Wu-Tang Clan: Phantoms of the Hip-Hopera

Everything happens in its own time on a lonely street in Burbank when it’s 1:15 in the morning. Time moves like Mrs. Butterworth, especially when it’s 1:15 and you’re waiting to be introduced to the Wu-Tang Clan. The New York rappers have been in Los Angeles for several weeks, recording the double-album Wu-Tang Forever. And so much has happened since they arrived. Their visit has overlapped with the week that their friend, the Notorious B.I.G., was shot down on a street much better lighted than this one. It’s been four years since their staggering debut, and there has been a great sense of mystery, punctuated by the occasional fits of panic, leading up to the sequel. Then a big man is dead in the street, and suddenly there is a great impetus to work long into the night and get the hell out of Dodge.

Even when it’s perfectly quiet, confusion and menace hang around the Wu-Tang. And it is perfectly quiet, as somebody bringing take-out food to the group parks behind my car. Every ten minutes or so, heads “nonchalantly” pop out of the compound’s door, looking one way up the street, taking in the stranger sitting in his car.

Everything happens in its own time on a lonely Burbank street, until something happens with great urgency. A ringed finger smacks hard on my passenger window. “Hey! Can we help you?” asks the rapper Raekwon. He is a hunched ball of muscle and baby fat, his face in my car. “Can we help you?” he repeats. The first thing I notice about the guys in Wu-Tang Clan is how helpful they can be.

Behind Raekwon stands the tall, stoned-looking Ghostface Killah, his hands casually in his pockets. “Can we see some ID?” Raekwon asks. “Nobody’s here. You have to go home now,” Ghostface adds helpfully.

In another half hour or so, the publicist arrives to straighten things out. Except she can’t get an invitation inside either, and so two cars are sitting on a lonely street in Burbank.

Three A.M. now, still outside the studio, across the street from a darkened showroom with signs for appliance companies that no longer even exist. Eventually some kind of deal is struck with the rappers and I am waved into the sanctum. Most of the ten members of Wu-Tang Clan are eating diner food, scribbling words, watching the tube. Nobody greets the stranger with the notebook, but they talk about the visiting alien as he looks for a space on the couch.

“…Thought this nigga was creeping up on us…” a voice behind me notes to the others. “Look like the CIA to me,” somebody else says. I have the distinct feeling that I am the only person in the room, which is now full, who is watching the television. There is a movie on: A volcano is bubbling up with ropy, glowing tendrils.

Is it hot in here, or is it just me? But then an inner door opens, and RZA, Wu-Tang’s producer and power source, lopes out, eyes scanning the room. Another voice to my left—somehow I can’t take my eyes off that lava—says something sharp to RZA about the stranger in their midst, but the leader raises his hands in a calm, s’alright gesture. “Naw, I met him before; he that reporter. He ai’ight,” RZA says, offering me a smile.

It is then I gain an important insight into the Wu-Tang Clan. That they are quick to respond to perceived threats, that they are capable of blowing up at the drop of a chopstick—these are things I already knew. But what I learned there surrounded by the Wu-Tang Clan was the strange power one man—RZA—has over them. He can stand on the volcano’s edge, make a simple hand movement, and the fire turns to stone. Nobody else—not even the “manager” chilling out in one car, not even the label reps chilling in another, damn skippy not a reporter—can control them. One thing RZA stands for is a “RZA-rector,” because he can bring people back to life. I am here to testify.

I have gone from being a CIA assassin to a friend of the family in a heartbeat. “Aww man, your name’s RJ? My name’s RJ too—Russell Jones,” says the rapper known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “But that’s okay. I’m an alien too.” Nearly knocking over a plate of french fries in my lungs for this olive branch, I ask Ol’ Dirty which planet he comes from. A demented grin creasing his face uncovers a row of gold caps.

“I used to have picnics on Venus,” he says, eyes and teeth twinkling. I’m game. “What did you eat at a picnic on Venus?” I venture. From behind me, Ghostface Killah offers an answer. “Food for thought.” Whatever else Wu-Tang Forever does, it will provide that, too. Because early in the morning and all day long, Wu-Tang Clan make no kind of sense. One minute the street is clear, and the next a swarm of killer bees have stripped your car for parts. They’re not there… mayhem arrives… and they’re back at their own picnic. Boom: out. They make no sense at all.

***

The Wu-Tang Clan are a game of three-dimensional chess, played in a zero-g environment. There is a fullness to their fullness.

And verily, they are many. Of the group’s ten members, five have released hit solo albums—Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, Method Man’s Tical, and the Genius’s Liquid Swords. (More solos are on the way.) Yet before they are many, they are one. One. On Earth as it is on Venus.

Wu-Tang have tapped into the Old School family feel, and their success has rekindled a vogue for rap groups. Everything they are and everything they have done flows out of a family vibe, a deep feeling of brotherhood. They seem more comfortable and a whole lot happier talking about what they share than about their individual talents. “This was always here,” says U-God. “We made it to here as a whole, so we’re going to go out as a whole.” Adds Inspectah Deck, “We’re not dealing with the four devils—no envy, lust, greed, or hate. It’s not about us, it’s about the Wu-Tang Clan, and there’s babies after us.”

Watch them together and you can’t miss the tenderness they feel for one another. They are as emotional in their own way as say, Morrissey—what makes Ghostface Killah so great is that he can’t hold anything back. “We already know that we’re going to be together for the rest of our lives, growing old together,” explains Raekwon. “We done put in our vows like that, man.”

They’re running a family business, but in some complicated way, Wu-World is a whole home shopping network (headquartered in southern New Jersey’s Wu Mansion). Since their platinum 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), members have appeared prominently on six records distributed by six different labels. Prince Paul, producer for De La Soul and a member of Gravediggaz (RZA’s horrorcore side project), remembers a day early in 1993 when he and RZA were bullshitting about the future. “He was telling me about how he figured out how to manipulate the whole industry. “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to put these records out, then get bigger deals…’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, word.’ But everything he said happened exactly how he figured it out.” They are marketing a line of Wu-Wear clothing, and want to open a string of meatless restaurants soon. There’s talk of opening a chain of family entertainment centers. They’re not just a hip-hop group, they’re an economic development model.

Wu-Tang also shifted the creative energy in hip-hop back to the East Coast. Before their rapper friends became moving targets, that even seemed like a major accomplishment. Now mental dualities like “East Coast” and “West Coast” are just invitations to a killing. So let’s simply say that the Wu-Tang Clan have decentered hip-hop in most every way possible. They have taken it away from its celebrity-mongering star system by being an ensemble of multiple identities. They have spread their power across the corporate constellation. And the music made by RZA is the most decentering effect of all—his loops hit like a wobbly record, like Art Tatum playing “Danny Boy” with fat rings on his fingers. It’s as if RZA’s saying: I am a world unto myself. If I let you in, will you first forget who you are?

“I come from welfare checks and food stamps and shit,” says RZA (born Robert Diggs). “There was literally a day you could ask for a quarter and not get it, you know what I’m saying? For real-for real. Have to go borrow five dollars from somebody else’s mother, and that five dollars will buy you a pound of bologna, a loaf of bread, not even some milk—maybe you might get something to drink, a pack of Kool-Aid.”

He and his cousins Genius, a.k.a. GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard first hooked up in Staten Island’s Park Hill projects (“Killah Hills”), and one by one they met up with the others. They traveled in a pack, going to block parties, just waiting to shout “Killah Hill!” when MC Shan’s “The Bridge” played so that they could start a rumble. Shan and the whole Juice Crew (Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Roxanne Shanté) were their models, and Wu-Tang still consider the Juice Crew’s ‘87-’88 heyday their own golden age. There was a whole lot of money around, and a whole lot of chaos, and Wu-Tang were discovering their own personal relationship to both.

They watched kung fu movies on Saturday afternoons, and then emulated Bruce Lee on the corner as the sun went down. They watched the older kids selling drugs on the corners, and then—at the moment crack was transforming what it meant to walk on a New York City street—the guys in the Clan saw it close up.

“I don’t like talking about it too much because what you say can and will be used against you in the world we’re living in. But I’m not afraid to tell you that I was a fucking knucklehead before,” says Raekwon, falling into a living room chair and rolling a fattie.

While recording in L.A., the group is staying in an anonymous and huge apartment complex the entertainment industry uses to house its temporary workers. Lots of freeway views and soap opera actors walking around in string bikinis. They call Raekwon “The Chef” because he’s got so many flavors, but his apartment is strictly lean cuisine—it hardly looks lived in. On his kitchen table: a bottle of hot sauce, a can of air freshener, and a boom box playing the pop gospel of Shirley Murdock. “I was a drug dealer. I didn’t know no better,” he says. (“Everybody knows, Jesus lives within my soul,” answers Murdock.) He wasn’t telling his mom where the money was coming from, and then again he wasn’t sharing any.

“You would be selfish back in the day when you got a little money,” he explains. “Plus, some moms don’t even like to take the money. And I think I had one of them type of moms.” On one rainy night, when Raekwon told her the truth, she threw him out of the house. He traces a single teardrop streaming down his cheek as he describes stuffing his clothes in a plastic bag and walking into the storm.

He’s made good again in his mom’s eye, in part by tabulating the details of his former trade. Raekwon’s lyrics (along with GZA’s) are the most complicated in the group, skipping from drunk-on-gangster-flick fantasies to first-person drug-trade reportage to the street-level mysticism of the Five Percent Nation (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, popular among East Coast rappers and a growing inner-city phenomenon).

It’s a crazy mix this group shares. The essence of Wu-ism is how they reinvent the gangster, and maybe thereby lay him to rest. Their music was born at a moment when the streets were spinning out of control, and they stay true to that by never claiming control of events. The West Coast mack claimed to author his fate, however terrible the ending. Wu-Tang are complicators and cryptographers who delight in the details. But fate is somebody outside the family.

They once asked John Woo to direct a video, but the action director was actually worried their music was too violent. Yet they aren’t gangsta rappers—they are apart from any ism other than Wu-ism. There’s tons of violence in their music, but violence doesn’t get them any glory in their world. They aren’t its master, as various short-lived rappers and fools not worth shooting have claimed to be. It’s just a part of the world, and of themselves, part that they know they’ll never understand.

***

Last Christmas, RZA got two microscopes as gifts. He plans to leave producing behind soon, and eventually devote himself to medicine. Maybe there, he says with pride but with no bluster, he can find a real challenge.

He starts humming a new track called “Sunshine,” and begins a seminar. “I’ll tell you one thing—everything is infinite. I make some tracks, I try not even making them a track. And the shit be the shit. ‘Sunshine,’ I made it literally in three minutes—it’s about five, six, seven, different sounds up in there.” It sounds so simple: just layer chords high and low, fill out the midrange after that, then do the drums. “Throw thunder and lightning to it, know what I’m saying? Then make a loop off of that. Most rap uses two-bar loops, one-bar loops; I made an eight-bar loop. You’ve got to wait eight bars for it to repeat itself. When that shit all mixes together, it’s going to sound crazy, man.

“It’s so easy to do this shit! That’s why I say I want to retire. Because if this is easy right here, I got to microscopes and I’m going to try it.”

As is, RZA’s been working in the studio like a lab-coated MacArthur grant prospect. “That man’s a scientist when it comes to this,” laughs DJ Muggs, whose electro-mud productions for Cypress Hill are the nearest thing to a precursor RZA has. “He’s coming to it very unorthodox—and that’s where we come together. We never had no musical training, so we’ve got to learn it on our own, invent new solutions to the problems.” He’s an intelligent man, Muggs is saying—but possessed of a nearly untranslatable form of learning.

This slender producer is certainly an amateur student in chaos theory, judging from the frenzy surrounding the group inside and outside the studio. RZA is the only guy capable of getting these nine free radicals together in one room. It’s taken four years to pull out a follow-up because, simply, you need an air traffic controller with a Ouija board just to find them all. “They remind me of me,” says George Clinton, who’s had more than three decades’ experience leading a team of independent minds. Clinton says he fell in love with the Wu-Tang one night watching TV—even with the sound off, the vibe leaked through.

The secret to running a large organization, Clinton says, is letting things happen in their own time. “If you try and control somebody, they’re going to rebel like a motherfucker.” Ideally, in a group like Parliament-Funkadelic or Wu-Tang Clan, “you have the freedom to shine within the realm of everybody else, you pick your time and move into something and if it’s working, everybody will get behind you without even thinking. But that’s [the leader’s] job as a traffic cop—to kind of weave people in and out.”

Composed, in it for the long haul, RZA quietly pilots his own mothership. He passes out the comic-book names for crew members, but this isn’t a scene from RZA-voir Dogs. When U-God pulled a Steve Buscemi making it clear he didn’t want to be Mister Pink, RZA let him pick his own alter-ego. He has kept Wu-Tang on-point and thinking about the unit.

“Most of the time it’s like organized confusion, because you got nine members, nine individual thoughts hovering,” says Inspektah Dek. “Sometimes the beat can be on for three or four days with nobody saying nothing; then all it takes is that one head to go in there and lay that first vise, and then it’s smash.”

The group will conference out a general course; RZA’ll put his thoughts on the table and others are free to accept or disagree. On Wu-Tang Forever, he noticed halfway through that the set was heavy with brutal stuff, so he started talking to everybody about writing wittier, lighter material.

For over two decades, Marshall Allen played alto sax in Sun Ra’s science-fiction jazz group Arkestra. When I asked him about the visionary band leader, he could’ve been speaking of RZA and the Wu-Tang. “Sun Ra knew people pretty well. He was good at psychology,” says Allen, age 73 and living in Philadelphia. “He tailor-made the music for the person. He would challenge each individual.” Discussion was critical. “There would be conversations about everything that is, and of the things that ain’t,” says Allen.

Even by himself, RZA courts confusion, looks for the mystery spot where sounds don’t quite harmonize, where a beat falls out of synch. Hit-making producers tend to use samples like designer logos, as recognizable artifacts that give a listener the illusion of unlimited access. But you can’t play a name-that-sample when RZA works; he uses ill moments from a tune nobody else hears, or defaces a classic until it’s a piece of Coke-bottle sea glass.

His music is a sleeping place that the ressurector brings to life, a funky-smelling wax museum where Blacula chases Roy Ayers through the crushed-velvet hallways.

“The way I look at it is, whatever we do in that studio is a recorded part of our life,” says RZA. “So there ain’t no ever to that.As long as life is, there ain’t no ever to life, cause you’re living in it. Whatever happens, happens. Sometimes there’ll be all kinds of errors in the music, and to me it makes it sound fatter because you can never expect an error, or else you wouldn’t make it.”

That’s easier done today. RZA was born in Brooklyn, but when he was three and a half, he was shipped off to live with an uncle in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. His parents were separating then, and in any case, there was no money at home to take care of a child. It was his uncle, a doctor, who RZA says gave him a positive image of himself, and exposed him to the world outside of the projects.

“That was the man who influenced me. He taught me to have my good nature. If you see me acting well-mannered—I can come to your house and eat right and not be obnoxious and treat you with respect—all my manners I learned from him.”

RZA doesn’t know why he was sent to live with his mom when he was seven; dad was out of the picture. The uncle died a year later. It signalled the end of a period of security in RZA’s life.

“I flash back to a lot of different bad things and see the goodness of it, you see what I’m saying? Just being young and shit, you’re not feeling things your mother would feel—she’s the one that got to take care of you. You may not eat, but you playing all night!”

Maybe here begins the nostalgia that threads through RZA’s 150-odd productions, echoey mixes that trigger sense-memories for places that you haven’t even seen. “Can it be so simple then?” Gladys Knight laments on a sample RZA loves. Nobody gets to look at their past through a microscope: it must be even harder to sort things out when your moment of personal awakening coincided with the peak in drug-trade insanity. Crack was Wu-Tang’s endless summer. Is it any wonder their longing is so full of panic?

***

Ghostface Killah can’t be a real ghost—his fly yellow ensemble makes the softest rustling sound as he enters the living room of his apartment in the L.A. complex. But then again, maybe he is an apparition. The rapper appears, disappears, and it’s a good half-hour before he reemerges from the bedroom and sits down to talk.

Before him on a coffee table is a well-thumbed through paperback, Hit Men: From the Files of True Detective Magazine. Like everybody else in the group, Ghostface loves a good story, and he tells it like a prophecy, wisdom to be shared with the masses.

“We’re here to civilize the uncivilized. That’s our job.” His worlds are a bullet-blast from the heart, just like his songs “Wildflower and “All I Got Is You.”

When talking about himself, Ghost stammers self-consciously. But ask him about “Mathematics,” the root science of the Five Percent Nation, and he can’t be, won’t be, stopped.

“Stop following these false holidays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and all that shit,” he exhorts. “You know who celebrates Christmas? The nigga that manufactures the toys! Why the fuck we got to be celebrating just that one day when I could give you a gift or give you my love throughout the fucking whole year? In all reality, Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. That’s the day of the Nimrod. And the fucking balls and all ya’ll be putting on the Christmas tree was the fucking heads the niggas chopped off of our people and shit that they hung from the tree.”

I am dumbstruck, in awe. But the rapper’s friend in the room with us, sits watching videos, his face registering absolutely no reaction to what is being said.

“My mind is on a totally different plane than what everybody else’s mind is on,” continues Ghost. “It’s getting too serious here, man! Cutting welfare, hundreds of cops on the fucking block, everything—soon they’ll be injecting microchips inside your babies, everything is starting to happen. So you’d be a fool being out there, left in the fucking dust like that.”

***

There’s something reassuringly rock’n’roll about Wu-Tang’s mysticism; they look a little like Led Zeppelin chilling with the Druids. Possessing secret knowledge makes you cool. It makes you cool because it gives you power, and power is what’s missing from a life in Killah Hills.

I got the chance to peep where the power is and where it isn’t when I went to Las Vegas last winter for a clothing industry show. The group’s Wu-Wear was on display; they plan to market their custom clothing in a chain of their own stores as well as to other retailers. The group itself was supposed to drop by the Wu-Wear booth and hype the product. But they missed their plane, and arrived in town just in time to play a special show that night for assorted rag tradesmen, models, and hip-hop fans.

In a swanky club’s upstains lounge, people are playing all around, but RZA ducks into a booth, pulls a hood over his head, and meditates, like a knight focusing on the battle ahead.

Downstairs, two salesmen have already put away too many drinks as they spot my notebook and seize the opportunity to unburden themselves.

“Rap, just like rock’n’roll, will never die,” says a Boss salesman. “Rebellion, revolution, whatever bullshit, it sells, and whoever stays ahead of the curve of the moment is going to make millions.” The guilty secret he needs to drunkenly share is that the clothes are all alike and it’s simply a hot logo that makes the sale.

“It’s a sad fucking business,” he adds a little later, waving a cocktail at the room. “The ethnic business. But that’s the reality of it. These guys, I’m talking about the grown-ups, they get their check on Friday, their paycheck, their welfare check. And they go and they spend it on the logo. They want their branded look. That’s their car, that’s their house, that’s their bank account and 401K.”

Another drink and one of them waves over Artis, a 19-year-old black man in stylish pistachio shorts and matching top. Artis has logged over 30,000 miles on the road working for Rego Sports, a company whose president is standing six feet away. “Hey Artis, Artis…” one salesman shouts, gesturing at the young entrepreneur. As the house system pumps Redman, Artis does as he’s told, dancing freestyle moves that put a broad smile on the faces of the salesman and the boss.

And I’m thinking: click. There are a whole lot of salesmen who still like to make a black man dance. A whole lot of white guys who make a fortune off of black kids who want to be “branded.” This I’m thinking, is the limits of Wu-ism. It’s what leads the Wu-Tang Clan to embrace the laws of “Mathematics” and their kung fu mythology. Faced with that, they improvised their own rules.

Well, it was a nice thought. Then the group comes on, and Method Man commands the front of the stage like the box-office everyman he so palpably is, and the crowd throws a fit. When he falls back, GZA moves to the front, not loose and loving the love he’s getting like Meth, but metallic and intense, every syllable, every tight bend from the hip meaning something. It’s a great show, and a room full of fashion victims are raising a motherfuckin’ ruckus.

At the end everybody abandons the stage except RZA, who walks up to the front and double-times an elongated prophecy, ruby red and streaked with ash, some crazed apocalyptic prediction that takes us right up to the millennium. Then he says “Peace,” and stomps off.

Later, when it’s over, I realize this is the way to see Wu-Tang. The salesmen, RZA’s monologue, the smile on Artis’s face when he freestyled—none of this makes any sense at all. This is not a trade show, this is not Las Vegas, we’re in Wu-World. They blow in, panic blooms, and when it’s over you’re standing there rubbing your jaw, wondering what hit you. And if any of it ever really happened. Peace.

IMPACT

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