Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a rare undisputed rap masterstroke.
Just over an hour of soul samples, kung fu film samples, and hardcore East Coast lyricism, the album introduced the world to the Wu-Tang Clan, a nine-deep crew of Staten Island roughnecks that is arguably the greatest pound-for-pound collection of hip-hop talent ever assembled. A mastermind, a genius, a stoner, a psycho, a couple of street-wise storytellers, and — let’s face it — three guys in the right place at the right time: the Wu-Tang Clan rewrote the script for hip-hop, in New York and beyond, from the streets of lowly Staten Island.
FACT’s second favorite album of the 1990s, 36 Chambers saw Wu-Tang become one of the most visible collectives in rap – without losing any of their sense of mystery. Many legends sprung up around them as they star rose. Here are nine of those myths re-examined – one for each of the members (RIP ODB). Or in the parlance of the Supreme Mathematics, “the completion of all in existence.” Seems fitting…
“Us forming like a family”
We’re sure the Wu-Tang Clan would argue that deep down they’re all family (hence 2013’s touching ‘Family Reunion’), but the three founder members of the band are actually blood relatives. Gary Grice (aka GZA), Robert Diggs (aka RZA) and Russell Tyrone Jones (aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard) are cousins, and originally formed the group under the name Force of the Imperial Master. Even back then, the three were martial arts nerds, and while they quickly changed their name to All in Together Now (to fall in line with their popular song of the same name), as the group grew they were renamed the Wu-Tang Clan, and the rest as they say is history.
“On the paper chase, like blood, my thoughts circulate”
Before they were RZA and GZA, they were Prince Rakeem and Genius, and in 1991, they released Ooh, I Love You, Rakeem EP on Tommy Boy and Words From The Genius on Cold Chillin’, respectively. Neither effort sold well; adding insult to injury, Tommy Boy decided to focus on House of Pain rather than a Prince Rakeem album.
Licking his wounds, RZA developed the Wu-Tang Clan concept and a plan to infiltrate the record industry. “If we smart, we can plunge at that moment,” he recalls telling the crew, “or we could gracefully make a safe landing to 20 years.” In 1993, the group signed with Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records for $60,000 in a deal inspired by George Clinton’s P-Funk groups: all Wu releases were to be 50/50 splits between Loud and Wu-Tang Productions. Plus, each member was allowed — and encouraged — to sign individual deals with other labels, although each solo project would kick in 20% back to the Wu-Tang Productions kitty.
RZA’s machinations worked: just a few years later, Wu-Tang Clan members were signed to five of the (then) six major record labels. And Tommy Boy Records? Warner Bros. cut them loose in 2002.
“Most of my team, Five Percent / check what the live said.”
The Nation of Gods and Earths ideologies of the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet are ubiquitous in hip-hop, but especially in the work of the Wu-Tang Clan. RZA, a devout Five-Percenter, even takes his name from the Supreme Alphabet and dedicated a large part of his Wu-Tang Manual to the practice. The group’s reliance on the Supreme systems has led to its fair share of navel gazing, wherein 36 Chambers represents the total number of heart chambers belonging to the group’s nine members, or where the 819 days between ODB’s death and the announcement of a Wu-Tang album has significance because the digits of 819 eventually add up to 9. So is the title of Enter the Wu-Tang an oblique reference to Supreme Mathematics or a nod to the Shaw Brothers’ The 36th Chamber of Shaolin? We’ll let you decide.
“You gots to be kidding, you gots to be kidding”
RZA’s tall tales are legendary, and sometimes it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction. In 2007 he offhandedly revealed to an interviewer that he “invented” the DJ technology behind Serato, and you know what – he might actually be telling the truth. According to his subsequent story, he was on tour in Switzerland in the late 90s and was introduced to a guy who possessed some rather interesting gear – notably a machine that could ‘scratch’ with digital files. RZA explained that he developed a prototype with the Swiss inventor, and they called it the Replicator. After they made 50 of the things (and RZA invested a boatload of cash) the inventor excitedly took the Replicator to a trade fair, mistakenly showing it off before the technology had properly been patented. Of course, another company took the idea, and the Wu-Tang’s technology division was bankrupted.
It sounds hard to believe, but a bit of digging does indeed dig up clues – apart from the testimony of artists who have been to RZA’s studios and seen the Replicator, there’s mention of the device and Wu Electronics (which according to Swiss records did indeed exist, and was indeed liquidated) as early as 2003, which certainly places it in the correct point in the timeline. It actually gets better – RZA claims he invented it back in 1997, and Dutch company N2IT debuted their Final Scratch technology (which would eventually become the industry standard, being absorbed into Native Instruments’ Traktor) in 1998, so the dates are worryingly similar, if possibly a little too close for comfort.
RZA also attempted to mirror the crime fighting of his bizarre alter ego Bobby Digital, and spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” building an armored suit (“literally invulnerable to AK fire”) and a “bulletproof and bombproof” black Suburban to drive around the hood in. Unfortunately the suit was stolen before he put it into action, so we can only imagine what might have gone down.
“Favorite color purple, we would circle the jets”
Raekwon’s mafioso rap opus Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is colloquially known as “The Purple Tape” for its distinctly colored cassette. The idea for the color belonged to Raekwon, who took a cue from the drug trade that inspired the album: “I wanted to potray an image that if I was selling cracks or dimes in the street, you would recognize these dimes from other n*ggas’ dimes.” However, Loud Records allegedly only complied with Rae’s colorful request for the first 10,000 tapes, turning the original run of purple tapes into sought-after collector’s items. A hip-hop icon, Get On Down Records even reissued the tape (in purple, of course) in 2012.
Considered by many to be the Clan’s finest moment, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… even has its own legendary origin story. According to RZA, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah had originally wanted to record the album in Barbados. “But when they got to Barbados, the racism was so crazy. It was on some slave mentality. The Blacks was being treated like shit,” he explained. “They stopped back in Miami, and everything was recorded in my basement. No engineer, no assistant engineer. I did everything on that shit. The only two albums I did with nobody fucking with me was Linx and Liquid Swords.”
“Spot a rapper run him down, throw him out in the third”
Ghostface might be a cuddly character now (hey, he even has time for Drake, no matter what Big Ghostfase might say), but in the early days of the Wu he’d never be seen out without his hockey mask on. Apparently the real reason for this was simple – he was wanted by police in relation to a felony charge, and didn’t want to get caught. The cover of Raekwon’s stone-cold classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the first time Ghostface appeared without his mask.
He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and when 50 Cent dropped a relatively mild diss on 1999’s ‘How To Rob’ (“Catch Rae, Ghost and RZA for them funny ass rings”), Ghost quickly hit back with a skit on Supreme Clientele. Calling him out by name, and assuring “If I see you up in here I’ma have about 500 wolves on you,” rumor has it that Ghostface was true to his word, and robbed 50 and Tony Yayo with help from Lord Superb.
Ghost apparently gave Bad Boy superstar Ma$e similar treatment after he was caught making disparaging comments about the Wu at a show. The two rappers bumped into each other at an NYC club and Ma$e was left with a broken jaw, inspiring Kanye West’s ‘Through the Wire’ line “If you could feel how my face felt, you would know how Ma$e felt,” and for a long time it’s been considered as fact that it was Pretty Toney himself who landed the blow. Listen carefully to the Supreme Clientele track ‘Malcolm’ however and you’ll notice the line “Yo I-Cham punched Ma$e in his face over some bullshit.” I-Cham was a member of Ghost’s crew at the time and it certainly seems feasible that he would have been a member of the entourage.
“For the niggas who know me tell them who the fuck I be”
There will never be another Russell Jones. By any name — Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus — he was a rap game original. As far as legends go, what hasn’t been said? He turned hip-hop antics into grand theatre: he didn’t just have children outside of wedlock, he took them to pick up his welfare check in a limo; he didn’t just have run-ins with the police, he had shootouts with them; he didn’t just beef with rappers, he peed on their platinum records. But beyond the drug-induced mania, you could tell there was a good man trying (mostly in vain) to do right, like when he saved a four-year-old girl after a car accident and visited her at the hospital. And the day after that news surfaced? ODB infamously bumrushed the stage at the Grammys, kissing Erykah Badu, interrupting Shawn Colvin, and proclaiming “Wu-Tang is for the children.”
One of the Wu-Tang Clan’s less storied members, Inspectah Deck wasn’t helped when his debut album Uncontrolled Substance flopped in the face of successful previous efforts from the Clan’s more high profile contingent. Apparently this wasn’t entirely down to Deck himself, either – the album was originally set for release in 1997, not long after Ghosface’s acclaimed debut Ironman, but these plans were ruined when RZA’s basement studio flooded. Allegedly over one hundred beats were lost in the flood, including the majority of Deck’s album, and only two RZA productions made it to the final 1999 release. Of course this doesn’t really go any way to explaining why the Uncontrolled Substance’s follow-ups were similarly lackluster, but that’s another matter entirely.
“And sometimes I feel like my life’s a movie”
A love of Kung fu and Blaxploitation films unites the Wu-Tang Clan, and most of the crew’s members have been able to make the jump from music to movies (and TV). Predictably, RZA is the most accomplished, and in the most numerous ways: he’s directed (The Man with the Iron Fists), composed (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, among others), and appeared as an actor dozens of time — most interestedly as Bobby Digital in an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch and as a rapper named Samurai Apocalypse on Californication. He’s also shown up as himself alongside GZA in both Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes and the famed “Wu-Tang Financial” skit on Chappelle’s Show.
Method Man has been the most visible actor in the crew, both in comedies like How High and more serious fare, whether on the small (Oz, The Wire) or big screens (Red Tails, Cop Land). Ghostface Killah has played fictionalized versions of himself on everything from 30 Rock to Walk Hard; even Raekwon and Masta Killa acted in the forgotten 1999 film Black and White. As is often the case, Inspectah Deck and U-God haven’t made the cut (for casting directors, at least).