1992 – present
New York, USA
The year was 1993, when a nine-man group from Staten Island in New York would change the face of hip-hop – and the rest of the music industry – forever. As avid martial arts fans, they called themselves Wu-Tang Clan, after the 1983 movie Shaolin and Wu-Tang, and their sound was revolutionary. It was raw and grimy, laced with kung-fu movie-grabs with explicit, tongue-in-cheek lyrics over dusty, distorted soul samples. It sounded like nothing ever heard before and it ushered in an East Coast revival at a time when the West Coast sound was largely populating the radio. Wu-Tang’s monumental debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, and the group is held as one of the most influential hip hop groups in history. There is even a street in New York named after them.
The group got together in 1992 consisting of three cousins, de facto leader and producer RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, along with Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, U-God, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck. Their seminal first release in 1993 peaked at number 41 on the US Billboard 200 chart, despite its lo-fi, underground quality, and two years later it was certified Platinum. The anthemic C.R.E.A.M. (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”) was released as a single in 1994, and went gold.
RZA’s original sampling technique changing pitch and speed would shape hip-hop production for years to come, inspiring the likes of Jay-Z, Nas and Kanye West.
Aside from their sound, what allowed them to reign supreme was the group’s pioneering business approach. They had managed to negotiate a record deal with Loud Records, which allowed them the freedom to sign solo deals with other record labels, and take the Wu-Tang name with them. It was a strike of genius, the nine talented MCs artists in their own right, spawning dozens of solo careers, promoting numerous other artists, and making millions in album sales, whilst growing the Clan’s momentum. One example being Method Man, who became a Def Jam-star. At the time there were around 300 Wu-Tang Killa Bees (or affiliates) consisting of other rappers and producers. The Clan became omnipresent, jumping on each other’s projects with a steady stream of output, building an enormous body of work owing to subsequent solo and affiliate projects.
By 1995 the group already had a devout cult following and entered into the next phase of world domination by launching their own fashion label, Wu Wear, which was sold at major retailers.
The stylized golden W became one of the most recognizable logos in music, the branding not only emblazoned on clothing, but permeating other areas of popular culture, such as skateboards, video games and action figures. They also teamed up with Nike for a limited-edition shoe. Wu Wear was discontinued in 2008, and then revived once again in 2017.
After a string of successful solo projects, the group got together for Wu-Tang Forever, which dropped in June of 1997, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. This year marked the first appearance of the “unofficial tenth member”, Cappadonna on the single “Triumph“. He featured several times throughout the years, but his status as an official member remained unclear spawning widespread discussion. It wasn’t until 2014 RZA definitively clarified Cappadonna’s status as an official member.
In the years that followed, the group promoted a slew of up-and-coming affiliated artists and released a second batch of solo albums, which – according to some critics – resulted in an oversaturation and a decline in popularity.
In 2000 the group got together again for The W, which reached double platinum status and the Iron Flag the following year, which was certified gold in sales by the RIAA, but was met with mixed reviews.
Managing the group dynamic of so many diverse personalities at the height of success was not always plain sailing, interpersonal conflicts arose, but the group somehow always managed to find their way back together. Then, in 2004, everything changed with the sudden and tragic death of ‘Ol Dirty Bastard, who collapsed in the Clan’s studio from an accidental overdose. He had a long history marked by legal troubles and unpredictable behaviour, which prompted an FBI-investigation into him and the clan.
In 2005 RZA released his first book, The Wu-Tang Manual, laying down the Clan’s slang and terms (they had infamously developed several backronyms of their name, such as ‘Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game’, and ‘We Usually Take All N**gas’ Garments’), along with listing heir many sources of inspiration; martial arts, comic books, drugs, the Nation of Gods and Earths – and chess.
It would take until 2007 for the group to reassemble again to release their 5th album, 8 Diagrams, with collaborations including John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Shavo Odadjian, bassist of System of a Down. The sound has markedly veered away from the group’s original street-sound, and it debuted at number 9 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums number 25 on the Billboard 200.
In 2013 the group went on a festival-tour to commemorate 20 years since their seminal release, announcing their sixth album A Better Tomorrow. It dropped in 2014 – after openly vocalizing artistic differences, followed by negotiation and reconciliation. It debuted at number 29 on the Billboard 200.
The group’s seventh album would prove to be it’s most infamous, spawning a whole mythology surrounding it, as the full story of the album unraveled. RZA stated in an interview with Forbes that they were “about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music”… We’re making a single-sale collector’s item.” Recorded in secret over six years, the album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was pressed as a single two-CD copy and locked up in a secured vault at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. It was sold via an online auction startup for $2 million in 2015, the most expensive individual album ever sold. It then became clear that the person who had purchased the album was the notorious American businessman Martin Shkreli, referred to by the media as “Pharma Bro”, and “the most hated man in America”, who had bought the manufacturing license of the life saving drug Daraprim, and upped the price from US$13.5 to $750 per pill. Upon hearing the news the clan members voiced their discontent with the sale, and donated a lot of the proceeds to charity. RZA even tried to buy the record back. But the controversy didn’t end there. In March 2018 a federal court seized Skhreli’s assets, following his conviction for fraud, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
Today the group is still touring – 2018 marked 25 years since the release of their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). In 2019 a New York street corner was renamed “Wu-Tang Clan District” in honour of the supergroup for putting Staten Island on the map. The highly-anticipated four piece documentary ‘Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men’ was also released, along with the Hulu mini-series ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’, created by RZA and Alex Tse. The Wu-saga continues, and the hip-hop entrepreneurs’ legacy lives on forever.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Released: November 9, 1993
Released: June 3, 1997
Released: November 21, 2000
Released: December 18, 2001
Released: December 11, 2007
A Better Tomorrow
Released: December 2, 2014
Label: Warner Bros.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
Released: November 25, 2015
Label: EZCLZIV Scluzay