When speaking of the most pivotal acts and movements in hip-hop history, to gloss over the impact of the Wu-Tang Clan would be criminal. Their resume speaks for itself. In an age where record labels made the rules, the Wu-Tang Clan crossed them out and wrote their own, breaking barriers that would prove the power of hip-hop and the revolutionary rap group.
After a sour experience at Tommy Boy Records, rapper/producer RZA founded the Wu-Tang Clan and enlisted his cousins GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, as well as neighborhood cronies Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa. The Staten Island-originating group went on to form like Voltron, assaulting the music industry with their rugged brand of rap. Debuting in 1993 with their seminal album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Wu helped breathe life back into a New York City rap scene that had lost its footing amidst the rise of West Coast hip-hop. With classic singles like “Protect Ya Neck,” “C.R.E.A.M,” and “Can It All Be So Simple,” the squad’s music resonated within the city’s five boroughs and beyond.
With their debut studio album at platinum status, the Wu-Tang Clan took advantage of the non-exclusive deal they signed with Loud Records and began rolling out solo albums — Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman — which simultaneously established the group’s individual members and strengthened the Wu-Tang brand in the process.
In 1997, four years after the release of their debut, the Wu-Tang Clan returned as a full unit with their sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, which symbolized of the completion of the five-year plan RZA implemented during the genesis of the crew. Deciding to follow in the footsteps of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., the Wu-Tang Clan went on a victory lap with their double-disc album, a 27-track hip-hop gem that would cement the Wu as one of the strongest movements in hip-hop, and all of music, for that matter.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, VIBE highlighted five reasons why Wu-Tang Forever solidified the Wu-Tang Clan as rap icons.
5. The Album’s Buzz
In a year filled with blockbuster rap releases, Wu-Tang Forever was one of the most anticipated albums. Wu disciples anxiously awaited its arrival after enduring four calendars without a collective effort from the crew. Originally slated to be released in February 1997, the Wu-Tang Clan’s sophomore LP was pushed back on multiple occasions and increased fans’ fervor for what the lyrical monks from Shaolin had in store. After Wu-Tang Forever was finally liberated on June 3, 1997, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, a feat only achieved by rap stars Scarface, The Notorious B.I.G., Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Puff Daddy, Master P, Ma$e, and The Firm during that year. It sold 612,000 units in its first week of release, despite lacking a traditional hit single. By mid-October 1997, Wu-Tang Forever certified 4x platinum, becoming one of the best-selling rap albums of the year, proving that the Wu was all about strength in numbers.
4. RZA’s Growth As A Producer
During the making of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA was tasked with creating an album. With minimal funds and equipment that was far from the industry standard at the time, the group’s leader created the album’s gritty, lo-fi quality, adding to its authentic vibe and appeal. After utilizing samples from old school King-Fu flicks and crafting a classic debut that helped revive a whole coast, RZA would up the ante on Wu-Tang Forever, making use of strings, synthesizers, and classic soul samples, giving the album a refined, cinematic feel. A stark contrast to the rawness of the beats on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Forever is a showcase of RZA’s evolution as the producer and sage abbot who crafted the solo albums that would set the stage for the album’s release.
3. The Album’s Rallying Cry Against The Shiny Suit Empire
Wu-Tang Clan may have been nothing to f**k with during their peak as a group, but neither was Bad Boy Records, which had a stronghold on the hip-hop and r&b charts during the mid-’90s. Boasting a roster that included the Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Total, 112, and Faith Evans, Bad Boy Records may have ushered rap into an era of aspiration and excess with its larger-than-life sound and aesthetic, but not everyone was fond of the label’s attempt to gentrify hip-hop with r&b, most notably the Wu-Tang Clan.
Serving as the perceived antithesis of all that Bad Boy Records stood for, the Wu-Tang Clan would send shots at the Evil Empire that was Bad Boy Records as early as 1995, when Raekwon and Ghostface Killah subliminally dissed The Notorious B.I.G. for allegedly biting Nas’ Illmatic album cover for his own. This sparked a subtle cold war between the two entities which continued until the death of The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. RZA himself added his two cents on the matter on the intro of the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever. Although he avoided calling out names, there was a good idea of who he was referring to, increasing purists’ respect for the Wu-Tang Clan and all they stood for.
2. Sociopolitical Commentary
Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Stage (36 Chambers) included poignant takes on life in the inner-city and the quest for survival that comes as a byproduct of that circumstance. Most notably heard on “Can It Be All So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M., and “Tearz,” Wu-Tang Forever showcased an increased focus on sociopolitical matters. Becoming disillusioned with the portrayal of rappers and hip-hop culture on the mainstream, RZA and his fellow clansmen made their feelings about the state of society and the black community known throughout Wu-Tang Forever, giving the album more of a conscious feel compared to its predecessor, which was more style over substance in terms of topical range. Songs like “Older Gods,” “A Better Tomorrow,” “Impossible,” “Little Ghetto Boys,” and “The Projects” delivered a sense of a maturation in the Wu-Tang Clan, lending credence to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s proclamation that the Wu-Tang Clan is for the kids.
After February 11, 1997, rap would never be the same. That is the day that “Triumph,” the lead-single from Wu-Tang Clan’s sophomore album was unleashed. The song forever changed the parameters of what a lead-single could be. Clocking in at nearly six minutes and devoid of a hook, “Triumph” was an ambitious effort if there ever was one, with RZA attempting to fit nine separate verses from nine different rappers on one song and present it to radio and the public at large. The most amazing part is that he actually pulled it off. Refusing to appease radio or TV outlets by editing the song or the memorable Brett Ratner-directed music video, compared t othe groundbreaking clips from fellow creative visionaries like Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, RZA went against the grain and placed his bet on “Triumph.” It was a gamble that contributed to the Wu-Tang Clan’s status as rap icons. Above all, it served as the cherry on the top of one of the greatest rap albums of its time.