straight man. Likewise, on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” U-God and Masta Killa, who are seldom heard on the album before or after (U-God was serving a prison sentence during the recording process after “Protect Ya Neck”; Killa had only joined the crew right as the album was being finished), use the scarcity of their voices to their advantage. Even a rapper like RZA, who’s not as technically skilled as most of the group’s other members, finds ways to shine through: the way he goes completely berserk on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit” (“I be tossin’, enforcin’, my style is awesome”), his manic spoken-word intro on “Clan in da Front,” and his impassioned performance on “Tearz.” “Can It Be All So Simple,” well… we’ll just call that one an even split.
Yet it was Diggs who ultimately came out most on top from the widespread success of Enter the Wu-Tang and its acceptance into the lexicon of popular music at the time, with his stewardship going unquestioned as he directed each individual member into the next phase of their career. If anything, the album’s slow-burn ascendancy proved the Wu-Tang movement to be a completely organic one that RZA cultivated to the best of his abilities. Nearly five years after the fact, the group further proved they weren’t a trend: the double-album Wu-Tang Forever was released, a nearly two-hour-long exercise in excess made at the absolute peak of luxuriance within the genre (for context, this was the same year as No Way Out), with a lead single that had no chorus and nine verses. It went number one on the Billboard charts, and the album went four times platinum. Somehow, once again, the RZA found a way to do the impossible.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.