Chaos ensues as the first clicks of the beat from "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F* Wit" begin bouncing into the Armory, in Philadelphia, and seven of the eight Wu-Tang members present stroll out onto the stage, some spraying the crowd with champagne. The rumbling bass line kicks in, and Clan members Prince Rakeem and Inspector Deck flow through their verses as camera cranes fly about like postapocalyptic birds, capturing the moment for Russell Simmons' hip-hop documentary The Show.
Method Man strolls out from the back of the stage and begins ripping his verse – "The Meth'll come out . . . tomorrow!" – and the crowd takes on the frenzied feel of a people under siege. Then Meth does what few performers in hip-hop – scratch that, popular music – will dare. He leaps from the foot of the stage and runs to the barricades that are tentatively holding back the crowds of screaming teen-agers, barriers that had fallen a few hours earlier when Snoop Doggy Dogg stepped onstage and again when the Notorious B.I.G. threw money at the crowd. And with the magical elasticity of an animated cartoon character, Meth leans into the arms of his grabbing fans and rocks to the beat.
Method Man has suddenly put the conversation on hold. He's in his hotel room in Norfolk, VA, a stop on the Def College Jam prior to the Philly onslaught. He was discussing Wu-Tang and their year-old near-platinum album, Enter the Wu–Tang (36 Chambers), as well as his debut solo album, Tical, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard R&B chart after selling more than 120,000 copies in its first week in stores.
But right now Meth's on another issue. "Pass that weed, nigga," he says, and then with a taste of malice, "Shit."
Meth takes the third-smoked blunt, which isn't much darker than his caramel-colored skin, puts it on the side of his mouth, lays his cornrowed head back on the pillow and slowly vacuums in some burning herb. It's just after 11 a.m.
Twelve years ago, 10-year-old Meth was experimenting with roaches left around his house. Yesterday, over six hours, the man who has been tagged and has tagged his debut album with the words for weed in the slang of his Staten Island, N.Y., hood, smoked the greater part of at least five blunts. The government may know him as Clifford Smith, but he will probably be, as is written in black on the back of his black leather belt, METHOD MAN 4 LIFE.
Method has long been a part of Method Man's life. After dropping out of ninth grade because the teachers "didn't take extra time to make sure you understand what the fuck they talking about – plus I didn't have no gear," Meth followed the lead of those around him. "I was on and off selling drugs for a long time," he says. "I thought I was bred for this drug-dealin' life."
Meth says that his father, who was born in Harlem, N.Y., and was recently released from prison, was locked down when Meth, the second of three children, was born. But Meth remains vague on much of his father's history. "He was man enough not to let us know what he was doin'," he says.
Still, despite his father's legacy, Meth never rose very high among dealers in Staten Island. "I was always, like, on the front lines," he says. "A scramblin' nigga with the package in my hand, runnin' up to cars. All it got me was gray hairs and shot at. As soon as this rap shit started, I got the fuck out of that shit."
In 1990, Prince Rakeem and his friend the Genius were coming off unsavory experiences as solo artists, and they wanted to put the knowledge that they had gained toward their own project. They went to the friends they had grown up with in the projects of Staten Island. "Rakeem was like 'Yo, y'all could get your money on the block,' " Meth says, " 'but I'm trying to make this record shit, and I want y'all to be down with it. But y'all gotta be with it 100 percent. Once you in, there ain't no out.' "
Rakeem and Genius found six men, including Meth, and started Wu-Tang, a group bonded by the experience of growing up on Staten Island. "We all grew up together," says Inspector Deck. "We all went to school, stole each other bikes. Nobody can penetrate our circle."
Many hip-hoppers have made music in their basement and sold it from the trunks of their cars, but the ambitious Wu took a somewhat different path: After producing a single called "Protect Ya Neck," they started their own label, Wu-Tang Records, and in late '92 began distributing the single to record stores around New York.
Though dealing was largely behind them, as businessmen they borrowed from that orientation in their approach to the industry. "It's like working on the block," says Al James, a lifelong friend of the group who is also one of its managers. "It was just a bigger block now. And we started pushin' and pushed it down their throat."
And they swallowed. "Protect" sold 15,000 copies and won Wu-Tang a deal with Loud Records, which released Enter in December '93. But even the deal the Wu signed was unique: Instead of going for the highest bidder, the group negotiated a deal that would allow each member the right to record solo projects for other labels.
"We have too much talent," James says. "You can't sign the whole Clan and just give them $300,000. That's worth one brother right there." As a result, 1995 will see solo albums by the Genius on Geffen, Ol' Dirty Bastard on Elektra and a Wu-Tang group album.
The street buzz that followed "Protect" turned into roaring cheers with the release of a lively, old-school-style single called "Method Man." Enter has since spawned three more singles, with yet another on the way, and impressed hip-hop fans everywhere with the group's depth of talent and emotional diversity.
In addition, the Wu tapped into hip-hop history with their image, taking their name and direction from karate movies that were critical in the development of break dancing. Rakeem, the Wu's resident producer, laced the record with snippets from the films and wrapped it up with an inexpensively produced sound that was sharply reminiscent of hip-hop made by the likes of Eric B. and Rakim and KRS-One during the seminal years between 1985 and '87.
"We talk about '87, when niggas was gettin' tossed off the stage," says Deck. "We're tryin' to take it back because you couldn't be whack then."
Enter became one of the most popular hip-hop records of the year, and like Snoop on The Chronic a year before Enter's release, Meth emerged from a relatively small but very visible role to become one of hip-hop's most celebrated MCs. The Rakeem-produced Tical, which sounds dirty though less obvious and minimalist than Enter, showcases Meth's talents as an undeniably great rapper: He has tremendous verbal dexterity and a distinct hoarse but not harsh smoked-out voice and writes collagelike lyrics that are crammed with catch phrases and witticisms.
Meth developed the personal style that has taken him from the pissy stairwells of Staten Island to the foot of the world's stages by watching his S.I. neighbors. "You can't ask rap artists nowadays, 'Who influenced you?' and expect them to say another rap artist," he says. "They gonna say they niggas from they ghetto. That's who keeps them strong."
This story is from the February 23rd, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.
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