Ahead of the release of Wu-Tang Clan’s sixth studio album A Better Tomorrow on December 12, Getintothis‘ Jimmy Coultas charts the crew’s contribution to hip hop and picks his top ten tracks.
Since 1993 the Wu-Tang Clan have been an iron clad force of hip hop at its grittiest and most powerful, without a doubt the cartel with the greatest strength in depth the genre has seen.
All nine emcees are certified mic slayers, with a litany of regular cohorts including Cappadonna and Killah Priest capable of show stealing moments, and in RZA, one of the finest producers of all time.
Via their various solo projects, guest appearances and the five studio albums committed to wax by the group as a whole, there are thousands of tracks imprinted with their Staten Island template.
To cut a long story short, they pretty much encapsulate what the word dope stands for in rap music. On December 12 they return with new album A Better Tomorrow – and have released preview track Ruckus In B Minor – but how do you get together ten tracks to epitomise such versatility? You can’t.
Even at a hundred deep it would be incapable of demonstrating that, but this is enough to give you a flavour of the many shades of what the Wu have represented over the past 21 years. In chronological order, here’s Getintothis’ top ten Wu songs.
1. Wu Tang Clan, Protect ya Neck, from Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), 1993
Wu’s debut album 36 Chambers is a flawless LP, a top ten all-time classic hip hop record that is nigh on perfect from start to finish. Pretty much every song on there is a masterpiece, but the crowning glory of the lot remains this one, the one where every emcee bar the incarcerated Masta Killa shows up and kills it.
It’s the track that started off the Wu Tang movement and pretty much remains the definitive distillation of what they’re about. Every single one of them comes correct, from Inspektah Deck laying down a great opening gambit (more of him doing that later), RZA’s flow matching his wordplay (“crazy flamboyant for the rap enjoyment, my clan increase like black unemployment” one devilishly joyous couplet) and ODB sticking “pins in your head like a fucking nurse”.
The best comes last though, with GZA crushing the ineptitude of his former label Cold Chillin in one of his more straight talking efforts that still ripples with intricate wordplay. He would attack those same institutions with more venom on Labels on his debut LP, Liquid Swords two years later, but this was a verse that announced the sheer strength of the clan after six had already followed, U-God’s handful of bars as bridge the closest thing to a verse on a record that would epitomise what the term posse cut meant in the nineties.
It laid down a marker for what was to come, “that’s what you get when you mis-use what I invent, your empire falls and you lose every cent” killing off any vestiges of the old school sound of New York for the darker, grittier future which they would power, where there was no place for A&R men who were “a mountain climber who played an electric guitar”. The Clan was in the front.
2. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Shimmy Shimmy ya, from Return to the 36 Chambers (Dirty Verison), 1995
For all Wu’s across the board lyricism, the one that possessed probably the most star quality was Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Basing his style on a mixture of jazz timing, drunken kung fu, falsetto crooning and sheer unadulterated gibberish, ODB was somehow the nine-man cartel’s biggest R&B draw, adding his wail to the Bad Boy propelled remix of Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, Pras’ Ghetto Supatar and delivering nonsensical urban genius to the silver heeled beat the Neptunes gifted him for Got Ya Money. Despite being the most unconventional he was also the crew’s pop impresario.
There is no better example of his off kilter delivery and style than this single off his debut LP, the second to drop after Method Man’s Tical. It’s just a verse, a single verse, repeated twice with one short segment backwards, and utilises ODB’s unmistakable ill delivery where syllables are distorted into wails and rhymes are substituted for squarks. No one before and no one since has ever sounded anything like it.
3. Raekwon ft Method Man, Cappadonna & Ghostface Killah, Ice Cream, from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, 1995
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the greatest solo album committed to wax during the Wu’s vaunted golden age of activity between 1992 and 1997, maybe even the best solo album of the lot. It’s also the best produced Wu Tang album, period.
RZA’s sonic mastery of the LP is flawless, with every beat, sample, interlude and instrument segued together with the intricate finesse of the likes of Public Enemy’s It takes a Nation of Millions, Dr Dre’s The Chronic and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It’s him at the apex of his powers, a staggeringly high plateau that arguably only Dr Dre, J Dilla and the Bomb Squad, the team behind the aforementioned Public Enemy album, have matched.
Of all the beats though, from the wilding out OK Corral vibe on Criminology to the suffocating sadness of Glaciers of Ice, it’s Ice Cream that stands tallest. It’s just an unrelentingly off kilter, woozy masterpiece that manages to combine the feel of summer with a sense of foreboding at the same time, adding a deliciously noir vibe to the Clan’s sexiest track ever.
The Crayons supergroup, Rae, Ghost and Cappa, recount their chat up lines drenched in seafood metaphors, comic book references and double entendres, while Meth’s chorus is a brilliant comparison of skin complexion to ice cream flavours, and a nod to an Eddie Murphy skit from his 1983 tour Delirious. Even when the Wu talk to the ladies, it’s the most gutter, street shit going.
4. Killah Priest, Bible (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), from GZA’s album Liquid Swords, 1995
As well as the nine members in the clan, Wu’s strength stretches to a plethora of producers, rappers and hangers on that range from the great to the horrendous – note ODB’s buddy, Shorty Shit Stain rescuing his appalling standard as an emcee with one of hip-hop’s funniest monikers.
Cappadonna is the most renowned Clan cohort but for many Killah Priest is the greatest rapper to spring from outside the original nine, the Sunz of Mann emcee feted as one of the best lyricists around as well as also being part of the supergroup The HRMSN alongside Ras Kass, Kurrupt and Canibus. On Liquid Swords he’s given his own track on the most densely lyrical and thoughtful album Wu have been behind, and boy does he step up to it.
Bible, in much the same way as 36 Chambers classic, Cream, proves acronyms in song titles can be thoughtful and perfectly apt. He recounts, with a litany of references to the Christian tome, his spiritual awakening that helped him overcome his childhood struggle. Set off to a melancholy beat from RZA right hand man 4th Disciple it’s a brilliant example of Wu at their most conscious and enlightening, and a manual of how to change your life to reach the afterlife. And it’s crafted entirely by their sidekicks!
5. Ghostface Killah ft Mary J Blige & Poppa Wu, All that I got is you, from Ironman, 1996
Hip-hop has plenty of easy wins: tracks with famous R&B singers is one, playing out the rags-to-riches success story another. 1995’s Dear Mama by 2Pac also introduced the idea of paying tribute to your maternal figure as a sure-fire commercial success, cementing hip hop as an artform that can extract emotional agony as well as aggressive braggadocio.
The fact that All that I got is you is so heavily based on these clichéd elements yet remains one of the most startlingly beautiful records from the Wu canon makes it an all the more breath-taking achievement. Ghostface does all but ball his eyes out over one long, heartfelt rant about the bleakness of his upbringing – sharing clothes with his siblings, finding overgrown insects in his cereal box and wiping his arse with newspaper.
RZA’s beat, sampling the mournful strings of Jackson 5’s Maybe Tomorrow, cranks the emotion to stratospheric levels, to the point where this writer has shed a tear on numerous occasions while listening to it. Mary J Blige croons her chorus and verse in her inimitable agonising fashion before Poppa Wu drops 5 Percent science at the end. It enables you to pick your devastated carcass up and hit the day ahead, crowning an utterly masterful exercise in sonic soul searching.
6. Wu Tang Clan, Triumph, from Wu Tang Forever, 1997
While Protect Ya Neck is many’s definitive choice of the ultimate Wu posse cut, this was the first time all nine emcees (as well as Cappa) appeared on the track together, and was, Biggie Smalls’ murder aside, the moment of 1997. After four solo albums Wu were back for their sophomore cut, boasting this as the jump-off single and hip hop’s first ever million pound single to boot, taking over MTV in the process for Spring ‘97.
Inspektah Deck’s opening salvo is hip hop at its most jaw dropping, the intricacy of his wordplay endemic of the swordlike power of the Clan at its greatest and rightfully held as one of the finest verses of all time – for that alone it would be worthy of any Wu top ten. He’s backed up, though, by every rapper stepping up to the magnitude of what the record represents, hip-hop’s finest crew re-forming like Voltron and assimilating the industry from every angle. While the album it appeared on was bloated and overlong, this, at just shy of six minutes, was anything but.
7. Outkast ft Raekwon, Skew it on the BBQ, from Aquemini, 1998
Raekwon is the Wu Tang rapper you hear the most; over the five studio albums to date he appears on more songs and contributes more bars than any of the other eight. He’s not as versatile as Ghost, as charismatic as Meth or as unique as Dirty, but the lyrical density of his delivery, the unique slang he fires out and the Mafioso manifesto he has made his own have made him the perfect choice to drop guest verses – and he’s delivered some classics over the years.
During the late-90s he was omnipresent on albums, from Mobb Deep’s classic The Infamous to Slick Rick’s madly underrated The Art of Storytelling, even making Tha Alkaholiks’ breakout rapper Tash’s title track from his Rap Life album an unlikely bi-coastal identikit record lethargically great.
It was helping to open up the Dirty South to the rest of the hip hop world on Outkast’s Aquemini though that he underlined the transferability of his street savvy, contributing a mere twelve bars where every rhyme focused on an oh, starting with the classic “deliver this through your audio”.
The album would get five mics in the source, and help the group blow up on the East Coast and start Andre 3000’s steady ascension to the pantheon of greats, but Rae’s tightly packed drug drenched stanzas helped set the ball rolling, confirming the weight a Wu co-sign established.
8. Wu Tang Clan, 9 Milli Bros, from Ghostface Killah‘s album, Fishscale, 2006
As a unit Wu have barely delivered to the level they did in the 90s in the 21st century, it’s been mainly down to the odd guest verse and Ghostface holding it down. This track though, off his 2006 masterpiece, Fishscale, has all nine (plus Cappa) lending their voices to the cut, including RZA’s intro and a handful of lines from the then-deceased ODB alongside its eight verses.
The MF Doom beat is a raucous affair, and enables the reunion to pack plenty of heat for a grin inducing hip hop hoedown. It’s also a welcome detour from the cocaine driven subject matter of the rest of the album, and a nice touch as it’s also the first LP from a clansman to eschew any kind of RZA production.
9. Raekwon ft Ghostface Killah, Gihad, from Only Built for Cuban Linx II, 2009
Shaolin’s finest tag team, the chemistry between Rae and Ghost has thrown up some stellar moments over the years. 36 Chambers’ Can it be all so simple, nigh on everything on Only Built… and Ironman, and adding a steely patter to a remix of Jodeci’s bump ‘n’ grind slow jam, Freek’n You in 1995.
It’s also popped up on a cluster of the better moments from both of the emcees mixed solo joints post 2000, and this cut, off of the sequel to Only Built…, is testament to that. Rae is in his element dropping classic coke slinging barbs, but it’s Ghostface’s vaunted storytelling that steals the show, drenched as it is in a scenario excessively macabre even by Wu standards.
He recounts in vivid detail getting a blowjob, delivering the bombshell that it’s his son’s pregnant girlfriend whose “spit (is) dripping down my balls”, before eventually managing to use the inevitable gun to beat his child at the end. Oh and horrorcore rapper Necro contributes the beat, adding even more gruesome glory. In this instance, quite literally, Wu Tang is anything but for the children.
10. A$AP Nast ft Method Man, Trillmatic, from A$AP Mob’s unreleased album, L.O.R.D
When 36 Chambers dropped, the emcee who stood out the most was Method Man. He wasn’t the only emcee given his own track, GZA let rip on Clan in da Front, and both Rae and Ghostface were afforded two duets to show their sparring capabilities. But it was Meth’s eponymous solo track that marked him out as the one rapper with the most potential, underlined by the fact he was the first to spring off on his lonesome.
1994’s Tical was, for the most, critically well received, but Meth never quite managed the full length classic that Ghostface, GZA and Rae all bagged, or managed to etch his sheer personality to a record in the way ODB did with deft and then disastrous consequences on Return to the 36 Chambers and Nigga Please. In fact it was only alongside Redman, on 1999’s Blackout, where he did his best work, outside of a Wu release, across a full long player.
For the guest verse though, like Rae, he is go to guy for any artist wanting some of that Staten Island star quality. His cameos over the years have been numerous, including the overtly commercial (duetting with Sharleen Spiteri at the Brit Awards and elevating Limp Bizkit with DJ Premier on all N 2gthr now) to hip hop’s star-studded moments (alongside Redman again and The Dogg Pound on 2Pac’s I got my mind made up, the Belly OST classic Grand Finale and the only other rapper on Biggie’s classic Ready to Die).
To close off this list though it’s his contribution to 2013’s Trillmatic from A$AP Mob, proving the clout of the Wu even deep into this decade. A crew more associated with bringing the southern drawl, chopped and screwed feel and snare heavy trap sound more so than the NYC template, they turned to boom bap production to bring that classic Big apple heat (the title doffs its cap to Nas’ classic Illmatic).
20 years after he spelled his name out to the world Meth does just that, segueing in references to Walter White alongside clever use of homonyms and expert wordplay to prove that, despite being a hip hop vet, he remains more than capable.
The question, come December, is will all of the Clan hit this same stride?