After midnight at Absolute Audio studios, in midtown Manhattan, a few members of Wu-Tang Clan lounging in the lounge. Marijuana smoke clouds the air, the result of the incessant burning of blunts. "What's that, Tical?" says Raekwon, addressing Method Man by another of his tags – a synonym for weed – and gesturing toward the television set hanging in a corner of the room. "Strange Universe" is on the box. "You ain't seeing what I'm seeing?" Meth's lanky frame is stretched out on a chair; the rapper is deeply immersed in a movie script that he's considering for an acting role. Aptly enough, the subject turns to the Heaven's Gate suicide cult. "They was dropping it on '60 Minutes,' God," Ghostface Killah says with characteristic fervor. "They had the other niggas that were saying shit like, 'I wish I was there.' Like they, was down wit' the shit, but they just happened to miss it that day."
"Bad," says Meth, shaking his head. "Damn," says U-God. Their disbelief is tinged with respect.
That respect, however, is short-lived. "You said they all had Nikes on," says Raekwon.
"They all had Nikes on, G," Ghost assures him.
"What? The aliens had Nikes on?" Meth asks, still distracted by his reading.
"No, the niggas that killed theyself," Raekwon explains to him.
"They all had black Nikes on, God," Ghost continues. "They had the wack pair of Nikes on, too." He's beginning to chuckle. "You know, the regular joints? The first pair, probably."
"The doofus shit," says Meth, dryly, his disbelief now veering into a weary contempt.
"The Smurf shit?" says U-God. They all collapse in hysterics, clapping and slapping hands.
"It looked like they was on their way out," says Ghost, mimicking the calm, take-me-away-from-all-of-this posture of the corpses. He stops laughing, finally, and takes a moment to collect himself. "Those niggas was buggin' the fuck out, G," he says, in conclusion. "They ain't went nowhere."
The last place Wu-Tang Clan, the most significant posse in hip-hop, is going is nowhere. Still, it fits that they would be fascinated by Heaven's Gate, however lame the California cult's sense of style. Wu, too, sees itself and its extended crew as a secret society united by a deep bond, a "sword family" in the parlance of the martial-arts movies it loves. The nine members – RZA (pronounced Rizza, a rendering of razor), the Genius (GZA), Method Man, U-God, Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck – are all relations or friends who grew up together. Each goes by a variety of identities, and they maintain a large home in rural New Jersey that serves as a kind of communal clubhouse.
"We are a group of men who came together for a common cause," says RZA, the group's main producer, its business leader and the person who, in the group hierarchy, is the first among equals. "We can't split up – we don't really got too many friends besides us. We may have a thousand people around us, but there's nobody like us. That's the circle right there – that's how come it's so powerful. It ain't brought together for money or women or drugs. We're one in the heart and one in the mind. That's the power of Wu-Tang."
The common cause uniting the clan at the moment is completing Wu-Tang Forever, the double album that is among the music world's most anxiously awaited events. The album had been delayed innumerable times, partly because despite their being "one in the heart and one in the mind," it's virtually impossible to bring them together in one place for any extended period of time. But steadily moving forward within a whirl of barely controlled chaos has been Wu's highly successful MO ever since its audacious debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), rocked the hip-hop world in 1993 with its grimy beats, cinematic conception and raw, raucous MC'ing. It had the same impact that Run-DMC had 10 years earlier – it stripped away everything extraneous and refocused hip-hop on its DJ/rapper essence. The album, like all dramatic musical innovations, draws on the past to shape the future – it sounds both shockingly original and thrillingly reminiscent of the anything-goes energy of hip-hop's earliest days.
But Enter the Wu-Tang was just the start of something no one could have anticipated. In an arrangement that set a standard for boldness, Wu's contract with Loud/RCA allows the group's members to negotiate solo deals with any label of their choosing. "You got cats comin' to record labels now, talkin' 'bout, 'I want a Wu-Tang deal,'" says Method Man of the group's influence in business affairs. "They might as well put it on the contract like that." The result has been a steady stream of hit side projects from the Wu-Tang camp: Tical, by Method Man (Def Jam, 1994); Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, by Ol' Dirty Bastard (Elektra, 1995); Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, by Raekwon (Loud/RCA, 1995); Liquid Swords, by the Genius (Geffen, 1995); and Ironman, by Ghostface Killah (Razor Sharp/Epic, 1996).
Each of those albums – none of which has sold less than 600,000 copies – has established its maker as a solo star. But all of them feature guest appearances by other Wu members, all were produced by RZA (who also owns half of Razor Sharp Records, in partnership with Sony), and all of them came out under the banner of Wu-Tang Productions. Each member contributes 20 percent of his earnings back to that company, and all of the members share equally in the profits, regardless of how well their individual albums sold, or whether or not they even made an album.
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