MUSIC: Wu-Tang – A 20 Year Retrospective
by Couch Sessions
The commercial success of the Wu Tang Clan debut, “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” was a rare light for hardcore East Coast hip-hop in the commercial world, as by 1993 the commercial center of hip-hop had shifted 3,000 miles westward – to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on the hardcore side and to the likes of MC Hammer on the commercial side. Many writers have said that the commercial success of Wu-Tang Clan laid the groundwork for a resurgence of hardcore New York rap from the likes of The Notorious BIG and Nas, who dropped their debut albums the year after ETWT. Seminal New York cultural publication The Village Voice even listed ETWT laying that groundwork as the first reason why Wu-Tang Clan is the greatest rap group of all time. November will mark the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album.
The genesis of the Wu-Tang Clan’s success begins before the album was even recorded, when Rza negotiated the Clan’s contract with Loud Records. Rza was visionary enough to reserve the rights to sign Wu-Tang members to solo deals with other record labels outside of the label that signed Wu as a group. This was visionary at a time when groups were generally contractually obligated to release solo albums on the same label where their group was signed. Thus, when certain groups of that era broke up, the most popular member would invariably release solo albums on the label to which the group was signed. Grand Puba left Brand Nubian and released his 1992 solo debut on Elektra, where the group had been signed (the group would release two albums without Puba on Elektra as well). When Busta Rhymes left Leaders of the New School, he released his solo debut on the label to which his group was signed as well (also Elektra). That state of affairs might make a conspiracy theorist speculate whether labels peeled off the most popular member of any individual group to capitalize on its individual parts. Rza turned this concept on its head. By signed Wu-Tang Clan to deals across several labels, Rza implicitly forced them all to promote the Wu-Tang brand with each release (all of which prominently featured the Wu-Tang logo).
The first wave of Clan solo albums from 1994 to 1996 were very commercially successful. During this period, Rza, co-manager Power, co-manager Mook, and business associate Oli “Power” Grant worked together to run the Wu empire. Grant oversaw the Wu Wear clothing line. With Power’s assistance, Rza oversaw Razor Sharp Records, where Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna were signed (with marketing and distribution through Sony). Power and Rza ran several labels over Wu-Tang’s twenty-year history, partnering with larger labels to market and distribute albums from U-God, Shyheim, Sunz of Man, Killarmy and numerous other affiliated groups (usually referred to as Wu-Affiliates).
1997 marked the return of Wu-Tang Clan with their second group album, the double CD “Wu-Tang Forever”, the first post-36 Chambers release to receive less than universal critical acclaim. While The LA Times and USA Today gave the record a strong three and a half stars out of four, Rolling Stone only gave the record three and a half stars out of five. Spin only awarded the record a 7/10 (later inexplicably calling it one of the best albums of the year, despite the less than stellar rating at the time of its release). In retrospect, this mixed reception is perplexing, as the two disc album has some of the most stunning lyricism and production in the Wu catalog, despite the over-long intro to Disc One (which featured extended off key singing) and the final three tracks on Disc Two dragging down the set’s overall impact. In its first week of release, “Wu-Tang Forever” was the highest selling record in America. Rza shared some of the production duties with True Master and 4th Disciple, even though he produced the majority of the two-disc set.
With this newfound freedom came challenges. 1999 would formally be considered the year that Wu-Tang fell from their critical and commercial peak. Inspectah Deck had several acclaimed verses on “Wu-Tang Forever”, including his classic first verse on that album’s lead single “Triumph”, so anticipation was high for his solo debut. Unfortunately, his debut album had been delayed due to the infamous flood in Rza’s basement that destroyed almost 100 beats, including many slated to go on Deck’s album. After the long wait, critics and even some fans considered Deck’s debut a disappointment, fairly or not. Raekwon’s second solo album, Immobilarity , released in November of 1999, would feature no Rza production or appearances from Ghostface Killah and received far less critical acclaim than his debut.
This perception of Wu’s “fall” during 1999 set up Ghostface Killah to save the Clan’s reputation with his universally acclaimed sophomore solo album “Supreme Clientele” in February 2000. The album received four and a half mics in The Source. Wu would return as a group with “The W” in November 2000, selling 300,000 in its first week. “The W” is the first Clan album with numerous non-Clan guest appearances (Isaac Hayes, Redman, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, and Junior Reid). Rolling Stone would rate “The W” half a star higher than “Wu-Tang Forever”, while Vibe gave it a near perfect rating. The record was certified platinum in one month and was generally well received by hardcore Wu fans.
Iron Flag would follow in the next year, in 2001. This would be the first Clan album to not feature an appearance by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, due to his brief incarceration (prison time which would unfortunately derail his career and likely hastened his eventual passing, due to the stress it caused him). Rolling Stone would initially give the record three and a half stars, then later give the record an additional half star in a subsequent follow up review in 2004.
2007’s 8 Diagrams was considered by some to be a return to form for the Clan, with far fewer outside guest appearances than in their prior two efforts. The group has not released an album since, but Raekwon’s critically lauded “Only Built For Cuban LinxII” returned the Clan to the mainstream radar, as Raekwon and Ghost built on the buzz created by that record to secure several high placed cameos on major commercial releases such as 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Fantasy” and 2012’s “Cruel Summer”.
Wu-Tang Clan fans are anxiously anticipating the next album from the group, scheduled to appear this year, 20 years after the release of their debut. No hip-hop group can compare to their 20-year run of combined critical and commercial success. One can only wait patiently to hear what the Clan brings us in their next twenty years.
Editor’s Note: Alan Page is the author of “Enter The Wu-Tang: How Nine Men Changed Hip-Hop Forever”, which is coming out later this year.