The rule about history being the propaganda of the victors applies just as clearly to Staten Island rap crew Wu-Tang Clan as to any other battle-ready cadre. The group’s now Hollywood-domiciled mastermind Robert Diggs (AKA RZA) has already put a down payment on posterity’s thumbs up with not one but two well written and informative volumes: a nuts-and-bolts guide, The Wu Tang Manual, and the more philosophically minded The Tao of Wu. So an alternative, bottom-up rather than top-down take on the Clan’s roughneck backstory was long overdue.
No one would call Lamont “U-God” Hawkins a Wu‑Tang also-ran – at least, not to his face – but he certainly isn’t the member of the ensemble the British public would name first in a hip-hop-themed episode of Family Fortunes. (That would be Ghostface Killah or the sadly departed Ol’ Dirty Bastard.) And Hawkins’s memoir, co-written with science fiction author and editor John Helfers, does at times lapse into generic ghosted rap-speak. But it also contains valuable insights into the unique blend of martial arts lore, black Muslim self-empowerment strategies, insider drug-dealing knowledge and musical inspiration that was Wu‑Tang Clan’s early 1990s escape route from the hard-pressed housing projects its members grew up in.
As the book’s title suggests, the foot soldier’s perspective brought by U-God brings back into the foreground the grittier aspects of the Wu-Tang story, which the more polished fabulations of his general had glossed over. Such martial figures of speech are not misplaced, as Raw has the highest trauma and casualty rate of any music book I have ever read, from U-God’s apologetic nod to his own conception as a child of rape – “My mother probably wouldn’t want me to bring this up” – through myriad obituaries of neighbourhood characters such as Tameek, whose mastery of the Bruce Lee-inspired fighting technique “the 52 Hand Blocks” could not save him from being shot in the back of the head. He took his self-defence secrets with him to the grave (“That’s lost knowledge. That died with him. That’s a damned shame”).
For a book whose main selling point is a vivid account of its author’s career as a crack dealer, Raw must have had a surprisingly easy ride through the legal phase of the editorial process, for the simple reason that so many of its incidental characters are now dead. These passages make the comparable chapters in 50 Cent’s From Pieces to Weight look like an episode of Heartbeat. And Raw’s stripped-back narrative voice is at its best when detailing the everyday stresses and strains of the street drug-dealer’s existence: “You just had to be on point for whatever the day might bring. Cops might blitz. Stickup kids might try to jack you. A jonesin’ fiend might flip out. You just never knew.”
The temptation to view Wu-Tang Clan’s dankly exhilarating music as a pure life force – the polar opposite of the homicidal free-for-all it sprang from – is one U-God seems commendably inclined to resist, presenting it more as a creative rechannelling of that same deadly energy. The book inevitably loses a little momentum when it makes the transition from the mechanics of the street drugs trade (“Dip it in ammonia!”) and sage counsel on how best to survive a six-month spell in the notorious Rikers Island prison to the less concrete specificities of music making. Yet even those who found themselves yelling “get on with it” at Eminem’s pre-freestyle dithering in 8 Mile will be moved by one of the most heartfelt depictions of hip-hop performance anxiety in the rap memoir canon.
U-God was largely absent from Wu-Tang Clan’s breakthrough debut studio album Enter the Wu‑Tang: 36 Chambers on account of repeated returns to jail for parole violation, and he grew to hate his nickname “four-bar killer”: his voice tended to be used for a quick four bars only. The quality of his verses on the second album’s standout track “Triumph” – “Olympic torch flaming, we burn so sweet” – shows the extent to which he ultimately stepped up. And with this grimily percussive memoir whetting the appetite for Chamber Music – Will Ashon’s psychogeographical excavation of that landmark first album, to be published by Granta later this year – Wu‑lit might be said to be coming of age.
- Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins (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.