Wu-Tang Clan proves there’s still strength in numbers

Gene Selby

Table of Contents Wu rankings:10 essential Wu-Tang Clan-related recordingsHow well do you know the Wu?ANSWERS The Wu-Tang Clan once fielded a baseball-team’s worth of players, though the absence of Ol’ Dirty Bastard — first due to a prison sentence, then due to his 2004 death — left a void that […]

The Wu-Tang Clan once fielded a baseball-team’s worth of players, though the absence of Ol’ Dirty Bastard — first due to a prison sentence, then due to his 2004 death — left a void that the influential hip-hop ensemble still hasn’t overcome.

The group passes through town on its Rock the Bells Tour on Wednesday, but there hasn’t been a new studio recording since Iron Flag six years ago. A July release date for the new 8 Diagrams came and went. The album doesn’t have a new date yet, but just the suggestion of it kindles hope that there might be some kick left in this group.

The Wu could stand to restate its case. It roared out of the unlikely New York borough of Staten Island in 1993 with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a streetwise and beat-smart debut record that is among rap’s most influential. The group worked Voltron style: Each of its members did stuff on his own, reuniting every so often as the whole Wu.

But if time can be tough on musicians, it’s particularly hard in rap, where an MC’s shelf life can be measured in months. And with the exception of some fine work by Ghostface Killah last year, the Wu hasn’t produced a great album in years.

But it’s not too late to get to know the group. So in hopes of a grand resurrection, here’s a newcomer’s guide to the Wu-Tang Clan, by the numbers:


Wu rankings:

1. RZA

Aka Robert Diggs

Strengths: Production: Just about every great Wu song — group or solo — has been built on his music. His edgy score for the film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is mesmerizing.

Weaknesses: His solo work doesn’t quite stack up to that of the other Wu guys.

2. Ghostface Killah

Aka Dennis Coles

Strengths: Blunt, snappy rhymes that are long on details (for better or worse) and short on the chest-thumping caricature.

Weaknesses: Not everyone values his facade-free persona. If rap’s rougher fare keeps you away, he’ll do nothing to change that.

3. GZA

Aka Gary Grice

Strengths: Less flashy than Method Man and Raekwon, and less loopy than ODB, GZA is still widely considered the Wu’s best rapper.

Weaknesses: An all-too-common Wu problem: 12 years have passed since his solo masterpiece, Liquid Swords. He also goes about his business so quietly that he doesn’t get the attention he deserves.

4. Raekwon

Aka Corey Woods

Strengths: He fancies himself an epic storyteller and he kind of is, creating big, gangster tales with flair.

Weaknesses: Subsequent recordings without RZA and Ghostface proved shallow.

5. Method Man

Aka Clifford Smith

Strengths: He’s the Wu’s most charismatic player, and he has an immediately recognizable husky style of running through his rhymes. With ODB gone, he’s its funniest member.

Weaknesses: Being the ensemble’s biggest star means doing duty in things that keep him from music. While the movie How High and the TV show Method and Red had a loose charm, Soul Plane suggested he’d show up in anything. And his recent recordings have been middling.

6. Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Aka Russell Jones

Strengths: As part of a nine-person group, the late ODB was the necessary jester. His vices were on the surface in a way that was endearing and tragic. He could be very strange and very funny. Usually at the same time. He can’t contribute anything new, but if the Wu-Tang Clan starts to fray, well, it won’t be his doing.

Weaknesses: Being wildly erratic was his thing, so it’s hard to knock him for it. But Dirty’s frantic, spittle-fied rhymes could grate after a while.

7. Inspectah Deck

Aka Jason Hunter

Strengths: He’s on all the big, early stuff and made strong guest spots on Raekwon and GZA’s best solo work. His solo stuff stands up pretty well, too.

Weaknesses: In this crowd, he seems like a bit of a wallflower.

8. Masta Killa

Aka Jamal Turner

Strengths: He has a fluid flow and a few pretty bright rhymes to his credit.

Weaknesses: He and U-God saw limited duty on the Wu’s landmark debut and neither has really gotten past that. His first solo record didn’t appear until 11 years after the Wu’s debut.

9. U-God

Aka Lamonte Hawkins

Strengths: He’s a servicable rapper who gets lost in this big ensemble.

Weaknesses: See No. 8. The name U-God doesn’t help.

10 essential Wu-Tang Clan-related recordings

In addition to the Wu’s four studio albums, each Wu member has issued a handful of solo recordings. For old-timers, there’s a pretty strong consensus about which albums are the best. For latecomers looking for a jumping-off point, few Wu fans would quibble with any of these 10.

1. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan: While Dr. Dre was building rap up with big, funky samples, the RZA was stripping it down, with a spartan street sound. The group’s debut features a dizzying array of promising MCs and is one of the most important rap records of the decade.

2. Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx, Raekwon: One of four recordings that could be considered the best by a solo Wu artist (it and the next three), the Chef cooks up a Puzo-ish hip-hop gangster epic.

3. Ironman, Ghostface Killah: The Wu’s most consistent MC has a trio of recordings that are among the group’s best. There’s a funky tone here, bigger and broader than other early RZA-produced projects, starting with the fuzzy riff that drives opener Iron Maiden. The subject matter, well that’s divisive, to say the least. The bullying tone and rampant misogyny makes this a cringe-worthy report from his neck of the woods.

4. Liquid Swords, GZA: GZA doesn’t get the attention that Ghostface and Method Man do, but his smooth and easy flow and his balance of serious and humorous rhymes makes this a classic.

5. Tical, Method Man: Before he’d get distracted with TV and film, Method Man’s slinky, throaty rhymes were among the Wu’s best. His solo work has been spotty, though his first record (with RZA adding some wild sounds) is like a fantasy novel: Epic and otherworldly.

6. Fishscale, Ghostface Killah: Ghostface’s backlog of songs was so full last year that he ended up with two albums’ worth of good stuff. Fishscale is the stronger of the two. After a pair of so-so recordings he got back the Killah instinct.

7. The W, Wu-Tang Clan: Second album Wu-Tang Forever was a little too much spread over two CDs. But The W was tighter and better, and Gravel Pit is one of the ensemble’s finest moments.

8. Return to the 36 Chambers, Ol’ Dirty Bastard: Part of Dirty’s charm was his erratic nature, which makes his first album shockingly consistent. The follow-up would yield his best single (I Got Your Money), but his debut best captured his manic energy.

9. Uncontrolled Substance, Inspectah Deck: Deck doesn’t get the attention that his castmates do, but he makes a strong case for himself on this record, both as a rapper and producer. It’s the rare solo Wu project that’s largely RZA-free.

10. RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, RZA: RZA’s best work, far and away, is on many of the records listed above. He’s also done great stuff scoring films, though that doesn’t often translate to a stereo-friendly experience. His first record might as well be a Wu record, since most of the group guests and his inimitable beats are present.

How well do you know the Wu?

1. What RZA-fronted group pre-dated the Wu-Tang Clan?

2. Who’s the Wu’s youngest member?

3. Which Wu member was called Rusty by his mother?

4. Whose Grammy acceptance speech was interrupted by a bizarre Ol’ Dirty Bastard rant?

5. What mob family did the group allegedly have ties to?

6. Which Quentin Tarantino film did RZA score?

7. In a photo in The W, RZA holds a bandana. What letters are on it?

8. What university does Method Man attend in How High?

9. How many Oscar nominations has RZA received for his scores?

10. What comedian do RZA and GZA converse with in the film Coffee and Cigarettes?

11. Which album is the Wu’s biggest seller in the U.S.?

12. Who’s the Wu’s tallest member?

13. Method Man isn’t originally from Staten Island. Where was he born?

14. Ghostface’s Holla features him rapping over what R&B classic?

15. What kept Masta Killa and U-God from appearing on all of the Wu’s debut album?

16. Inspectah Deck took as an alias the name of what relief pitcher?

17. Who sometimes answers to “Noodles”?

18. RZA’s first single was recorded on what label?

19. Method Man played a burglar in an episode of what TV show?

20. On the TV show Method and Red, the two rappers move to the suburbs in what state?


ANSWERS

1. All In Together Now

2. Method Man, 36

3. Ol’ Dirty Bastard

4. Shawn Colvin

5. Gambino

6. Kill Bill Vol. 1

7. ODB

8. Harvard

9. Sadly, 0

10. Bill Murray

11. Wu-Tang Forever

12. Method Man, 6′ 5”

13. Long Island, N.Y.

14. The Delfonics’ La La Means I Love You

15. Jail time

16. Rollie Fingers

17. Masta Killa

18. Tommy Boy

19. Martin

20. New Jersey

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