Hip-hop fans like me have been crushing on the Wu-Tang Clan for more than 20 years now, ever since we tried to impress our friends in school by reciting the names of all nine members. Recalling each one of the “Killa Beez,” a collective name attributed to the rappers, isn’t difficult, given their distinct personalities: from clear-spoken, pretty boy Method Man to the brassy, slurring Ol’ Dirty Bastard (may he rest in peace) to, of course, the group’s producer, RZA—who in 1993, when other hip-hop acts were battling to define the sound of New York City’s other boroughs, saw an opportunity to bring the thick, gritty Staten Island accent from obscurity to the forefront of East Coast rap.
While lyrically tight and aurally hypnotic, what set apart the Wu-Tang Clan from its contemporaries in the early ’90s was its subtle risk-taking. Raekwon spit hard in “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” about growing up with a drug-using father, but he did so over a beautiful vintage piano from the 1960s made sinister with understated minor chords. The crew lifted eclectic lyrical influences from everything from their neighborhoods and upbringings to their love of Socrates, ballerinas, and Asian culture (they take their name—and sample dialogue in their debut album—from a 1980s kung-fu movie, Shaolin and Wu Tang). Their debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” a harsh criticism of the music industry, led to their first big label release, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But even as they went mainstream, crew members fought to retain creative control over their careers, and each had the right to release solo albums with record labels of their choice—an unheard-of ask in the music industry at the time.
And thank the hip-hop gods that they were able to branch out and grow as individual artists without having to part ways with the clan. Method Man, who had the most mainstream appeal, was the Clan’s first breakout star. “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” his collaboration with Mary J. Blige, won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or a Group in 1996. His solo debut, Tical, wasn’t the only success story among the crew: Raekwon went for a harder sound with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . ; GZA retained Wu-Tang’s innovation of sampling martial-arts films in Liquid Swords; and Ghostface Killah’s critically acclaimed Ironman delved into Hollywood’s blaxploitation era.
The crew reunited in 1997 for Wu-Tang Forever, which again challenged the genre with “Triumph,” a stream-of-consciousness track with no chorus or bridge. Radio stations complained that the song was too long and had to be edited, but the Clan refused to shorten it, and the album still went quadruple platinum within six months.
Ever pioneers of the genre, the Wu-Tang Clan set norms still followed: big crews with diverse personas, numerous collaborations, and multimillion-dollar clothing lines (Wu-Wear). While there have been a few tiffs in the past 20 years—mostly centered around RZA and the direction of the group—the crew has largely managed to avoid one of the less-inspiring hip-hop traditions: beefs.
Most crew members reunited to promote A Better Tomorrow, a forthcoming album for their multi-decade fans. However, they again are breaking industry norms with a second “secret” album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which will be available only for one very lucky (and rich) fan to win at auction. When the album is sold, that solitary fan will have the option either to release its tracks to the world or keep them all to him- or herself. As is the Wu-Tang Clan’s way, the group will make a lot of money doing something that has never before been done in the music industry. Wu-Tang Clan Mainstage, Sat., 9:45 p.m.
Bumbershoot takes place Aug. 30–Sept. 1 at Seattle Center. $62 for single day pass, $175 for 3-day pass. Pick up Seattle Weekly’s print edition for a full schedule and map. Or go to bumbershoot.org for more information. And be sure to check out all our suggestions for music, film, and visual arts.