The Wu-Tang Clan is a pioneering hardcore rap group, originally from Staten Island, New York (Staten Island is referred to as "Shaolin" in their lyrics).
There are nine original members of the Wu-Tang Clan. All of the nine members have released solo albums and have performed under several subprojects with other Wu-Tang "Family" members and musicians outside the Clan. This was the plan from the group's inception: the group would make each of them famous enough to launch multiple side projects, and take over the hip-hop community through saturation of like-minded rappers.
The founders of the Wu-Tang Clan were GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard and RZA (who also formed the by-then-defunct All In Together Now Crew). The GZA is the de facto leader of the group, as well as being widely regarded as the best lyricist among the group. The RZA is the producer of the group's albums, as well as many of their solo projects. The group quickly became known for hardcore violence, thumping, surreal beats and a warped sense of humor, all filtered through allusions to ancient Chinese folklore, mythic legend and martial arts film. The two cousins (GZA and RZA) created their rap nom-de-plumes by mimicking the sound that the words Genius and Robert would make when scratched on a turntable. The name of the group itself originates from the Wudang (or Wu-Tang) Mountains in the Hubei province of China which are a traditional center of Chinese martial arts and the ancient technique of Wudang Tai Chi.
The Wu-Tang Clan first became known to hip hop fans, and to major record labels, following the release of the independent single Protect Ya Neck, which immediately gave the group a sizeable underground following. Though there was some difficulty in finding a record label that would sign the Wu-Tang Clan while still allowing each member to record solo albums with other labels, Loud/RCA finally agreed and the debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was a popular and critically-acclaimed album, though it took some time to gain momentum.
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers did indeed establish the group as a creative and influential rap group in the early nineties (it was released in 1993), allowing GZA, RZA, Raekwon, Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard to negotiate solo contracts.
RZA was the first to follow up on the success of 36 Chambers with a side project, founding the Gravediggaz with Prince Paul (a producer, most famous for De La Soul), Frukwan (of Stetsasonic) and Poetic (of the Brothers Grimm). The Gravediggaz released 6 Feet Deep in August of 1994, which became easily the most famous work to emerge from hip hop's small sub-genre of horrorcore. Method Man was the first member of Wu-Tang to hit stardom with his November 1994 solo album, Tical, produced by the RZA who continued with the grimy, raw textures he explored on 36 Chambers. RZA's hands-on approach to Tical, which extended beyond him merely creating the beats to devising song concepts and structure, would continue throughout the first round of solo projects from the Clan members. Ol' Dirty Bastard found success soon after with Return to the 36 Chambers: the Dirty Version, which saw the 36 Chambers sound become even rawer and rough-edged. 1995 saw two significant and well-received albums from the group members. Raekwon the Chef's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was a diverse, theatrical criminological epic that saw RZA move away from the raw, stripped-down beats of the early albums and towards a richer, cinematic sound more reliant on strings and classic soul samples. GZA's Liquid Swords had a similar focus on inner-city criminology to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, yet was far darker, both in GZA's grim lyrics and in the ominous, forbidding production which saw RZA heavily reliant on keyboards for the first time. The two 1995 solo albums remain widely regarded as two of the finest hip hop albums of the nineties. Ghostface Killah released his own debut, Ironman, in 1996; it struck a balance between the sinister keyboard-laden textures of Liquid Swords and the sentimental soul samples of Cuban Linx, while Ghostface himself explored new territory as a lyricist. It was critically acclaimed and is still widely considered one of the best Wu-Tang solo albums. Although these albums were released as solo albums, the rule of RZA behind the boards and the large number of guest appearances from other Clan members (Raekwon and Ghostface's albums only had two or three actual solo tracks each and both included tracks which only included other Clan members and not themselves) means they are usually considered as important to the group's evolution as the group albums proper.
With solo careers established, the Wu-Tang Clan came back together to release the enormous double album Wu-Tang Forever in June 1997. It was eagerly anticipated and entered the charts at number one ; no mean feat for an album that made very little attempt to have wide commercial appeal, and whose lead single Triumph was a five minutes plus nine-MC "posse cut" with no chorus. The sound of the album mostly built upon the sounds of the previous three solo albums, with RZA increasing his use of keyboards and string samples, as well as for the first time assigning much of the album's production to his proteges True Master and 4th Disciple (known as the "Wu-Elements"). The group members also appeared much more ambitious lyrically than on 36 Chambers, with many verses on the album being dense stream-of-consciousness narratives heavily influenced by the teachings of the Five Percent Nation. However, the live tour supporting the album was cancelled halfway through amid rumors of internal disputes.
The group's close associate Cappadonna, who first appeared on Raekwon's debut and was a large presence on both Ironman and Wu-Tang Forever, followed the group project with March 1998's The Pillage, and soon after Killah Priest (like Cappadonna a close associate of the Clan, though not an official member) released Heavy Mental to great critical acclaim. A compilation album, Wu-Tang Killa Bees: The Swarm, was also released showcasing more Wu-affiliated artists as well as including new solo tracks from the group members themselves. The same year, 1998, Ol' Dirty Bastard began a long career of erratic behavior, landing him in both the headlines and jail on a regular basis. At the Grammy Awards, he protested the Clan's loss (in Best Rap Album) by interrupting Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech. He then announced a name change to Big Baby Jesus, but never followed through. He was also arrested several times for a variety of offenses, including assault, making terrorist threats, shoplifting, wearing body armor after being convicted of a felony and possession of cocaine. He was also in trouble for missing multiple court dates. The whole Wu-Tang Clan also fell under suspicion as alleged leaders of a gun-running scheme between Staten Island and Steubenville, Ohio. The investigation never found significant evidence for the allegations.
In the midst of such problems, the Clan released yet more solo albums. In the space of just three years, RZA's Bobby Digital In Stereo, Method Man's Tical 2000: Judgement Day, GZA's Beneath the Surface, Ol' Dirty Bastard's Nigga Please, U-God's Golden Arms Redemption, Raekwon's Immobilarity, Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele and Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance were all released. RZA also composed the score for the film Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai, directed by Jim Jarmusch, while he and other Wu-Tang members contributed music to a companion "music inspired by the film" album.
However, with a seemingly never-ending line of mostly poorly-received releases from affiliates such as Killarmy and Shyheim, a greatest hits album, as well as Wu-Tang branded clothing and video games, the market had been saturated with Wu-Tang products, and the second round of Clan member solo albums didn't do as well, either popularly or critically. Method Man and ODB were still quite popular, and the critics still fawned over GZA and Ghostface Killah, but their sound was becoming heavily imitated by others, and they were no longer superstars of hip hop. Fans also bemoaned the lack of RZA input on these albums, which were mostly produced by the Wu-Element producers, other lower-ranking affiliates or by outside producers such as the Trackmasters or the Neptunes.
In 2000 the group reconvened to make a new album: minus Ol' Dirty Bastard who was incarcerated in California for violating the terms of his probation. Almost finished with his rehab, Ol' Dirty Bastard escaped suddenly and spent one month on the run as a fugitive before showing up onstage at the record release party for The W, the group's new album. Ol' Dirty Bastard managed to escape the club, but was captured by Philadelphia police and sent to New York to face charges of cocaine possession. In April, 2001, he was sentenced to two to four years in prison. The W itself was mostly well-received by critics, particularly for RZA's production, and also gave the group a hit single with the uptempo Gravel Pit (which was supported by an extravagant faux-prehistoric Flintstones-inspired video). 2001 saw the release of Digital Bullet (the second RZA album released as Bobby Digital), Bulletproof Wallets (Ghostface Killah) and The Yin and the Yang (Cappadonna). The group's latest album (as a group) was 2001 Iron Flag, made without the participation of the still-incarcerated Ol' Dirty Bastard, and which recieved mixed but mostly positive reviews.
After GZA released Legend Of The Liquid Sword in late 2002, the following two years saw a spate of new solo releases, including new works by Cappadonna (The Struggle), Method Man (Tical 0: The Prequel), Raekwon (The Lex Diamonds Story), Ghostface Killah (who, in his new contract with Def Jam Records, changed his pseudonym to simply Ghostface, and released The Pretty Toney Album), Inspectah Deck (The Movement), Masta Killa (No Said Date), Shyheim, Wu-Element producer Mathematics (Love, Hell & Right) and an untitled work by the ODB (recently released from prison, and then signed to Jay-Z and Damon Dash's Roc-a-Fella Records Label). The Pretty Toney Album was critically acclaimed in the mainstream press, and the independently released No Said Date was well-received by the group's hardcore fanbase and hip hop enthusiasts in general for its unpretentious, back-to-basics approach and in-house production. 2004 also saw the unexpected return of the Clan to the live stage, and minus Ol' Dirty Bastard and Method Man (who was filming the Fox sitcom Method & Red) they embarked on a short European tour, before coming together as a complete group for the first time in several years to headline the Rock The Bells festival in California. The concert was released on DVD shortly afterwards, along with another greatest hits compilation. This renewed interest in the group fuelled rumors that another group album is on the way soon, although nothing concrete has been announced by the Clan themselves. Ol' Dirty Bastard's death on 13th November 2004 should have a limited impact on the Clan, given that his involvement with the group had been very sporadic for many years.
Members and their Aliases
- Ghostface Killah (short: ghost) (birth name: Dennis Coles)
- Sun God
- Tony Starks (from the comic Iron Man)
- Pretty Toney
- Ironman (from the comic Iron Man)
- Black Jesus
- Ghost Deini
- GZA (pronounced "The Jizza") (birth name: Gary Grice)
- The Genius
- Maxi Million
- Inspectah Deck (short name: ins, deck) (birth name: Jason Hunter)
- Fifth Brother
- Rebel INS
- Rollie Fingers
- Masta Killa (short name: masta) (from the film Shaolin Master Killer) (birth name: Elgin Turner)
- High Chief
- Jemel Irief
- Method Man (short name: meth) (birth name: Clifford Smith)
- Johnny Blaze (from the comic Ghost Rider)
- Methical (Meth-tical)
- MZA ("The Mizza")
- Ticallion Stallion
- Iron Lung
- Hot Nickels
- Ol' Dirty Bastard (short name: ODB, dirty) (birth name: Russel Jones) (deceased)
- Big Baby Jesus
- Dirt Dog
- Dirt McGirt
- Joe Bannanas
- Ol' Dirty BZA
- Unique Ason
- Raekwon the Chef (short name: rae) (birth name: Corey Woods)
- Lex Diamonds
- Lou Diamonds
- Louis Rich
- Shallah Raekwon
- RZA ("The Rizza") (birth name: Robert Diggs)
- Bobby Steels
- Bobby Digital
- The Abbot
- Chief Abbot
- Prince Rakeem
- Rzarecta (from resurrector - waking up the mentally dead)
- U-God (birth name: Lamont Hawkins)
- 4-Bar Killer
- Baby U
- Golden Arms
- Lucky Hands
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- 1993 Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud)
- 1997 Wu-Tang Forever (Loud)
- 2000 The W (Columbia)
- 2001 Iron Flag (Columbia)
- 2004 Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 1 (Sanctuary)