Wu-Tang Clan Biography

This hip-hop crew, whose ranks originally comprised the Genius aka GZA (Gary Grice, 22 August 1966, Staten Island, New York, USA), RZA aka Prince Rakeem (b. Robert Diggs, 5 July 1969, Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA), Ol’ Dirty Bastard (b. Russell Tyrone Jones, 15 November 1968, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d. 13 November 2004, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA), Raekwon (b. Corey Woods, 12 January 1970, New York, USA), Method Man (b. Clifford Smith, 1 April 1971, Staten Island, New York, USA), Ghostface Killah (b. Dennis Coles, 9 May 1970, USA), Inspectah Deck aka Rebel INS (b. Jason Hunter, New York, USA) and U-God, base themselves in the Staten Island district of New York City.

The roots of the Wu-Tang Clan lay in the earlier crew All In Together Now, formed by cousins Rakeem, the Genius and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Both Rakeem and the Genius had released solo records prior to their involvement with the Wu-Tang Clan, for Tommy Boy Records and Cold Chillin’ Records respectively, both of which sank without trace and instilled a hatred of record labels in the founder members. Each of the team boasted keen martial arts knowledge, and their debut album was divided into two sides, Shaolin and Wu-Tang Sword, to symbolise the combat-like disciplines applied to their rapping. An independently released single ‘Protect Ya Neck’ became an underground hit, leading to major label interest. When the Wu-Tang Clan as a whole signed with Loud/ RCA Records, provision for each member to work as solo artists was enshrined in the contract. The Genius joined his third record company, Geffen Records, Method Man linked with Def Jam Records, Ol’ Dirty Bastard with Elektra Records, and Raekwon stayed with Loud/RCA. RZA also worked alongside Prince Paul and Fruitkwan (ex-Stetsasonic) as part of the Gravediggaz, as well overseeing the production of all Wu-Tang Clan product and later setting up his own Razor Sharp imprint.

Wu-Tang Clan’s musical armoury centres around old school rhyming and trickery, which with multi-contributors offers ample opportunity for quick fire wisecracking and playing off each other. The musical backing is one of stripped down beats, with samples culled from kung-fu movies. Such appropriation of martial culture was a theme which has occupied rap music from the days of Grandmaster Flash onwards. Their debut set Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was recorded in their own studio, its ‘36 Chambers’ suffix alluding to the number of critical points on the body as disclosed by Shaolin theology. RZA’s production work, all spare beats and minimal samples, rapidly became one of the most recognisable and influential sounds in hip-hop and set the underground scene alight. The album eventually notched gold status, although it only debuted at US number 41 in November 1993. The belated success of the ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ single helped to spread the word, making the crew one of the hottest tickets in rap. However, all was not well in 1994. U-God’s two-year old, Dante Hawkins, was hit in a gun battle crossfire as he played outside his baby-sitter’s house on 13 March. The bullet destroyed one of his kidneys and damaged his hand. Just a day later a member of their inner circle of friends was killed in a separate incident.

The ranks of the Wu-Tang Clan were subsequently swelled with the addition of the ninth and tenth official members, Masta Killa and Cappadonna, and an ever-expanding list of associates, including Shyheim (b. Shyheim Franklin, 14 November 1977, Staten Island, New York, USA), Killah Priest (b. Walter Reed, 16 August 1970, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA), Shabazz The Disciple, Killarmy and the Sunz Of Man, all released acclaimed albums. The crew regrouped for 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever, a long sprawling record that rarely matched the quality of their debut or GZA’s exceptional solo collection, Liquid Swords. The album, nonetheless, was one the most eagerly anticipated hip-hop releases ever and entered the US charts at number 1 in June. Further releases from the Wu-Tang Clan stable, including Killah Priest’s excellent Heavy Mental, and Cappadonna’s bestselling The Pillage, took their place in an ever-expanding business empire that took in the Wu-Wear clothes line and a shockingly graphic video game.

The various members of the Wu-Tang Clan somehow managed to find the time to record 2000’s The W, an excellent return to form that marked something of a departure by including guest appearances from non-Clan members. The following year’s Iron Flag was a lesser album with the maverick Ol’ Dirty Bastard conspicuously absent owing to his ongoing problems with the law. The various members then dispersed once more, perhaps sensing their style was becoming increasingly anachronistic in the ever fluctuating world of rap music. They regrouped for a live show on 17 July 2004 in San Bernadino, California, which was captured for posterity on Disciples Of The 36 Chambers: Chapter 1. Four months later, Ol’ Dirty Bastard suffered a fatal heart attack in a Manhattan recording studio.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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