Wu-Tang Clan: 10 of the best

With a new Wu album due next week, here are 10 kung-fu kicking highlights from the Staten Islanders’ group efforts and solo projects

1 Wu-Tang Clan – Protect Ya Neck

From the second Inspectah Deck attacks his opening verse (“I smoke on the mic like smokin’ Joe Frazier/ The hellraiser, raising hell with the flavour”), it’s easy to see why the clued-up radio caller at the song’s start is desperate for a repeat fix of the debut single from the mysterious, kung fu-crazy Staten Island crew. With eight distinctive voices (an incarcerated Masta Killa had yet to sign up) ravaging an RZA track powered by that trusty trumpet glissando from the JB’s The Grunt, quotable lines abound, from Method Man’s playful Irene Cara impression to GZA’s bitter takedown of his unappreciative former label Cold Chillin’ and the wider music industry; henceforth “a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar” was the de facto stereotype of the clueless A&R. Released in May 1993 on Loud Records after a DIY pressing the previous year earned the crew a Killa Bee buzz, the Wu’s opening salvo – featured on their instant classic album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – was the perfect east coast antidote to Dre and Snoop’s crisp G-funk or, as GZA would put it, “the dirtiest thing in sight”.

2 Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M.

While the titular acronym, which, as Method Man reminds us on the hook, stands for Cash Rules Everything Around Me, was quickly adopted as hip-hop slang for boatloads of dough (not least by the Wu themselves – witness Raekwon admiring the C.R.E.A.M.-making aptitude of Julio Iglesias on Criminology), this poignant study of ’hood capitalism (also from the crew’s debut) is no Puffy-style shopping spree. Over a melancholic piano loop from the Charmels’ 1967 soul ballad As Long As I’ve Got You, Rae’s gruff opening lines – “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side / Stayin’ alive was no jive” – set the scene as he and Inspectah Deck describe a harsh youth spent slinging drugs in the high-stakes pursuit of paper. Instantly resonant – the Wu’s junior affiliate Shyheim parlayed Deck’s “Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough” line into an entire song – C.R.E.A.M. quickly rose to the top of the Clan’s catalogue.

3 Method Man ft Mary J Blige – I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By (Razor Sharp remix)

That Meth was the first member of the Wu to release a solo album – 1994’s The Tical – was hardly surprising. Blessed with a husky, blunt-addled voice, agile wordplay and rugged good looks, the MC had spread his street-corner charisma liberally across Enter …, notably on his own, self-titled solo track, and this 1995 hit perfectly harnessed his rugged-yet-smooth appeal. With co-star Mary J Blige (who’d also lend her soulful pipes to Ghostface Killah’s All That I Got Is You the following year), offering a haunting interpolation of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 duet You’re All I Need to Get By, Meth pays tribute to the low-maintenance love of his life, a down-since-day-one type who still revs his engines (“I got a Love Jones for your body and your skin tone/ Five minutes alone, I’m already on the bone”) and who‘s loyal enough to dress demurely if he’s ever incarcerated. And just like Meth’s relationship, the track (in both of its remixes: this version overseen by RZA which accompanied the heavily played video and the radio version handled by Puff at the top of his game) worked in the face of all obstacles. Where earlier rap icons Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J had come undone with their saccharine forays into romance rap, the Ticallion Stallion successfully showed us his sensitive side without taking off his Timberlands.

4 Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Brooklyn Zoo

Built around an agitated sample from Bobby Ellis’s rocksteady staple Step Softly, the late ODB’s gloriously aggressive 1995 debut solo single finds him stepping anything but softly on the track. Whatever his adherence to the Five Percent Nation teachings favoured by the Wu and many of their hip-hop predecessors (the line “Ason, I keep planets in orbit” references both the rapper’s Five Percent moniker and the movement’s use of the sun to symbolise the black man, viewed as a personification of God), ODB is stretching it when he claims to “drop science like girls be dropping babies”. Instead he scores with his trademark unhinged personality – a grimier, more dangerous update of Flavor Flav’s court jester template – and a crazy, drunken style that staggers between fire-eyed urgency and barely there slovenliness. In your face like a can of mace, indeed.

5 Raekwon – Criminology

Arguably the best of the Wu’s first run of solo sets, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was, upon its 1995 release, undoubtedly the most influential, popularising the crack narratives and mafioso aesthetic that would dominate east coast hip-hop in the album’s aftermath: Jay-Z took on the mobster role for his debut Reasonable Doubt, OB4CL guest Nas ran with the Nas Escobar alias bestowed upon him, and Biggie styled himself after Frank White from Abel Ferrara’s The King of New York. None of which is to suggest that OB4CL, in reality a tag-team effort between Rae and Ghostface Killah, could ever be duplicated: the duo’s slang alone – a dense mix of everything from Five Percenter terminology to, er, idiosyncratic insults like “flowerpot head” – is as colourful as the plastic on the now legendary “Purple Tape” edition of the album (itself inspired by the drugs practice of visually distinguishing one’s product). Opening with a Scarface sample of Tony Montana barking at Alex Sosa, Criminology is a typically cinematic cut from an album that perhaps rates as RZA’s most cohesive production package. “I’ll be trapped by sounds, locked behind loops”, relates Ghost, and you can’t blame him for being mesmerised by the Abbot’s backdrop, a soaring juxtaposition of Black Ivory’s I Keep Asking You Questions (1971) and the Sweet Inspirations’ Why Marry? (1973). By the time Rae himself has dispensed “the witty unpredictable live shit” and left the intoxicating beat to ride out, it’s a bonafide Wu-banger.

6 Genius/GZA – Gold

Though he lacks the plus-sized personality of Ghost, Rae, Meth or the late ODB, the Genius might have all of his fellow Clansmen beaten as a pure writer. While Rae, Ghost and RZA went widescreen on OB4CL (with Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface and John Woo’s The Killer) Gold, taken from GZA’s debut Liquid Swords, comes over like an audio precursor to The Wire as, aided by an asphalt-hard sample from Cannonball Adderley, Rick Holmes and the Nat Adderley Sextet’s Aries (1972), GZA presents a meticulous, bottom-to-top study of the drugs world, from the streets to the ski resorts. The rapper’s opening lines (“I’m deep down in the backstreets, in the heart of Medina/ About to set off something more deep than a misdemeanour/ Under the subway, waiting for the train to make noise/ So I can blast a nigga and his boys”) drop the listener straight into the trenches traversed by a ruthlessly ambitious young drug dealer; a world whose claustrophobia intensifies as GZA continues to paint his paranoid picture: “I’m in a park setting up a deal over blunt fire/ Bum nigga sleeping on a bench, they had him wired/ Peeped my convo, the address of my condo/ And how I changed a nigga name to John Doe.” Throw in a cameo from Meth as a rival drug dealer and you have to wonder whether David Simon was reupping this on his Discman back in 1995.

7 Ghostface Killah – Black Jesus

With a lengthy lesson in self-knowledge from Clan mentor Popa Wu giving way to an opening verse that includes Raekwon’s timeless boast, “Mic of the year award/ Fly gear award”, Black Jesus pretty much typifies the tenor of Ghostface Killah’s 1996 solo debut Iron Man, which brought the Wu’s Five Percenter philosophies further to the fore while simultaneously showcasing the flamboyance and street-level savoir faire of Ghost and his partner-in-rhyme Rae. Anyone who mourned the tragic police shooting of soda-obsessed basketball prodigy Cornbread in the 1975 movie Cornbread, Earl and Me will instantly recognise the intense, choral singing sampled by RZA as emanating from the Blackbyrds’ Riot, and while the stream-of-consciousness shenanigans of Ghost (who bangs on about fish halibut and Kunta Kinte), Rae and U-God are hardly as heartwrenching, they’re certainly vivid enough to warrant their own silver screen sheen.

8 Wu-Tang Clan – Triumph

“Reunited, double LP, world excited”, raps GZA on Reunited, from the Wu’s sprawling 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever. Judging from the album’s commercial impact – it debuted at No 1 on the Billboard chart with first-week sales of 612,000 copies – he was right. The album remains the Wu’s big pop moment, and lead single Triumph could probably be described as a microcosm of its excessive whole, were the word “micro” ever applicable to a six-minute, chorus-free single. Where the video for Protect Ya Neck was a resolutely amateurish affair featuring time-stamped, camcorder footage of the Clan skulking in derelict buildings, Triumph has a Brett Ratner-directed mini-movie featuring swarming bees, hilariously bad fire effects and Inspectah Deck climbing buildings like Spider-Man rather than just rapping about him. Actually, Deck’s opening verse is the highlight here, his introductory salvo (“I bomb atomically/ Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses/ Can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries”) a set-text for Wu-aficionados and a bombastic counterpoint to an airy RZA beat featuring a rippling vocal sample from the Rance Allen Group’s Just Found Me (1975).

9 Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids

“Since the face been revealed, game got real”, laments Ghost, referencing his early habit of keeping his face covered. Whether “real” means recriminations from those he had crossed, jealousy from the streets or pressure from the industry, it’s a bit rich to grumble about your increased profile when you’re sporting a giant gold bird of prey on your wrist (“Rock a eagle head, six-inch high was the bird”). Truth be told, Ghost’s confidence and charisma had also become more conspicuous since Iron Man, and while second albums from Rae, Meth, GZA and ODB had failed to scale the heights of their predecessors, Tony Starks upped the ante with 2000’s Supreme Clientele. With producer Hassan crafting a lavish, dramatic beat around a sample from Solomon Burke’s 1972 blaxploitation soundtrack Cool Breeze, Apollo Kids gives Ghost the perfect canvas over which to flex a personality now as garish as those bright yellow, regrettably water-ruined Nikes.

10 Wu-Tang Clan – Uzi (Pinky Ring)

A highlight from the Wu’s patchy fourth album Iron Flag (2001), Uzi (Pinky Ring) offers assurance that, whatever the crew’s internal struggles or the changing state of hip-hop, there’s still nothing like the sound of the Clan going hell for leather over a top-drawer RZA instrumental. The bassy tones of an Angela Bassett-admiring U-God sets things off in fine style, with all of the Clan (bar ODB, absent owing to a chock-a-block legal schedule) sounding ravenous over a beat that snatches its brassy blaxploitation swagger from Parade Strut, off JJ Johnson’s soundtrack to the 1974 movie Willie Dynamite. From the RZA’s marble-mouthed endorsement of “the Wu-Library” to Meth’s quintessential commandeering of the chorus, it’s a potent reminder that an on-form Clan still ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.

Richard Watson

The GuardianTramp

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