Don't Sweat the Mainstream
I take every opportunity I can to write about the Wu-Tang Clan, and a “greatest hits” collection is asking me to talk about the group for as long as possible. In no small terms, the Wu-Tang sound and esthetic define rap in the ‘90s. The Wu-Tang Clan is a group of artists whose reputation could grow to become as important to modern history as Dada or Motown. They are revolutionary on a number of fronts:
1. They made the famous deal allowing each member of the group to sign his own record contract with another label.
2. Because of the above, the collective output of the clan now numbering more than 20 albums is among the most consistently ground-breaking hip-hop ever written.
3. In an industry known to eat its young and spit out the old, nearly everybody from the Wu-Tang Clan is still making music. Longevity was the goal and they have succeeded.
4. If one day the grimey, crack-headed dark days of the nineties are remembered by music and cultural historians, it will be as the decade of a second Harlem Renaissance that must be called the Shaolin Renaissance.
The innovators, the ball-busters, the drug dealers, the radicals, the gurus, the Shaolin Renaissance deserves a greatest hits compilation. This one is modest, but has been timed to fit between a whole battalion of other more significant Wu releases. This is not the time for a box set retrospective. It’s way too early. The Wu-Tang are in no way a finished deal. A fifth album is slated for next year. So it should be assumed this comp is meant to give new listeners a taste of what was in preparation for what will be. Previously owning all these tracks is inevitable for a true Wu. So before I explain why every fan will need to hear this record, let me quickly recap the most recent inclusions to the Wu’s rhizomatic discography, and why a true Wu revival looks to be in the making.
Masta Killa released his first solo this year, the last member of the Clan to do so. No Said Date came a decade after the Wu first appeared. It’s a stunning record and did a lot to bolster fresh support for the Clan—every member of the Wu-Tang guests on the album, a symbolic gesture of sorts. Inspectah Deck’s The Movement was a surprise for how hard it rocked, a supremely confident independent release that would be gold platinum right now if Lil’ Jon wasn’t up in people’s faces with knockoffs of Meth’s biter braces. Don’t even talk to me about Nelly. Speaking of the Mef, he’s somehow become a mainstream icon with pal Redman through their movies, sitcom, and deodorant commercials. And while his albums fail to stir Wu-listservs, his success is absolutely remarkable considering he’s the strutting, spitting, snarling, smoking, opposite of everything Heartland America trusts. Ghostface released The Pretty Toney Album in the spring, a huge record, likely the most accomplished and crushing rap record this year. After the RZA’s beats, no one has received more props than Ghostface Killah. He’s probably the greatest MC alive. His previous three solo records are all solid. There are moments on Pretty Toney that remake rap music like LL Cool J’s Radio. A careful appreciation of his new track “Holla” could inspire a whole generation of rappers. Plus okay, there was the late-summer debut of Theodore Unit, Ghostface’s new Staten Island crew. 718 was more Pretty Toney with more guests, and we needed more Pretty Toney, it was so brashly good—the two albums will go down as Ghostface classics.
I didn’t mention the RZA’s solo came out this year, or his upcoming soundtrack for the movie Blade: Trinity, or Raewkon’s Lex Diamond Story or the Wu-Tang Clan live DVD and CD that came out last month, a stage-shattering performance they did in Los Angeles in July featuring all the members, including a motionless Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who looks hypnotized by voodoo curses, only to be released from it when songs need his verses. What else didn’t I mention? A lot. More Wu-approved product was shipped out to record shops this year than we’ve seen since the hot days of 1993 when their debut Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the 36 Chambers) appeared. In the revelatory year-and-a-half that followed it it felt like every week you had to drop more dollars on solo debuts. On the second round of solo albums, a lot of listeners started falling off. It was too much. In retrospect, almost all of the records were stunning, and it’s going to make a lot of kids go nuts when the start digging into the RZA’s sound and have to own every solo record. I recommend them all.
I haven’t heard anyone talk about how significant it was at the time that the second member to release a solo record after Method Man was The Ol’ Dirty Bastard, with Return to the 36 Chambers, in March of 1995. A disagreeable masterpiece, ODB’s voice was scarily acrobatic on the tightrope of RZA’s production line. After Method’s iconic casanova behind a haze of pot smoke, we got the gutterball nasty motherfucker Dirt McGirt. He represented the Wu style at it’s most extreme, that verbal attitude that’s “different than yours, make young ladies wanna drop their drawers.” A return to New York’s mean streets, freshly amped-up and stumbling around from the crack rock epidemic, the ODB is the essence of the outsider MC: The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is a mystic, a shaman, a tongue-maniac who can spit to hit God in the eye, but can’t survive for a minute in the real world without protection from friends. Lucky the RZA’s his cousin, so life is taken care of. RZA’s beats for Return were furious, and the fury was directed at hip-hop itself. People don’t give ODB enough credit. All they see is the madman. Every track on that record hissed venom, a big beat “fuck you” to the rap scene that had lost contact with its roots. And that was as much the bastard’s esthetic as the RZA’s. Look beyond the comedy of his persona and you’ll realize why he’s slated to release his next album with none other than Jay-Z’s Roc-a-fella. The GZA was the sober voice on the flipside of ODB, but their message was the same: The innovations of the MC transcend poverty and oppression, and the music represents the neighborhoods where black youth survive, packed with a style that’s “different than yours”.
In the ‘90s the Wu-Tang Clan became a global phenomenon because of their stubborn eccentricities—they were hardcore rappers full of skewed drunken master rhyme schemes and a personalized arsenal of slang metaphors that stretched from song to song, album to album. The spirit of competitive collaboration has always served artists well but it rarely survives the internal combustion that got it started in the first place.
The Wu-Tang have revolutionized the business of hip-hop by proving that loyalty can survive success. Collective independence has won out against the fickle empire of pop music. The Wu didn’t sweat the mainstream, and without having to compromise their goals, the mainstream has chosen them again. GZA, said it best: “strictly fam members only”. True that labels haven’t been loyal, true that fans haven’t always had time to keep up, but the strength of the Wu family has weathered the trends by believing in each other to the end. And now the end, it turns out, is the beginning again.
RZA’s constant refrain, “Don’t go against the grain,” was intimidation reverse psychology. He said it whenever he could. Was it a dare? Or was it advice? In the chorus for “Gravel Pit” from 2001’s The W, included on this anthology, he completed the sentence: “Don’t go against the grain, if you can’t handle it.” In 2001, he grew his mantra with a lion’s pride. We know the RZA can handle going against the grain. We know that every member of the Wu-Tang can handle it. Now, the question is: can you?
This greatest hits follows the Wu-Tang’s career in chronological order. The first six tracks are from Enter the Wu-Tang, and two are alternate mixes. “Method Man (Skunk Mix)” has Meth do a different verse. What seems incredible is the fidelity. For anyone who bought their debut in 1994, this CD sounds so much better, you’ll start a nagging campaign for BMG to remaster Enter the Wu-Tang and release it next year. Every cymbal crash is crisp, and the bass is full, it’s like hearing them for the first time. It’s not quite the experience of switching from VHS to DVD, but I swear the improvement in the mastering on this album is immediately obvious. Track five is “Can It All Be So Simple” and that’s too late in the album for Ghostface Killah to appear. Three songs represent the Wu-Tang’s double album. People don’t get off on that album as much.
It’s a pure MC album. They forgo chorusses and hooks, but they did it as a tribute and a triumph to the hip-hop culture, whose origins are the cipher battles in borough streets and the MC nights at New York clubs. This is the story of rap, told by the rap’s most creative group at the time. If mainstream audiences don’t get it, that’s no sweat, they’ll learn. Respect to all the tracks highlighting the Chef Raekwon—his Cuban Linx is utter magic. But I would have included “Dog Shit.” And I would have campaigned for ODB for President in ‘08.