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Rap Biographies: Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan is a hip hop group from Staten Island, New York, USA. The group was originally composed of nine MCs but are now reduced to eight with the death of co-founder Ol' Dirty Bastard. In 1993 the group released its debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Since then, all nine members have released solo albums, and the group has spawned many affiliate artists. This was leader RZA's plan from the beginning: to become an empire in the rap industry by saturation of affiliated artists.

Though their style has evolved considerably over the years, the group is fundamentally known for The RZA's pioneering, gritty sample-based production and unique emceeing distinguished by heavy use of local slang and Five Percenter terminology, themes of inner-city life, and references to Hong Kong action cinema and Samurai films.

Emerging in 1993, when Dr. Dre's G-funk had overtaken the hip-hop world, the Staten Island, NY-based Wu-Tang Clan proved to be the most revolutionary rap group of the mid-'90s - and only partially because of their music. Turning the standard concept of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan were assembled as a loose congregation of nine MCs, almost as a support group. Instead of releasing one album after another, the Clan was designed to overtake the record industry in as profitable a fashion as possible - the idea was to establish the Wu-Tang as a force with their debut album and then spin off into as many side projects as possible. In the process, the members would all become individual stars as well as receive individual royalty checks.

Surprisingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated on the theme the group laid out on their 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Taking their group name from an powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, the crew is a loose collective of nine MCs. All nine members work under a number of pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem; aka Rzarecta, Chief Abbot, and Bobby Steels; born Robert Diggs), Genius/GZA (aka Justice and Maxi Million; born Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard (aka Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, and Osirus; born Russell Jones), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze, Ticallion Stallion, Shakwon, Methical, and MZA; born Clifford Smith, Raekwon the Chef (aka Shallah Raekwon and Lou Diamonds; born Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (aka Tony Starks and Sun God; born Dennis Coles), U-God (aka Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Baby U, and 4-Bar Killer; born Lamont Hawkins), Inspectah Deck (aka Rebel INS and Rollie Fingers; born Jason Hunter), and Masta Killa (aka Noodles; born Elgin Turner).

Although he wasn't one of the two founding members - Genius/GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first - the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan is undoubtedly due to the musical skills of RZA. Under his direction, the group - through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced - created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and minimal samples. Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.

It wasn't always that way. Like most rappers, they began their careers trying to get ahead whatever way they could. For RZA, that meant releasing a silly single, "Ooh, I Love You Rakeem," on Tommy Boy Records in 1991. On the advice of his label and producers, he cut the humorous, lover-man single that went absolutely nowhere. Neither did the follow-up single, "My Deadly Venom." The experience strengthened his resolve to subvert and attack record-industry conventions. He found partners in Genius and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Genius had also released a record in 1991, the full-length Words From the Genius on Cold Chillin', which was preceded by the single "Come Do Me." Both records were unsuccessful. After the failure of his album, Genius teamed with an old friend, Ol' Dirty Bastard, to form the crew that would evolve into the Wu-Tang Clan within a year.

RZA quickly became part of the crew, as did several other local MCs, including Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa, who rarely raps. The nine rappers made a pact to a form an artistic and financial community - the Wu-Tang Clan wouldn't merely be a group, it would be its own industry. In order to do this, they decided to establish themselves through a group effort and then begin to spread the word through solo projects, picking up additional collaborators along the way and, in the process, becoming stronger and more influential.

Members

  • The RZA (born Robert Diggs, 1969) - The de facto leader of the group. He produced the entirety of Enter the Wu-Tang and the majority of the tracks on subsequent Wu-Tang albums. He has also produced many of the group's solo efforts, especially early on. Considered a producing pioneer, recently his popularity has transcended hip-hop. Thanks to Jim Jarmusch giving him his break with Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, he has gone on to score several Hollywood films such as the first installment of Quentin Tarantino's critically acclaimed Kill Bill. He is the cousin to GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard.

  • GZA a.k.a. The Genius (born Gary Grice, 1966) - He is the oldest member of the group as well as the most experienced, having begun rapping in '76, when hip-hop was still a local New York phenomenon. He released an album in 1990 before the formation of Wu-Tang on Cold Chillin'/Reprise as The Genius titled Words from the Genius, though issues with label politics lead him to seek an independent route with Wu-Tang. His first Wu-Tang solo album Liquid Swords is considered by fans among the best albums the group has released.

  • Ol' Dirty Bastard (born Russell Jones, 1968 - 2004) - The most unique member of the group, his wild behavior drew significant media - and often police - attention. Along with Method Man, he was amongst the most popular members of Wu-Tang with high sales and guest spots with industry giants like Mariah Carey. He died November 13, 2004 of a drug overdose while recording in the studio for his Roc-A-Fella album.

  • Raekwon (born Corey Woods, 1970) - Nicknamed "the Chef" for having "lyrical flavor," his use of slang is the most extensive. His influential solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is generally credited with initiating the Mafia rap phenomenon of the mid-to-late-1990s. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is generally considered one of the best of the solo albums by fans, along with Liquid Swords and Ironman.

  • Ghostface Killah (born Dennis Coles, 1970) - Originally never appeared in public without a mask (not due to outstanding warrants, contrary to popular belief), he later took off the mask and secured himself a place in rap history by co-starring with Raekwon on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, making the album almost as much his as it was Raekwon's, as he even had a solo track on the album. His debut solo Ironman is considered to be one of the best Wu-Tang albums, while mainstream hip-hop press credits his sophomore album Supreme Clientele with "saving the Wu;" upon it's release in 2000, it was considered by some reviewers as one of the very few post-Forever Wu-Tang solos to rise above mediocrity. He followed this with Fishscale, released in 2006.

  • Inspectah Deck (born Jason Hunter, 1970) - He was one of the star members of the group, gaining attention by providing stand-out performances on other members' songs. He was a popular guest rapper in 1997 and 1998 and is considered by many in the fanbase as the stand-out member on Wu-Tang Forever. Lately he has taken a back-seat to other members.

  • Method Man (born Clifford Smith, 1971) - The first to release a solo album, his solo career went on to become the most successful in the group with platinum sales and a Grammy for I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need with Mary J. Blige. He has also had a significant acting career with many film and television credits to his name, most notably the comedy film How High and the sitcom Method & Red, both co-starring with Redman, who he also made an album with in 1999 titled Blackout!.

  • U-God (born Lamont Hawkins, 1970) - One of the lesser hailed members of Wu-Tang, he has had a rather unspectacular solo career. He later blamed this on RZA and a short beef between them ensued, though they eventually reconciled.

  • Masta Killa (born Elgin Turner, 1969) - He was the only member not already an experienced rapper at the time of the group's formation and was extensively mentored by GZA during his early days with the group. He was the last to release a solo album, though when he finally did release No Said Date, it was generally well received.
The founders of Wu-Tang Clan were cousins GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and The RZA who had previously comprised the trio Force Of The Imperial Master, who became better known as "All In Together Now" after they had released a popular single by that name. The group had attracted the attention of some in the industry, including Biz Markie, but had never managed to secure a record deal. Since the crew dissolved, GZA (then known as the Genius) and The RZA (then known as Prince Rakeem) had also embarked on separate unsuccessful solo careers with Cold Chillin' Records and Tommy Boy Records, respectively. Their frustration with the workings of the hip hop music industry would provide the main inspiration to Wu-Tang's revolutionary business plan. At the group's inception, RZA promised the members that if he had total control of the Wu-Tang empire, it would conquer the hip-hop world within five years, after which he would relinquish his total control.

Wu-Tang Clan was gradually assembled in late 1992 from friends and accomplices from around Staten Island, with The RZA as the de facto leader & the group's producer. The two cousins (GZA and The RZA) created their new Wu-Tang aliases by mimicking the sound that the words "genius" and "rakeem" would make when scratched on a turntable. The word Wu-Tang originates from the Wudang (or Wu-Tang) Mountains in the Hubei province of China, which are a traditional center of Chinese martial arts; The RZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard adopted the name for the group after seeing the kung-fu film Shaolin and Wu-Tang, which features a school of warriors trained in Wu-Tang style (many dialogue excerpts from the film were used on their debut album). The group have also developed various backronyms for the name (as hip hop pioneers like KRS One and Big Daddy Kane did with their names), including "We Usually Take All Niggas' Garments," "Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game" and "Wisdom, Universe, Truth, Allah, Nation, and God". This is reflected by the teaching of the 5% nation of Gods and Earths. The group's now-famous logo was designed by long-time associate and graffiti artist Mathematics, who would go on to become the group's DJ and one of its most sought after in-house producers.

The Clan first became known to hip hop fans, and to major record labels, in 1993 (see 1993 in music) following the release of the independent single Protect Ya Neck, which immediately gave the group a sizeable underground following. Though there was some difficulty in finding a record label that would sign Wu-Tang Clan while still allowing each member to record solo albums with other labels, Loud/RCA finally agreed and the debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers in late 1993 was popular and critically-acclaimed, though it took some time to gain momentum. Though hip hop had long had a gritty texture, the surreal aggression and minimalist production of 36 Chambers nevertheless had a huge impact on the genre, and was to prove massively influential over the next decade. By the beginning of the 21st century, the album had become a regular fixture on "Best Albums Of The 90s" lists as well as a frequent choice for "Best Albums Of All Time" lists.

The success of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers established the group as a creative and influential force in early 1990s hip hop, allowing GZA, The RZA, Raekwon, Method Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard to negotiate solo contracts.

The RZA was the first to follow up on the success of Enter the Wu-Tang with a side project, founding the Gravediggaz with Prince Paul and Frukwan (both of Stetsasonic) and Poetic. The Gravediggaz released 6 Feet Deep in August 1994, which became a well known work to emerge from hip hop's small sub-genre of horrorcore.

It had always been planned for Method Man to be the first breakout star from the group's lineup, with the b-side of the first single being his now-classic eponymous solo track. In November 1994 his solo album Tical was released. It was entirely produced by The RZA, who for the most part continued with the grimy, raw textures he explored on 36 Chambers. The RZA's hands-on approach to Tical extended beyond his merely creating the beats to devising song concepts and structure. This approach would continue throughout the first round of solo projects from the Clan members. Ol' Dirty Bastard found success in early 1995 with Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, which saw the 36 Chambers sound become even rawer and rough-edged.

Late 1995 saw the release of the group's two most significant and well-received solo projects. Raekwon the Chef's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was a diverse, theatrical criminological epic that saw The RZA move away from the raw, stripped-down beats of the early albums and towards a richer, cinematic sound more reliant on strings and classic soul samples. It also featured Queensbridge MC Nas on the song "Verbal Intercourse", the first non-Wu-Tang artist to appear on a Wu-Tang album, and marking the birth of the rapper's "Nas Escobar" persona. GZA's Liquid Swords had a similar focus on inner-city criminology to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, yet it was far darker, both in GZA's grim lyrics and in the ominous, foreboding production that saw The RZA more reliant on keyboards than ever before. The two 1995 solo albums remain widely regarded as two of the finest hip hop albums of the nineties.

Ghostface Killah released his own debut, Ironman, in 1996. It struck a balance between the sinister keyboard-laden textures of Liquid Swords and the sentimental soul samples of Cuban Linx, while Ghostface himself explored new territory as a lyricist. It was critically acclaimed and is still widely considered one of the best Wu-Tang solo albums. Although the 1994-1996 albums were released as solo albums, The RZA's presence behind the boards and the large number of guest appearances from other Clan members (Raekwon and Ghostface's albums only had two or three actual solo tracks each and both included tracks that only included other Clan members and not themselves) means they are usually considered as important to the group's evolution as the group albums proper.

With solo careers established, Wu-Tang Clan came back together to release the enormous double album Wu-Tang Forever in June 1997. It was eagerly anticipated and entered the charts at number one after selling 600,000 in its first week - no small feat for an album that made very little attempt to reach a broader audience. Its first single, Triumph was over five minutes long and had eight full-length verses and no chorus. The sound of the album built significantly on the sounds of the previous three solo albums, with The RZA using more keyboards and string samples, as well as, for the first time, assigning some of the album's production to his protégés True Master and 4th Disciple. The group's lyrics differed significantly from those of 36 Chambers, with many verses written in a dense stream-of-consciousness form heavily influenced by the teachings of the Five Percent Nation. Around the same time, the group's part in a joint live tour with Rage Against the Machine was cut short amid rumors of internal disputes.

Wu-Tang Forever also marked the end of The RZA's "five year plan". After Forever's success, The RZA ceased to oversee all aspects of Wu-Tang product as he had done previously, delegating much of his existing role to associates such as Oli "Power" Grant and his brother Mitchell "Divine" Diggs. This move was designed to expand Wu-Tang's reach in hip-hop and take advantage of financial opportunities for the group. In keeping with this move, a large amount of Wu-Tang product (both musical and otherwise) was to be released over the next two years.

Immediately after Forever, the focus of Wu-Tang was on promoting emerging affiliate artists (referred to by the fanbase as "Wu-Fam") rather than its own members. The group's close associate Cappadonna (who, by a stroke of misfortune, was in jail during the recording of Enter the Wu-Tang and would otherwise may have become a full member) followed the group project with March 1998's The Pillage. Soon after, Killah Priest (like Cappadonna, a close associate of the Clan, though not an official member) released Heavy Mental to great critical acclaim. Affiliate groups Sunz Of Man (of which Killah Priest was a member) and Killarmy (which included The RZA's younger brother) also released albums while a compilation album, Wu-Tang Killa Bees: The Swarm, was released showcasing these and more Wu-affiliated artists as well as including new solo tracks from the group members themselves.

There was also a long line of underrated releases from B-list affiliates such as Popa Wu, Shyheim, GP Wu, and Wu-Syndicate. Second albums from Gravediggaz and Killarmy, as well as a greatest hits album, and a b-sides compilation eventually saw release.

The second round of solo albums from the Clansmen saw sophomore efforts from the four members who had already released albums as well as debuts from all the remaining members except Masta Killa (who would eventually debut as a solo artist in 2004). In the space of two years, The RZA's Bobby Digital In Stereo, Method Man's Tical 2000: Judgement Day and Blackout! (with Redman), GZA's Beneath the Surface, Ol' Dirty Bastard's Nigga Please, U-God's Golden Arms Redemption, Raekwon's Immobilarity, Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele and Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance were all released (seven of them being released in the space of seven months between June 1999 and January 2000). The RZA also composed the score for the film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, directed by Jim Jarmusch, while he and other Wu-Tang members contributed music to a companion "music inspired by the film" album. Wu-Tang branded clothing and video games were marketed as well. The Wu Wear clothing line in particular was massively influential on hip hop culture; initially started as merely a way to make money from the demand for bootleg Wu-Tang shirts, it evolved into an extensive collection of designer garments. Soon, other hip hop artists were making similar ventures and by the mid 2000s a clothing line was almost a prerequisite for hip hop superstardom, with clothing lines launched by Ludacris, Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Busta Rhymes, Nelly and more.

The avalanche of Wu-Tang product between 1997 and 2000 is considered by some critics to have resulted in an oversaturation that was responsible for Wu-Tang's drop in popularity, or at least in critical regard, during that time. Reviews such as Melody Maker's writeup on Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele in January 2000 which began "Another month, another Wu-Tang side project" revealed critics' exhaustion at the Clan's prodigious output. While this may be more a reflection on the limited attention spans of critics, the reception for the second round of Clan member solo albums was decidedly mixed if largely positive, and they did not live up to their pre-Forever forebears either critically or commercially. Occasional albums would still receive critical acclaim (Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele for one) while Method Man and ODB remained popular in their own right as solo artists, and Wu-Tang remained generally well-known, but they had seemingly lost the ability to excite the music world in the way they had only three years previously. Many fans and critics also bemoaned the lack of The RZA's input on the post-Forever solo albums, which were mostly produced by the Wu-Element producers, other lower-ranking affiliates or by outside producers such as the Trackmasters or the Neptunes.

The group reconvened once again to make The W, though without Ol' Dirty Bastard, who was at the time incarcerated in California for violating the terms of his probation. The W was mostly well-received by critics, particularly for The RZA's production, and also gave the group a hit single with the uptempo Gravel Pit, part of a trilogy of videos where the group would visit different eras with a time traveling elevator, which also included Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off) and the internet exclusive (due to excessive gun violence) Careful (Click, Click), which were then followed by I Can't Go To Sleep featuring Isaac Hayes.

RZA's release of Digital Bullet (as Bobby Digital) in 2001 marked the beginning of the a small wave of solo releases in between The W and Iron Flag which also included Ghostface Killah's Bulletproof Wallets and Cappadonna's The Yin and the Yang. Their latest album as a group is 2001's Iron Flag. It received mixed reviews but still managed to go Gold. GZA's release of Legend of the Liquid Sword in late 2002 marked yet another wave that continued for the next two years. The wave included Cappadonna's The Struggle, Method Man's Tical 0: The Prequel, Raekwon's The Lex Diamond Story, Ghostface Killah's (who, in his new contract with Def Jam Recordings, shortened his rap name to simply "Ghostface") The Pretty Toney Album, Inspectah Deck's The Movement, and Masta Killa's No Said Date. It was perhaps the least successful wave yet, with only No Said Date and The Pretty Toney Album gaining any significant attention. Ghostface's album continued the trend of his releases each selling less than the one before it, despite mostly good reviews. Masta Killa's album was well received by both the hardcore fanbase and critics for its attempt to return to the classic Wu sound, though as an independent release, it expectedly did not catch on commercially.

In early 2004 U-God, for long one of the least renowned members of the Clan, apparently left the group in disgust. A DVD titled Rise Of A Fallen Soldier was released detailing his problems, which were mostly with his treatment by The RZA, who he claimed had hindered his success as a solo artist. He also formed a new group of young proteges called the Hillside Scramblers, with whom he released the album U-GODZILLA presents the Hillside Scramblers in March 2004. The dispute culminated in a heated phone conversation between The RZA and U-God on live radio, which ultimately saw the two reconcile. U-God later rejoined the group.

2004 also saw the unexpected return of the Clan to the live stage, though without Ol' Dirty Bastard and Method Man (who was filming Method & Red). They embarked on a short European tour before coming together as a complete group for the first time in several years to headline the Rock The Bells festival in California. The concert was released on DVD shortly afterwards, along with another greatest hits compilation. This renewed interest in the group fuelled rumors that another group album was on the way soon, and The RZA confirmed towards the end of the year that the group did plan to release another album in the near future.

ODB collapsed at approximately 5:29 p.m. on November 13, 2004 at Wu-Tang's recording studio, 36 Records LLC on West 34th Street in New York City. He was pronounced dead less than an hour later, just two days shy of his 36th birthday. He was buried at Brooklyn's Christian Cultural Center. The group was shaken by Ol' Dirty Bastard's death, however the impact of his death on the Clan's output is expected to be limited, given that his involvement with the group had been very sporadic for many years.

ODB's career in Wu-Tang was marked by wild and criminal behavior. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, he protested the Clan's loss (in Best Rap Album) by interrupting Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech, albeit in a good-natured manner. ODB was also arrested several times for a variety of offenses, including assault, making terrorist threats, shoplifting, wearing body armor after being convicted of a felony, and possession of cocaine. He was also in trouble for missing multiple court dates. In late 2000, Ol' Dirty Bastard unexpectedly escaped near the end of his rehab sentence, spending one month on the run as a fugitive before showing up onstage at the record release party for The W in New York City. Ol' Dirty Bastard managed to escape the club (which had several policemen outside on the sidewalk in front of it, however they were seemingly unaware of the presence of a nationally-known fugitive inside) but was later captured by police in a McDonald's parking lot in South Philadelphia and sent to New York to face charges of cocaine possession. In April 2001, he was sentenced to two to four years in prison.

Once released from prison, he signed to Roc-a-Fella Records. A posthumous official mixtape titled Osirus featuring many new songs was released in March 2005 and ODB's unfinished Roc-A-Fella album A Son Unique was released on August 9, 2005.

2005 saw the release of U-God's sophomore album Mr. Xcitement and GZA's collaboration with DJ Muggs titled GrandMasters. The group reunited for an early 2006 East Coast Tour, dedicated to Ol' Dirty Bastard, in the month of February. On March 28, 2006, Ghostface Killah (returning "Killah" to his name) released Fishscale to positive reviews. It features the entire Clan (on the uptempo track "9 Milli Bros.") as well as production by MF DOOM, Pete Rock, and the late J Dilla. The remainder of 2006 should see the release of Raekwon's long-delayed sequel to his 1995 debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (interestingly, the result of several LA studio sessions originally aimed towards creating a new Clan album), a new album from Method Man titled 421 with production by The RZA, Scott Storch, and longtime collaborator Erick Sermon, among others, and Masta Killa's second album Made in Brooklyn.

Wu-Tang Clan has influenced hip-hop profoundly in many aspects. They are arguably one of the most successful "crews" in rap history - though certainly the largest - with several other collectives (such as Dipset and No Limit Records) emulating the framework established by The RZA. They were also among the first to start the trend in hip-hop of diversification; specifically, the hip-hop clothing line with Wu-Wear and the hip-hop video game with Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style.

Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx helped (with the likes of Kool G. Rap) popularize the Mafia theme in rap music that remained widespread for more than half a decade. Nas, Jay-Z, No Limit Records, Notorious B.I.G., Death Row Records, Mobb Deep and countless others, each at least in one period of their career, emulated and expanded upon the themes Only Built 4 Cuban Linx helped establish.

Ol' Dirty Bastards Return to the 36 Chambers featured a very odd but creative style that possibly influenced rappers like Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot.

The RZA's producing innovations pushed the boundaries of what samples in hip-hop production could sound like. Most notably he is an early pioneer of speeding up vocal samples from Soul records, which would eventually become extremely popular among New York producers in the 2000s.
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