In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan emerged as not just another star within the galaxy of East Coast hip-hop, but as their own universe. The nine-man crew arrived from their home base of Shaolin -- a.k.a. Staten Island -- sui generis, with fully formed myths, beliefs, and a cryptic slanguage that took a glossary to parse. (C.R.E.A.M.? "Cash Rules Everything Around Me," naturally.) Fourteen years later, hip-hop's class of '93 is mostly gone or forgotten: Black Moon, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian. But the Wu? Still recording. Still relevant. No other hip-hop group comes even close to matching the Wu's prolificacy. By a conservative count, there have been 35 Wu-related albums since 1992; include distantly orbiting Clan satellites like Killarmy, Sunz of Man, and Remedy, and that number blooms to well over 50. (And that's not even counting all of the Wu-related movies, clothing lines, and soundtracks.) "I always want to spread knowledge and light," says group mastermind RZA. "My job ain't finished." So just when you think you have a handle on it, there's more: Last summer's Rock the Bells shows; a fifth studio album, 8 Diagrams; and Ghostface Killah's new Big Dough Rehab. Here is a guide to the best and the rest, as well as a debunking of Wu myths and a map of the Clan's sprawling cultural footprint.
CLAN CLASSICS WU-TANG CLAN ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS) Loud/RCA , 1993 The kung fu samples, the goofy nicknames (Raekwon the Chef? Ol' Dirty Bastard?), the gnomic rhyme styles, the chaotic nine-man posse cuts, the RZA's thorax-snapping beats -- it all seems commonplace now, but then? It was weird, hilarious, thrilling, and expanded the possibilities and parameters of hip-hop. Thousands of trip-hoppers owe their existence to the dreamy, smoke-infused beats, while an entire generation of underground, noncommercial, nonconformist hip-hop begins right here.
METHOD MAN TICAL Def Jam, 1994 The Clan's first solo turn and first pop hit, from the only heartthrob in the bunch. (That is, if your idea of a sex symbol enjoys torture fantasies and smells like threeday- old blunt smoke.) But there's more to Meth than looks -- his flow is something to take deep into your lungs -- those bar-ending, infinite vowels ("Ticaaaaaaal"), the way he turns every line into a catchphrase, and how he rides the RZA's psych funk with such a swagger.
GENIUS/GZA LIQUID SWORDS Geffen, 1995 Consider the GZA Wu- Tang's moral compass, aesthetic conscience, elder statesman, and resident numerology theorist. His solo debut is so cerebral and low-key the violence feels almost bloodless. Appropriating samurai ethics (via samples from Shogun Assassin) and comicbook mythos (the cover is by Denys Cowan), the GZA speaks to nerds everywhere, including Seth Rogen, who wore a Liquid Swords T-shirt in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
RAEKWON ONLY BUILT 4 CUBAN LINX... Loud/RCA, 1995 The hardest-hitting Wu member, Raekwon isn't gangsta, he's gangster. For better or worse, this hardcore classic kick-started hip-hop's fixation with Mafioso culture. In between lines of coke and musings on footwear design, Rae and cohort Ghostface look to cash in with one last big score. But RZA knows how this movie ends -- his pianos, strings, and crippled beats are going to a funeral.
OL' DIRTY BASTARD RETURN TO THE 36 CHAMBERS: DIRTY VERSION Elektra, 1995 The jester in RZA's court, ODB was a glorious mess -- an out-of-control nutcase with a slurred style that mixed comedy and violence in unsettling, thrilling ways. His first solo album matches dissonant production with tremulous vocals and punch lines that prove he's in on the joke: "I came out my mama pussy -- I'm on welfare / Twenty-six years old -- still on welfare!"
GHOSTFACE KILLAH SUPREME CLIENTELE Epic/SME, 2000 Packing a broken heart and a fistful of disco-dusted choruses, this is Ghostface at his free-associating peak; he delivers breathless slang editorials, complete with shout-outs to fruit cocktails, over '70s soul strings and dusty vocal samples. It also features radio-friendly single "Cherchez LaGhost," an uncharacteristic pop track from a guy who loves language more than platinum plaques.
SOLID SOUNDS GHOSTFACE KILLAH IRONMAN Epic, 1996 One of rap's great chrysalis-to-butterfly moves -- Ghostface emerged on his first solo record as an artist reborn. Instead of typical gangsta braggadocio, he spews his own peculiar mix of hardboiled surrealism ("Kiss the pyramid experiment with high explosive / I slapbox with Jesus, lick shots at Joseph," he spits on "Daytona 500"), soulful blaxploitation narratives, and gushy, self-pitying nostalgia trips.
RZA RZA AS BOBBY DIGITAL IN STEREO V2/Gee Street, 1998 Not quite a traditional solo album, RZA credited his first non-Wu release to a mask-wearing alter ego named Bobby Digital. There's supposedly a story line hidden somewhere in the RZA's lisped method rapping -- have fun finding it. But with beats like these -- female soul divas wail over foreboding cyberfunk -- the words have hardly ever mattered less.
OL' DIRTY BASTARD N***A PLEASE Elektra, 1999 ODB found the perfect foil for his bipolar pimp tirades in the Commodore 64 beats of the Neptunes, who crafted much of this wildly uneven album. (Good luck getting through that gargled cover of the jazz standard "Good Morning Heartache.") There's still some bawdy fun to be had here, though, on tracks like "Got Your Money"; everything Big Baby Jesus released subsequently is just exploitive and tragic.
WU-TANG CLAN THE W Loud/Columbia, 2000 The Clan's third album rights the ship after their sophomore slump, 1997's Wu-Tang Forever, ran aground. Even with nine MCs and six outsiders stopping by -- including Isaac Hayes on the histrionic, tear-streaked "I Can't Go to Sleep" -- The W is RZA's showcase through and through. His stunning avant-beats trace a line between Memphis soul and Jamaican dub, with a detour through Staten Island.
FACT OR FICTION?RZA, GZA and Raekwon confirm or deny myths of the Clan
1 After fleeing rehab in 2000, Ol' Dirty Bastard squeezed in some studio time with RZA in New York. FACT RZA: "ODB snuck out [of custody], made it to the city, and had a chance to appear at a Wu-Tang show. Afterward, I snuck him to my studio, which was a safe place to hide. I tried to get him out of town, but he was so stupid he left the studio to go get some pussy in Philly. [The police] picked his ass up talking to some bitches at McDonald's."
2 RZA owns the rights to the Wu-Tang name. FACT RZA: "I trademarked it in 1991 or '92. I have a big imagination and big dreams and big aspirations. To me, the brand is going to live through the music of Wu-Tang Clan, Wu Electronic, or Wu Films."
3 Ghostface wore a mask during the group's early days because he was wanted for robbery. FICTION RZA: "Ghostface didn't wear the mask to hide from the police; he wore the mask in an artistic way. The name Ghostface comes from a kung fu movie, The Mystery of Chess Boxing; he was one of the baddest bad guys ever to hit the screen. So the mask was just part of his persona."
4 Several of the masked men on the cover of the Wu's 1993 debut are not actually in the group. FACT GZA: "If you look at the first cover, we all wore masks. And we did our first shows with masks on. That worked to our advantage -- there were times when we had stand-ins. To be honest, at least one of those people on the cover isn't a Wu-Tang member." (According to Killah Priest, the missing included Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, and U-God.)
5 Raekwon is on Golf Digest's list of the "Top Musicians Who Play Golf." FACT Raekwon: "They put me on 'cause they respect my swing. I'm not good at all; I only played one time. I'm not trying to be a golfer. Maybe when I'm in my 60s or some shit."
6 They bankrolled the original vinyl release of "Protect Ya Neck" with drug profits. FICTION (SORTA) RZA: "The original 12-inch was funded by Wu-Tang Productions. I don't want to incriminate myself or incriminate nobody. There were a few people in the neighborhood that invested in me. They got full returns and then some." ADAM MATTHEWS
SLEEPER PICKS AND NEAR MISSES METHOD MAN & REDMAN BLACKOUT! Def Jam, 1999 Though their partnership eventually led to the weedsploitation flick How High and the cred-obliterating Method & Red sitcom, this insanely funky, blunt-saturated party record was the duo's apotheosis.
CAPPADONNA HITS Sony, 2001 This on-again, off-again Clan member used to drive a cab in Baltimore when he wasn't contributing to various Wu projects. Indeed, on this compilation, he comes off like a great taxi driver who doesn't know when to put a lid on it, spewing all kinds of knowledge and nonsense.
MATHEMATICS LOVE, HELL, OR RIGHT High Times, 2003 Apprenticeship has its privileges. After laboring under RZA's tutelage for years, beat creator Mathematics -- who also serves as the group's touring DJ -- produced this tough, sample-heavy slab studded with appearances from the Wu family. ENTER THE DUDS GZA/GENIUS BENEATH THE SURFACE MCA, 1999 Perhaps GZA exhausted his flow with Liquid Swords. This depressing follow-up -- faux RZA strings, aggravating skits, awkward pandering to the mainstream -- finds the fluid MC making the leap from goth philosopher to grumpy old man.
METHOD MAN TICAL 0: THE PREQUEL Def Jam, 2004 Meth finally jumps the shark. Flush with superstar cameos (Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg) and producers (P. Diddy, Rick Rock), his third solo disc isn't awful, just drearily average corporate rap. Even his chronic rasp sounds soothed.
HIDDEN DARTS PLAYLIST 7 deep album cuts, unreleased gems, remixes, and B-sides
America Wu-Tang Clan 1 From the 1996 charity compilation America Is Dying Slowly. Over a twochord vamp, the Clan mourn the effects of AIDS on the inner city.
I Get My Thang in Action Method Man 2 Buried in the back of Tical, this rhythmically ridiculous track has a beat that evokes Can's Germany and Fela Kuti's Africa.
Flowers (Original) Ghostface Killah 3 Ghost nicks one of the original breakbeats, Bob James' "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," on this demo eventually reworked for Bulletproof Wallets.
Wu Banga (Remix) Wu-Tang Clan 4 This bouncy remix flips the creepy mood of Ghost's Supreme Clientele cut into an up-tempo jam that provokes what few Wu songs can -- a booty shake.
Smith Bros. Raekwon 5 This sinister slow-burn reminiscence of the '90s crack wars is one of the Chef's few post-Linx career peaks.
My Guitar Ghostface Killah 6 On an early -- and superior to 8 Diagrams' -- interpolation of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Ghost croons like a man on the brink.
Cuttin Headz (Demo) Ol' Dirty Bastard, featuring RZA 7 From the Clan's original demo tape, this lo-fi rarity features an embryonic ODB: frisky, funny, and...sober?