Released on June 3, 1997, Wu-Tang Forever was a high point for hip-hop’s ‘90s excess, cementing the nine-strong crew’s place in the landscape of popular culture. 20 years on from its release, Jimmy Ness revisits the Wu-Tang Clan’s second album and assesses its legacy amidst the video-game tie-ins and branded cologne.
In Chinese lore, dragons are bonded to the number nine. The ancient serpent has nine forms and nine sons. With the head of a horse, demon’s eyes, clam’s belly and snake’s tail, their interlocking parts can bring success or misfortune. Before greed, tragedy and Martin Shrekli, nine New Yorkers forged an unwieldy beast of their own. And it would never soar higher than Wu-Tang Forever.
Wu’s origin is cherished folklore, recited by greying pilgrims to the spin of anti-skip Discmans. After a failed Tommy Boy contract and vanquishing murder charges in Ohio, Robert Diggs set on industry takeover. A martial arts fanatic, Diggs was captivated by 1978 flick Five Deadly Venoms. The cult hit featured five warriors, each attacking with bestial ferocity. He conceived a similar cast of MCs spitting indomitable verbal Qigong. Diggs, now the RZA, plus his cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GZA along with Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa formed a nonagon of wit, knowledge and metal flying guillotines.
“Wu-Tang were supremely cool at a time when “cool” was still bankable”
RZA guaranteed supremacy if they’d submit for five years. They’d have solo record deals, clothes, caramel sundae air freshener, our hearts, our minds – you name it. Stunningly, Diggs’ concept worked. Small time hoodlums became action figures and film stars. It was the mid-90s, and Wu-Tang were supremely cool at a time when “cool” was still bankable. It was also the dawn of rap commercialization, before Beats made Dre a fortune and Jay Z hosted reptilian board meetings. RZA, his brother Divine and associate Oli Grant chased Disney money. Their golden crane logo was everywhere. Power launched the Wu Wear clothing brand, cutting the path for Roc-a-Wear and Sean Jean. They created Wu Filmz, Wu nails (really), Wu management, multiple labels and had over 100 affiliate artists, including Wu Latino and that poor guy who cut off his own katana.
Musically, Wu-Tang were also completing a flawless coup. Their bulletproof debut was followed by peerless solo strikes with Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx and Ghostface’s Ironman. The dynasty prevailed with supreme talent and street-bred marketing savvy. Fans passionately debated favorite members like sports teams and the Wu were constantly pitched sponsorship ideas. Between Kenan & Kel‘s shenanigans on Nickelodeon, they had prime TV advertising. RZA foresaw going public on the stock market. For those who doubted rap’s buying power, this was a spin kick to the jaw.
‘Triumph’ is Forever’s accurately titled lead single, where Wu-Tang align with fierce verbosity on their finest group cut. At six minutes with 10 rappers and no hook, it radiates thermogenic bars with zero pop concession. Inspectah Deck conjures 25 years of solo shows with one uncanny soliloquy, his karaoke contingent bonded to the words, “I bomb atomically.” Ignoring commercial appeal for lyrical ballast, Wu topped the spire on their own terms.
“With ‘Triumph’, the Wu-Tang Clan joined the cultural leagues of cartoons, wrestlers and superheroes”
They sealed the heist with rap’s first million-dollar video. While the Shiny Suit era had Bad Boy and Will Smith polishing classics into saccharine Billboard bait, nine imaginary ninjas bagged seven figures. Directed by Rush Hour’s Brett Ratner, ‘Triumph”s visuals fittingly parody an invasion on New York. The Clan appear as Killer Beez, descending on the Big Apple and terrifying white people everywhere – no doubt replicating the fear industry execs faced when seeing the bill. It’s retro-cinematic, ridiculous and surreal. It’s Wu-Tang.
Backed by the PlayStation era’s best CGI, the Wu blaze through an acid blotter of oddity. A bee swarm materializes into the Clan riding flaming motorbikes. GZA raps from outer space. Masta Killa cures blindness. U-God hangs upside down in a flaming tree. Quincy Jones and his daughter make a cameo for some reason. The Wu’s visuals finally matched their eccentricity; Pac and BIG’s passing, as well as coastal beef, grounded Death Row and Bad Boy in reality, while the Clan reigned on green screen. This was the troop who owned real life ninja suits and bulletproof armor after all. With ‘Triumph’, the Wu-Tang Clan joined the cultural leagues of cartoons, wrestlers and superheroes.
In hindsight, unifying the Wu would always be a temporary conquest. Fame and personal drama constantly battered their Voltron assembly. ODB avoided the ‘Triumph’ shoot and paved a legacy of unpredictability. U-God’s two-year-old son was caught in gunfire and lost a kidney. Method Man wasn’t enjoying his celebrity or the party lifestyle. Add to that, hallucinogens (Ghostface was hearing voices), the infamous arguments, sudden wealth, greedy associates and you’ve got enough misadventures to fill a Netflix category.
At the twilight of his five-year reign, RZA squirreled his disciples from New York’s grasp. Between visits from girls and kung fu teachers, they sought solace at the Wu Mansion. Legendary among fans due to an unmissable MTV Cribs episode, the luxury dojo enabled brief solidarity. Following The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, the Wu-Tang’s first dual LP indulges their assembled talent. A sprawling labyrinth of genius and oddity, Forever mostly succeeds in cementing their legacy.
“Blast Forever, and you’ll unearth prizefighters frozen in form”
Chapter one is Shaolin’s knifepoint. Writing about their performances feels like a finger painter side-eyeing Picasso’s brush stroke. Ghostface validates top five rapper claims by channelling so many bars on ‘Scary Hours’ that the beat cuts off. GZA commands authority with every utterance. Raekwon effortlessly weaves criminal insinuations, domineering his Mafioso niche. Their Rosetta Stone of abstract wordplay and coded slang is sublimely mystifying. Conventional hooks are redundant when your brain is occupied with processing: “Spenser: For Hire, tension when we mention Dryer / He’s a slave cop, behave pop / Isuzu beige top will blow that cat at the Purple Haze spot.”
Gone were days when members paid $100 to record a verse or bartered for borrowed gear. Futuristic equipment and adept musicians were at RZA’s beckoning. Engineer Carlos Bess played live drums, looped into beats to make them smack like gun claps. The album revels in spooky ambience, adding to the coiled tension of the Wu’s rhymes. Ominous guitars sound as if they’ve been plucked by undead mariachi. Violinist Miri Ben-Ari, who co-wrote Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks’, carves out eerie strings. Ye and Just Blaze would later cite RZA’s creepily-pitched vocal samples as inspiration.
Like all double albums though, Forever lacks precision. Part two bloats with B-side material and excessive solo outings. After relentless pestering, an exhausted RZA indulges both stars and substitute players. ‘Black Shampoo’ is the renowned malfeasance. U-God commits seppuku with an Herbal Essences bottle, randomly detailing peppermint-infused shower sex. Yet, there’s still plutonium amid the waste. ‘Hellz Wind Staff’ is a flying Nunchaku of peak Wu-Tang. ‘Impossible’ and ‘Heaterz’ are added to the martial arts canon alongside Romeo Must Die and Michelle Yeoh. Though lacking the impact of its precursor, the second disc’s jewels are no less pristine.
Forever dropped in June 1997 and would be the Clan’s biggest project. It sold 600k in its first week, hitting number one in the US and UK. Marketing was persuasive and 90s-style innovative. The Source ran a cover stamped with the symbol and no other headlines, simply titled “the second coming”. TV spots for band-related 900 numbers were broadcast on MTV. The discs were “enhanced” with PC bonus content allowing fans to explore the Wu mansion in badly-animated grandeur. Plus the CD-Rom had that free AOL online hook up.
“Sadly, no amount of pixelated kung fu could stop the Clan’s demise”
Oli Grant later developed the Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style PlayStation game. Forget Tamagotchi, or the soulless chuckle of your definitely possessed Furby, this was Stone Cold Stunner badassery. It was Mortal Kombat with rappers – each MC was playable in full karate gear complete with custom fighting style and fatality combos. GZA carried a blade attached to a microphone pole and RZA’s finisher included kicking a sword into the victim’s throat. Kids without strict parenting could double-edge dice from New York to China. If you were blessed with the hands of a gargantuan mutant, you could even attempt playing with the rare W shaped controller.
Sadly, no amount of pixelated kung fu could stop the Clan’s demise. Years of finger-pointing offer multiple causes. The brand exploded beyond control and was irreparably diluted. (What does Wu cologne even smell like?) Nine personalities and ambitions meant the band fought constantly, culminating in their abandoning of a lucrative Rage Against the Machine tour. RZA fled to chase cinema and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death hammered down an emotional wedge. Headlines range from infuriating to bizarre with ongoing lawsuits and internal squabbling. Late career releases are a parade of disappointment. Their 2014 act A Better Tomorrow barely registered and there’s a suited gremlin guarding another project, but let’s move on.
Appreciating the Wu-Tang Clan in 2K17 requires perseverance. Duck preachy oldies and cargo short loyalists screaming “real hip-hop”. Avoid snobs claiming they listen because it’s “rap with talent”. Yes, the Wu’s verbal swords have dulled, the logo’s been misused and the crew has divided. But with zero resources, one imaginative karate nerd, his two cousins and six other rogues summoned a cultural phenomenon. Blast Forever, and you’ll unearth prizefighters frozen in form. Razor-tongued assaults are bolstered by black belt production. The Wu-Tang Clan’s sophomore LP is weird, goofy and brilliant. At their zenith, they were peerless. Wu-Tang saved lives, created millionaires, and drove others apart. Nothing is Forever, except maybe the music.
Jimmy Ness is on Twitter