The early and mid ’90s came as part of the golden age of rap music, both the apex and the end of that era with countless classics reading off like a list of the greatest albums of the genre. One underground group though rose above them all to become not only one of the most influential, but probably the highlight of that period. At the very least, they were certainly the most wide reaching as their official CD count to date is a modest seven, but that rises past fifty when you count all the solo works made by members of the band and approaches infinity when considering all the affiliates (or Killa Beez) of the group. There’s a lot of crap in there and plenty more forgettable titles than essentials, but those essentials are pillars of the rap genre and there’s a deep catalog beyond it worth checking out.
The group got its start with three Brooklyn-born cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russell Jones (then known respectively as The Scientist, The Specialist, and Ason Unique) who formed the group FOI: Force of the Imperial Master and achieved an underground success with “All In Together Now” (which they later took as the name of their crew). Grice would go on to record a solo album in 1991 as The Genius, Words from the Genius that hinted at his abilities, but it’s lacking something in the sound and was buried by the label, a theme which he would later explore more thoroughly on “Protect Ya Neck” and “Labels“. Diggs also released an EP under the name Prince Rakeem (already showing the propensity for multiple names they would be known for), Ooh I Love You Rakeem whose lead single has, it hasn’t aged well. The rest of the EP isn’t as bad, but it certainly didn’t indicate anything was special in store for him.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Diggs and Grice left their labels and with Jones taking the name Ol’ Dirty Bastard (cause there’s no father to his style), they teamed up with another rapper who had been raised in Staten Island (a place they would dub Shaolin) with Diggs, Dennis Coles, better known as Ghostface Killah and then four others (Clifford Smith/Method Man, Corey Woods/Raekwon, Jason Hunter/Inspectah Deck, and Lamont Hawkins/U-God) to record the underground hit “Protect Ya Neck“, taking their name from the kung fu film Shaolin and Wu Tang (directed by and starring the great Chia-Hui Liu who also directed/starred in Heroes of the East, one of the greatest martial arts films ever made among numerous other classics). Not only a fantastic song and one of the definitive posse cuts ever recorded, it put them on the map and eventually scored them a record deal. Diggs (who would change his name to RZA and Grice to GZA) had a five-year plan for taking over the industry and negotiated a deal that would allow the individual members to sign elsewhere, yet still maintained almost dictatorial control over the group.
Their first CD was recorded for a low budget and released in 1993, and you can hear the grit, with a hard hitting, raw style. It’s filled with plenty of the hallmarks of the group, fantastic production and sampling from the RZA (who would constantly swap around and play with the verses), martial arts references (the title a reference to Chia-Hui Liu’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as well as quite a few of their names) and samples, references to the Five Percenter ideology, skits (some of which are even enjoyable here), a mixture of solo tracks, big posse cuts and everything in between blending in a variety of rap styles, plenty of humor, and tales of inner city life. It’s classic song after classic song, with not a single bad track on there. In short, it is probably the best rap album ever made, or at least my favorite (to stop the inevitable people from yelling Nas’s Illmatic, itself owing something to the Wu). It defined a large part of mid ’90s NYC rap and people are still pulling from how it was produced.
“Bring da Ruckus” opens things up with an aggressive, halting track with Ghost getting the honor of first verse and coming out swinging to set the tone right after the first of many Shaolin and Wu Tang samples. Raekwon, Deck, and GZA (taking the closing role that he had in their debut single) continue on from there and if they were looking for something to establish the group as rough and gritty, they couldn’t have picked a better track, yet Deck and GZA’s lyrical abilities especially shine through. “Shame on a N****” let’s Ol’ Dirty show off his distinctive style for the first time and along with Meth (who goes wild) and Rae give a much more fun counterpart to the opening track. “Clan in da Front” (best known now for showing up in True Detective) lets the RZA list off everyone in the Wu-Tang Clan as well as a number of early affiliates before GZA shows off in a solo track why he was the most polished and talented of them early on.
“Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” is the first big posse cut which after a lengthy, beloved skit (“Killer Tape Skit”), is a quality if oft overlooked track which shows off RZA’s ability to fit seven members (no U-God or Masta Killa) onto a track and not have it feel overloaded. “Can It Be All So Simple” is a Raekwon/Ghostface collaboration and their first chance to show off some storytelling chops. The song acts as a sort of preview for Raekwon’s first solo album as well as slowing the album down briefly. The Gladys Knight and the Pips sample is beautiful, and they just paint such a vivid picture. The album also depicts an outro interview which explains the meaning of everyone’s name (to various degrees of effectiveness). The video is one of the first from Hype Williams, the definitive rap video director. It’s nothing special conceptually, but it’s well shot.
“Da Mystery of Chessboxin‘” is one of only two chances to hear U-God (who was locked up for most of production of the album) and your only chance to hear Elgin Turner/Masta Killa, the ninth member who had no experience rapping prior to the album and yet still tears it up with an all-time classic verse (and possibly denying a spot to Killah Priest who was set to have the spot on the track). It’s also a great example of the way RZA lets each other them, or at least seven of the nine (no appearances from the RZA or GZA), takes it in turn to deliver a killer cut that showcase their style, identifies themselves, and yet keeps it all flowing so smooth and a natural follow-up to “Protect Ya Neck” (later to come on the album). “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” is another really fun track with verses from RZA, INS, and Meth that gave the Clan an instantly iconic catchphrase, but also an identity, the “tiger style” Executioners From Shaolin sample and the RZA’s ramblings only icing on the cake.
“C.R.E.A.M.” though goes down smooth with that Charmels sample, the rich storytelling from Raekwon and Deck, and Meth’s infectious hook, earning its reputation as one of rap’s defining works. It’s usually the consensus choice for top song in their catalog, their most famous (certainly their most viewed video) and most recently showing up in Westworld, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to call it their best, it’s a timeless classic. “Method Man” is the other solo track and if “Clan in the Front” showed of why GZA was the most talented at this point, “Method Man” shows why Method Man was the one ready to break out. He jumps out from first listen and his style (both rapping and in appearance) was already so perfectly defined and ready for the mainstream. It’s also a marvelous track on its own, both memorable and quotable, managing to be the greatest thing ever associated with Hall and Oates by a wide margin. Also, the “Torture Skit” between Meth and Rae is still hilarious as they battle with the different ways they’d torture each other in increasingly descriptive and brutal ways (which would later be referenced on Chappelle’s Show).
“Protect Ya Neck” (the album version with that awesome “Wu-Tang again?” “Ah yeah, again and again.” intro is also censored though an uncensored version also exists) really is perfect in the way it services the group, giving Inspectah Deck his reputation for being able to launch a song, giving career highlights for Method Man, ODB, and GZA, and plenty of fantastic verses for the rest. “Tearz” is the final storytelling song and a heartbreaking one at that with RZA’s tale of the (fictional) death of his brother being especially effective with no disrespect to Ghostface’s effort. Finally, we close it out with another quality seven-man posse cut in “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber—Part II” (the same seven here as last time) laid down over a funky beat that feels a bit loud and out of place with the rest of the album and yet the perfect celebratory capper. The international version also includes a remix of “Method Man” and it’s nothing special, at best just an interesting, lesser alternate take. As a bonus, here’s some early performance and interview footage.
The First Batch of Solo Albums
Fresh off the critical and underground success of the group’s album, the next phase of the RZA’s plan went into effect in 1994. But the first member to release a project outside the group was not who you’d expect, it was the RZA himself. For DJ and producing legend Prince Paul of Stetsasonic, 3 Feet High and Rising, and De La Soul Is Dead fame was looking to assemble a group to gain some more recognition for himself and make something heavier. What he made was a defining work of the horrorcore genre pulling in RZA as The RZArector (RZA name counter at three not including his birthname), Stetsasonic’s Frukwan as The Gatekeeper, and the Brothers Grym’s Too Poetic as The Grym Reaper, with Prince Paul taking the name The Undertaker. That album N****mortis, released as 6 Feet Deep in the US for very obvious reasons since I can’t even bring myself to spell out the title (even if the site rules let me), is while no 36 Chambers, still a great one from top to bottom. It manages to keep a sense of humor even as it delves into its murderous and horror themes, though the standout track of “Diary of a Madmen” (co-produced by the RZA) is pure, unadulterated, wonderful evil.
Unlike the rest of the albums of this period, RZA isn’t the primary force behind it as Prince Paul handles most of the job. Instead he focuses on further refining his very purposeful rapping style here, with each track largely sticking to the three-rapper format. It’s also of note to Wu-Tang fans for the debuts of three Wu-Tang affiliates. Killah Priest shows up in the aforementioned “Diary of a Madman” and again alongside his future fellow member of Sunz of Man, Shabazz the Disciple, and alongside Dreddy Krueger on the RZA produced track “Graveyard Chamber“. It’s such a phenomenal album through and through that is constantly mixing things up to keep it fresh.
The craziness of “Constant Elevation” (with Too Poetic doing his best ODB impression) leading to the infectious “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” and the delicious guitar inflected “Defective Trip (Trippin’)“. The unsettling RZA and Too Poetic bar trading “2 Cups of Blood” fading into the solid Frukwan produced “Blood Brothers“. The slow, ridiculous dark humor of “1-800-Suicide” (a complement) leading to that evil of “Diary of a Madman”. The smooth if a bit awkward “Mommy, What’s a Gravedigga?” giving way to the more experimental and electronic/rock “Bang Your Head” and enjoyable “Here Comes the Gravediggaz“. The wonderful posse cut of “Graveyard Chamber” leading to unique horns and percussion of “Death Trap” and closing on the sluggish and rambling “6 Feet Deep“.
RZA also co-produced as part of Gravediggaz a short collaboration with trip-hop artist Tricky, The Hell E.P., although they were only involved in two of the four songs, “Psychosis” and “Tonight is a Special Night” and they aren’t much more than weird curiosities. RZA’s one track in the period as a lead artist was “Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance” for the High School High soundtrack and besides being a glorified clothing advert, it’s fucking terrible. That being said, I’ll take the time here to say that the Wu logo (designed by affiliate producer Mathematics) has become so popular in clothing (heck I have a Wu-Tang t-shirt and it’s one of the rare non-plain black t-shirts that I ever actually wear outside of work) because beyond representing a great band with crossover appeal (in terms of both genre and race), it’s instantly iconic and cool. It’s a simple design, but easily recognizable. This is also as good a place as any to mention Wu-Tang’s quality contribution to the star-studded America is Dying Slowly, “America” which RZA shows up on though I prefer the live version that ODB comes in and tears it up on.
The first proper solo album is the one that was so clearly set up by 36 Chambers, Method Man’s Tical. And a solo album it is. While plenty of the following albums and others of the period are loaded up with collaborations (for better or worse), this one puts Meth front and center with 9 of 13 tracks (including a remix of his original solo cut) not featuring anyone at all. It only features three appearances from Wu Tang members in Raekwon on “Meth vs. Chef” (Chef of course being one of Rae’s many nicknames) and the RZA and Inspectah Deck on the posse cut “Mr. Sandman“. It did however feature contributions from regular Blue Raspberry (getting a chance to flash her soaring vocal abilities when called on to evoke Gloria Gaynor on the great “Release Yo’ Delf“), Carlton Fisk (not that one), and Streetlife. As befitting a man whose very name is a weed reference, the album’s name is one and it is filled with them (namely the killer opening titular track).
While once again living in the shadow of the full Clan’s release, it still delivers on the promises of quality. For a start, it delivers a classic (and Chris Rock stand up special naming) mainstream hit in “Bring the Pain“, but it also balances those bigger songs with more traditionally raw Wu Tang joints like “Biscuits“. “All I Need” is more notable now in its remix form where the song became a duet with Mary J. Blige’s cover of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”, but the original is just a great love song, something rare in the Wu catalog (or rap in general). The remixes were produced by the RZA and Puff Daddy though the latter is the far more well-known version (both have their place) and also easily the biggest hit off the album.
1995-1996 saw a trio of soundtrack contributions released by Method Man. The first was the start of his lengthy collaboration with EPMD’s Redman from The Show‘s soundtrack, “How High“, which later would inspire a movie named after it starring them. The original version isn’t nearly as catchy but is still great in a different way. The second is “The Riddler“, a solid track off the Batman Forever soundtrack. Finally, we have “Hit Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem)“, a posse cut featuring B-Real (Cypress Hill), Coolio, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes (back when he was great) which is far better than Space Jam deserved and I say that as someone who has seen it countless times. He also appeared on tracks by such artists in this period as Biggie, Tupac, Spice 1, and of course Shaquille O’Neal (alongside the RZA) as well as endorsing St. Ides Malt Liquor with a number of other members of the Wu Tang Clan.
That’s it for this week, but tune in three weeks from today as we take a look at the rest of the first batch of solo albums from the Wu-Tang Clan and in the coming months, we will dive into the rest of their albums and the work of a select few of the countless Wu-Tang Clan affiliates. But before you go, here are my picks for the best verses by each member. Probably uncontroversial picks for the most part, though I’ll admit it was hard to chop off a few like Method Man’s “Shadowboxin’” verse or a quite a few from GZA, but this is probably the best way to get a good intro to each member and get a feel for their individual styles. The list is ordered the only logical way, by appearance in the song “Triumph“, one of many songs we will discuss in time.
ODB: “Reunited” – Wu-Tang Forever
Runner Up: “Protect Ya Neck” – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (for some reason this actually works better in the album version with the record scratch profanity cover ups, probably because it fits his weirdness)
Cappadonna: “Winter Warz” – Ironman
Runner Up: He’s just lucky I counted him at all