On November 9, 1993, a fully formed collective of outer-borough underground rappers calling themselves the Wu-Tang Clan released their debut record, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Loaded with an array of gritty beats, kung-fu film snippets, and masterful flows that alternate between over-the-top hilarious and soul-achingly dark, it changed perceptions of what rap even was and how it could be done. It managed to bridge the gaps between commercial success, cultural viability, and critical acclaim, and stands as a milestone record in the genre. For almost any other group, the next logical step after that kind of success would have been to hit the road, then come back together to try and do it all over again. But not the Wu; they had different designs in mind.
There is hardly a more maligned phenomena in popular music than the solo record: They’re frequently received with reluctance, if not outright scorn, by the public, and approached with a great deal of skepticism. Most listeners don’t want a solo record from an individual member of their favorite band—they want all the members to get back in a room together and make the kind of music that they first fell in love with.
The history of the solo album is littered with controversial and questionable decisions. Paul McCartney used his eponymous solo debut as a way to announce the breakup of the Beatles. In 1978, all four members of KISS released their own solo efforts, a move that went a long way in causing half the band to quit within a few years. And has anyone even listened to Roger Daltrey’s 1973 solo record? Of course not—even though it has Jimmy Page on it. But for all the solo record’s negative connotations, the Wu-Tang Clan, and their nominal leader, RZA, viewed it as a tool to further their progress toward total music-industry domination.
In 1992, the Clan’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” started making its way around the underground circuit before landing in the hands of Loud Records executive Steve Rifkind. As soon as he heard it, he started leaving regular voicemails on RZA’s answering machine to try to bring the group to the label. When RZA finally showed up at his office, the two worked out a totally new kind of deal, whereby the Wu-Tang Clan itself would be signed to Loud, but all nine individual members were free to sign to other labels for whatever independent projects they might like to do.
“What made [the Wu] different from everyone else was that they had RZA, and he was so much smarter than everybody else,” Rifkind later said. For RZA, the reasoning behind the deal was clear as day, and more business-savvy than anyone might have given him credit for. With full confidence in his own abilities as a producer and beat-maker, he spread the unique talents of each member of the Clan around the music industry, snagging as much record advance money and drumming up as much publicity as he could along the way. “When Def Jam wanted to sign Method Man, they wanted to sign Method Man and Old Dirty,” RZA told NPR. “But if I had Old Dirty and Method Man on Def Jam, that’s two key pieces going in the same direction. Whereas there’s the other labels that needed to be infiltrated.”
RZA surely had a vision, and the success of Enter The Wu-Tang allowed him to put it into action. The first artist up was Method Man, who many believed had the potential to be the Clan’s biggest breakout star. The M-E-T-H-O-D Man received the greatest share of exposure early on by way of his eponymous track, which served as the B-side to “Protect Ya Neck” and was included on the group’s debut; he also voiced the now-iconic refrain “Cash rules everything around me / Cream / Get the money / Dollar dollar bill y’all,” on one of rap’s all-time greatest songs, “C.R.E.A.M.” The fact that he also appeared as the only guest on the Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album, Ready To Die, didn’t hurt, either.
After dipping away for a minute to put out 6 Feet Deep with his side project, horrorcore trio Gravediggaz, RZA got down to work with Method Man on what would be the latter’s solo debut, Tical. For this release, RZA utilized the same gritty sound and dark aesthetic that worked so well on Enter The Wu-Tang. It was a creative well he would return to again and again over the next four years. For his part, Method Man claimed to have remained blissfully unconcerned with outside industry pressures. “I was having fun,” he later said. “I didn’t care about the things that people normally care about like radio play and who’s gonna like this song, who’s gonna like that song.”
While he may have downplayed his attention to the album’s reception, when Tical dropped in November 1994, it was a far greater success than any of them could have hoped, topping the rap album charts and climbing all the way to No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Audiences continued to go crazy for the cinematic flourishes, grimy soul samples, and harshly authentic but humorous worldview that the members of the Clan cooked up. And if it was humor that listeners wanted, they were about to get more than they bargained for.
No one, either before or since, has ever rapped quite like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It didn’t matter that RZA and GZA supposedly wrote a good deal of his verses; with ODB, it was all about the delivery. Dirty had lived a rough life. He’d been shot, incarcerated, pilloried by the establishment for swinging by the welfare office to pick up his monthly check in a limousine, and would ultimately die young as a result of a drug overdose. Even as he dealt with legal and drug issues, ODB always maintained his unique style and spit unpredictable verses. In a group featuring nine dynamic personalities, his often loomed largest.
His solo record, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, doesn’t receive the same kind of acclaim that many of the other early Wu-Tang records get, but it’s vintage Dirty all the way through. He was the cousin of RZA and GZA, who shepherded him through the album’s creation, with RZA producing nearly every track and GZA even lending his lyrical support. “Dirty took all their shit and made it his own and GZA ain’t say shit,” Method Man once revealed. “Most of [Dirty’s verses] was GZA’s shit. I remember GZA and ODB got in an argument one night and GZA was like, ‘Nigga most of that shit you say on your fucking album is mines anyway!’”
Once again, RZA brought his trademark production to the record, his steadying hand giving Dirty all the room he needed to just be himself. His almost singsong delivery was wholly unique and unparalleled at the time, especially in the hardcore realm of rap. The record’s hit single, second track “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” is the best example of this dynamic. There’s a rhythm and a lyricism to his voice and style that was and remains entirely original.
Return To The 36 Chambers, which hit shelves in March 1995, was a moderate commercial success and a critical darling, though it would end up losing the inaugural Best Rap Album Grammy to Naughty By Nature’s Poverty’s Paradise. While Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard had done a lot in just four months to help develop the cultural visibility of the Wu-Tang Clan, the next two projects would help solidify its legacy as the greatest rap outfit of all time.
Ask anyone what the best Wu-Tang solo record is, and chances are the answer will be either Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or GZA’s Liquid Swords, with a smaller contrarian group championing Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele. Proponents of Cuban Linx… cite its sprawling nature and the audible chemistry between Raekwon and Tony Starks, a.k.a. Ghostface Killah, while those who herald Liquid Swords point to the tightness of its production and the matchless rhymes of GZA at the height of his powers.
Cuban Linx… came first, in August 1995, and was styled, like the other solo albums, in such a way as to attract a particular demographic. “The way we had it planned, Meth was first, Dirty was second, then Rae and GZA,” RZA explained. “At that time, it was all my word on how it would go. We attracted the children and the women with Meth; attracted the wild, crazy people not really into philosophy with ODB. Then the real street niggas, the niggas we all were shying away from, we needed to hit them.”
To attain this goal, RZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface tapped into a vast Mafioso lexicon, bringing to their work a whole new slang-infused vocabulary in order to create an image of two gangbangers looking to make one final score. “The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off,” said RZA. “They’re tired of doing what they doing, but they’re trying to make this last quarter million.”
For Liquid Swords, RZA had a different audience in mind. “I recall telling GZA, you’ll get the college crowd,” he said. At the time, it was universally acknowledged that the GZA, a.k.a. the Genius, was the best, most thoughtful rapper in the Clan. Indeed, one recent study found that he has the second-largest vocabulary in hip-hop history, trailing only Aesop Rock.
GZA always took a more methodical approach to writing than the rest of the Clan, which shows through on Liquid Swords. “Raekwon and Ghostface can step in and record a song in about 45 minutes,” GZA later commented. “I, on the other hand, would often go back and finish rhymes that I started. I would say I pieced things together [more] slowly then. Songs generally take me two to three days to write. Sometimes I take different sentences and put them together.”
Liquid Swords, while not exactly a concept record, does adhere to a common thread. His songs punctuated by excerpts from the 1980 film Shogun Assassin, the story of a Samurai decapitator who ultimately gets revenge on his former Shogun master, GZA sprinkles in elements of adversarial confrontation, violence, and an attitude of doing what needs to be done. Ever the master wordsmith, GZA adopts the general cadence and framework of “The Night Before Christmas” on the album’s most celebrated track, “Cold World,” to describe what life is like living in the ghetto.
Both albums did well on the charts, with Cuban Linx… debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and Liquid Swords peaking at No. 9. Both albums would eventually reach gold status, and are still widely considered to be two of the greatest rap records of all time. And perhaps a few more Wu-Tang albums would have reached the same lofty heights of those releases, if not for an act of God.
In 1994, a massive storm hit the island of Shaolin, a.k.a Staten Island, and rising water flooded RZA’s basement. “I lost 300 beats in the flood,” he said in a 1996 interview with Vibe Magazine. “When the first Wu album came out, we had all the other albums ready. I had the shit with everybody’s names on it, and everybody had at least 15 beats in their section. All that got washed up.” Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and GZA had all managed to release albums with beats from before the flood, but making the next member’s record would mean starting over.
Ghostface Killah was already well known for his work on Enter The Wu-Tang and as Raekwon’s sidekick on Cuban Linx…, but now it was his turn in the spotlight. His solo debut looked to be a major departure from the finely planned pre-flood releases, however—even down to the way Ghostface’s voice sounded, thanks to the flood wiping away the specific settings on microphone pre-amps that RZA had marked off for each member.
In spite of the challenges, Ghostface, with assists from Raekwon and new-to-the-Wu rapper Cappadonna, came through with a legitimately solid record, Ironman, released in October 1996. RZA again returned to the well of soul music that had brought them success in the past, marrying elements of Al Green, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke to Ghostface’s stream-of-consciousness rap style. Along with Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, Ironman stands as one of the best albums in Ghostface’s solo career, while also sadly marking the end of the Clan’s unmatched initial run.
After the release of Ironman, the Clan formed like Voltron once again for the double-disc album Wu-Tang Forever, but through a combination of big egos and the residual effects of the flood, the single-minded focus and gritty sonic aesthetic that they’d employed to such great effect over the previous four years evaporated soon thereafter. Members of the Clan began making records outside of the direction of RZA, who made some head-scratching moves of his own with his Bobby Digital series of releases. While the popularity of the Wu-Tang Clan would endure and even increase in the years to come, they would never again reach the sort of critical and commercial heights that they did in those heady years in the mid-’90s.
By taking a maligned format and making it work in their favor, the Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized rap and paved the way for many of the rap outfits and collectives that would follow in their wake. Acts like G-Unit, A$AP Mob, and Black Hippy, while sonically divergent, all owe a small debt of gratitude to the Clan’s groundbreaking business model. As for the Wu-Tang Clan members themselves, they’ve now graduated to the level of rap emissaries, and while some of their latter-day moves—like the single-copy 2015 release Once Upon A Time In Shaolin and 2014’s A Better Tomorrow—may confound or disappoint, they will forever be loved and respected for their initial run.