It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly fifteen years since the members of the Wu-Tang Clan announced their ascendance from the thirty-six chambers and then proceeded to revolutionize the climate of hip-hop. And in that time the Wu has become the empire RZA intended it to be, using rap as an excuse to march into movies, clothing, record labels and, of course, more rap — this is, by design, one of the most far-reaching family trees in music. From group albums to solo albums from the Original Nine — RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard — to side projects from Wu affiliates, there’s a lot out there worth checking out. But the following ten are the best Wu-related releases.
6 Feet Deep
Gravediggaz’s 6 Feet Deep came way out of leftfield as a brilliant concept album devised by a veritable supergroup with the RZA front and center. The Death Row camp told horrifying tales of gangland on the West Coast, but Gravediggaz flipped the whole notion on its ear and delivered a grind-house marathon on record.
Thanks to Prince Paul manning the boards, the beats are a perfect mix of ominous horror-film scores and soulful jazz breaks. With a Christopher Young meets A Tribe Called Quest concept in place, horror-core had its day in the sun — and an incredible day it was. On "Diary of a Madman," "1-800-SUICIDE," and "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide," the RZA spits some of the most grotesque and original verses of his career. Although the horror-core movement lulled considerably after this album’s release, 6 Feet Deep remains a magnum opus of the subgenre.
9. Masta Killa
No Said Date
Nature Sounds, 2004
In 1993, Masta Killa delivered an amazing verse full of intense, simile-laden narrative and vivid imagery on the Wu-Tang Clan’s "Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’." He then laid relatively low for a decade, usually appearing on only a handful of songs on subsequent Wu-Tang albums. What a magnificent surprise it was then, when he finally unveiled his debut album as exactly the kind of record that longtime Wu fans had been holding out for.
Masta Killa obviously spent his time off perfecting his craft. He experiments with his flow throughout the record, but he’s always sure of his poetic voice. No Said Date boasted guest spots from every member of the Clan, and production heavily supplied by RZA protégés Mathematics and True Master recall the Wu’s grimier early days. The album was overlooked when it was released, but it has the quality to obtain a cult following in years to come.
8. Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
Any environment needs to sustain a certain balance in order to stay fertile. Fittingly, the gritty style of most of the Wu was offset by the clown prince that was Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Though he was only featured on five of the twelve tracks on Wu-Tang’s debut, he immediately stood out with his over-the-top delivery.
From its comedic monologue skits to ODB’s horrible singing, Return to the 36 Chambers was pure Russell T. Jones. The album reeks of personality and stands as one of the most distinct Wu-Tang records ever released. It’s fearless in the sense that most emcees would be embarrassed to be so honest with their material. Her admits to being burned by gonorrhea twice, pleads for his audience’s respect when he curses — citing his upbringing as the culprit — and croons a rendition of a song his nana taught him over a beat that begs for the running man.
On the flipside, the album proves ODB to be the talented emcee he really was. "Brooklyn Zoo," "Hippa to Da Hoppa," and "Snakes" all find him at his most hardcore and concentrated. Meanwhile "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" turned two piano notes into one of the most celebrated motifs in ’90s hip-hop.
7. Ghostface Killah
Def Jam, 2006
It’s almost unheard of for a rapper to drop such an important album relatively late in his career. After a string of consistently good albums, Ghostface Killah delivered Fishscale, which proved him to be the exception to such a rule. He presented himself with an artistic challenge — "You ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele."
Boasting production from J Dilla, MF Doom, Just Blaze, and Pete Rock, Fishscale was an instant crowd pleaser. Ghost raised the bar lyrically, delivery novel-worthy crack rap on "Shaky Dog" and "Kilo," emotional intensity on "Whip You with a Strap" and "Back Like That," and swimming underwater with Spongebob Squarepants on "Jellyfish." More important, he fully incorporated the Clan into his mish-mash (they had been absent on his previous effort) with the incredible posse cut "9 Milli Bros."
6. Method Man
Def Jam, 1994
If Black Sabbath had recorded a hip-hop album, it would sound something like Tical, a sonic barrage of tales from the dark side. This was before Method Man was the comedic college hero he became after he and Redman filmed How High. In 1994 Method Man’s vision was that of an aural nightmare. Once again, the RZA created the canvas in which Meth was given the opportunity to splatter into a gothic masterpiece. This was indeed a rap album for headbangers.
Tical is drenched in atmospherics, from the ethereal opening title track to the tortured moans of "Bring the Pain," from the horrific imagery of "Mr. Sandman" to the triumphant violence of "Release Yo Delf." The listener is submerged within an altered reality. Even his love song, "All I Need," turned a Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet into an abrasive drone of assaulting synths. And yet somehow the album was also inviting, perhaps because Method Man was bursting with personality. He was lyrically at the top of his game and full of punch lines and allusions. His voice was ruined to perfection, like a hip-hop version of Tom Waits. Here — more than on any of his other albums — he got “his thang in action.”
5. Wu-Tang Clan
After a string of successful solo outings, the stakes were high when it was time for Wu-Tang to deliver a new group album. As if the sophomore jinx wasn’t perilous enough, they made matters riskier by deciding to make it a double album. In a sense, it was almost asking to fail. And yet the first single, "Triumph," was a five-and-a-half-minute onslaught featuring the entire Clan that rivaled their classic debut, "Protect Ya Neck."
The two-hour Wu-Tang Forever allowed the group to stretch out and explore every angle that made each individual so compelling. And yet it was a true group effort, with almost every track bursting with various members. The RZA handled most of the production, built around the string-arrangement style he had perfected on previous Wu solo joints and complemented by the work his protégés 4th Disciple and True Master. It’s an epic record, but one bursting with trademark cuts like "Reunited," "It’s Yourz" and "Visionz" that begs repeated listening.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
There has probably never been a better opening-track thesis than "Striving for Perfection," and in 1994 Raekwon achieved just that. If there’s one word that perfectly describes Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, it’s “cinematic.” The album is a movie without a video track. Each member of the Clan was an actor, assuming new names so that they may play the characters that Raekwon drafted into his script. And from track to track, we follow the exploits of Rae and Ghost — Lex Diamonds and Tony Starks, respectively — through the sort of plot-point pacing and character development found within a tight-knit screenplay.
The RZA produced the record in its entirety, and it shows his pension for scoring. Mournful string sections mingle with incidental piano motifs as Raekwon’s story unfolds before us. Upon its initial release, it was seen as a masterpiece of gangsta storytelling. When studied closer, it’s an even deeper allegory. What is first perceived as glorification through tracks like "Knuckleheadz," "Criminology" and "Ice Cream" actually has a counterpoint elsewhere. Indeed the drawn-out lament of "Rainy Dayz," the yearning for a simpler past in "Can It Be So Simple (Remix)" and the primal-scream therapy of "Heaven & Hell" prove Cuban Linx to be a drama rather than an action movie. It’s a film of bittersweet realism that should be revisited often.
Though Liquid Swords wasn’t the first solo Wu-Tang effort to be released, it was the one that seemed to sound most like the Clan’s group debut. The RZA supplied a seemingly endless supply of grimy beats that were drenched in ninja-flick synths and soulful guitar riffs. The record was, in fact, so full of Wu-Tang mythology that a nation of young listeners memorized entire monologues from the film Shogun Assassin without even realizing it.
Under the moniker of the Genius, GZA had actually released his first solo album, 1991’s Words from the Genius, before the Clan even had deal. His experience gave him the ability to shine lyrically, even when surrounded by so many talented emcees. But on Liquid Swords he let loose with a combination of realism ("Cold World," "I Gotcha Back"), imagery ("4th Chamber," "Liquid Swords") and complex wordplay ("Labels," "Shadowboxin’").
2. Ghostface Killah
Razor Sharp, 2000
Although Ghostface Killah’s 1996 debut, Ironman, was a solid disc of deep-soul samples and intriguing storytelling, it was on his sophomore effort, Supreme Clientele, that the "game got real." It was here that Pretty Toney allowed himself the freedom to explore a new, looser rhyme style that revealed him to be somewhat of a weirdo and a perhaps a lyrical genius. "Ghost Deini" found him crooning his ass off, regardless of how bad his singing voice may be. "Stroke of Death" contained a line about being chased by sharks, ripped over a skipping record. And almost every track exhibited a Ghostface who was now uninhibited by any notion of what a rap track should be, allowing the stream-of-conscious lyrics to dictate the form — it was as if he’d studied Jack Kerouac. It’s an album that is so multidimensional that even now, nearly a decade later, each listen can reveal something new.
1. Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
It may be difficult to put into scope just how important Enter the Wu-Tang really is. Upon its release in fall 1993, it wasn’t as highly regarded as it is now, but it immediately sounded classic. The levity of that statement is only amplified when you remember that the album arrived at a time when hip-hop was saturated with West Coast rap — a sound that relied heavily on Parliament samples. The RZA created a backdrop of dusty soul samples, kung-fu-movie dialogue and eerily off-key guitars and pianos that helped bring attention back to the East.
And nearly fifteen years later, it is still amazing. Each track is solid enough to be a single. And yet perhaps one of the biggest achievements is the Clan’s ability to allow so much individual personality to be spread among such a large group of hungry emcees. Suddenly hardcore hip-hop heads were discussing their favorite Killa Bee the way a teeny bopper might dissect a boy band. Certainly, Enter the Wu-Tang laid out the blueprint for how to present a crew on wax. But more important, it successfully built an empire that is still thriving and worshipped to this day.