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.
Such a share-and-share-alike arrangement might seem like a blueprint for jealousy and competition – and it may eventually prove to be. But, so far, it's helped to hold Wu together. In fact, they don't really view their individual efforts as solo albums. "It's like chapters of a book," says Method Man. "Or like when you look at Pulp Fiction – you got all the characters together, but you also got the background behind what each of them was doing. That's how we treat these solo albums – you've seen us all together, now it's what goes on with us as individuals."
The Wu-Tang tale is a compelling story that begins in the rugged housing projects of Staten Island, N.Y. It is a chronicle of street lives shaped by poverty, violence – RZA, for one, was acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense – drug dealing and incarceration. But it is also a story of family values, Wu-Tang style. "I only had a mother," says U-God (born Lamont Hawkins), who grew up in the Park Hill projects – dubbed Killa Hill. "She was like Dr. J in the house; she was my idol. I praise her for the goodness in me. When I went to junior high, I met people from the Stapleton projects – that's how I met Ghost, RZA and Dirty. I knew Raekwon and Meth from Park Hill. To top it off, my mother knows Raekwon's mother and RZA's mother, from Brownsville, in Brooklyn. Our mothers is happy now, because we was some bad little boys. They didn't think it was gonna be a good sight with us. This life is crazy."
"I got a song called 'All That I Got Is You,'" says Ghostface (born Dennis Coles) when asked about his life growing up. "I wrote that from the heart. My father left me when I was 6. My mother tried to take care of all of us on public assistance. We couldn't get fresh for Christmas. I took that with me – that's what gives me inspiration. All this could go tomorrow, and I would still know how to function, because I never had nothing before. I went through the struggle – it was a rough life. Outta my crew that I used to run with back in the day, all them niggas got locked up. I don't know, something kept me alive on the streets, and I'm just grateful for being here like this. It's a blessing."
The story continues to unfold, and now it often is set in the gleaming boardrooms of the overwhelmingly white music industry. That move has required certain emotional adjustments. "It's a bugged-out feeling sometimes, because you know you never was around people like that," says Raekwon (born Corey Woods) about his interaction with the corporate world. "But those people have a lot of importance to do with your career, so it's only right to deal with them." He thinks for a moment, then adds philosophically, "Shit, it beats being on parole."
True, the transition hardly has been seamless. When writer Cheo H. Coker's complimentary story about Wu in Rap Pages came out accompanied by illustrations the group didn't like, Masta Killa warned Coker that "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with" and blackened the writer's eye. One record-industry executive recalls Ol' Dirty Bastard calling her over to him one night in a club because he wanted her to witness another woman performing oral sex on him. Method Man missed the photo session for Enter the Wu-Tang because he was arrested for smoking a blunt; U-God was in jail when the album was released. Promoters who tried to renegotiate after one of the group's notoriously unreliable live shows early in its career risked a beat down. Wu can still get nasty with photographers, blatantly intimidating one woman at a recent shoot.
Most of that isn't much beyond the sort of thing that built the reputations of Jerry Lee Lewis, Guns n' Roses and other white rockers with an appetite for destruction. But when rappers act up, it's seen less as a mark of their rock & roll authenticity than as proof of their sociopathology. Regardless, Wu claim it is trying to change. "When we started out, we was young," explains U-God. "We did so many bad things. Now that we're older, we want to show the world that Wu ain't bad. People can trust us. It took me two times going in and out of prison to realize I had to stop doin' what I was doin'. RZA showed me the way. He said, 'Would you rather risk your life on the streets, holdin' guns and doin' your wild thing, or would you rather go to London and lay up? Tour for the money we make?' It was like a transformation."
Talks with Wu are rife with such declarations. RZA (born Robert Diggs) is the keeper of Wu-Tang's mystic knowledge – a highly idiosyncratic blend of kung-fu discipline, the numerological speculations of the Five Percent Nation (a split-off sect from the Nation of Islam), chess lore, street smarts, the Bible, mafia mythology, black capitalism, millenarian anxiety, extraterrestrial visions and superhero fantasies. "You got the Abbott [another of RZA's IDs] hittin' deep science," says CappaDonna, a member of Wu's extended clan, speaking of RZA's contribution to the Wu chemistry. "Telling you how much the earth weigh. Telling you how to break down a solid into a liquid. Telling how the baby was born, where it comes from."
In the course of a long night in the studio, each of the clan – except for Ol' Dirty Bastard (born Russell Jones), who, characteristically, never showed up – sits down for an individual interview on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Somehow, it's understood that RZA will speak last, partly because he's still busy overseeing the production of the album and partly because his entrance must be prepared by the others.
Indeed, RZA and GZA (born Gary Grice), who are cousins, both had record deals before Wu-Tang, and their negative experiences gave birth to Wu's approach to the music/business equation. "RZA and Genius were already in the industry, and they seen the bad parts of it," says Method Man (born Clifford Smith). "So we came prepared. We wasn't goin' for that bourgie shit. Don't try and make me up to be what I'm not. We gonna do it without compromising a goddamn thing."
When RZA does appear, it's close to 4 a.m., but he's bursting with energy, hyped about the range of moods that Wu-Tang Forever contains. "We tackle a lot of different subjects," RZA says about the album. "We got shit like 'Reunited.' That's the first rap on it: 'Reunited, double LP/World excited/Struck a match to the underground/Industry ignited.' Those are GZA's lyrics. We got a song called 'A Better Tomorrow,' where the hook tells you, 'You can't party your life away/Smoke your life away/Drink your life away/Fuck your life away.' We got a song called 'It's Yourz' that's for partying. But inside the party there's a little trouble – some chump niggas are tryin' to act too tough; we gonna have to smack them up.
"We come in peace," he continues, defining the Wu ethic, "but we always come prepared for war. You see, Shaolin warriors were different from Wu-Tang warriors. Shaolin warriors stay so humble that they might commit suicide before they would go against you – just so you could feel that ultimate pain. They're like Gandhi, a nonviolent approach. Wu-Tang come in that form, but you ain't gonna push us past the limit. We gonna serve you justice. If we gotta break your arm, we'll break your arm. But we ain't come to do that – we came to help shed light. Our album describes us like that, man – every angle of it."
CappaDonna (born Darryl Hill) puts the theory into active practice. "You know what my joy is?" he asks, laughing, as he strolls through the studio brandishing a baseball bat. "When I'm making somebody else happy, I love that. See this bat right here? This is for whoever's stopping me from making somebody happy."
"I feel the world needs this right now," says Masta Killa (born Elgin Turner) about Wu-Tang Forever and then draws on language derived from the Five Percent Nation to describe the album's purpose and intended impact. "I feel the world is in a state of confusion. We lost two great heroes: Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. The world needs guidance. We the gods that gotta come through with mathematics to set everything straight, to give condolence to the world."
Wu is well aware, however, that for many people, the Notorious B.I.G. and Shakur are not heroes but outlaws who died by the sword they lived by. For those people, far from providing condolence, rap is seen as the source of the problem, the match that lights the fire of violence, then fans the flames. Method Man rejects the charge in no uncertain terms: "We the street news. What the cameras don't show, we tell. That's the reason they wanna stop it – it's straight at you, hardcore, and the truth hurts.
"I get upset," he continues, nearly shouting, "when I see people like Dionne Warwick and other people who came before us in the music business [put down rap]. Shit, they seen what state the black nation was in, and they didn't do a goddamn thing. Dionne Warwick ain't never come to my motherfuckin' avenue and threw a free concert. But I tell you who did: Doug E. Fresh. KRS-One. These rap niggas. Then we get criticized for our lyrics, for telling the truth, bottom line."
Raekwon leaps equally hard to the music's defense. "This is another frame of education," he says. "People may look at it like, 'Some of them talk about violence,' whatever – but first say the nigga's a poet. To flow – that shit is not easy. You can never get it no fresher, comin' up out the projects, 20 or 21 years old, and you start rhymin', and that's how you make your money – by speaking your lingo. Rap, to me, is slang poetry. It answers your questions: why young kids is doin' bad, why they turn to drugs to get away from their misery. This is the shit we talk about – and how to escape it.
"You'll never be able to stop this," he concludes, laughing, "because imagine if we didn't have no music – we'd be some miserable motherfuckers."
And the reunified Wu-Tang Clan has no intentions of stopping. U-God, Inspectah Deck (born Jason Hunter), CappaDonna and RZA all are slated for solo albums this year. "The Wu-Tang story still ain't told fully," RZA says. "My solo album will give more vision on my side. I already got the lyrics and the music. It's gonna be some shit." The next Wu-Tang album will not appear until the year 2000, at which time, predicts CappaDonna, "the world is coming to an end. What's bringin' it down? All the negativity. I don't want to get too deep into that. I don't fear that. I'm waitin' for that. I'm waitin' patiently."
Back on earth, however, the clan continues to evolve. "After this Wu-Tang album, I'm gonna pull back some from producing any album," RZA says. "I think I laid down a good pattern of hip-hop production for the whole world. Anybody can listen to our songs and generate something of their own. Take 'Ice Water' [from Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…], with that voice going 'Ahhhh,' or 'Bring the Pain' [from Meth's Tical]. How many songs come out, man, with voices going like that? [Blackstreet's] 'No Diggity,' for example – a No. 1 hit based on the sound that I heard first. I brought strings into hip-hop. The heavy piano loops – I got everybody runnin' back to snoop for piano loops. So, with that foundation laid down, I think Ghostface, Raekwon and Meth could produce their own albums. Then, on the next Wu-Tang album, we'll come back and put that into one big bowl of soup for you again."
For now, RZA is content for Wu-Tang Forever to sound the whistle of the underground railroad. "This album will spark the hip-hop nation," he says. "Radio stations these days don't even know what true hip-hop is. They playin' this regenerated R&B with somebody rapping over it, artists who sell with their looks, the same familiar looping of songs that people grew up with or that already was famous on the radio.
"There's only two things that can happen," RZA concludes about the future of hip-hop in the wake of Wu-Tang Forever. "One: Wu-Tang takes over and brings back hip-hop to its true form. Or, two: The media dogs hip-hop to the utmost extremity to where only the Hammer-type sound gets through, and hip-hop becomes an underground thing. And if it goes underground, it's only gonna grow more. Either way it goes, it's all right with me."
This story is from the July 10th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.