When Genius/GZA, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa pass the mike between them on "Silverback," one of the best cuts on Masta Killa's No Said Date, lyrically working themselves into a frenzy, it just sounds right. It makes you feel as if it's 1995 all over again, back when Wu-Tang Clan ruled the rap world.
"Just looking out of the window/Watching the gunshots blow," begins Inspectah Deck, kicking off the track.
"Protect your jaw/These silverback niggas eat they oatmeal raw," says Masta Killa on the second verse, advancing the narrative. "Still pistol-style whip you/To the gristle/While my team be stomping you out after the whistle."
"I went from the slums of hell to the paradise of heaven," finishes GZA on the third verse. "I drank with the devil and ate with the reverend/We talked numbers and I told him why I was seven."
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This is the classic Wu-Tang Clan sound -- steeped in Five Percenter and Egyptology references, tempered with street codes, and delivered with undeniable style and grace -- that the group has returned to in recent months. First there was a concert in San Bernardino, California, on July 17. It was the first time all nine members -- including Ol' Dirty Bastard, who was missing during previous tours -- had performed together since 1997.
Then last month the group issued a DVD and two compilations. The DVD and first compilation, Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter One, documents that concert, while the second, Chapter Two, is a greatest-hits disc.
The cover artwork for Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter One inserts photos of the nine members (minus Cappadonna, who was part of the group from 1997 to 2002) into a massive red-and-white Wu symbol. It repositions them as American dissidents in a perfect circle, a cipher complete after years of uneven records, legal dramas, and internal strife.
Nostalgia can be a delusional, dangerous thing that shields you from reality, and the truth is that Wu-Tang Clan doesn't wield the same influence they did in the mid-Nineties. Unlike rock-and-roll fans, however, who keep trying to reinsert their crusty old heroes (Bruce Springsteen, anyone?) in the pop culture mainstream, hip-hop fans usually don't mind falling off. After years of hungering for the latest jams, they don't mind limiting their hip-hop intake to weekend romps at the club, and saving their weeknights for decompressing to the soothing, soulful sounds of Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, and the Roots.
This creates new challenges for a onetime superstar act like Wu-Tang Clan, who need to maintain a sizable audience to stay relevant. Major labels will often keep an aging rocker on the roster if he's enough of a marquee act, but won't extend the same courtesy to a hip-hop artist. After all, it's difficult for rappers to mount the same kind of cross-country theater and arena tours that keep dinosaur rockers in the spotlight and ensure their viability; similarly, there are plenty of oldies stations dedicated to rock chestnuts, but few for classic rap.
After their long-time label, Loud Records, went under in 2002, Wu-Tang Clan aligned with Sanctuary Records Group, a company best known for distributing underground rock labels such as Rough Trade (Fiery Furnaces, Libertines). It's now trying to establish a beachhead in the urban market.
But that deal didn't account for the Clan's individual projects. Over the years, some members of the group have prospered while others have struggled to find an audience. This year, for example, Ghostface Killah received considerable acclaim and a Shortlist Prize nomination for The Pretty Toney Album, which was released on rap powerhouse Def Jam. But few people noticed that U-God dropped an album, U-Godzilla Presents the Hillside Scramblers, on his own Lucky Hands imprint; in fact, the title isn't even listed on allmusic.com.
No Said Date was released independently on his own Little Shoes label. One of the best hip-hop releases of the year, and far superior to Ghostface's wildly overpraised The Pretty Toney Album, No Said Date is an unassuming, low-key gem equal to past indie sleepers such as Cormega's The True Meaning and 50 Cent's Guess Who's Back.
Reporters have often cast Masta Killa as a surly interview subject, thanks to a 1994 incident in which he punched journalist Cheo Hodari Coker in the face for an illustration that had run alongside a Wu article. But today, during a brief phone interview, Masta Killa sounds upbeat, almost ebullient.. "Yeah, you can't listen to all that stuff, man," he says. "We're all real people, and no one sees eye-to-eye 100 percent of the time."
Maybe it makes sense then that, as the Wu battles against obscurity, both individually and collectively, Masta Killa would quietly emerge as a voice of calm and wisdom.
"There's not enough jobs in the industry for a lot of people who love music. But people will always find a way to be heard and seen. That's why the mixtape scene is so crazy," he says. Even though the Clan was one of the most influential groups of the past decade, he continues, "I don't have time to focus on what has been done, because there's so much work to be done. I'm just looking forward." Though Masta Killa is too modest to admit it, he knows that the Wu-Tang Clan's legacy is secure.
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