It’s been nearly twenty years since the Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized hip hop with their Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debut. So iconic are the group’s core members that you could play a Beatles-style “who’s you’re favourite Clan member?” game. And Ghostface Killah and Raekwon – two of the best MCs in the business – would prove pretty popular choices.
Formed in the Staten Island – since renamed Shaolin Island by fans – borough of New York City, the group was lean and menacing at a time when the scene was either pioneering but sonically overblown (Public Enemy) or just block-party rocking (95% of the rest) Wu-Tang focused on gritty, streetwise beats and rhymes as violent as the esoteric kung-fu movies that chief producer and de facto group leader RZA sampled.
Laced with references to chess, Eastern philosophies and explicit, intense and surreal free-associative lyrics, it’s clear with hindsight that the Wu-Tang were undoubtedly a bizarre collective to dominate a genre. It would be no exaggeration, though, to say they paved the way for the subsequent East Coast rap renaissance of Nas, the Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z. Simply put, the Wu-Tang were the C.R.E.A.M of the crop.
They also turned the standard concept of a “musical group” inside out. Critically and commercially wiping the floor with the competition, the group laid down a manifesto – documented in RZA’s “The Wu-Tang Manual” – that included a plan to splinter into solo or smaller projects post-debut to maximize the profit they could make from the industry. With such obvious stars-in-the-making as GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard in their ranks, this quickly proved incredibly successful; and it didn’t take Ghostface or Raekwon long to roll out their own material.
Ghostface, perhaps only second to Method Man, was the one Clan member with the most individual star quality: he was photogenic, had the most commanding flow and was a formidable producer in his own right. Raekwon was plain domineering and a power on the mic, basically writing the gangster rap blueprint for rap don Rick Ross to follow while mostly continuing to use RZA’s nuanced, razor-sharp backing. Solo albums FishScale and Only Built For Cuban Linx are rivalled only by GZA’s classic Liquid Swords as the best from the Killa Bees (the collective name for Clan members and affiliates).
Raekwon and Ghostface projects since have been sporadic – but they show the flashes of genius justifying their standing in the hip hop community. Raekwon’s Ice H20 label, which has a Toronto base, has seen him enter the business side of the industry, while Ghostface has tried acting for film. Their only solo albums of the current decade – Raekwon’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang and Ghostface’s Apollo Kids – were both timely, expert reminders of their irrepressible talents while trading on the identity of their earlier work. To paraphrase a track from the Wu’s debut – they definitely still “ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.”
Intel presents Raekwon & Ghostface Killah at Yonge-Dundas Square, Sunday June 17th
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