The premise was ridiculous: Nine rappers from New York (because 10 was clearly too many and eight wasn't nearly enough) joining forces to perform hardcore hip-hop inspired by bad kung fu movies. Riiiiight.
Granted, there's seldom been a bona fide rap star whose entourage didn't run in the double-digits. But those superfluous ghetto gadflies are around only to hold your bling, catch errant bullets and fetch you a chili dog from Gray's Papaya. Very few members of a hip-hop crew actually, ya know, rap.
At least that was the prevailing assumption until the early '90s when Wu-Tang Clan broke onto the scene and, to paraphrase Method Man, put a hanger on the stove for, like, a half-hour and then stuck it in conventional wisdom's ass real slow like. Put another way, they revolutionized the group concept in hip-hop.
Then something happened on the way to becoming untouchable hip-hop legends. The group that once told us Wu-Tang Clan “Ain't Nothin' ta Fuck Wit” became increasingly, well, fuckwitable. At best, they've reached an artistic cul de sac with their last album, 2007's 8 Diagrams. At worst, they're irrelevant. To find out why, you'll have to choose your own adventure:
If you decide to blame The Ghost of Russell Jones, go to Paragraph 2.
If you decide to blame The Dull Razor, go to Paragraph 4.
If you decide to blame The Debut Curse, go to Paragraph 1.
If you decide to blame C.R.E.A.M. rising to the top, go to Paragraph 3.
If you decide to claim Wu-Tang really is Forever, go to Paragraph 5.
The Debut Curse
The problem with releasing a phenomenal debut album is that everything that follows is limp-dick in comparison.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is one of the best hip-hop albums ever. Period. The entire album is raw, aggressive and thrilling, a portrait of street life that still sounds vital and unique today. The Clan wasn't rapping to you, they were rapping at you. But while each subsequent effort has a couple of songs that reach Enter the Wu-Tang heights, no album has replicated or exceeded their first and best.
The Ghost of Russell Jones
It's not exactly a fringe opinion to suggest that Wu-Tang Clan died with Ol' Dirty Bastard. He treaded the line between unmitigated genius and unrepentant crackhead better than anyone. But despite his contributions to the music and the, uh, mystique, O.D.B.'s erratic behavior and frequent incarcerations caused as much damage as did his 2004 death. His passing represents the end of the original Wu-Tang dynasty, and it's no coincidence that one of the best tracks (“Life Changes”) from 8 Diagrams is the one lamenting his demise.
Method Man tried to warn us in 1993. He said cash rules everything around me—er, him, but many interpreted the dictum to be a social criticism, not a mission statement. Admirable at the time, especially in a musical genre where the most respected economics guru is Tony Montana. Still, somewhere along the way, “Protect Ya Neck” became “Protect Ya Paycheck.”
The success of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) begat solo projects begat tours begat a solid follow-up album (Wu-Tang Forever) begat a video game, a clothing line, acting careers, more solo albums and hundreds of Clan spin-off groups. Enter the board room. Wu-Tang is now a corporate brand even satirized by its own members (see the “Wu-Tang Financial” sketch from Chappelle's Show). Even their website is wutang-corp.com!
The Dull Razor
Robert Diggs (aka RZA, aka the Razor) is still, as Method Man once opined, the sharpest motherfucker in the whole Clan. But these days, the ostensible leader and sometimes producer of the group is diverted across a broad spectrum of projects, only one of which happens to be Wu-Tang.
Thus, the group has suffered at times without the unilateral vision Diggs used to guide the group in its nascent years.
As a result, the entire crew has embarked on a slew of solo sojourns while RZA himself has been so busy acting (Coffee & Cigarettes, American Gangster), creating musical scores (Ghost Dog, Kill Bill) and starting youth chess programs that Wu-Tang Clan's musical output seems less of a priority.
Wu-Tang Clan is the best hip-hop group ever assembled. Not the most important (Public Enemy) or the most groundbreaking (N.W.A.), but the best nevertheless. The question is whether they'll add anything significant to that legacy or merely coast on it until they're all dead, retired or playing the county-fair-and-casino circuit. But musicians don't have the same “going out on top” luxury afforded professional athletes. They're forever doomed to have their best work compared with their latest.
In the end, regardless of the paths they've taken or the ones in waiting, Wu-Tang Clan is a manifestation of the crazed attorney from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They're high-powered mutants. Too weird to live and too rare to die.
Wu-Tang Clan play Friday, Dec. 5, at House of Blues. www.myspace.com/wutang.