Enter the History of the Wu-Tang Clan
Posted: Feb 15 2021
New York’s Wu-Tang Clan was vital to the formative years of East Coast Hip Hop. Their cross cultural importance transcends music not just as collective but as individual artists. Originating with nine members who each have gone on to work on their own projects. It is not an overstatement to say the group are one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time. Pioneers in the style of East Coast hardcore hip hop they paved the way for many artists to follow, not to mention all the artist they themselves have uncovered.
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Before They Were Wu-Tang Clan
Like most groups, there was a group before the group we know today as "Wu-Tang Clan". In the late 80s that group consisted of cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice and Russell Jones and were called Force of the Imperial Master or All in Together Now Crew. They all recorded under an alias as well, Grice was The Genius, Diggs was Prince Rakeem and Jones was The Specialist. They never found their way to a major label but did begin to gain attention within the New York hip hop scene and had some solo releases.
After not gaining any notoriety under those monikers they focused their energies on what would be a new project and new aliases, The Genius became GZA and Prince Rakeem became RZA. New connections were made within the housing projects in Staten Island where they lived including Dennis Coles who later became Ghostface Killah. From here they formed a collective who’s core ethos was eastern philosophy from kung fu movies and Five Percent Nation teachings.
The Formation of Wu-Tang Clan
In 1992 Wu-Tang Clan was officially formed, taking its name from the film Shaolin and Wu Tang. RZA stepped up as the group’s unofficial leader and producer and Jones was to be known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, they released their first album the same year. The group were also said to have created backronyms for the group name Wu Tang Clan such as ‘We Usually Take All N****as Garments’ and ‘Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game.’
Enter the Wu-Tang
The group’s first sign of success was in 1993 when they independently released ‘Protect Ya Neck’ which gathered popularity in the underground hip hop scene. Due to each member's need to pursue solo projects outside the group it proved tricky to find a record deal that would suit them all until Loud/RCA agreed to allow them to pursue solo projects alongside the group and they released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1994.
To this day, it is considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. Although not commercially successful the album’s third single ‘C.R.E.A.M’ is hailed as the groups most well known song today. Following the massive success of the album the seven members, Ol' Dirty Bastard, GZA, RZA, Raekwon, U-God, Method Man, and Ghostface Killah had leverage to negotiate solo contracts as well. RZA spoke on the Wu-Tang Clan's unorthodox business model:
“We reinvented the way hip hop was structured, and what I mean is, you have a group signed to a label, yet the infrastructure of our deal was like anyone else's [...] We still could negotiate with any label we wanted, like Meth went with Def Jam, Rae stayed with Loud, Ghost went with Sony, GZA went with Geffen Records, feel me? And all these labels still put "Razor Sharp Records" on the credits. Wu Tang was a financial movement.”
The Beginnings of Solo Projects
The first to start on a solo project was RZA who founded Gravediggaz with Prince Payl and Frukwan and Poetic. They released 6 Feet Deep in August 1994 and was one of the best projects to emerge from the small subgenre of hip hop called horrorcore. RZA also worked as a producer for the other members' first solo releases, working from a basement studio in Staten Island.
Method Man’s debut solo album Tical was entirely produced by RZA and the track ‘All I Need’ went on to win a grammy in 1995. Next Ol Dirty Bastard released his debut album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, in March 1995, and is considered a classic album.
In August of the same year Raekwon released his debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. RZA was also behind the production on this one but the album gave another side to his production using more theatrics and richer sounds alongside soul and strings samples. The album is hailed as reviving the hip hop subgenre of mafioso rap, or crime rap, a sub genre considered the East Coast’s counterpart to G funk, central to its lyrics is gang life and crime. This album marked an important moment, the first appearance of a non Wu Tang Clan member, Nas.
November 1995 saw the release of GZA’s debut album, Liquid Swords. Lyrically it focussed on inner-city crime similar to Raekwon’s debut but the sound was much darker with RZA producing and experimenting with more keys. A year later Ghostface Killah released Ironman, his first solo album. This album is considered one of the best solo releases from any member of the Wu-Tang Clan, although almost all solo projects at this point had features from other members and all produced by RZA.
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Now firmly established as a group and solo artists it was time to release their second studio album, Wu-Tang Forever. Released in June 1997 it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts even with the collasly long for the time, ‘Triumph’ as the lead single at five minutes long, with nine verses, one from each member.
RZA was back producing this one but the sound of the album had built vastly from their first one with more keyboards and strings as well as recruitment of two production proteges, True Master and 4th Disciple. Drawing further on the teachings of Five Percent Nations, lyrically it came out more as a stream of consciousness. Attention of the collective shifted to focussing on emerging affiliated artists as well such as Killah Priest, Sunz of Man and Killarmy. The compilation album Wu-Tang Killa Bees: The Swarm was released in 1998 which showcased Wu-affiliated artists and new solo tracks from Wu-Tang members.
At the same time there were several second releases from the members of Wu-Tang, In the space of two years, RZA's Bobby Digital In Stereo, Method Man's Tical 2000: Judgement Day and Blackout! (with Redman), 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. The sheer amount of releases led some critics to believe there was an oversaturation of the group and for this period, there was a mass decline in popularity.
The W, The Gravel Pit and The Jump OffAt the start of the millennium the group made the double platinum album The W, less Ol’ Dirty Bastard who was in prison in California for probation violation. They did, however, use his vocals via a phone call on the song ‘Conditioner’. The album gave them their first big hit single, ‘Gravel Pit’ and RZA’s production was received well by critics. Also on the album was ‘Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)’ and ‘Careful (Click, Click)’, all three singles were part of a video trilogy where the group travelled to different time eras with a time travelling elevator. In 2001 the group made Iron Flag which involved many outside producers and guests such as Ron Isley, flavor Fav and producers Trackmasters. Fans did not take to it as well. At the same time Cappadonna was removed from the cover as tensions rose around his manager being a former police informant. Method Man also starred in his first movie, How High.
Rest in peace, Ol’ Dirty Bastard
In 2004, things started to heat up with U-God. Angry and upset, left the group when a DVD was released where his personal issues were detailed. He also felt he was mistreated by RZA. There were further disputes and statements made about his solo career being hindered. Eventually, peace was made live on radio and he rejoined the group. They returned to the stage on a tour of Europe and performed as an entire group for the first time in many years. Ol Dirty Bastard’s erratic behaviour and run ins with the law were widely known and publicised, arrested several times for the likes of shoplifting, assault, possession of drugs and a gun he also missed many court dates. To top it all off, he escaped his rehab sentence and was on the run for a month before he was captured by the police and sent to prison for up to four years. In 2004, he collapsed whilst recording in Wu Tang’s studio and pronounced dead a few hours later from an accidental overdose.
Another Round of Solo Albums
From 2006 to 2010 another round of solo albums were complete, plus RZA’s first book, The Wu-Tang Manual. The solo releases included U-God’s second album, a collaboration with GZA and DJ Muggs, Ghostface Killah’s album Fishscale, Inspectah Deck’s album The Resident Patient, Masta Killa's second studio album, Made in Brooklyn and Method Man’s 4:21. In 2009 Raekwon, after years of delaying, released the follow up to his hit debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II. Wu Tang released another album, 8 Diagrams which was hailed as RZA’s most experimental album to date and had very polarizing reviews. In the summer of 2008, RZA released Digi Snacks, and in 2008 GZA released his album, Pro Tools. During this period there were more releases, many received poorly, in 2009 there was a rumour of the album Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang which would see RZA of the production tools and instead fully as an MC.
Raekwon stated "[It'll] be alter egos challenging each other, really allowing RZA to fall back on the production and allowing us to give him a flashback memory to the things we know we need from the abbot [RZA]. We want him to be involved [with the album as an MC], but the concept was for him not to be involved production-wise"
In September 2008, RZA announced that Wu-Tang Clan's back catalogue would be released digitally worldwide for the first time. In 2013 the group announced a sixth Wu-Tang album via facebook which they later announced was called A Better Tomorrow. Recorded at the Wu-Mansion, every member of Wu-Tang was a part of the album apart from Raekwon and GZA, even unreleased verses from Ol’ Dirty Bastard were on it. After several disputes over workload and contributions between members the album was finally released in 2014. The same year, it was announced that Wu-Tang had made a compilation album which would have no conventional release. One copy was made and was to be toured to museums and art galleries before being sold at a high price to one person. Eventually the album sold for $2 million to Martin Shkreli, a former pharmaceutical executive who was later arrested by the FBI for sharply increasing the price of a lifesaving HIV drug and defrauding investors in two failed hedge funds. Their next album, The Saga Continues, was released in 2017 and features all members of the group except for U-God who sued the group for royalties.
From this point, each individual member had well and truly paved a path for their own solo careers as rappers, producers, actors, writers, fashion, composers, video games and much more. The dynasty that is Wu-Tang Clan goes beyond the music, beyond the albums and beyond them as a group. The references made to Wu-Tang even in music today is exponential and a staple in hip hop and pop culture.
You can buy official Wu-Tang Clan Merchandise through our online store.