When The Wu-Tang Clan released their now infamous debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, it’s hard to believe they could have foreseen the extent of its success. But life got real good real fast for the nine assorted MCs from Staten Island after the public caught wind of the masterpiece. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) became the blueprint for a decade of East Coast hip-hop, and its signature sound would allow the crew to franchise out with an ease that put Ray Kroc to shame.
The aforementioned hodgepodge of MC talent that the group brought together covered almost every lyrical style imaginable. But there were a few key elements that formed the group’s backbone, a hard core if you will. First and foremost was GZA, an MC who helped organize the genre-changing Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop collective out of disgust with the hip-hop recording industry. Older than fellow group members like Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the RZA (the latter two of which are GZA’s first cousins), GZA aka the Genius, made his initial foray into hip-hop with 1989’s Words From the Genius, released by Cold Chillin’ Records. But the corny album did not exactly turn out as originally planned when the Genius first walked into the studio. After fighting with the label over marketing and payment issues, a bruised GZA landed on his feet slightly worse for wear, and more than a little jaded. Had it not been for this initial foray into the music industry, it’s possible that the Wu-Tang Clan as we know it would never have come to exist. It’s also likely that the group wouldn’t have argued for as much creative control over their musical output once they signed a major deal, sacrificing initial cash flow for control of mixing boards and publishing rights.
This is part of the reason why Wu-Tang MCs like RZA and GZA spent just as much time behind the boards producing the first album as they did in front of the microphone. It’s also why The RZA and GZA were smart enough to secure the rights to group-members’ future solo projects when they signed the first deal with their label Loud Records. This meant that any crewmember could parlay the success of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) into as high a microphone rating as The Source was willing to give out, and hopefully some gold album action too. This is just what happened, sort of.
The collective album came out around the same time as Dr. Dre’s equally influential The Chronic. While both were received with open arms by the critics, it took a little while longer for the East Coast variety to hit big. Perhaps that’s because where Dre was all Parliament and James Brown party samples, the Wu-Tang Clan was a little too scary for MTV. Their dark humor and obsession with kung-fu flicks was rolled into stripped down piano loops and sparse beats. But their rhymes were, and still are, deadly smart. The group managed to bring rap as close to punk rock as it’s ever going to get. But unlike punk’s aversion to selling out, the members of the Wu-Tang Clan wanted to get paid from the beginning, and as quickly as possible. Hence, the solo albums that followed the debut. Four of the Nine rappers that make up the Wu-Tang Clan had solo albums in record stores a year after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) officially debuted. This was followed by all the elements that, today, make up the standard hip-hop empire: clothing line, comic books, video game and movie roles. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan kept it going because, unlike later players like P Diddy and Jay-Z, they realized that in order to maintain a devoted following, you need to release quality music on a regular basis. So this is what they’ve done ever since 1993. None of the group or solo albums deviate all that far from the original musical structure. But the complex rhymes are always there. Just like the best franchises, the Wu-Tang Clan knew that if they made something that listeners really liked the taste of, and kept it coming in nine different varieties (since they carry with them nine different MCs), the people would come back for more.
Listening to the Wu-Tang Clan’s latest solo offering, GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword, (pronounced with a hard “w” if you’re new to GZA-speak) it’s clear that they haven’t forgotten how to give the people what they want. The CD is filled with tracks sure to be coming to a jeep bass tube near you real soon. Chord loops that sound like they were hijacked from a 1986 Nintendo game cartridge and those perfect Casio beats are kept at a minimum, as usual, so that the real star of the show can be properly showcased: GZA’s coveted rhymes. Those are the only real elements that have changed between his latest tracks and the first solo album, Liquid Swords, released in 1995.But then, those are the only things that he ever intended to change. The lack of diversity in the sound is interesting when you consider that there are 10 different producers on board for this album, with only one track being produced by GZA himself, and one more credited to The RZA. Clearly these assorted producers had their marching orders. With the props associated with being involved in a Wu-Tang project, not being able to leave a discernable stamp on the album isn’t such a bad thing for the board maestros. But given the singularity of the sound, it’s strange that The RZA or GZA didn’t choose to produce the album in house.
Legend of the Liquid Sword opens with “Auto Bio”, leading the listener through the story of the MC’s formative years. If ever there was a case for why Method Man calls GZA “Grampa”, this is it. “Auto Bio” takes you back to a time when old school was in kindergarten.
The self-proclaimed Master is a captivating story teller, probably the best Wu when it comes to weaving a tale. He proves his skills beyond any shadow of doubt on “Luminal”, produced by Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs although you’d never know it by the sound. “Luminal” tells the story of a small, crime-free town visited by cold-blooded murder. “Animal Planet” confirms that, if nothing else, GZA is still capable of getting creative without getting corny. Hooking up the roles in the urban jungle with their appropriate creature counterparts like the narrator of the ghetto discovery channel, GZA’s metaphors stick in your head long after the CD stops. Unlike some MCs who spend all their time telling you who they are, GZA has the rare ability to show you how he sees the world. Listening to some tracks on the CD, like the title track, are like putting on a pair of GZA glasses and stepping into his shoes.
Although GZA continues to prove that his mastery of the English language is on par with the bard who wrote by the yard, the album does suffer some from repetition. GZA is creative, but there’s only so many times you can listen to him bombastically proclaim that he’s the bomb. Even if he never says it the same way twice it’s a tired message.
Overall its not a bad album. If you’re a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan’s sound, or stand in awe of GZA’s nutty wordplay, you won’t be disappointed by Legend of the Liquid Sword. After all, how many MCs would you expect to rhyme “Pete’s Rose lay on Vanessa’s Red Grave”, as RZA does on “Fame”? Maybe Kool Keith. But you wouldn’t find a neck breaker like “Knock Knock” on a Dr. Octagon album. This is a cut from GZA’s album that could demolish your house if you had the right speakers.
If Legend of the Liquid Sword is any indication of the Wu-Tang Clan’s efforts to come, it doesn’t seem like the group is all that interested in expanding their fan base or growing musically. Maybe they’ve done what they set out to do. The franchise is working, hooking each of them up with a tidy income and a low-level notoriety without risking devolving into Elvis of the 1970s or Michael Jackson of the 1990s. GZA isn’t trying to be something or someone he’s not. He’s all about the original recipe.