Wu-Tang Clan at ONE Musicfest
Emerging in 1993, when Dr. Dre's G-funk had overtaken the hip-hop world, the Staten Island, New York-based Wu-Tang Clan proved to be the most revolutionary rap group of the mid-'90s — and only partially because of their music. Turning the standard concept of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan were assembled as a loose congregation of nine MCs, almost as a support group.
All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated on the theme the group laid out on its 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The collective's name was taken from a powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, and all nine members have worked under a number of pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa.
Although RZA wasn't one of the two founding members — GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first — the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan undoubtedly arises from his musical skills. Under his direction, the group — through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced — created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and minimal samples. Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.
The first Wu-Tang Clan single, the hard-hitting "Protect Ya Neck," appeared on their own independent label and became an underground hit. Soon, record labels were offering them lucrative contracts. The group held out until it landed a deal that would allow each member to record solo albums for whatever label he chose — in essence, each rapper was a free agent. Loud/RCA agreed to the deal, and the band's debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), appeared in November 1993. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful; although its financial success wasn't immediate, it was the result of a slow build. "C.R.E.A.M.," released in early 1994, was the single that put them over the top and won them a devoted following. The group wasted no time in pursuing other projects, as a total of five of the members — GZA, RZA, Raekwon, Method Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard — landed solo contracts as a result of the success of "C.R.E.A.M." RZA was the first to reenter the studio, this time as a member of the Gravediggaz, a group he founded; in addition to RZA, who was rechristened RZArecta, the group included De La Soul producer Prince Paul, Stetsasonic's Frukwan, and Brothers Grimm's Poetic. The Gravediggaz's album 6 Feet Deep appeared in August 1994; it eventually would go gold. Labeled "horrorcore" by the group, it was an ultra-violent but comical tour de force that demonstrated RZA's production prowess. Shortly after its release, Raekwon released his first single, "Heaven and Hell," on the Fresh soundtrack; the song was produced by RZA and featured Ghostface Killah.
The Wu-Tang Clan finally reconvened and returned with their second album, the double CD Wu-Tang Forever, in June of 1997. Hugely anticipated, the album entered the charts at number one — selling over 600,000 copies in its first week alone — and quickly spawned the hit single "Triumph." There were several contributions from guest associate Cappadonna (born Darryl Hill), who'd appeared on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ironman, and would later become the tenth member of the Wu-Tang Clan. The group toured extensively in support of the album, getting into a few minor scuffles with the law along the way.
In early 2007, in anticipation for the Clan's upcoming album, 8 Diagrams, Nature Sounds issued the Mathematics-compiled Unreleased, a collection of new remixes and hard-to-find, previously unreleased songs from the group and some of its friends. It wasn't until the end of the year, however — after a couple of delays and some criticism from Raekwon and Ghostface directed at RZA regarding the overall sound of the record — that 8 Diagrams came out. Solo albums from most members would follow, but the Clan itself would remain dormant until 2011, when the Wu-related compilation Legendary Weapons landed with some new tracks from the full group. That year, it was also announced that the Clan were working on a new studio album that would be released in 2013 to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
Eventually they reconciled, and in 2014 the album was finally finished. Entitled A Better Tomorrow, it was released in December through Warner Bros. That year the Clan also made history with the announcement that they had recorded a secret album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, of which only one copy would be pressed and sold as a unique artwork, in a custom-made hand-carved nickel and silver box, to the highest bidder. In December 2015, controversial pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli purchased the album for two million dollars. In 2017, in addition to contributing "Don't Stop" to the Silicon Valley soundtrack, the Clan issued "People Say" with Redman. The DJ Mathematics-produced single was the first offering from their album The Saga Continues. The soundtrack EP Of Mics and Men arrived in May of 2019 and featured songs inspired by the group's Showtime documentary series.