When the Wu-Tang Clan released its first single, 1993's "Protect Ya Neck," hardcore rap was associated almost exclusively with the West Coast. Dre, Snoop, and Cube were hip-hop's most notorious rappers, and Death Row Records head honcho Suge Knight (currently serving time) was still at large, overseeing the whole g-funk operation as if he were some sort of Mafia boss. While the Wu-Tang Clan, a ragtag posse of nine rappers from Staten Island with mysterious aliases (the RZA, Genius/GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killa, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa), was just as interested in rapping about violence as its gangsta-rap counterparts, it dealt more in martial arts lore and street knowledge than gang rivalries. Despite growing up in housing projects, Clan members didn't seem as gratuitous in their ultra-violence as their West Coast counterparts; the fantasy world of choice revolved around the films of Bruce Lee and John Woo, not The Godfather and Scarface. With little in the way of radio airplay outside of New York, the band's debut album, 1994's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, became a cult item and ultimately paved the way for an East Coast hip-hop renaissance -- not that the group gets much credit. After all, the current hip-hop exhibit at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn't have any Wu-related memorabilia, and the Wu-Tang Clan has yet to win a Grammy.
"I don't really care about that shit," U-God (Lamont Hawkins) says, when asked how he feels about being excluded from the rock hall. "They ain't going to respect us. Once we go out and start crushing heads and busting heads open, then they'll respect us. We have sold over four million records and haven't won a Grammy. We haven't won any awards. They're not going to respect us until somebody in the group dies, basically."
While the Wu-Tang Clan has been signed to a major label (Loud, a division of RCA) since 1994, in order to preserve the members' individual identities, each has the freedom to record solo albums on other record labels. In fact their deal is virtually unheard of in the record industry, where artists generally are tied to one label by restrictive contracts. That the Wu-Tang Clan members were savvy enough early on in their career to understand that a traditional recording deal wouldn't serve their needs, both aesthetically and economically, is a feat in itself. As a result nearly every member of the group has released at least one solo album and collaborated with a variety of different artists. Hawkins, who just issued his first solo effort, Golden Arms Redemption, in November, is one of the last members to strike out on his own.
"Everything is always hard to make," he explains when asked why it took him so long. "Painters take time, and it's hard to make certain things, you know what I mean? I put a lot of time and focus into the album. I didn't get no sun the whole fucking summer, because I was in the studio. I was just learning things. I'm the type of brother who likes to look before I jump into things. I like to observe what niggas do and what people do and shouldn't do. I don't have to do what they've done in the past. I know how to make my music a certain way. Whatever I have in my head, I can bring to my heart and out of my mouth now. My album is different, because I have a different style, sound, and a different ear. My style is my style."
While Hawkins might have worked diligently on Golden Arms Redemption, the album unfortunately represents yet another subpar Wu-related product. Songs like "Enter U-God," "Stay in Your Lane," and "Turbo Charge" have distinctive melodies (their shaky string arrangements put together by the RZA have that telltale Wu-Tang sound) but there's a dearth of solid material on the disc. Hawkins brags about outdoing other MCs to a dull mix of beats on "Glide," while "Rumble," a collaboration with Method Man, Leatha Face, and Inspectah Deck, is a disappointment, consisting of a series of chest-beating howls that essentially amounts to little more than hot air.
"It means I bring earthquakes. I put earthquakes on wax. It's how I master my art," he says of "Rumble," adding that the song is not a reference to the world's end, a subject Method Man continually explores. "Nah, I'm not thinking about no fucking apocalypse. My shit is about redemption, which means kill, breed, redeem."
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The controlled insanity that comes out in Hawkins's answers is indicative of the way the Wu-Tang Clan has spiraled out of control. The rap sheet on Ol' Dirty Bastard, for starters, includes well-publicized tussles with the police, battles with drug addiction, and frequent drug-related arrests (he's currently in rehab). Hawkins says he's tried to confront ODB about his problems, but "he's his own man." ODB isn't the only troublemaker in the group. When the Wu-Tang Clan dropped off a much-hyped tour with Rage Against the Machine in 1997, it faced a lawsuit after four members of the group allegedly beat an employee of Loud Records at a tour stop in Chicago. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan apparently have fallen into the trap that seems to afflict so many rappers: They started acting out the hyperviolence depicted in songs like "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit." In addition members were implicated in a gun ring operating between Staten Island and Steubenville, Ohio (so far only the band's manager has been convicted of any crime; he's serving 33 months behind bars).
Personal problems are just the beginning of the issues facing the Wu-Tang Clan. The proliferation of everything from solo albums to video games and comic books indicates the extent to which the group has flooded the market. Method Man has even confessed that he didn't know a Wu-Tang video game was out until someone asked him about it. ("He's on the road, so nobody should ask him that shit," Hawkins says angrily. "He's always on the fucking road, so he doesn't know what the fuck is going on.") For a group that once waxed nostalgic about the old-school simplicity of the past (see Enter the Wu-Tang's "Can It Be All So Simple"), the Wu-Tang Clan has spun a complex web of product that shows little in the way of quality control.
Early on, however, you could be guaranteed that the Wu-Tang stamp of approval really was a sign of excellence. RZA was the first member to record outside the group, and that project, the Gravediggaz, is one of hip-hop's more underrated entities. Featuring Prince Paul (De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School), Stetsasonic's Fruitkwan, and Brothers Grimm's Poetic, the group's debut, 6 Feet Under, was the soundtrack to an unwritten ghetto horror movie. The first true solo effort by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan was Method Man's Tical, an album whose idiosyncratic flow and menacing tone established Method Man as the Clan's true star. Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995) also succeeded, in no small part because of its deliciously twisted sense of humor and off-kilter grooves. Solo albums released by Raekwon and Genius also stayed true to the Wu-Tang aesthetic, delivering memorable cuts. All of which set the stage for the Wu-Tang Clan's second album, 1997's Wu-Tang Forever. Accompanied by an onslaught of media tie-ins (both advertisements and breathless advance praise), the album sold some 600,000 copies in its first week alone. Qualitywise, however, the double-album length of Wu-Tang Forever begged to be pared down to half its size. The Wu-Tang product hasn't slowed or gotten any better. This year's slew of albums is downright mindboggling -- Method Man (with Redman), RZA, Inspectah Deck, and Ol' Dirty Bastard have all released less-than-stellar, filler-clogged solo discs -- and Hawkins maintains the group is preparing to release another Wu-Tang Clan disc next year.
"We getting that together as I'm speaking," Hawkins says, undaunted by any criticism. "Music is being formulated right now. Everybody gets their solo shit out of their blood, and it gets easier, because everybody did what they needed to do, and we can come back as a family. There's always competition, you know how it is, but we're still a family. That's why we do solo shit. Since we do get it out of our blood to go solo, we have the option to come back together again. And when we come back tighter, it's always greater, because everybody wants to see us together."