All in the Family

It’s no longer news when a hip-hop album enters Billboard’s top 200 at the number one slot; in the last year alone, albums by A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac Shakur (as Makaveli), and the Notorious B.I.G. have done it. But the success must nonetheless seem extra sweet to the Wu-Tang Clan, whose sprawling second album, Wu-Tang Forever, sold 612,000 copies in its first week–the second highest debut sales figure since SoundScan started keeping track. And it’s not simply that, unlike Tupac and Biggie Smalls, they’re still around to enjoy it.

The issue at hand isn’t just “how many”; it’s also “how.” In the last four years, producer RZA (from slang for “razor,” because his cuts are so sharp) and rappers GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, U-God, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Inspectah Deck have rewritten the rules of the music industry. On their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Staten Island crew created a world in their own image: a hazy netherland in which their martial arts fantasies loomed at least as large as realities of the street. Since then, they’ve moved to dominate a larger world: though the debut peaked at 41 on the Billboard chart, it went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Subsequent solo albums by Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, GZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah, each featuring the sonic architecture of RZA–and each on a different label–have all sold between 650,000 and 1.1 million. Twenty percent of the earnings from each go back into a communal Wu-Tang account.

Hip-hop’s history is studded with rappers who left major groups to kick off even bigger solo careers–N.W.A’s Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Scarface of the Geto Boys–but the key to the Wu-Tang artists’ success is that they have stayed together. Like Nike or Coca-Cola or Sub Pop, Wu-Tang has become a brand, something that represents more than the sum of its parts. And its parts have multiplied: last year, the group introduced the Wu Wear clothing line (prominently modeled by the members in the new CD’s booklet) and the Priority-distributed Wu-Tang Records; RZA owns half of Razor Sharp, an Epic imprint. As Method Man put it on Enter the Wu-Tang, “We trying to make a business out of this. We trying to make our own shit.”

Not quite as clear as the group’s business plan is the new album’s lyrical concept. The group seems to be struggling with its vaguely shady past (some of the members are former drug dealers, and several have served time), and as a result the record displays some oddly contradictory ideologies. The album opener, “Wu-Revolution,” is a six-minute James Brown-style sermon on the values of the Five Percent Nation of Islam (a sect that believes the black man is God); while a gospel singer wails about Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela in the background, someone called Poppa Wu preaches black self-empowerment and respect for women. But his message is forgotten eight tracks later, as Ol’ Dirty Bastard dedicates the woman-demonizing “Maria” to “all you bitches.” The very next song, “A Better Tomorrow,” named for the film by Wu-Tang hero John Woo, is a meditation on the disciplined life, with RZA proclaiming, “You can’t party your life away / Drink your life away / Smoke your life away / Fuck your life away / Dream your life away / Scheme your life away / ‘Cause your seeds grow up the same way.” But on disc two’s “The City,” Method Man intones, “Fuck the pussy–give me the money and the weed.”

Possibly these split stances can be chalked up to the variety of strong voices within the Wu-Tang Clan–the alluring rasp of Method Man, the crazed ranting of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the kung-fu flash of Ghostface Killah, the substantive poeticism of GZA. But the musical schizophrenia is the singular work of RZA, whose production hallmarks–string samples and melancholy piano, spare, lumbering beats, and devastating two- or three-note bass lines–are increasingly being aped in hip-hop. (The recent solo debut of DJ Muggs, once the instrumental innovator in Cypress Hill, is a glaring attempt to replicate RZA’s style, and during “Intro,” the first song on the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever, RZA himself all but calls chart-topping producer Sean “Puffy” Combs “a wack nigga taking a loop, relooping that shit, and thinking it’s gonna be the sound of the culture.”) But as others learn his old tricks, RZA comes up with new ones: on Forever’s “Reunited,” a live violin solo slithers creepily over ominous beats, while on “For Heaven’s Sake” a piano loop speeds up under the chorus, sounding a little like an ice cream truck doing 70 mph through a bad neighborhood.

Despite its ideological skips, what Wu-Tang Forever (and its sales figures) says most clearly is that, especially with the erosion of the west-coast gangsta model, the Wu-Tang Clan has become the most important group in hip-hop. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, RZA notes, “We are a group of men who came together for a common cause. We can’t split up–we don’t really got too many friends besides us. We’re one in the heart and one in the mind. That’s the power of Wu-Tang.” Just as important to their concept of self-sufficiency, they’re one in the wallet, too. And that may be the real power of Wu-Tang.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos of: U-God, RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah.