By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Creating a distinctive sound and style during the early ’90s that set the sprawling group apart from the era’s teaming mass of gangsta rappers, the Wu-Tang Clan has established its credentials over the last 25 years as one of greatest crews in hip-hop history.
Founder and principle producer the RZA (born Robert Diggs) took an early interest in hip-hop growing up in Brooklyn, participating in MC battles before he was a teen. He moved to Ohio in his early 20s and founded the group All in Together Now with cousins Russell Jones and Gary Grice (future Wu-Tang members Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GZA/Genius, respectively) that never moved beyond local recognition.
Diggs eventually moved back to New York and tried to start a solo career under the name Prince Rakeem that never went past an initial single released by Tommy Boy in 1991. However that first recording hinted at the influence kung fu movies would exert on his next project with the song “Deadly Venoms” and its first references to Wu-Tang.
The RZA would form his new group with his cousins and a handful of childhood friends including Method Man (Clifford Smith), Raekwon the Chef (Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles), Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter), U-God (Lamont Hawkins) and Masta Killa (Jamel Irief). Armed with the extended crew’s arsenal of gifted MCs and the gritty, spare beats RZA constructed out of dusty soul rarities and extensive sampling from kung fu films, the group produced its landmark debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993.
Lauded by critics and hip-hop fans as an instant classic, the album and hits like “C.R.E.A.M” and “Protect Ya Neck” established RZA as a visionary force in the studio and — thanks to the unique deal with Loud/RCA that allowed individual members to have their own solo careers — served as a springboard for what would become a cottage industry of Wu-Tang related recordings.
Over the next three years, RZA would produce Method Man’s solo turn Tical (an immediate hit that would win the “Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group” Grammy for “All I Need” in 1995), followed by ODB’s classic debut album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and albums for Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…), GZA/Genius (Liquid Swords) and Ghostface Killa (Ironman) that all stand among the great hip-hop recordings of the 1990s. RZA also participated as a member of hip-hop horrorcore group Gravediggaz with fellow super producer Prince Paul (De La Soul) on their first effort Six Feet Deep.
The group reconvened to release the second Wu-Tang album — the ambitious double-disc collection Wu-Tang Forever — to great commercial and critical success in 1997, though RZA began to delegate some of his production duties to his proteges True Master and 4th Disciple. The group would maintain that pattern of a group release followed by a series of solo albums, though the crew’s prodigious output and the dilution of their sound from outside producers seemed to affect the quality of the recordings; only Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s N***a Please and Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele had critical acclaim that matched their chart success.
Legal and substance-abuse problems would curtail ODB’s activity as the Clan came together without him to record and release their 2000 album The W that found the group earning praise for the return to a rougher, more rugged sound (though the quick follow-up Iron Flag was decidedly lighter and would be dismissed my some members as time wore on). Wu-Tang was shaken by the passing of ODB in 2004 when he was only 35, but the group has soldiered on with one of the rapper’s sons occasionally filling in for the late great MC live.
Interests in film would come to occupy some members’ time — RZA has worked as an actor and director, while Method Man has appeared in a steady stream of movies and television shows — slowing the production of group albums. though Ghostface Killah would establish himself as one of the crew’s most prolific artists with an eclectic output of albums and frequent tours. While the group has only issued three albums in the past decade (the most recent, 2015’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, was limited to a single copy that was bought by notorious pharmaceutical mogal Martin Shkreli), Wu-Tang still draws big crowds every time it stages one of its increasingly rare tours. The group headlines the Warfield following a high-profile appearances at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
Saturday, March 18, 8 p.m. $54.50-$70