Sunday, February 10, 2019

For the 25th Anniversary of the Almighty Wu-Tang Clan

from here.

Been needing to compile this for a little while. First, I want to share with you a few videos from this past year when the Wu-Tang Clan celebrated the 25th anniversary of their seminal LP, Enter the 36 Chambers (1993). Wu-Tang was all over the place in 2018, these are just a select few vids that stuck out for me. Then I want to briefly share my personal history as a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan starting as a kid growing up in Staten Island in the 90s, when the imprint of Wu and what they stand for became foundational building blocks for the person I have since become.

First, here is an interview with RZA at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee from last August. RZA gets into some stuff here that I've never really heard him talk about before. Typically in Wu-Tang interviews we hear the same origin stories repeated, whereas here RZA gives some insights on identity and the eclectic array of cultures that combined to form the core elements of Wu-Tang Clan that he doesn't often get into this much detail about. (Side note: this is the first time I've heard him share this amazing factoid: that while all the early Wu-Tang LPs were crafted to sound like movies, ODB's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version album was made in the vein of a Richard Pryor record.) I often criticize RZA's musical evolution on this blog but I've said it before and I'll say it again: my mind grows when I listen to The Abbott speak.

The Wu-Tang Clan, minus Mef and Ghostface, put on a show for NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert series" in December. It was a thrill to see them perform in this format, ad-libbing, freestyling, taking turns throwing darts, with RZA playing the role of DJ. I wish they'd do this kinda thing more often, it's fresh as could be. Since it's a live show and there are so many members, there's some noticeable discord---especially between Raekwon and RZA who've been on different wavelengths for years now---but Wu-Tang performing live is still one of the greatest shows on earth. I especially love RZA's verse at the end here (19-min mark), a typically scientific-mystic Abbott verse that sounds like a taste of his long-promised album The Cure, delivered over classical orchestra strings. "Wu-Tang is for the kids!"

In October, the entire WTC formed like Voltron for a live performance of their classic single "Protect Ya Neck" on an episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show filmed live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House. It's rare to see the full collective come together and perform on a platform like this. Altogether this was a fantastic Wu-Tang showing, not in the least bit sullied by the lame audience clearly not being a typical Wu crowd.

There have been a few attempts at making a Wu-Tang documentary, none of them truly hitting the mark thus far, but this newly announced series on Showtime called "Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men" definitely looks promising. Here's the trailer:

And here's an interview with the director of the new documentary, Sacha Jenkins, who rocks a Mets ballcap and therefore shares not one but two of the greatest loves of my life. This looks like it'll be dope:

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Years ago when I was a kid in Staten Island, the local newspaper asked readers to send in essays reflecting on their appreciation of the Wu-Tang Clan for some planned special edition publication, probably for their 10-year anniversary. At the time I was so overwhelmed with ideas of what I could write, how the boundless creativity and eastern philosophies embodied by the Clan had inspired me to study a wide range of books and take my own writing seriously and encouraged me to develop a personal code of ethics and discipline etc etc. There were so many things I wanted to say that I never finished writing the essay, never sent it in. I don't have many regrets in life, but I do regret not submitting something to the Staten Island Advance when they solicited writeups from devout Wu fans. Since I never did finish writing the background of my Wu-Tang fanhood and since it is their 25th anniversary, I'm gonna share some memories and some history of my appreciation for the W here, organized by each member of the group.

"Deep into the dark dungeon, becoming one when
Nine minds combine to form the wisest rhymes thoughts could summon"

I had always been captivated by the Abbott, whose off-kilter flows and penchant for big scientific words stood out. On the mafioso album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, for instance, when everyone was on their mob style, he would be rapping about "universal biochemicals" and "microchips" and even when describing wearing a bulletproof vest he had to get into physiology, "The heart, the ribcage, the chest and solar plexus/ casting stones, crack ya two-hundred and six bones." Or the wisdom he pours into the end of "Marvel" on Ghostface's first album, Ironman, warning young men about "the womb: it's a black hole for those who lose control/ fertile soil for royal and wise/ it spoiled many men and took many lives/ loyal brothers changed sides/ only worth a decimal compared to those who died inside."

It was obvious why this dude was the de facto leader of this large and boisterous crew: not only did he produce all the songs, he was a wise ruler, a teacher of wisdom. Ruler Zig-zag-zig Allah. For years RZA used to mention the "Wu-Tang Manual" in his verses. I still remember the day I was walking along Fulton St. in Manhattan and came upon the posted flyers promoting the actual Wu-Tang Manual, a real book written by RZA. That book completely changed my life. I had always been a devout Wu fan up til then and had learned a lot from their lyrics. I had also already been a reader, but read for fun not for education. The Wu-Tang Manual provided the secrets of the Wu philosophy, including the many books that inspired them. The Bible, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching, the I ChingThe Bhagavad Gita. Shaolin martial arts. The game of chess. I immediately had to go learn about all of those. I was 19. Reading that book and learning from RZA set me off on a new trajectory mentally, inspired me to essentially become an autodidact and a polymath. It helped forge my worldview and personal philosophy, made me want to have an understanding of and be able to speak about both modern science and world religion. The Wisdom of the Universe. All of that led me to read the works of Carl Sagan and other science authors; it led me to Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, and other experts on world religion/mythology.

That inspired studious persona of being a book nerd launched me to where I am now, having delivered lectures at colleges in three different countries about James Joyce's novels the last few years, topics I taught myself about. I owe all that to the RZArectah. That drive to seek knowledge, wisdom, understanding through reading and self education, that was instilled in me by The RZA. I studied accounting in college, went to Pace University, a business school in downtown Manhattan, but never got to learn about the humanities. When I was forced to do a public speaking class, the first speech I chose to deliver was RZA's verse from "12 Jewels" off the second Gravediggaz album. Lines loaded with science and eastern wisdom. "The preexistence of the mathematical biochemical equation/ is the manifestation of rock, plant, air, fire, and water/ which are in its basic formation/ The solids liquids and gasses that formed the landmasses and the space catalyst/ and all matter that exists and is dense/ 3rd dimension/ that must be observed for the physical comprehension it takes for a nerve to be struck/ Wisdom is the wise words spoken to wake up/ the dumb who've been sleeping/ the 4th dimension is Time/ it goes inside the Mind/ when the Chakras energize/ up thru the back of your spine/ So observe as my Chi energy strikes your vital nerve/ one swerve of the tongue it pierces like a sword thru the lung/ Have you not heard?/ That words kill as fast as bullets when you load negative thoughts/ into the chamber of your brain/ And your mouth pulls the trigger that propels/ Wickedness straight from hell/ From the pits of your stomach where negativity dwell." That version of RZA, the scientific mystic rapper and wise Abbott of the most powerful rap group ever assembled, remains my favorite member of the group.

If the whole Clan was polled on who they thought was the best emcee in the group, I imagine they'd mostly admit it is the Genius/GZA. As Mef said, "We form like Voltron and he happen to be the head." The elder statesman of the crew, he's the one originally responsible for opening up RZA's mind and introducing him to hip hop. He also mentored two of the most deadly dart smiths in the Wu-Tang family, Masta Killa and Killah Priest. In such a large and talented group with so many different personalities, GZA is perhaps the most consistently indestructible lyricist of them all. Known as The Genius, his 1995 Liquid Swords LP is one of the greatest rap albums of all time but I've always felt that GZA is one of the few members of the group who has improved steadily, stayed consistently on point, never faltered. (Though he has become an exceedingly calm, almost bored presence on stage in his later years.) His sophomore album Beneath the Surface lacked the incredible production of Liquid Swords but the lyrics had sharpened, become even more densely crafted. He's had some of the best verses on the last few Wu-Tang Clan group albums. And while we're all still awaiting his new Dark Matter album, he's been touring universities lecturing on physics, and spitting mind-boggling acappella verses at shows.

While he's a ferocious battle emcee, GZA never swings wildly or out of control, instead relying on carefully conceived, densely weaved metaphors whose effects are subtle, slow to hit, but precise and powerful, often summoning the collective forces of nature as his weapons. His verse on "Wu Banga 101" is a perfect embodiment of what GZA brings to the table, pure hip hop lyrical artistry:

Too advanced, Digi' stance, made the CD enhanced 
I move with the speed and strength of ants 
Identical in form with the Beez they swarm 
Hold up the cold current appear warm 
My first verbal brawl, started on some yes yes y'all 
To the beat y'all, break your windshield, your jeep stall 
Mr. Traffic, dumbin' shit, from ecclesiastic 
Cashier, holding out, fine, cut off the plastic 
See the logo? A monument in hip-hop 
Carved out in a giant landscape of broken rocks 
Whether heard in herb spots, jukebox or malt shops 
Uncut live, drop eighty-five, in one shot 
Spotlight hits the metal mic, majority stare 
Heard the Wu snare, while my iris cut down the glare 
Walk a road the great length you find too long to measure 
My Clan will make me rhyme like D. Banner under pressure 
No surprise, double disc touched five 
Those elements, kept environments colonized 
With the high flying death-defying flow like the Rebel 
Right there, but you're one light year, from my level

Ghostface Killah
The first album I ever personally owned was Ironman. My older brother had all the other Wu albums but I went out and bought Ironman for myself when I was 12. That and Supreme Clientele remain among the best Wu-Tang solo albums ever. So much lyrical flavor, sharp flows, rugged beats, Wu-Tang swordplay. With the possible exception of Ol' Dirty, Ghost has always had the most unique style in the Clan. (Though Raekwon, Cappadonna, and U-God often adhered to the same slang doctrine.) An infectiously emphatic passion for every line spoken combined with a lyrical style of volcanic surrealism, bursting with splashy encyclopedic degrees of variety, slang, and abstract imagery in every bar, delivered with a higher-pitched vocal lilt than any emcee in the Clan, rooted in a thick Staten Island accent, and always finding the pocket of the beat. An abstract poet whose flavorful raps are virtually unmatched, he's also a fearless and undefeated brawler, known for openly challenging anyone who even remotely disrespects him. (See: Action Bronson.) These are the qualities that have made Ghostface world famous, etched his name in rap history forever.

Peak Ghostface is undoubtedly one of the greatest rappers of all time. Commanding close study, his verses from that stage are the closest thing I've heard in rap to Joyce's Finnegans Wake, packed with portmanteaus and slang wordplay, pulling in references from all across history and culture. "I ran the Dark Ages, Constantin the Great, Henry the Eighth/ Built with Genghis Khan, the rec suede Wally don." In a nine-member crew, during the period when all of them were at the top of their game in the mid-to-late 90s, Ghostface always managed to stand out with something unique. I'm thinking of his bars on Wu-Tang Forever like on the track "Bells of War": "Stella D'oro rap breadstick/ David Berkowitz, Einstein birthday hit/ now nurture it." A steady, self-assured flow delivering tongue-twisting, mind-boggling verbal collages. That was peak Ghost and nobody has ever come close to it, before or since.

At some point in the late 90s, RZA and Ghostface took over the Funkmaster Flex show, freestyled some, played one classic track after another. My brother and I had recorded this off the radio on a cassette tape and played that cassette til it was practically destroyed. I've never heard this session anywhere on the internet ever since. This was before Supreme Clientele, but they were playing "Mighty Healthy." They also played "Cobra Clutch" one of the quintessential Ghostface tracks that never made it onto one of his solo albums. Observe the unbelievably unique wordplay here:

Cosmetic classical, Slomins shield, Milagro Bean field
Watch me heal half of you, new attributes
Teletronics, DBX, one-sixty X
Compression with the ASR press
Extract basin with the gooey dew drips
Vanilla suckle and jasmine bits
Five-hundred rap batting average
One taste of bowling ball magic
Houdini escapes, from the vermins in hell, halls are tragic 
Speaking to the first of Aprils, deep in the rap game, erase you 
Excedrin head brethren catch facials
Side order, one telephone for takeout
Stomp ya man half to death, rob him, then we break out
Get off on the Clove exit, knees dirty, chick kneel 
with low leverage, watch it as she lick the head of it

"Get off on the Clove exit" --- that's Clove Road in Staten Island, same street where we played hockey growing up. The rink at Clove Lakes Park was the home of the Staten Island Sharks hockey team we all played for. Ghostface always has that genuine Staten Island vibe about him. Easy to relate to as a kid growing up there. When you hear him say (on "Lay Your Hammer") "Rock the vanilla suede British, Staten Island mall menace/ otherwise, posing as a dentist in my lenses" that was something I could relate to, having worked at the Staten Island mall for years. There's always been a deep hometown pride in my love for Wu-Tang, always an extra strong love and appreciation when Ghost opens the first track of Supreme Clientele announcing, "This is Ghostface, straight from Staten Island."

(I recommend you check out this Pitchfork review of Supreme Clientele, it's one of the best pieces of Wu-Tang journalism I've ever read.)

"Dirt Dog is your soul, the spirit that makes you whole"

It's no doubt that there's been something missing from Wu-Tang ever since Dirty departed. He was the heart and soul of the group, the wild, unpredictable, rambunctious spirit who never hesitated to be in your face to let you know what the Wu-Tang Clan stood for. The Grammy show interruption is the stuff of legend nowadays, but I remember that time period well. And his message gives me the chills to this day because when he stood up there and told the world, "Wu-Tang is for the children, we teach the children... Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is THE BEST!" I was about 12 years old at that time. Puffy was becoming huge but Wu-Tang was a powerful pop cultural force too. And Wu-Tang, for all their debaucherous excess and glorified violence, did indeed teach me as a child, helped me develop my own personal principles and ethics while inspiring me to realize that being a nerd who liked comics and chess was cool. None of that came from school or from mentors, it came from Wu-Tang. "Wu-Tang is for the children" is a true statement.

Dirty embodied a sector of Wu-Tang that made the hyper-intellectual, rugged nine-member collective well-rounded with an infectious humor. I put on Ol' Dirty Bastard music when I want to smile and have fun. A key part of what makes the 36 Chambers album so special is the unbridled, wild, and funny presence of ODB, the moonshine drunken monk. That's something the Clan will never be able to replace, although his son Young Dirty Bastard has attained a fair enough replica of his unique pops lately.

Method Man
Always a genuine Staten Island dude no matter how famous he became, I recall so many stories involving Meth from when I was growing up on the Island. People in high school always had rumors about classmates who ran into Meth and Redman and smoked blunts with them. My friend's mother was a real estate agent and sold Meth his new home. One day hanging at that same friend's house, a couple friends made a quick trip to the deli and came back with a bunch of Method Man promo CDs, saying they'd encountered him at a stoplight and he tossed a bunch of CDs at them. My high school counselor, hearing of my preference for comicbooks and grimey hip hop, informed me that Method Man shopped at the same Eltingville comicbook store that I did (he also told me about an article comparing Mobb Deep to Beowulf). I worked at a videogame store in the Staten Island Mall for years and Method Man was a regular friendly customer yet somehow I always missed him. Once I missed him by minutes, my coworkers had his signed receipt with Clifford Smith's signature on it. My fiancée also worked in that mall at a Sam Goody and got to see Meth often, she still has a huge crush on him. A couple years back my buddy texted me a photo of he and Meth who had come into his cell phone store. Lots and lots of local Method Man stories, like I said.

I can recall the immediate magnetism of that rugged raspy deep voice and acrobatic flow from my initial encounters with Wu-Tang music. There's nobody quite like Method Man. Growing up playing competitive ice hockey, the bangers from Meth's first solo album Tical ("Bring the Pain" and "Release Yo Delf" especially) were regular locker room anthems. And then Tical 2000: Judgment Day, his second and best album, was a New York City sensation as I recall. That album, with banging production from 4th Disciple and True Master, was all over the radio at that time and Meth was a regular presence on MTV, becoming a superstar. All these years later, he's still the face of the Wu-Tang Clan, having attained the most commercial appeal while still doing what he does best.

Rebel INS
Amid so many formidable lyrical masters, the relatively humble Inspectah Deck shines bright. He is responsible for some of the most incredible verses in rap history. On the Wu-Tang Forever double-LP, when pretty much the entire crew was at the peak of their powers, it was Inspectah Deck who kept stealing the spotlight. Everyone who's a hip hop fan knows every word of the "I bomb atomically, Socrates philosophies and hypotheses, can't define how I be dropping these mockeries" verse from "Triumph." But then there's also "The crowd seducer, black ya third eye before I lose ya/ Verbal high leave sties in the eyes of Medusa" on "For Heavens Sake." Or "Rhymes strike you like the mighty Thor, blast the door/ Recite a page like a tidal wave crashed ashore" on "Visionz." Or "It's only natural, actual facts are thrown at you/ the impact will blow trees back and crack statues" from "It's Yourz." Or we must not forget "This is MC wizardry, killa bee invasion/ Men of respect blessed with wisdom of the ancients" on "Heaterz." That's just a few examples, Deck was all over that album---it was the best collective Wu-Tang project we ever got and Deck somehow completely owned it. He never got to drop a solo LP with the caliber of the 90s classics, but I can remember the days when Uncontrolled Substance first dropped and "REC Room" was being scratched by all the NYC radio DJs daily. Nowadays it seems like Deck is finally getting the respect he deserves as he's been more active than most of the group, dropping lots of new music with Czarface.

Can't help but think of Cappa anytime I drive down Father Cappadonno Blvd in Staten Island. Never confirmed this, but he must have named himself after that street. Cappa was a late addition to the Clan, imprisoned during the 36 Chambers period, he wasted no time recording classic Wu verses on OB4CL soon after he returned home. He's been an essential part of the crew ever since. Growing up, everyone seemed to know his legendary "Winter Warz" verse by heart. I remember when his solo album dropped, this was the era when Wu-Tang was the most popular thing out there. My brother and I went to the Staten Island Mall to pick up a copy of The Pillage on the day it dropped. The record store had a huge cardboard cutout promo for Cappa and the store had barely any copies left. This was for the unofficial 10th member of the group! That's how big Wu was in 1998.

Anyway, Cappa has always been a personal favorite as he combines "The slang whore, vocabulary Igor, Frankenstein mind" style of his close compadres Rae & Ghost with a penchant for reciting the principles of the Five Percent Nation. He's also got a voice and flow that sounds amazing over the Wu-Elements production, especially from True Master. Here's an unreleased True Master-produced Cappadonna banger:

The chef, another slang specialist, embodies the mafioso element of Wu-Tang (which always was fitting, not so much because of how rap goes hand-in-hand with mob movies nowadays, but because Staten Island was for many years the epicenter of Mafia activity). While he's one of the few members of the group whose raps have improved with age, he's kept to the same content, the same substance that continues to be at the heart of most grimey hip hop, the mindframe of criminal mastermind glorification. (Side note: I'm reminded of two alternate references to Trump on OB4CL: "You rollin like Trump, you get ya meat lumped" and also "But yo, guess who's the black Trump?") Rae and RZA had a very public spat these last 10 years or so about the more mature direction RZA wanted to move toward musically, while Rae wanted to maintain the so-called "punch you in the face" style. Much as I respect and look up to RZA, Rae was right the whole time, as evidenced recently by the extremely disappointing A Better Tomorrow album composed by RZA. Couple quick things about the Chef Raekwon: it's often hinted at by Wu fans that Ghostface outshined Rae on his own solo album, the Purple Tape. But if you accept that, you have to acknowledge that Rae was a beast all over Ghost's solo album too, nearly stealing the show. Also---the last truly great Wu-Tang solo album was Rae's OB4CL Part 2.

"Apprentice of the RZA training, he sang the I Ching vintage
aiming at you swine eating, wife beating scoundrels
stolen vowel thieves, it's over now, Colin Powell relief"

Always loved that bit from "Turbulence", another True Master produced banger. U-God has always seemed like the least heralded member of the crew. He always seemed underutilized to me, his booming baritone, off-kilter slang jabs and "waffle iron hooks" could've added more to the Wu catalog, yet he was also notoriously a hothead for a long time and openly quarreled with RZA, in fact still quarrels with RZA. Like much of the group, he reached his peak on Wu-Tang Forever, where he dropped many unforgettable lines and especially his verse on "A Better Tomorrow" is a personal classic.

My mother-in-law was a second grade teacher in Staten Island for many years. One of her favorite stories to tell actually involves a well-known piece of Wu history: when U-God's young son was shot and nearly killed in a cross-fire. After he recuperated and returned to school, he was in my mother-in-law Lynda's class. He walked in with crutches on his first day, was introduced to the class, and proceeded to explain to the kids what "cross-fire" means. Lynda talks about how Dante's grandmother was the driving influence in his life, pushing him to never miss school. Twenty-something years later Lynda was at the Apple store in Staten Island and ran into Dante, now a fully healed and handsome grown man, and they shared a tearful moment.

Masta Killa
While RZA is the one in the group who I always looked up to and wished to emulate, Masta Killa is the personality I most relate to. The calm, quiet assassin. He's also one of my favorite members in the Clan. His pronounced, ministerial style would tend to bring Wu-Tang tracks down to his speed, making you pay very close attention to the words. Despite that, it took me 10 years to catch the magnitude of what he was saying in lines like "Light is provided thru sparks of energy/ from the mind, that travel in rhyme form." Part of what I always loved about Masta Killa is that, as a dedicated student of GZA and RZA, his lyrics hardly strayed from the core Wu-Tang mythology and philosophy, instead he went deep on those elements. Shaolin kung fu, chess, books of wisdom, scientific intelligence, invisible ninja assassins, Brooklyn streets---these are the core elements of Masta Killa's style.

As I've said repeatedly, at this moment Masta Killa is among the sharpest lyricists in the whole Clan. His ability to own a track was first made evident on "One Blood Under W" from The W album, then he displayed a dynamic and energetic flow as he dominated the 8 Diagrams album, and he was one of the few bright spots on A Better Tomorrow. His recent solo LP, Loyalty is Royalty further advanced his lyrical prowess and versatility. He came to Wu-Tang as a humble student, learning on the fly, and the growth since then is obvious for all to hear. It's only right that the Clan allow him more time to shine in their upcoming releases. The way of the Shaolin Temple rewards students who work hard and study to make themselves better, therefore it's only right they reward him.

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