- 09 Nov 22
29 years ago today, Wu-Tang Clan released their iconic debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Produced by RZA, it's widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time – and was inducted into the U.S.'s National Recording Registry this year, alongside other albums that "are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States." To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Ed Power's reflections on the group's remarkable legacy...
He wanted to know where the party was. "Hey man, do you know a good place to hang out?," asked Raekwon, a burly dude in head to toe black. I didn't exactly understand what 'hang out' portended. Did he speak in hip hop parlance? Or was the Wu-Tang Clan man straightforwardly seeking tourist pointers? It was hard the tell: his expression was inscrutable, eyes hooded, mouth narrow. He gave nothing away.
It was St Patrick's Day 2004 and Raekwon, then one tenth of the world's most influential rap collective, was in Dublin for a solo show. I say 'solo'. He had with him a posse so massive that it looked as if the hotel reception where we were to do our interview was hosting a casting-call for a Spike Lee movie. All of his people were big, big guys – they loomed over me. Some actually loomed over Raekwon.
Truthfully, it all went downhill after I confessed my desultory knowledge of Dublin's super-hot party joints (his words not mine). Suddenly, Raekwon was spectacularly disengaged – that mocking glimmer in his eyes dimming. He gazed over my shoulder, tracking his crew as they padded around the room. I no longer existed.
What does this interaction tell us about Wu-Tang Clan? Plenty actually. Such as: they like to party – and do not suffer gibbering idiots lightly. Of course, you don't have to sit down with one of their number to understand this: it's writ large in their music, which is stark and staccato in its aesthetic choices, glorious in its refusal to compromise.
Wu-Tang Clan came together in 1990, brainchild of a would-be music industry player named Robert Fitzgerald Diggs. That they emerged from the murkiest backstreets of Staten Island, just as hip hop was struggling with its first crisis of identity, was no coincidence. At the time, rap was represented in the mainstream by the shiny, disposable likes of Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff. Hip hop was populist and kind of shit. Things, Diggs decided, needed to get real.
He conceived of Wu-Tang Clan as the equivalent of a super- hero tag team: the Avengers in hoodies. Diggs – soon styling himself 'The RZA' – knew all the finest rhymers from around, would invite them to his house to watch Asian martial arts movies and discuss the teaching of 5 Percent Nation, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam. He picked his troops wisely, understanding each would appeal to a different demographic.
"I recall telling GZA, 'You'll get the college crowd'. Because he's the intellectual," he later told NPR. "Raekwon and Ghost [Ghostface Killah], all the gangstas. Meth [Method Man] will get the women and children – and he didn't want to do women and children. He didn't know that, though. Method Man is a rough, rugged street dude, but all the girls love him. Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock 'n' roll."
Their first album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, was a straight-up classic, its iconic status belying its hard-scrabble origins. Without a record company, the group self-financed the project, RZA stitching the whole thing together in a cheap recording studio he rented in Manhattan. Seeking to give the project a conceptual unity, he spliced in movie excerpts and old music clips.
"It took me like a whole week or two to keep doing it," he later told NPR. "And the rest of the band didn't know it. They didn't hear it until it was done."
With so many disparate personalities, moments of instability were inevitable. Indeed, Wu-Tang Clan have lived through enough drama to fill an entire season of rockumentaries. There were feuds between individual members and with contemporaries such as 50 Cent and Biggie Smalls alike ('Fiddy's 'How To Rob' bristles with veiled barbs towards Wu-Tang). The group even had a Kanye West moment when, at the 1998 Grammies, Ol Dirty Bastard rushed the stage explaining he'd purchased a swanky outfit in anticipation of claiming Best Rap Album only to be usurped by Puff Daddy.
"I don't know how you all see it," he ranted as he was dragged away. "But Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best. I want you all to know that this is ODB and I love you all."
However amusing to bystanders, ODB's antics had a dark edge. Through the 2000s he was constantly embroiled with the law; when he dropped dead from a drug overdose at RZA's New York studio on November 13, 2004, there was shock but not much surprise. He had been heading in that direction for some time.
Still, the loss of one of their number did not initially prompt much solidarity among the clan, who continued their cycle of unofficially breaking up and reforming.
Amidst the turmoil, they have nonetheless accumulated seven albums; including A Better Tomorrow, released in 2014 to positive reviews. Twenty-one years on from their debut, it demonstrated that Wu-Tang are still fit and lean – instinctive outsiders whose music crackles with paranoia and menace, and not a little brilliance.
"If you keep eating McDonald's, you gonna get sick," the RZA once said, outlining the philosophy that defined Wu- Tang Clan. "You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that's what Wu-Tang was: It was a home-cooked meal of hip-hop. Of the real people."
Revisit Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) below: