Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang review – poignant, insightful memoir

Lamont ‘U-God’ Hawkins is suing his fellow rappers for millions – now he gives his side of a hip-hop saga

The first memoir out of the ranks of the Wu-Tang Clan – a sprawling hip-hop organisation who lit up the 90s with their martial arts-themed works – is not that of their mastermind, RZA. It is not by Raekwon or Method Man, two of its bigger personalities. It is by U-God – a core, if minor, member of the original nine-strong Staten Island outfit. And there are reasons for that.

Back in 2015, the latterday Wu recorded an album – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin – and pressed only one single copy. In a flurry of publicity, it was sold for $2m to the disgraced pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli.

U-God – AKA Lamont Hawkins – duly sued the rest of the group for $2.5m in unpaid royalties in 2016. Last year, Shkreli stuck his album on eBay where, after the price zigzagged, it was eventually sold for $1,025,100. The lawsuit remains unresolved.

The final chapters of Hawkins’s eye-popping memoir attempt to explain why he broke fealty and sued his colleagues. At their height in the 90s, the Wu-Tang bristled with threat and exotic philosophy. Hip-hop’s love affair with martial arts movies reached an exquisite peak with the Wu, who took their name, and more than a few samples, from the 1983 film Shaolin and Wu Tang. Hawkins didn’t figure much on the Wu’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), because he was in jail – although his place in the lyrical hierarchy was later confirmed by his solo track, Black Shampoo, on the group’s second album, Wu-Tang Forever.

On one level, the issues are grindingly familiar from every other band lawsuit and memoir: wrong-headed business decisions. U-God is particularly aggrieved that the Wu’s booking agent was no pro, but worked out of her house. While acknowledging the RZA as the prime motor of the Wu, Hawkins cites his control freakery as the root cause behind the group’s poor management and lack of transparency.

Hawkins – it transpires in the preceding chapters – is especially fed up because he was once rather good at running things, having operated a large business organisation that happened to sell illegal drugs. In his teens, he was turning over hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of product and employing handfuls of people while keeping a low profile in high-school classrooms and, later, at college, studying mortuary science. (Sadly, he was never in Gravediggaz, a particularly excellent Wu offshoot.)

Those hungry for an insight into the Wu’s lifestyles or their inner creative processes will get a few peeks into the mansions and the recording booths here. Hawkins’s fight to get his bars up to scratch after coming out of prison is strangely poignant, even in this context.

The bigger story, though, is his life. He writes with a mixture of braggadocio, insight, pride and weariness about the years leading up to the Wu-Tang, with the occasional laugh (“I’m the ninja squirrel”) to break up the litany of horror. The product of rape, he grows up in a series of unforgiving projects where physical violence is omnipresent, and a future studded with crack, guns and tragedy pretty much inevitable. He and the rest of the Wu were absolutely desperate to leave the charnel pit that was Park Hill behind, and most of Raw is a catalogue of how, why and where Hawkins dealt drugs and survived.

Reading between the lines, Hawkins’s biggest contributions to the Wu were not, perhaps, his own rhymes, but forcing Method Man to give up dealing and concentrate on his verses, supporting him financially. A “team player”, he is – categorically – no angel, but the hells that befall him are appalling. His two-year-old son is used as a human shield by another drug dealer and is shot in the kidney. No one from the Wu betrays much sympathy as Hawkins abandons his duties to rush to his hospital bedside. A breakdown, sobriety and therapy have had a role in the making of this memoir, which should have an audience in hip-hop fans and policymakers alike.

• Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang by Lamont ‘U-God’ Hawkins is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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