The Wu-Tang Clan established a hip-hop empire with street poetics, kung fu mythology, ingenious production and entrepreneurial savvy. The outfit's rugged beats and top-notch MCing have taken the two-turntables-and-a-mike foundation of hip-hop to its grimiest, and arguably most artistic extreme.
A collective of relatives and close friends, the Wu-Tang Clan has its roots in the hostile housing projects of Staten Island, New York (also referred to as Shaolin in Wu lore). Cousins RZA and GZA, the Wu-Tang Clan's forefathers, began collaborating as early as 1976 —when RZA was eight years old. As break dancing and freestyle circles sprang up all over New York City, RZA and GZA began writing rhymes and challenging other MCs to battle. During junior high school, RZA befriended Ghostface Killah, U-God, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and Raekwon. In 1987, while selling marijuana, RZA purchased a 4-track and began moonlighting as a producer.
Around the time RZA was on trial for attempted murder (in 1992 he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense), the Wu-Tang Clan recorded its first single "Protect Ya Neck." The group members sold the single to local record stores and radio stations, and it became an underground success. Loud Records soon signed the Wu-Tang Clan to a deal that gave the group members creative control and the freedom to negotiate solo projects with other labels. In 1993 Loud released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (#41 pop, #8 R&B), a ghetto narrative filled with martial-arts metaphysics and cryptic instrumentation. Songs like "C.R.E.A.M." (#60 pop, #32 R&B, 1994) and "Can It Be All So Simple" (#82 R&B, 1994) introduced RZA's knack for juxtaposing beats, poignant subject matter, and street vernacular. The video for "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," depicting hooded swordsmen in black and white masks dueling on a giant chessboard, received frequent airplay on BET's Rap City and illustrated the group's mystic philosophies.
In 1994 Method Man's Tical (#4 pop, #1 R&B) began a series of Wu solo projects. Tical, named after the Wu's slang term for marijuana, spawned the chart-topping remix of "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1995), a cover of the two Ashford and Simpson classics featuring vocals by Mary J. Blige. Method Man followed up his debut with the equally successful Tical 2000: Judgement Day (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1998) and Blackout! (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1999), the latter a project with buddy Redman. The following Wu solo efforts, mostly produced or coproduced by RZA, also achieved both commercial and critical acclaim: Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...(#4 pop, #2 R&B, 1995) and Immobilarity (#9 pop, #2 R&B 1999); Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (#7 pop, #2 R&B, 1995) and Nigga Please (#10 pop, #2 R&B, 1999); GZA's Liquid Swords (#9 pop, #2 R&B, 1995) and Beneath the Surface (#9 pop, #1 R&B, 1999); Ghostface Killah's Ironman (#2 pop, #2 R&B, 1996) and Supreme Clientele (#7 pop, #2 R&B, 2000); RZA's RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo (#16 pop, #3 R&B, 1998); Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance (#19 pop, #3 R&B, 1999); and U-God's Golden Arms Redemption (#58 pop, #15 R&B, 1999). RZA also produced Wu offshoots like Shyheim, GP Wu, Killah Priest, Sunz of Man, Cappadonna, Killarmy, and LA the Darkman, and recorded two albums as a producer/member of the group Gravediggaz.
Amidst all of the prosperity, certain Wu members found themselves in legal trouble. In 1999 Ghostface Killah was sentenced to four to six months in prison for charges stemming from an assault and robbery incident. Ol' Dirty Bastard, who temporarily gave himself the pseudonym Big Baby Jesus, was arrested twice in 1998, once for threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend and once for threatening security guards at a blues club. In January 1999 ODB was arrested for opening fire on police officers (a few weeks later a Brooklyn grand jury declined to indict him), and in March of the same year was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. In November 2000 ODB fled a court-mandated stay at a Pasadena, California, rehab center and was found by law enforcement a few weeks later outside a McDonald's in Philadelphia. In April 2001 he pleaded guilty to the drug charge and faced a two-to-four-year jail term. (In light of the plea, the court ignored his flight from the rehab center.)
Despite all of the legal strife and solo achievements, the Wu-Tang brotherhood remained a unit and recorded two more group albums: Wu-Tang Forever (#1 pop, #1 R&B, 1997) and 2000's The W (#5 pop, #1 R&B). In 1995 the Wu-Tang Clan launched the lucrative Wu Wear clothing line, and three years later created the video game Shaolin Style. In 2000 RZA produced the score to and made a cameo appearance in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, a film about a black samurai who works as a Mafia hitman.
The Wu-Tang returned with the more polished, radio-friendly Iron Flag in 2001. Amongst a flood of various solo productions from each of the members, the Clan have since released a greatest hits collection and the live Disciples of the 36 Chambers. Ol' Dirty Bastard, real name Russell Jones, collapsed and died of a heart attack on the afternoon of November 13, 2004.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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