Four decades in, the ’90s are still hip-hop’s most special epoch, the one most often cited in various “Golden Era” arguments. Before h.e.r. transition into a 21st century Gilded Age where routine multiplatinum success fueled hedonistic excess, hip-hop flourished in an Age of the Guilds.
Producers and posse leaders like Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Scarface, the late Chris Lighty, Erick Sermon, KRS-One, Paul C, Rico Brown, Wyclef, Del the Funkee Homosapien, DJ Muggs, Fat Joe, Buckshot and many others banded together “families” of artists, dedicated to crafting their own idiosyncratic takes on high-quality hip-hop. These teams came together around artisanal ideals and freewheeling studio sessions, suspicious of the hard, bright political borders of labels like Interscope or Columbia or Universal, and confident in their own creative processes. Their workshops bore enigmatic names like the Dungeon, D&D, Chung King or the Booga Basement. And no rap family ever hammered into shape finer and sharper lyrical swords, or swung their songs more joyfully as a platoon, than the legendary Wu-Tang Clan.
In the Wu guild, Staten Island upstarts cliqued up with veteran survivors of bad deals with “cold killer labels” in the ’80s to forge an iron ethos of brotherhood, loyalty and excellence. How did they avoid the business pitfalls that befell gifted predecessors like the Native Tongues or the Dungeon Family, where record-label intrigues often disrupted the loose, unrestrained chemistry that breathed life into their collaborations? (See: “Show Business,” “I Am I Be” and “Mainstream.”)
Most rap guilds expressed their unity via guest spots, collabs and remixes. RZA and his fellow hustlers Power and Divine famously sweet-talked Loud Records into putting out their whole roster on album after album, while retaining the right to shop any individual master of ceremony to any of the many labels clamoring for their new Afro-Asiatic flavors.
Where hip-hop’s childhood friend, the punk subculture, yelled “D.I.Y.” and “no sell-out,” the Wu reached back to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, responding with “Do For Self” and “no sell-out!” in kind, fighting for autonomy at every turn. From the beginning, RZA and the boys wanted to own their own brand, market their own clothing and merchandise, control their own Internet presence, and develop their own artists and producers with as much authenticity and as little input from the record companies cutting the check as possible. Like the embattled gang from The Warriors, they battled and beat their way out of small-time obscurity, embracing the grimy, the gritty, the chaotic and stripped-down, and rejecting pop and polish as much as the Sex Pistols or the Ramones ever did.
Just as the NFL relentlessly markets the mystique of the Shield, the Shield, the Shield, the Clan put that bright golden “W” brand right in “da front,” daring you to “let your feet stomp” at any and every opportunity. The sheer viral, exponential, force-multiplying nature of their many members and boosters, in stores, on stages and even in street teams and Internet message boards, flooded first America and then the world. Throughout their rise through the ’90s and the aughts, in a small-town dive bar, big-city theater or with any luck, a stadium or festival, there was always at least a handful Wu-Tang Killah Bees rocking a thugged-out, often hilarious and bewildering show.
But the fights with the soundman, defiant drinking and drug use, and promiscuous passing around of mics both dead and alive only reinforced their brand of unruly “realness.” It helped that, given their own personal histories of hustling everywhere from Ohio to Georgia, the crew happily hit the open road at any occasion. Fellow underdogs and misfits from all over the globe were embraced and encouraged to wave the Wu flag, echoing the cult followings of acts like the Grateful Dead, P-Funk and Insane Clown Posse. This Shaolin carnival especially played well across the pond, in cities like Amsterdam, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin where unvarnished, eccentric, authentically African-American music—wild jazz, deep blues or true school hip-hop—is embraced enthusiastically even when tastes change back home.
The Wu’s top spit-specialists (the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and Method Man, not to mention second-wave members like Cappadonna, Sunz of Man, Killah Priest, Killah Beez and even Killarmy) stayed as constantly and effectively on-message in promoting the brand—every record, every show—as any professional politician would. Personality clashes, legal and label troubles, none of it ever seemed to disrupt their ground game, and if courting sales is anything like courting votes (it is), few movements were as successful, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, as the Clan’s.
Rap record sales have fallen off dramatically in the 20 years since Wu-Tang Clan began their collective mission to promote True Wu Hip-Hop to all mankind, and thanks to attrition, many of its luminaries have settled into solo careers or pursuits away from the recording booth. Strangely enough, this has only served to keep them as alluringly out of reach as the promise of a Dr. Dre Detox album, making their sporadic reunions on stages and on records into can’t-miss moments.
But in allying themselves to the subversive spirit of anarchic punk, to fans of subaltern comics and conspiracy theories, to lovers of chop-socky cinema and blaxplotation films, and to street scholars and geek followers alike, the Wu has ensured that there will always be folks folding their thumbs together and, like a hip-hop Bat-Signal, throwing up the eternal “W” wherever and whenever the spirit of hip-hop is in danger. —Gregory Johnson