Continuing my series on the Wu-Tang Clan in commemoration of their new 20th anniversary album "A Better Tomorrow"...
Wu-Tang is forever. Wu-Tang is for the children. Wu-Tang is...getting kinda old. The youngest member of the crew is Method Man and he's now pushing 44. Certifiable superstars of the 90s, the nine-member collective of emcees known as the Wu-Tang Clan is still actively making music as we approach the year 2015.
Whatever negative criticism their new album A Better Tomorrow has received tends to zero in on its production and some of the poor creative decisions made by RZA. Nobody has said these guys sound old or can't flow on a beat anymore. Twenty years deep into their careers, the Wu generals made it quite clear they can still rap (witness 48-year-old GZA spit rapid fire on "40th St Black/We Will Fight", for example).
To give us a sense of just how old these guys are, I thought it might be interesting to seek out comparable NBA players for each Wu member based upon the year they were born. (Note: my first thought was to do this with baseball players but I was surprised how boring the player lists were for the birth years we're focusing on.) Then I matched up the players whose attributes bore a subjective resemblance to the unique styles and talents of each member of the Clan.
There is nothing scientific about this, of course. It's just a fun thought experiment.
The career trajectory of a basketball player vs. that of a rapper isn't expected to follow the same pattern. NBA ballers and other pro athletes tend to fade pretty consistently after their physical prime (a range of 27-32 years old, broadly), whereas an emcee could pick up new lyrical, rhetorical, oratorical, or breath-control techniques and skills as he ages. That would require a strong work ethic and drive to improve, though. I think it's pretty safe to say the normal tendency is for a rapper's skills to trend downward as they get into their 40s.
Without exception, all of the NBA players mentioned here are retired. Surely, they all still know how to play basketball though. For the purposes of this discussion, let's consider how their skills might play out if they took part in a pickup game right now and then we may realize how significant it is that the Wu-Tang Clan, who began in 1993, are still rapping and doing it well.
(Composed with the help of the Basketball-Reference.com birth year page.)
NBA Comparables: Sam Cassell, Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp's best stretch of dominance coincides perfectly with Rza's unprecedented run of greatness in the mid-90s. From 1992 to 1998, spanning his age 23 to 28 seasons, Shawn Kemp made six straight All Star Games and carried the Seattle Supersonics to the playoffs each year. He was known for raining ferocious dunks on people's heads.
Rza, meanwhile, spent those years holed up in his basement crafting an imposing stack of some of the best hip hop records ever made. From '92 to '98 he made Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Return to the 36 Chambers, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Tical, Ironman, and Wu-Tang Forever. All went gold, some platinum. Beat that.
It's notable that Kemp and Sam Cassell lead most of the career stat categories for players born in 1969, while Rza has likely accomplished more than any rap artist of his generation.
(Bonus: "Grandmama" Larry Johnson who Rza actually mentions on "Stroke of Death": "Tall like Karl Malone mailman framed on Larry Johnson.")
NBA Comps: Dikembe Mutombo, Cliff Robinson
Perhaps the most devastating lyrical swordsman in the whole crew, Gza is also the elder statesman. All Wu fans know that when the Wu forms like Voltron he's the head, and likewise it's crucial for an elite basketball team to have a strong center. Dikembe Mutombo (drafted 4th overall in 1991, the same year Gza released Words from the Genius) had a long career as one of the game's toughest centers, a stalwart defender known for blocking shots and then wagging his figure to rebuke anyone foolish enough to try and score in his basket.
When Gza released his classic solo album Liquid Swords in 1995, Mutombo was in the midst of one of his best seasons, leading the NBA in both rebounds and blocks. The energized performance from the now 48-year-old Gza was one of the highlights of the new A Better Tomorrow album. Mutombo could probably still swat shots in the NBA right now but he chose to retire in 2009 after injuring his knee.
Ol' Dirty Bastard (RIP)
NBA Comps: Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc
Vlade Divac always had the look of an old dirty bastard and the big Serbian center relied on an array of unpredictable, unorthodox moves. There was no father to his style.
NBA Comps: Alonzo Mourning, Latrell Sprewell
Alonzo Mourning spent the 90s wrestling with giants like Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and finished his career as a Hall of Famer. Inspectah Deck spent the 90s regularly snatching the spotlight on tracks alongside some of the most ferocious emcees in the game.
I can't imagine Mourning or Latrell Sprewell balling with anything close to their peak agility if they stepped on a court right now. As evidenced throughout A Better Tomorrow, Inspectah Deck's flow remains impressive to this day, even if the lyrical content has decayed a bit since the heyday of "Socrates philosophies and hypotheses."
Note: the Rebel INS also has the same birthday (different year) as smooth Spaniard power forward Pau Gasol.
NBA Comps: Kenny Anderson, David Wesley
Would be nice if Rae & Ghost could be compared to Stockton & Malone but the Jazz duo is a few years older. The other NBA player who comes to mind in association with Raekwon, Rod Strickland, also doesn't fit here because he's a bit older.
So we'll settle for Kenny Anderson, a flashy New York City point guard, who's a southpaw just like Rae. Hard to compare any player to Raekwon for this experiment because the Chef's swordplay has only gotten sharper in his later years.
After retirement, Anderson worked as head coach of a Continental Basketball Association's team called the Atlanta Krunk, while Rae currently resides in Atlanta. That's all I got.
NBA Comps: Doug Christie, Clarence Weatherspoon
Pesky defender and occasional pugilist, Doug Christie is a solid comp for the notoriously short-tempered U-God. It's U-God who provides one of the new album's only basketball references ("When U-G's on the court/ never miss a layup") on "40th St Black/We Will Fight".
NBA Comps: Robert Horry
A solid match. Considered one of the most clutch shooters of all time, Robert Horry was instrumental in capturing 7 (!) championship rings with 3 different teams. At the age of 24, Horry knocked down a couple of last-second shots to help the Houston Rockets win a championship, while the 24-year-old Ghost perfected his abstract lyrics and rapid-fire flow as co-star of Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. When Horry won another ring with the Kobe/Shaq Lakers in 2000, Ghostface had just released his second solo album Supreme Clientele which is among the top LPs in the whole Wu catalogue.
Horry went on to play for the Spurs where he'd continue to rack up championships into his late-30s. During that time, Ghostface dropped a third critically-acclaimed solo album Fishscale and became the Clan's most sought-after lyricist. He continues to be the most consistent member of the crew, releasing one acclaimed album after another. Horry retired back in 2008 with a whole slew of records to his name. At the ripe age of 44, Ghost continues to stack up a slew of records to his name (the latest one, 36 Seasons, is getting great reviews).
NBA Comps: Penny Hardaway, Eddie Jones
Method Man may not have been the best rapper of the 90s but he was certainly one of the most entertaining. Similarly, Penny Hardaway was a star in the 90s, not one of the game's greatest but definitely one of the flyest. Their ascent to becoming household names roughly coincided: while Meth earned a Grammy with his Mary J. Blige single "All I Need" in 1995, Penny was in the midst of his first All Star season (at age 23). In the playoffs that year, his Orlando Magic knocked off Michael Jordan's Bulls and went to the NBA Finals. Method Man would later branched out into acting (How High, The Wire, Oz, Belly) which solidified his celebrity status, whereas Penny had one of the most memorable Nike ad campaigns ever, featuring Chris Rock as Lil' Penny.
As for Eddie Jones, he was a master of steals, always among the league leaders in thefts. And Meth liked to use this acronym for his formidable faction: We Usually Take Another Nigga's Garments.
NBA Comps: Dale Davis, PJ Brown
Much like Masta Killa, Dale Davis was a solid, unassuming role player for some great teams in the 1990s (Pacers and Blazers). He's actually tops in field goal % for players born that year. While he got little shine in the prime Wu-Tang years, Masta Killa was as consistent as anyone. As I mentioned above, an emcee can continue to improve into their 40s if they have the drive and desire to. In my opinion, Masta Killa is currently the strongest rapper in the group. He outshined most of the crew on 8 Diagrams and was mighty impressive on A Better Tomorrow. As for Dale Davis, there's also this, bearing zero importance in our current discussion but which struck me as interesting in light of the current outrage about police brutality:
Detroit Pistons center Dale Davis was shocked with a stun gun and charged with assault and disorderly conduct in an altercation with Miami Beach police... After giving officers his identification, Davis and the officers went outside, where the 6-foot-11 player accused the officers of targeting him because he is black. Police said they asked Davis to remove his hands from his pockets for officer safety, and Davis complied after asking officers if they were going to shoot him. Davis pulled out money, three cellular phones and credit cards. He put the items back in his pockets and said he'd beat up the officers if they took off their badges and got rid of their guns.
NBA Comps: Steve Smith, Larry Johnson
A former #1 overall pick, Larry Johnson was always a fun player, a power forward who could knock down threes (back before that became somewhat common in the NBA). As a college player, he led UNLV to an upset of Duke to win the NCAA title in 1990. Cappadonna was actually an inspiration to many of the Wu members when they were growing up in Staten Island as he was one of the first people in their neighborhood to start rapping. When 36 Chambers dropped in 1993 he was in jail and so missed out on the initial success. "Grandmama" Larry Johnson retired relatively young at age 31 and never won any awards or championships but he did hit one of the most famous shots in New York Knicks history. In Game 3 of the 1999 Conference Finals, trailing the Pacers by 3 with 12 seconds to go, Johnson nailed a three-pointer and drew a foul, completing a historic four-point play to win the game. That play is perhaps the equivalent of Cappa's one ultimate moment of greatness, the show-stealing long-winded "Winter Warz" verse from Ghostface's Ironman.
Cappadonna's always been a colorful and outspoken character. Larry Johnson too has said some very interesting things. The chorus on Cappa's 1998 track "Slang Editorial" included the line "Set the black people free"; Johnson in '99 referred to the Knicks as "rebellious slaves" and expounded upon that with one of the more brutally honest and insightful things I can remember an NBA player saying:
Here's the NBA, full of blacks, great opportunities, they made beautiful strides. But what's the sense of that ... when I go back to my neighborhood and see the same thing? I'm the only one who came out of my neighborhood. Everybody ended up dead, in jail, on drugs, selling drugs. So I'm supposed to be honored and happy or whatever by my success. Yes, I am. But I can't deny the fact of what has happened to us over years and years and years and we're still at the bottom of the totem pole.