Watching the studio clips from the making of The Black Album on Jay-Z’s Fade to Black DVD is so inspiring. Watching the energy of the creative process as it unfolds and bears fruit is rarely captured so vividly. It reminds me of watching BMX and skateboard “buddy” videos and how they depict just how much fun it is to be so good at something.
I know sound. Sound travels at 1,120 feet per second. I mastered sound, so my beats is faaaaaaaat. — The RZA
WU: The History of the Wu-Tang Clan (BET, 2008), directed by Gerald “Gee-Bee” Barclay, captures a lot of this same creative energy. Having come up along side the Clan, Gee-Bee maintains a behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to Shaolin. WU covers the years from The Wu-Tang’s inception in 1993 to their reunion tour in 2006.
In the early 90s, the Wu-Tang Clan seem to come out of nowhere. That nowhere was Staten Island, which they renamed Shaolin when they exploded on the scene with a white-label 12″, “Protect Ya Neck” and “Method Man.” These two songs — rough, rugged, and raw like nothing else in a minute — were as catchy as they were intimidating. Their infectious rhymes, grimey beats, and in-your-face delivery was an instant hit. The sheer volume — there were nine of them, for fuck’s sake — and energy was too much to ignore.
If the first single started the fire in New York, then the first full-length, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud, 1993), set the world ablaze. It was a hydrogen bomb, rife with corner hits, intricate lyrics, dusty boom-bap beats, and straight-up personality, and its influence has been inescapable.
As revolutionary as their sound was, their business sense changed the game as well. The RZA parlayed the impact of the initial Wu-Tang release into individual deals for all of the Clansmen. This move was unprecedented. These cats weren’t Kiss circa 1975! They weren’t on top of the world, but they soon would be, and like Kiss, they’d do it with comic-book, mass appeal and hyper-obsessive fans.
Once you get on top, everyone is watching, waiting for you to fall. No different with the Wu-Tang Clan. The one flaw in RZA’s plan was that once everyone got their own, they hardly needed to stick together anymore, and with everyone pulling them apart anyway, strife was inevitable. In spite of the centrifugal force, they managed to pull it back together for Wu-Tang Forever (Loud, 1997) to worldwide acclaim.
Ironically, Forever marked the beginning of The Clan’s unraveling. More success brought more internal strife, and they were never to be the tight-knit group RZA had originally assembled. The unfortunate death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard made damn sure of it.
WU: The Story of The Wu-Tang Clan spends quite a while on Dirty’s death and its effects on the Clan. With no desrespect meant toward ODB, I have to say this is the film’s one flaw. As fast paced as the rest of it is, it seems to dwell on this part of their history.
With that said, if you’re at all interested in how this Hip-hop anomaly became a global phenomenon, WU is the place to start. These nine guys (and the countless folks behind the scenes) are damn good at what they do, and it’s great fun to watch. Put it on your tell-lie-vision and do the knowledge.
Here’s the Wu-Tang Clan’s first video, “Protect Ya Neck” [runtime: 4:35] from 1993. Check the straight rawness: