[15 June 2006]
After a decade and change of turbulence and dirty grandeur, the strange, unpredictable entity known as the Wu-Tang Clan is finally coming to an end. The writing was on the wall as early as 2004, with the premature but by no means surprising death of the Old Dirty Bastard following a period of imprisonment. The Wu had already been drifting apart for many years prior to this death: with nine members and various associates all involved in relatively successful solo careers, the group had been torn by conflicting priorities for years. After 1997’s massively baroque Wu-Tang Forever, the group remained separate until 2000’s The W. The latter album was notable, aside from a few choice cuts, for its overall lack of focus; 2001’s Iron Flag was a little better, but by then it was obvious to all that the bloom was off the rose. The members of the Wu-Tang collective were all still capable of producing good music (some moreso than others, it must be admitted), but the need to do so as a group was becoming less and less pressing as time wore on.
The Wu’s particular virtues are such that the music video format has never made for a comfortable fit. The videos on display in Legend of the Wu-Tang are of strictly secondary importance in any consideration of the group’s output. As compared to the video work of similarly influential artists such as the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and Eminem, the Wu-Tang Clan’s videography seems positively emaciated. But this only makes sense: listening to the Wu-Tang Clan requires active listening in a fashion that seems disconcertingly at odds with the very idea of music videos. The appeal at the center of the Wu-Tang cosmos is not that of a lifestyle or an attitude but an imposing mythology built around the disparate, sometimes contradictory styles and preoccupations of nine distinctive MCs. There’s a density to the Wu-Tang Clan’s music that simply can’t be compared to anything else. Watching these videos, seeing the Clan lip-sync the words to their tracks, it seems to be as much of a distraction as anything else. The world created by this music is complete unto itself, and the drab dimensions of reality simply can’t compete with these lyrical flights of fancy.
Almost half of the videos featured here are culled from the group’s debut album, 1993’s Return to the 36 Chambers. This only makes sense, considering that that album remains the group’s finest moment, the origin point from which all their subsequent achievements descend. The videos for these early tracks are, like the music itself, rough around the edges. Obviously produced with minimal budgets and an absence of special-effects, they take advantage of the blasted urban landscapes of inner-city New York (particularly the group’s stronghold of Staten Island) to evoke the same kind of distressed decay prevalent in the tortured soul samples of the RZA’s beats. The video for “C.R.E.A.M.”, probably the most well-known video from their early period, is probably also the best in this regard: the grainy DIY video footage of packed urban slums and criminal corruption is an evocative corollary to the music’s twisted ethical minefield. The rest of the early videos are essentially of a piece, with few notable changes in scenery or narrative: you’ve got the various Clan members skulking around somewhere or other, looking vaguely menacing and distinctly dissatisfied.
Ironically, the same attributes that made Return to the 36 Chambers such a potent statement also signaled the group’s inevitable decline. Although more attention is paid to the mythical and fantastic elements of the Wu-Tang cosmology, there’s also an essential element of morality at work in their early material. One of the reasons that the horror and despair of the group’s debut was so potent is that it was placed in a firm ethical context that places the material sharply at odds with the work of many similarly explicit rappers. After their debut, the group had two options: they could either move forward from the rhetorical foundation of their debut to fully refute the nihilistic impulse, or they could simply continue to do more of the same, albeit on a bigger budget. They chose the latter. Wu-Tang Forever presented the Wu on a much larger stage, almost as deities. In the four years between albums the group had separated, launched solo careers and each achieved some degree of individual success in the music industry. Their world had changed substantially, and the materialistic temptation that had hovered around them on their debut had fully materialized on their sophomore effort.
Appropriately, the video for “It’s Yourz” presents the Wu in the context of the kind of Bachannal that had already become cliché in 1997—but remains irresistible, to judge by the persistent lionization of mercantile pursuits in modern hip-hop. Whereas the original refrain of “Cash rules everything around me” had been unmistakably pessimistic, the intervening four years had made them wealthy celebrities—cash continued to rule, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing if they didn’t have to hustle for it. Accordingly, the group’s best video (and one of the most distinctively odd videos of all time), “Triumph”, takes the group out of the decaying context of “C.R.E.A.M.” and recasts them as world-conquering super-heroes running rampant across Manhattan. The video, directed by Rush Hour and X-Men 3 auteur Brett Ratner, displays a distinctive, weirdly disjointed visual style that presents the Clan’s outré fantasies in the best possible light. Unfortunately, the video displays a much sharper and infinitely more intriguing visual style than any of Ratner’s subsequent feature film efforts.
After Wu-Tang Forever, the group’s music began a noticeable decline in overall quality. As each of the Clan members continued to record independently (except, I should probably mention, Masta Killa, who held out on releasing a solo album until 2004), it became increasingly evident that they were losing any cohesion. Wu-Tang Forever, while definitely overlong and at times bloated, still felt like a definite statement from the group, but everything released since then has carried the damning air of inconsequence. Individual group members were obviously holding their best material for their solo albums—and the best members had advanced in their careers to the point where their evolving styles seemed increasingly at-odds with the very idea of being in a group. Ghostface Killa extravagant, bizarre imagery and long-form storytelling doesn’t really fit in on a posse cut any more than the ODB’s free-association rambling. Likewise, the RZA’s increasingly high-minded production seemed more at home on conceptual vehicles like the Bobby Digital albums than on mainstream hip-hop records.
The videos produced from The W and Iron Flag are a mixed bag. Posse cuts like “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” and “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” are notable only for being absolutely uninteresting. Both feature a bunch of people standing around and rapping—much like every other rap video ever produced. “Gravel Pit” is just plain weird, putting the Clan into a three-dimensional Flintstones prehistory, complete with dancing cavewomen and dinosaurs. And then the caveman ninjas show up for no discernible reason, which should tell you about everything you need to know.
But the group could still pack a wallop when they wanted. “I Can’t Go to Sleep”, built off a sample from Isaac Hayes’ cover of Bacharach & David’s “Walk On”, is probably the highlight of The W, and the video is similarly interesting, built around weird horror movie imagery and surprisingly affecting performances from the RZA and Ghostface. “I Can’t Go To Sleep” was a powerful reminder of the group’s potency, but it also served as an unwilling condemnation of the group’s recent output: if they were still capable of putting out strong tracks like these, why weren’t they doing it more often?
The answer, alas, is that there is simply no way a group like the Wu-Tang Clan could survive in the long term. As opposed to a traditional rock or pop outfit, wherein the solo prospects of drummers, bassists and flugelhorn players have traditionally been dicey, every MC in the Wu could conceivably fly solo without any help from their peers. As they advanced and grew more confident in their individual careers, the incentive to remain tied to the group dwindled. It’s telling to watch the promotional documentary included on the DVD, “Enter the Wu-Tang”, recorded in 1994 after the release of their first album. The group appears together as a group, and they are united by their common goals and ambitions. In performance clips, they appear focused and friendly. (It’s especially disconcerting to see interview footage of ODB, ten years before his death, explaining how the Old Dirty Bastard was conceived as a persona to vent his worst impulses—of course, those same worst impulses would eventually consume him.)
In addition to the aforementioned 1994 film, the only other bonus on the disc is the music video for Masta Killa’s “Old Man”, included here because it contains the ODB’s last filmed performance. It would have been flat-out impossible to produce a comprehensive anthology of all the Clan’s videos, with each members’ solo work across a dozen different labels fully represented, but that simply reinforces the fact that any compilation of this nature can only provide a small part of the story. All the group’s videos are included, but the group is far more than the sum of its recordings as a collective. The Wu-Tang Clan is the product of nine contentious and conflicting individuals who were able, for a time, to create some great music together. The fact that the days of their productive collaboration are mostly at an end is not necessarily a bad thing, however: they grew up together, but then they grew apart. The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many, and if the Wu-Tang Clan records better music apart than together, then the collective has probably outlived its usefulness.