The Wu-Tang Clan took hip hop by the scruff of the neck and kicked new life into a stagnating genre. They arrived just as the first flush of gangsta superstars had helped shift rap's center of gravity from its New York birthplace to the barbeques, swap-meets and low rider cars of sun-kissed Los Angeles, a whole continent distant, and temperamentally half a world away.
Today, the rap game is poised on the cusp of a similarly uncertain future. People agonise about rap, integrity and belief, but record sales are down, panic is setting in, and the audience is confused. Who can you turn to? Who can bring some light to chase away the darkness?
Well, how about a rap group who changed everything so completely that the record industry had to tear up its playbook and rethink the way it operated; a nine-strong, hydra-headed flurry of sparring egos, clashing styles and ever-increasing self-belief; a band who wrote their own mythology and came with a phalanx of acolytes and a plethora of alter-egos. The Wu-Tang Clan were a rap band of superheroes. Who else could resuscitate a genre some feel is breathing its last?
It's 1992: GZA and his cousin, Robert "RZA" Diggs, return to their Staten Island home, licking their wounds after a couple of record deals gone sour. Their choices were stark: give up the dream and go back to the business of day-to-day getting by, or use those experiences to come up with something new. There was no decision to make. RZA began work on his five-year master plan.
Recruiting from their army of friends and relatives, they assembled a rap supergroup: Clifford "Method Man" Smith, Russell "Ol' Dirty Bastard" Jones, Corey "Raekwon" Woods, Dennis "Ghostface Killah" Coles, Jason "Inspectah Deck" Hunter, "Lamont "U-God" Hawkins, Elgin "Masta Killa" Turner". They were nine emcees, each with a distinctive style and flow. They would record first as a group, which would announce each as an individual. Their personalities established, each would release their own records, play their own shows, carve their own niche in the pop culture edifice. Then, by the second group album, they'd have conquered the hip hop-speaking world.
Understanding both how rap audiences thought and how music was marketed, RZA knew they needed something other than skills and rhymes to succeed. So he turned to the legends and sagas the group members grew up on [kung fu films, superhero comic books, New York street lore] and mythologized an alternative reality the group would inhabit. The nine became the Wu-Tang Clan, named after a group of renegade monks with unparalleled skills in martial arts that made them so dangerous to society they had to swear never to teach their styles. Only this latter-day Clan would battle not with nunchucks or Shaolin swords, but razor-sharp wit and densely packed lyrical metaphors. Their music would deliberately sound raw, a carefully considered contrast to the sleek production sheen hip hop had acquired, to remind rap fans of the grit and the roughness that attracted them to hip hop in the first place, and which, by 1993, the music was beginning to lose.
RZA's plan worked almost to the letter. Five years after they released their debut single, the independently recorded, funded and distributed Protect Ya Neck, the Wu-Tang Clan's second album, Wu-Tang Forever, crash-landed at Number One in both the US and UK pop charts. The Wu revolution seemed complete.
The next five years brought a slew of solo albums from the Clan which saw their members regularly grace the upper reaches of most rap fans' all-time-greatest lists. There were also two more albums - The W and Iron Flag. The W gave the Clan their biggest UK hit single with Gravel Pit. By 2001, things had changed. "Suddenly, you're dealing with nine generals," RZA recalls, deploying an apt military metaphor, "and generals are hard to control. Plus, everyone had they own manager - trying to get everyone on the same page got harder."
"I'm a person that comes from a teaching of: we don't deal with leaders, but we deal with leadership" RZA says. "That means each man got to carry his own bucket, and somebody's gonna always be the one amongst you who leaves the footprints. In the beginning stages I took that upon me to make sure that I was dealing with leadership. And, being the most knowledgeable, basically, whatever I said, everybody agreed with it; or, if they didn't agree, they still submitted to it. But around the time we were making Forever, it went from dictatorship to democracy, basically. And when I went to that democracy, yo, that, to me, was the decline." "What you heard on 36 Chambers was the hunger and the thirst," GZA analyses. "Wu-Tang Forever was quenching that thirst - like, 'Aaah, that water and food tasted so good!' I would say The W was on some, 'Let's eat again, I'm kinda hungry again.' But Iron Flag was probably like, 'Man, I don't wanna eat that right now, I'm kinda full."
Cut to 2007, freshly signed to Bodog Music in Europe; the eight emcees have got a rumble in their collective belly once again. RZA is back in charge: "I'm in year three of my new five-year plan," he grins, and the Clan are back in the studio. Where recording for The W and Iron Flag was a piecemeal affair, members dropping in as and when solo and external commitments permitted, for The Eight Diagrams, RZA is laying down the law once again. "When we started this, I tried to get them to think of it like a job," he explains. "To turn up at the same time every day and put in the work. Not everybody has as good attendance as everybody else but we needed to go back to that way of workin'."
The W saw the Clan invite outsiders into the vocal booth for the first time, but for The Eight Diagrams, RZA has extended that to include producers. Once again, in clear contrast to the way the hip hop blockbusters of the day are made - with most hit rap albums compiled from ready-made beats supplied by a selection of outside producers - everything here has to subsume to the will of the Abbot. "I was on a mission this time to work with outside producers," he confirms. "But these aren't people making beats for us, they're production collaborations: they're in the studio with me."
"There's a lot of stuff goin' on in the studio," RZA continues. "It's kind of like a party. Though some people don't adapt to that so well." "I can't really focus or concentrate like that," GZA admits. "But it's always good to work together, because you can feed off each other and get input. What I've heard so far, that vibe and energy is strong. It's like we're doodling right now,the pen is flowing, and whatever it makes, it makes. But it's authentic, strong hip hop, lyrically and musically."
"As much as he is enthused by the collaborations and the production, RZA, with his unique overview and in his leader's role, is as excited by what he sees as his fellow Clansmen all bringing their A game to the sessions. "The album is still a work in progress and there is a lot more studio work to be done.
But before RZA can start slicing up the tracks and editing the fifth WU album, there's the small matter of European and American tour dates. British fans, in particular, may have a right to be skeptical: the number of times shows have been announced as featuring "the whole Wu-Tang Clan," with only a few members to show up on stage, is legion. But this time, it's going to be different. "A lot of that was promoters makin' money off our names," GZA grumbles. "But we're all comin'! Don't expect pyros, or us flyin' through the air: it's not that type o' show. There'll probably just be a backdrop and no props. The fans know what to expect - the Clansmen on stage, swarmin' back and forth for two fuckin' hours, with song after song after song."
Like they said a couple of times before, watch out: the WU is back.