Parv’s Guide to the Wu-Tang Clan: Part 1 – The Knowledge

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CONTENTS
1. Introduction
2. Brief overview of Wu-Tang history
3. A note on terminology
4. Other stuff it is helpful to know before embarking on listening to Wu Tang
5. Guide to members
6. Getting to know the Wu via twenty-five killer guest spots
7. Depth chart

1. Introduction

To mark their 20th anniversary and in anticipation for their forthcoming new album, my aim is to write the most comprehensive guide to the Wu-Tang Clan found anywhere online by reviewing each and every group and solo release to date. These album reviews will form “Part 2” of this guide, but before that there is a lot of prep work to get through. For those of you who have read my previous guides to David Bowie and Bob Dylan, my deep interest in hip-hop may come as something of a surprise. And I’m not sure that I can account for it. But the fact remains that whereas most teenagers my age growing up in Britain during the 1990s were listening to Britpop and Alanis Morissette, I was rocking NWA and Ice T’s Original Gangster. I think I once heard someone play Straight Outta Compton on the coach home from a school trip and from that point I was hooked. As my tastes developed, I soon shifted over to the East Coast as my “bread and butter”. All the best rappers and hip-hop groups seemed to come from New York to my mind: Slick Rick, EPMD, Public Enemy, Erik B and Rakim, Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Notorious BIG, Nas, Big Punisher, and Jay-Z to name but ten! Not to mention, of course, the biggest and best rap collective of them all, the Wu-Tang Clan.

But what was it that appealed to me then and still does now? After all, I live pretty far from “the hood” and am about as “ghetto” as a helping of scones with clotted cream and jam. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the same thing that appeals to me  about pro wrestling – and come to think of it, all those De Niro / Pacino / Tarantino gangster flicks I loved as a teenager so much – it’s an absurd, violent, macho universe with its own lingo and internal rules and logic. I guess that doesn’t really answer the question, but that’s as far as I can go towards “accounting” for it.

This guide is intended to be a “one-stop-shop” for:

1. Complete newbies looking to get into the Wu-Tang Clan

2. People with a passing familiarity with “the classics” looking to dig deeper into the Wu-Tang chambers

3. Wu-Tang fans, because it is always fun to compare opinions. And also because, to my knowledge, no other guides like this are available online.

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2. Brief overview of Wu-Tang history

  • In the 80s, as teenagers, GZA (“The Professor”), RZA (“The Scientist”) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“The Specialist”) – cousins united by their common interests in comics, chess, kung-fu flicks, and Five-Percenter philosophy – were a group known as All in Together Now. Although originally from Brooklyn, they travelled all around New York looking for battle rhymes and block parties. GZA was apparently a kind of rap Ryu travelling the boroughs looking to take on any contender. ODB was more of a beat boxer. They were well known on the NY underground scene, but never signed as a group to a label. Eventually, they settled in the Park Hill project in Staten Island, where RZA’s grandparents lived. RZA credits GZA with teaching him everything he knows about rhyming, and legend has it that RZA in turn taught Ol’ Dirty how to rhyme.
  • In 1991, GZA (under the name “The Genius”) was signed to the record label Cold Chillin’ Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. He put out an album called Words of the Genius, and went on tour. The experience left him bitter with the corporate music industry for the rest of his career: he felt that they’d failed to promote the album properly and pushed him in a phony commercial direction (it’s still not a bad album by the way, his battle rhymes are well ahead of their time for ‘91). RZA meanwhile had signed to Tommy Boy (as “Prince Rakeem”) and fared even worse, releasing the single “Ooh, We Love You Rakeem” depicting him as a happy-go-lucky playboy, which sank without a trace – Tommy Boy passed on the option of a Prince Rakeem album. They had both been burned by the industry.
  • So RZA formed a plan. A loose collective of talented part-time underground rappers had formed around RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard from their years on the scene, and RZA went to each of them with the same famous promise: “If y’all give me five years of your life, I promise you in five years I’m gonna take us to the top”. Including the original group fo three. There were nine in all. Raekwon, Method Man, Inspectah Deck and U-God all came from the same project on Staten Island, Park Hill. Ghostface Killah was from a rival project, Stapelton, but met Raekwon in junior high school. Method Man, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck were originally a group known as DMD (Dick ‘Em Down) Crew. Ghostface dropped out of school and started spending more time hanging around with RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty.  Masta Killa also started hanging around with GZA who mentored him extensively in the art of MCing. U-God was reputedly mentored by Cappadonna, the unofficial “10th member” of the group.
  •  RZA’s “five year plan” was to launch the solo careers of each member of the clan by getting them signed onto major labels while holding onto the rights of the group. RZA has gone on record to say that his plan was very targeted. GZA, as the most intellectual member of the clan, would be targeting a college fanbase. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah would go for the gangster rap fanbase. Method Man would court a a following with female fans and even kids. RZA himself would target “cross-over” rock fans.
  • Wu-Tang albums came out in waves. First Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out in 1993, then each of the major members released their first solo albums – all produced by RZA, all to critical acclaim – then Wu-Tang Forever came out in 1997 marking the start of the next “era”. After this, most of the major members dropped their second albums (produced by different producers with minimal input by RZA). Forever and the second albums were generally well received, but not quite as devastating as the first wave. After about 2000, things start getting a bit messier. The W was the third Wu-Tang group LP in 2000, but then they came out with the disappointing Iron Flag barely year later in 2001. Many Clan members released disappointing third albums around this time. They started doing more guest spots with commercial artists and releasing endless compilation albums. To compound matters, RZA himself started becoming more wayward and experimental. The Clan started to go their separate ways. By the time 8 Diagrams, the fifth Clan group album, was released in 2007 it seemed like few people cared.
  • Since then, however, RZA has been trying to rally the troops. They’ve been touring as a group again. Several promising albums were released late in the 00s. And despite simmering tensions, the clan seem more together and unified now than they have done in a long while. At the time of writing, however, reports suggest that RZA is still waiting for Raekwon to record his verses for the new album which is otherwise complete. 2014 promising to be a big year for the Wu, not only for the group record, but also new albums promised by Raekwon (Fly International Luxurious Art) and GZA (Dark Matter) and possibly a second Czarface album from Inspectah Deck.

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3. A note on terminology

I think it’s worth pointing this out before we get started. When considering hip-hop tracks, there are five key areas that I’m looking at. Understanding what they are and the distinction between them is the first step towards being a true hip-hop head:

  • The Beat: This might appear self-explanatory. But whereas technically “the beat” refers to the drumbeat on the track, typically the phrase refers to the whole of the production – the sampling, the loop, the instrumentation, snippets from kung-fu movies, whatever – it’s all of “the music”. The person responsible for this is the producer.
  • Lyrics: This refers exclusively to the emcee’s ability to put together complex rhymes, metaphors, and so on. Great “lyrics” in this sense are about the technical skill involved in writing a tight verse. The Wu-Tang Clan are known for writing some of the most complex lyrics in hip-hop history.
  • Content: As opposed to “lyrics”, which refer mainly to rhyme construction, “content” is talking about the subject matter of the lyrics. What are the lyrics about and what are they trying to say? I think this is one of the greatest areas of confusion for general music fans when trying to appreciate hip-hop. Lyrics are judged as much on “the rhymes” as they are on what they are about. This may require, then, a shift in mindset – calling GZA a great lyricist and Bob Dylan a great lyricist are two entirely different propositions defined by different criteria. I don’t think you can “get” hip-hop until you understand this.
  • Flow: this is talking mainly about staying on the beat. It’s about how well or seamlessly, the rhymes mesh with the beat. Many members of the Wu-Tang Clan are masters of “flow”. It’s possible to demonstrate incredible flow with average lyrics, or the converse: a rapper might have incredible lyrics but be hampered by a poor flow. Method Man is a contender for “greatest flow of all time”.
  • Delivery: This is more about the vocal performance. Not just the rapper’s voice, but their energy, vibe, cadence, and so on. The distinction with flow is important. For example, it’s possible for an emcee to have both incredible lyrics and flow, but a boring, flat or uninspired delivery – this is a charge often levelled at GZA from about 2005 onwards, especially on Pro Tools. It’s also possible for an emcee to have poor lyrics or flow but an interesting or arresting delivery – some might argue that RZA in general is such an emcee.

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4. Other stuff it is helpful to know before embarking on listening to Wu Tang

  • Not just on Wu-Tang tracks, but in rap in general, when there are 3+ rappers on a single track there is an unspoken competition between them to get the best verse. They are all trying to outdo each other. The aim is to “steal” the track by delivering the dopest verse. The Wu-Tang Clan are especially into these rap battles.
  • Wu-Tang solo records often feature many other members of the Clan. While featured artists are normal in hip-hop, Wu-Tang take it to unprecedented levels and sometimes – as on GZA’s “B.I.B.L.E.” or Ghostface Killah’s “Assassination Day” – the actual named artist doesn’t appear on the track at all! This is something you have to accept and embrace. In fact, once you get into that mindset, it is actually disappointing when members of the Clan release albums that hardly feature the others at all.
  • The Wu-Tang Clan are really into Five-Percenter Philosophy, which among other things, gives them a stock of cool mystic imagery to draw from. I’d recommend at least a passing acquaintance with the Supreme Alphabet and the concepts of Supreme Mathematics. This aids greatly in the quest for understanding what the hell they are going on about half the time.
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  • Here are some other key bits of Wu-Tang Slang:

–          The 160 (“16-ooh”) – this refers to a place on Park Hill Avenue, Staten Island, outside which RZA and Method Man claim to have seen their school-friend, Poppy, shot in cold blood.
–          Biscuit –a gun
–          Duck – “sucker”
–          Grill – someone’s mouth
–          Grimey – something morally reprehensible, especially backstabbing
–          Killah Hill – Park Hill
–          Mecca – Uptown and Harlem
–          Medina – Brooklyn
–          New Jerusalem – New Jersey
–          PLO Style – the Wu claim to have dug the look of Palestinian Liberation Organization guerrilla fighters in the early 90s, especially the scarves, ski-masks and bandanas.
–          Shaolin – Staten Island (see map below)
–          Shimmy – ass
–          Tical – apparently a type of blunt that has been soaked in syrup and then dried before it is smoked; they claim to have got this from a native American tribe called the “Tikal”.

5. Guide to members

One of the challenges of getting into Wu-Tang is how to spot each of the members on record. Once you know who is who, and understand their various styles and personalities, it makes the whole thing a lot more enjoyable. Indeed, the essence of what makes Wu-Tang so great lies in these distinctive personalities.

GZA
RZA
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Method Man
Raekwon
Ghostface Killah
Inspectah Deck
U-God
Masta Killa


GZA

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Aliases: The Genius, The Professor, The Master, Justice, Maximillion, The Head

Summary: The oldest and most experienced member of the clan and its spiritual head. Perhaps because he never sought fame and stardom, more than any other member GZA embodies what the Wu-Tang is about: lyricism, anti-commercial hardcore underground hip-hop, chess, Five-Percenter philosophy, and kung-fu. He is also the most cerebral member of the group, priding himself on knowledge and intelligence. One of the all-time greats, his quiet conviction in his own abilities gives him an incredible and unshakable confidence that is almost unparalleled in hip-hop. He is known to be RZA’s favourite emcee; in one interview, the questioner asks about who inspired the Wu-Tang rapping style intimating that it might be someone like Rakim, and RZA is quick to say that GZA was essentially self-generated and invented what he calls the “Park Hill style”. In another interview, Inspectah Deck says that GZA taught him that the most important aspect of rhyming is to write in complete sentences. He favours economy and quality over quantity.

Yo, too many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long
Make it brief Son, half short and twice strong

These two lines from “As High As Wu-Tang Get” (from Wu-Tang Forever) sum up his writing philosophy. In recent times he’s been lecturing at Harvard and working with the University of Columbia and the Rap Genius website on a project called Science Genius, which aims to use hip-hop to promote an interest in science among school kids in black communities – a worthy cause indeed. There’s a superb video about one of his school visits on youtube that is quite heartwarming. GZA was always committed to “dropping knowledge and science”.

How to spot him on record: He has a distinctive voice (sounds a bit like a 1940s gangster) and flow that is marked not only by its extraordinary lyrical complexity but also by the fact that he’ll break lines or pause in odd places. On Clan tracks he often (but not always) takes the last verse and more often than not “kills it”. If you’ve listened to Liquid Swords, he’s easy to make out. Easily the best lyricist in the Clan and arguably its best emcee, GZA is also one of the most thoughtful rappers period.

Solo career: Liquid Swords is often considered to be the finest of any Wu-Tang release, but his subsequent albums Beneath the Surface and Legend of the Liquid Swords as well as his collaboration with DJ Muggs Grandmasters are all solid albums with moments of genuinely stunning verbal dexterity. 2008’s Pro Tools was something of an aberration on which he started using a different style of delivery, which frankly makes him sound bored and disinterested – hopefully it is a passing phase. He is one of a few Clan members to receive a solo track on 36 Chambers (“Clan in the Front”) [NB. GZA does not appear on the Liquid Swords track “B.I.B.L.E.”, that was his disciple Killah Priest, one of about 200 Wu-Affiliates, but one who has built up his own following.]

How he’d kill you with his sword: With stabs that pierce you with extreme precision.

RZA

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Aliases: Prince Rakeem, The Scientist, The Abbot, Rzarector, Bobby Digital, Ruler ZigZagZig Allah, Bobby Steels

Summary: The producer and de facto leader of the Clan. If GZA is the spiritual head of the Clan, RZA is the operational head. In many ways, Wu-Tang Clan is his creative and financial vision. He is the beating heart of the group. By all accounts he’s quite bossy in organising his clan-mates, but someone has to be the boss and make things happen. RZA is also a guy who seems never to have grown out of boyhood fantasies of being a kung-fu star or a comicbook superhero – he’s like the ultimate man-child uber-nerd. Along with DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Dr. Dre, RZA is widely considered one of the all-time greatest producers in hip hop. He is known for his stripped-down, jagged beats, stark piano loops, and the use of kung fu samples. RZA’s music samples are often from the most surprising sources – not surprising insomuch as who they are, it’s mostly 70s soul and R & B records – but surprising in how far the final product sounds from the song on which it is based. RZA has at least three well-known disciples collectively known as the ‘Wu-Elements’: Mathematics, True Master and 4th Disciple, who are all very good producers in their own right — they handled a lot of production on the second-wave and third-wave Wu solo albums. Mathematics is also Wu-Tang’s official DJ.

In recent times, RZA has been getting involved more and more in the film industry, not only making soundtracks and occasionally starring in films, but also directing. His debut film, The Man With the Iron Fists, came out in 2012. His most memorable moment in celluloid surely came, however, in the awesome and surreal scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes in which RZA and GZA meet Bill Murray (“Aren’t you Bill Murray, man?”).

How to spot him on record: Never the greatest rapper, RZA is easy to spot: his voice is a bit rasping and shout-y and, ironically given his name, he can’t sound his Rs properly. RZA utilizes several different styles, but he is probably at his most effective chanting like a tribal leader on hooks. He is able to deliver killer verses and occasionally does so, but RZA has always had problems with his flow and staying on the beat: it often sounds like there are one or two syllables to many like he’s struggling to get his words out or is rhyming with marbles in his mouth. All of this makes him one of the weaker emcees in the clan. Lyrically, however, on the whole he’s quite strong – you’d expect nothing else of a GZA devotee.

Solo career: On the solo album front, RZA has never really delivered the classic you’d expect of him. His solo releases are somewhat marred by his insistence on adopting the slightly annoying sci-fi persona Bobby Digital – who is essentially a more immature “party-loving” and womanising version of RZA. His best solo work has probably been in the arena of making film soundtracks, most notably for Kill Bill and Django Unchained, none of which I will be considering in the guide. However, since RZA produced Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, he’s had his hand in more than his fair share of masterpieces – they are his albums as much as the named artists’.

How he’d kill you with his sword: He’d charge you a big “rarrr” and while you’re caught like a rabbit in the headlights take you down with slashing motions

Ol’ Dirty Bastard

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Aliases:  The Specialist, Ol’ Dirt Dawg, Osirus, Big Baby Jesus, Ason Unique, Dirt McGirt, Cyrus, Dirt Schultz

Summary: Where GZA and RZA are both cerebral and quite cultured, ODB, who died in 2004 of a drug overdose, was bat-shit insane. He represented the Clan’s unchecked Id. This is nowhere is this better demonstrated than by his famous bum-rushing of the stage during the 1998 Grammy’s when he wanted to tell everyone that he bought nice new clothes in anticipation of Wu-Tang winning best rap record only to see Puff Daddy win it. If ODB wasn’t drugged out of his mind, he spent the other half inebriated by alcohol. His other antics involve picking up food stamps in a limo on national TV, taking a dump on national TV, and performing live on stage with the rest of the Clan at the Hammerstein Ballroom while he was a fugitive running from the cops – a couple of weeks later he was arrested in the carpark of a McDonalds.

How to spot him on record: Wild, shouty, throaty, funny, crude, and often not making a lot of sense. His MO was unpredictability and he helps to give this feeling that you’re getting all sorts of different unique flavours in the Wu-Tang blend. One of the easiest members to spot, his vocal style is unmistakable. Make no mistake though, for all his oddities, he could still flow on a track. ODB is the definition of “one of a kind”.

Solo career:  Because he died early, ODB only made two albums but both of them are underrated. Return to the 36 Chambers is arguably a top five Wu release, ODB is by turns clever, vulgar, funny, silly, and thought-provoking and on the tracks with GZA they make a great odd-couple. His solo album showcases what made him special while also maintaining that distinct Wu-vibe. Nigga Please had a much more mainstream feel with production by The Neptunes, and even had a single that people not into hip-hop might have heard (“Got Your Money”). People are mixed about it, but I think it is an insane masterpiece of almost avant-garde proportions. One of his labels put out the abysmal compilation record called The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones while he was in jail of ramshackle vocals he’d recorded while on the run from the feds. Before he died he was planning to release an album and this was mined for an “official” mix-tape called Osirus and the indefinitely shelved, never released A Son Unique, which are both uneven affairs with moments of greatness and moments of real crap.

How he’d kill you with his sword: Wildly swinging in a manner that suggests he was possibly drunk, then after you’d died he’d likely take his dick out and piss on your dead body.

Method Man

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Aliases: Meth, Methtical, Ticallion Stallion, MZA, Panty Raider, Shakwon, Hott Nikkels, Da Iron Lung, Blazini, Ghost Rider, Johnny Dangerous, Johnny Blaze, Tical, Hot Nixon, John-John Mclane, Ghost Rider, Long John Silver

Summary: The smoothest flow and the velvetiest voice in the Clan, Method Man was always bound to be a breakout star and is arguably the member who has achieved the most in terms of mainstream recognisability. Meth is the party animal of the group and his persona can be summed up by two things: weed and women. He’s a bit like the stoner roommate who can still score chicks – Brad Pitt in True Romance. Make no mistake though, he also has the same interests as the other clansmen and can kill all-comers on battle tracks. He does a special sideline in apocalyptic imagery too. He’s probably racked up more outside guest appearances than any other member of the clan and if not he’s definitely been the most visible in terms of whose songs he’s featured on. Method Man has done his fair share of acting too, most notably alongside Sly Stallone, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in the underrated Copland and, of course, as Cheese Wagstaff in The Wire.
I get the impression that Meth has been a bit frustrated throughout his career with the perception that he’s not taken seriously as an artist. Accordingly, he’s often butted heads with outside studios and companies over decisions take for commercial rather than creative reasons. He was critical of the Wu-Wear brand for being shitty. He was unhappy at Fox for adding a laughter track to his short-lived TV show with Redman Method & Red. And he was unhappy at the sorts of rappers P Diddy had featuring on The Notorious BIG’s posthumous Duets album. I think all of this can be seen as part of an ongoing struggle for creative legitimacy as well as a bid for the critical acclaim that seems to have eluded his solo work.

How to spot him on record: The dude just sounds cool, but he also has the lyrical complexity and verbal dexterity that marks out the Wu from most other emcees. Method Man arguably has the dopest flow in all of hip-hop: it’s effortless, it’s smooth, it’s cool, and it’s always completely at one with the beat. At times Meth sounds a bit sing-song-y in his delivery. He has an incredible ability to finish a line and launch straight into the next one hardly pausing at all with the snap of the boom-bap coming exactly at the moment of transition. He’s also awesome at staccato internal rhymes.

Solo career: Like GZA, he was given a solo track on 36 Chambers (“M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”) and is featured on The Notorious BIG’s seminal Ready to Die album. He was among the very first to drop a solo LP with Tical – which is by consensus is not as highly regarded as the other first-wave releases. This would prove to be the touchstone of his career: for some reason, the qualities that made him stand out in a group setting did not translate into stellar albums. It is as if Meth needs his clan-mates to play off, as evidenced by the superb back-and-forth between he and GZA on “Shadowboxin’” (on Liquid Swords). Perhaps as a result of this, his best received album both critically and commercially has been his collaboration with Redman (not a Wu-guy but probably the “outside” rapper most embraced by the Clan), Blackout. Most of his strongest outings, however, are on Clan LPs where he can feel like a star among his peers (he is awesome on Wu-Tang Forever) and on killer spots where he can get in, murder a track with one amazing verse, be out before his essential lack of depth starts to reveal itself.

How he’d kill you with his sword: He’d lull you into a false sense of security by looking like he’s not even trying and then cut your head off with a stylish swipe. Then he’d take a toke on a massive blunt.

Raekwon

Raekwon Portrait Session

Aliases: The Chef, Rae, Shallah Raekwon, Lex Diamonds, Louis Diamonds, Rick Diamonds

Summary: Where the likes of RZA and GZA are into their obscure mysticism and playing chess, Rae is much more on the gangsta end of things – “Mafioso” is a word that sums him up pretty well. Raekwon talks about street violence, making money and buying stuff from his gains a lot more than most other members of the clan.  Rae is a pure rapper who remains dedicated to the craft.

In recent years, however, he’s often been the source of dissension within the clan as he’s publically criticised some of the commercial and creative decisions made by RZA. In 2007, he accused RZA of stealing from the communal Wu-Tang pot. To make matters worse, he also criticised RZA’s production on 8 Diagrams. After that, he did a number of interviews (which you can find on youtube) in which he was about tensions within the group. They did collaborate on a single track for 2010’s Wu-Massacre but things weren’t right. All this came to a head in 2011 when Rae put out an album called Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang on which he intentionally and openly did not include any contributions from RZA – interestingly, GZA, the emcee closest to RZA, didn’t feature either. Despite appearing to bury the hatchet and touring together in 2013, tensions have resurfaced again recently, as RZA has publically accused Raekwon of holding up the release of the new album by continually delaying his vocals.

How to spot him on record: On posse joints, he often carries the middle portion of tracks. He raps in a rapid and intense way, sometimes the rhymes are coming so thick and fast that it sounds like there are two or three of him on the track (and often he does have a second vocal track in there). The images and street slang pile up in line after line. It’s a real verbal assault of a flow. Raekwon’s flow is probably second only to Method Man’s. His lyrics are more towards the typical 90s gangsta rap lexicon infused with liberal references to Scarface and various other gangster flicks. He and Ghostface Killah often “tag team” and telling those two apart, especially on the earlier albums, can prove challenging when you first start listening.

Solo career: His debut solo record Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the nearest rival to Liquid Swords for the title of “best Wu solo album”, and in many publications (those with more gangsta sensibilities), it is often given that crown. Ghostface Killah is an almost constant companion on that album and it is an aural shot of macho bravura and unbridled aggression. He was unable to follow it up with another stone-cold classic, but 1999’s Immobilarity is probably among the most unfairly maligned Wu releases; it didn’t deserve the critical burial it received. 2003’s The Lex Diamond Story is emblematic of the mire of mediocrity the group were facing in general during the ‘third wave’. In some ways, Rae’s solo fortunes can be seen as emblematic of the group’s trajectory in general. But then, in 2009, he released an unexpected sequel Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II with a bevy of heavyweight producers and a return to the classic Wu sound – and Ghostface tagging on many tracks – and it kicked all kinds of ass. 2011’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, despite lacking any RZA, continued in much the same vein. So despite his tensions with RZA, Rae’s career seems to be in a healthy place right now.

How he’d kill you with his sword: Dual-wielding two of them like Leonardo from the Turtles. He’d come at you with a massive flurry of double slashing attacks that move so fast that they become a blur akin to E. Honda’s hundred-hand slap or Chun-Li’s Lightning Kick.

Ghostface Killah

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Aliases: Iron Man, Tony Starks, Wally Champ, Pretty Tone, Ghost Deini

Summary: While Ghostface shares some of the same Mafioso obsessions as Raekwon, he is set apart from the other members of the group in two main ways: first, by his narrative-driven verses, and second, by his willingness to embrace more emotional subject matter. Ghostface is arguably the greatest storyteller in hip-hop since Slick Rick. But he’s engaging not only because of he’s moving you through narrative arcs and plots, but also because he’s human. He’s one rapper who isn’t afraid to admit he has vulnerabilities, failures, human frailties, moments of doubt, weakness, and so on. And in a genre dominated by the bluster of boastful machismo that is a remarkably fresh trait.

Ghostface took longer to blossom and flourish than some of his fellow clansman. In the early days of the group, he usually appeared masked. He often teamed with Raekwon and in the mid-90s would have seemed like the “junior” partner in that duo. Since 2000’s Supreme Clientele, he’s become one of the most critically acclaimed rappers in the world releasing well-received albums on a regular basis. To many casual onlookers he is the de facto “best” member of the Wu – I will deal with my own take in my “depth chart” – but for now it is enough to say that, as the most prolific member of the Wu, he certainly has highest volume of quality output.

How to spot him on record: If I was to describe Ghostface’s voice it would be “a bit like Rae’s but more kinda babyish”. He has an oddly high-pitched voice for a rapper. He often raps at the same high speed and intensity as Raekwon that can make them difficult to distinguish at first. As he’s got older, however, he’s developed his own style more and more accentuated by a soulful sound in the production.

Solo career: Ghostface’s debut Ironman was just another very solid first-wave Wu release marked by gritty production by RZA and memorable guest spots from his other group members. But in 2000, he did something really unexpected: with Supreme Clientele he released the sort of rap album to which – for whatever reason – indie rock publications and the likes of Q magazine paid attention. RZA gave the album an inspired soulful underpinning, all Isaac Hayes and George Jackson, and Ghostface turned in one of the most personal rap albums people had heard in a long time. There were also some terrific Clan joints on there to remind everyone this was Wu (check out “Wu Banga 101”). Over the next decade Ghostface would build on this working with innovative producers such as MF Doom and J Dilla as well as big names like Pete Rock. Albums like Bulletproof Wallets (2001), Fishscale (2006) and Twelve Reasons to Die (2012) have been critically acclaimed in the “right places”. So Ghostface has become the sort of rapper through which readers of hipster publications like Pitchfork might get into hip-hop. I must say that I’ve always resented those sorts of fair-weather rap fans – bugger off and listen to your Fleet Foxes bitches, leave our Ghostface alone! But it’s easy to understand why he’s received the attention he has over the past fourteen years: his albums have consistently had banging production and he’s pushed the envelope in terms of lyrical content. Ghostface has been the busiest and hardest working member of the Wu during this time and as such is constantly involved in side group projects and collaborations. He has his own crew called Theodore Unit, who released 718 in 2004. In 2010, he was part of the Wu Massacre album with Rae and Method Man. And then in 2012, he teamed up with Sheek Louch for Wu Block.

How he’d kill you with his sword: He’d stab you brutally, possibly even several times, but then feel a bit guilty about it.

Inspectah Deck

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Aliases: Rebel INS, Deck, Fifth Brother, Rollie Fingers, Ayatollah, Manifesto, Charliehorse, Da Bill Collector

Summary: In ANY other rap collective, Deck would be a standout emcee but in this company he’s just another clansman – which is insane considering just how great the Rebel INS is. Without doubt the most underrated Clan member, Deck is thoughtful and witty with intelligent, complex lyrics. He possesses a great flow. He’s an observer. The sort of person who’d be quiet and unassuming in the corner and then would come out with some stuff to make you think he was the sharpest person in the room. RZA describes him in his book as “the cool kid on the block. He’s the person that you never see but he’s always there, that guy who lurks in the shadows. Even if you didn’t think he was there when it went down, he’d seen it. He might have seen you pick your nose when no one else did in the whole party. He was the eyes of the street”. In other words, you don’t see this guy coming; the element of surprise is usually on his side.

How to spot him on record: Where GZA usually takes the final spot on posse joints, Deck almost always takes the opener – RZA calls him “the set off man”. He sets off several of the Wu’s most famous tracks, most notably “Protect Ya Neck”, “Triumph” and “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)”. He has a great energy and so often on group cuts absolutely kills it (“Smoke on the mic like Smokin Joe Frazier/ The hell-raiser/ Raising hell with the flavour”; or what about “I bomb atomically / Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses / Can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries”; or consider this one: “Dance with the mantis, note the slim chances / Chant this, anthem swing like Pete Sampras”, he has so many!). Deck’s cadence is very “up and down”, he’s a bit sing-song-y but in a very different way from someone like Method Man. I think Deck is actually one of the easier members of the clan to tell because he sounds like he’s swinging back and forth.

Solo career: I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I recall someone comparing Deck to MC Ren from the legendary NWA. Just like MC Ren, Deck has delivered some of the best verses ever written in hip hop and on some of the best and most famous albums in hip-hop. And just like MC Ren, the same level success and recognition has always eluded him as a solo artist. Deck missed the first wave of releases because of a flood in RZA’s basement, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why he doesn’t enjoy a higher profile. By the time 1999’s Uncontrolled Substance had come out, solid though it was, the moment had kind of gone – it was good, but it might have been a classic a few years earlier. Deck’s subsequent solo output has been head-scratchingly mediocre, sometimes you wonder if it’s even the same guy who kills so many tracks on group tracks and when guesting on other clansmen’s albums. Deck’s role in the Clan remains destined to be the guy who’ll come up and deliver a killer verse out of nowhere on surprise you. That said, 2013’s Czarface – a collaboration with the DJ-Emcee duo, 7L & Esoteric, was an unexpected success and a rare moment in the solo spotlight for Deck. It was well received and a sequel is promised. I fear it might be a case of too little too late for him though. On his day, however, Inspectah Deck is one of the best rappers on the planet. He has probably written as many killer verses as someone like the Notorious BIG, which sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t when you consider his contributions to songs like  “C.R.E.A.M.”,  “Protect Ya Neck”, “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit”, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin”, “Cold World”, “Duel of the Iron Mic”, “Guillotine (Swordz)”, “Assassination Day”, “Triumph”, “The City”, “Hells Wind Staff”, and “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)”, there’s probably enough A-class material to put up against any rapper dead or alive. Putting it like that, it’s probably one of hip-hops great unexplained mysteries as to why his solo work is so subpar.

How he’d kill you with his sword: You’d be walking down the alley thinking it was empty and he’d ambush you from a hidden position.

U-God

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Aliases: 4-Bar Killer, Baby-U, Baby Huey, Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Ugodz-illa, Universal God Of Law

Summary: U-God is the bluntest and least refined member of the Wu, known for his direct and no-nonsense approach. He’s also easily the most maligned member. Frequently mocked, perhaps a little unfairly, for being both the weakest name and the shittest rapper in the group. While there is some truth in that, U-God is not as awful his reputation suggests. And on certain group tracks adds a distinct, if undynamic flavour, to the clan. Your stock “one of the gang”, mostly-background-minion type Wu member.

Like Raekwon, he’s also usually one of the first members of the clan to break ranks and voice dissent against RZA or otherwise wash his dirty linen in public. He’s been almost permanently disgruntled. However, usually, because it’s U-God, no one gives a shit. Witness, for example, the incredibly embarrassing and self-indulgent feature-length documentary from 2004 U-God:  Rise of a Fallen Soldier, in which he more or less bitches for an hour and blames RZA for the fact that he’s the crappest member of the Wu. He argues that RZA played favourites and deliberately wouldn’t give him prominent spots on tracks or albums and that he didn’t get the same opportunities as other members. Or in his own words: “They never said to U-God, oh you can be #1, oh, it’s your turn. Not ever, not even for a few months. Used to rotate to the same niggas.” RZA responded fairly gracefully to all of this by phoning into Hot 97 and forgiving his bandmate for being “blasphemous” and trying to break unity, but did also mention that U-God’s time in jail and other such activities had led him to neglect his craft and not be quite as sharp as the other members of the Wu. That’s basically RZA coming out and saying “sorry mate, you’re just not as good as the other guys”. Anyway, U-God later, fittingly enough, pulled a U-turn and claimed the whole thing was just a publicity stunt for his second album (which only sold 5,000 copies worldwide). It’s for this sort of shit that people make fun of U-God. I guess there’s a moral to it: act like beta-male minion and you’ll be thought of as one.

How to spot him on record: He was in jail at the time of 36 Chambers and so only appears twice on the debut. His one proper verse is on “Da Mystery of Chess Boxin’” (“Raw I’m a give it to ya / With no trivia / Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia”), which he famously delivered down the prison phone line! His voice is quite distinctive: he’s the bass of the group, a gravelly, low and angry-sounding voice. Perhaps his most famous moment came on the closing verse of the crossover single hit from The W, “Gravel Pit”.

Solo career: Like Deck, he missed the first wave of albums and his solo debut in 1999, Golden Arms, was too little, too late – although it’s nowhere near as bad as some might have feared. However, his subsequent releases mine the depths of Wu obscura and 2005’s Mr. Xcitement is shockingly shit. That said, 2013’s The Keynote Speaker wasn’t bad at all.

Masta Killa

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Aliases: High Chief, Jamel Irief, Noodles

Summary: A disciple of GZA who is as thoughtful and chess-loving as his master. He was incarcerated for most of the time that 36 Chambers  was being recorded and wasn’t an official member of the clan until after the album came out. He is therefore the ninth member of the clan.  Reputedly he never wanted to be a rapper but was convinced to contribute to “The Mystery of Chessboxin’” on 36 Chambers after his release from jail. Legend has it that it was between him and Killah Priest to contribute a verse but Killah Priest fell asleep while Masta Killa stayed up all night writing his verse. Legend also has it that his verse on “The Mystery of Chessboxin’” – which many argue steals the track – is the first time he’d EVER rapped. GZA mentored him extensively over the next few years.

Masta Killa is one of the quietest, most humble, and, perhaps therefore, least known members of the clan and certainly the one with the lowest profile. You get the impression that he’s only too happy to let his more flamboyant or aggressive clan-mates take the limelight. However, that doesn’t mean he is the least member. In fact, among certain circles of hip-hop fans, your opinion of Masta Killa is probably used as a litmus test to prove how much or little you know. His first nine or ten guest verses delivered on Wu solo albums during the first wave of releases in the mid-90s are all held up as being all-time great verses and his own solo albums are among the most slept on and underrated hip-hop albums ever made.

How to spot him on record: He has a very unusual laid-back, some might even say “boring” flow. Lyrically, however, he is arguably one of the better emcees in the clan. And when he wants to, Masta Killa can steal tracks from seemingly out of nowhere. The problem is, however, that sometimes he seems to lack energy or enthusiasm. Paradoxically, when he’s rapping with guys like Raekwon and Ghostface, this helps him to stand out. Sometimes he raps at HALF the tempo of the other rappers of a given joint. The Wu-Tang are all about different “styles of danger”, and Masta Killa’s style is slow and methodical. He’s calculated and lethal without being flashy.

Solo career: Unsurprisingly, Masta Killa was the last member of the Wu to debut with a solo album, No Said Date released in 2004 at a time when more prominent members of the clan were releasing their third or even fourth albums. One of the more surprising things, though, was that this album was really good. Not only did it feature excellent old-school Wu-style production from RZA and the Wu-Elements, but also it features every single other member of the clan. It’s actually a late classic which probably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, probably a top 10 Wu record. Even more surprising is that the follow-up Made In Brooklyn, much in the same vein but this time with production from the likes of MF Doom and Pete Rock for good measure, was almost as good. Disappointingly, however, 2012’s Selling My Soul, on which Masta Killa utilised an even more boring, laconic version of his style and barely rhymed at times, was whack.

How he’d kill you with his sword: He wouldn’t. He’d blow a poison dart from a blow gun and then watch you die, slowly, from the effects of the deadly venom.

6. Getting to know the Wu via twenty-five killer guest spots

I admit that this is a rather unusual move, but before getting to Part 2 of this guide, which will cover every single Wu-Tang group and solo album, I really want my hypothetical newbie to get to know all of the individual members of the clan on actual tracks. I’ve decided that the best way to go about this is to point said hypothetical newbie in the direction of twenty-five memorable “outside” guest spots and then explain where our Wu member(s) are on those tracks. I have three main reasons for doing this:

1. Worrying about who is who might detract from your enjoyment of some totally banging albums. And, besides, it can be confusing to tell them all apart at first.
2. The corpus of Wu-Tang albums can look like a daunting mountain to climb for the uninitiated and this is a more “gentle” introduction which hopefully mixes some tracks with which you might already be familiar with some awesome tracks you didn’t know about.
3. Members of the clan have had some of their best and most memorable moments doing outside guest spots and knowing about those will not only furnish you with more awesome, but also give you a more complete and rounded picture of Wu-Tang in general.

Also, I won’t be providing any links to songs: it’s 2014 and you’ve got the internet so I trust you’ll be able to find this stuff if you want to. So let’s get on …

Big Punisher feat. Prodigy and Inspectah Deck – “Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy)” (from Captial Punishment, 1998)

RZA provided this grimy beat for Big Pun’s seminal debut and Deck finds himself in some exalted company here with Mobb Deep’s  Prodigy. Inspectah Deck drops the second verse here, and it’s a great example of how he can ride the cadence of a line while staying perfectly on beat. The way he alternates stressed and unstressed syllables while rhyming both of them internally is typical of Deck’s lyrical complexity.

Busta Rhymes feat. Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Roc Marciano – “The Heist” (from Anarchy, 2000)

This is reasonably high concept: the four rappers here talk us through a diamond heist they planned and executed with each one of them carrying out certain functions – all over Large Professor beat that sounds like a B-movie soundtrack. This is a fairly standard Ghostface and Rae tagteam to kick things off: Ghostface takes the first verse to set the scene and the way he ends it with the diamonds coming alive and telling Busta Rhymes to take them rather than the gems is typical of his blend of humour and vivid storytelling. Then Rae comes in and turns up the violence. The ways Rae’s rhymes keep hurtling relentlessly forward is characteristic of his flow.

Cypress Hill feat. RZA and U-God – “Killa Hill Niggas”  (from Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom, 1995)

RZA produced this dark twisted-sounding track from the Cypress Hill’s mostly forgettable third album. RZA takes the second verse himself and is pretty easy to distinguish from the unique high-pitched nasal vocals of B-Real. The way RZA seems to pack 3-4 too many syllables into each line is characteristic of his style. U-God drops the third verse and unfortunately his lyrics are pretty weak:

Comin out the domepiece, smell my aroma
Warrior nomad, put you in a coma
Comma, llama, smash-crashin your armor
Drama, I’m a, stealth aircraft bomber

That’s a bunch of words that rhyme but none of it makes a lot of sense – that’s not very Wu, but sadly it is pretty U.

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Danger Doom feat. Ghostface Killah – “The Mask” (from The Mouse and the Mask, 2005)

Danger Mouse and MF Doom were hipster darlings in the mid-00s and so it made perfect sense for them to team up for an album and equally perfect sense for the equally hip Ghostface to drop in for a verse on their collaboration. I will come right out and say that I don’t think Doom is a very good rapper at all (no flow!) and so it wasn’t difficult for Ghostface to steal this track. He takes the second verse and is very at home over Danger Mouse’s super-hero inspired beat. One feature of Ghostface’s writing is the way he drops in quite homely “everyday” things into his similies; consider for example: “when the winter time come, I gets stuck with my brain all numb / Like I ate a thousand icey’s and frozen Pepsis”. Everyone has suffered brain freeze at one time or another and you can instantly relate to what he’s saying. Doom and Ghostface get on very well and have planned an album together. They also had a track together in 2011 called “Victory Laps” under the name Doomstarks.

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DJ Muggs feat. RZA and GZA – “Third World” (from Soul Assassins, Chapter 1, 1997)

Cypress Hill’s producer DJ Muggs put together a who’s who of rap on his Soul Assassins albums and by 97 RZA and GZA were pretty much hip-hop royalty. GZA takes the first verse here and absolutely kills it!

Via satellite from the Wu-mansion
Still branchin’ off the tree that sparked any MC
And the fruit that fell far was the ripest
It was Cypress, let the media hype this

GZA imagines hip-hop as a giant tree that drops MCs like fruit. And then, in a nice gesture to his “host” here, Muggs, gives Cypress Hill the kudos of being the “ripest” of the fruits of that hip-hop tree.  This is one of the things that sets GZA apart from most other rappers: he’s able to develop and extend a metaphor over several lines while still keeping his rhymes dope at all times.

Theres no escaping, once my blade starts scrapin’
Niggas flakin’, wannabe MCs is shakin’
My sword indeed make more niggas bleed
So swift naked eye couldn’t record the speed

This is just such an ill verse and it’s just one of hundreds GZA has dropped in his career. RZA comes in for verse two and wisely chooses not to try to out-rhyme his clansman. Instead, he role-plays a military incursion as if he’s speaking into a walky-talky. This overt acting and the taking on different personas is a common RZA trait: he makes up for his relative paucity of skill as a rapper by introduces these little mini-characters. And he does that to good effect. But make no mistake, this track is all about that first verse, it’s incredible! Clearly Muggs and GZA hit it off because they went on to make an album together.
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Fat Joe feat. Nas, Big Punisher, Jadakiss and Raekwon – “John Blaze” (from Don Cartagena, 1998)

Fat Joe and Big Pun loved a big battle track (see also the non-Wu related “Banned from TV”), and Ski Beatz provides a cool horn-driven beat with a cool scratch-y hook that includes a Method Man sample. Coming fourth after Nas, Big Pun and The Lox’s Jadakiss – three tremendous rappers – Rae had his work cut out for him here. He probably doesn’t do enough to take it (hard to look past Big Pun here, who is on murderous form!), but he more than holds his own and invokes Norman Bates in the process. Pretty dope track all round.

Gang Starr feat. Inspectah Deck – “Above the Clouds” (from Moment of Truth, 1998)

A great track from Gang Starr’s classic 1998 comeback, Moment of Truth, and the fact that Guru and Premier invited Inspectah Deck for this demonstrates just how in demand he was in the late 90s – the dude was a master at killing it on cameos. Deck has the second verse and he doesn’t disappoint:

Invade your zone, ruin like ancient Rome
I span the universe and return to Earth to claim my throne
The maker, owner, plus soul controller
Ayatollah rest in the sky, the cloud’s my sofa

These lines are thick with five-percenter teachings, but let’s not worry about those: look instead at the way Deck builds his rhymes . He gathers momentum with the quick internal “zone” / “Rome” one-two before delaying the clinching “throne” and then launches into a flurry of feminine off-rhymes.  All of this is quite typical of his writing and his delivery gives everything a very catchy feel. Inspectah Deck might just be the most underrated rapper ever.

James Blake feat RZA – “Take a Fall for Me” (from Overgrown, 2013)

One of RZA’s more bizarre collaborations; no one would have expected the leader of the Wu to team-up with the hipster electronica warbler Blake, but it happened. And this is a good representation of the stranger direction and more unusual projects that RZA has been part of in the last decade or so. This is not your regular rap song: it’s got Blake’s characteristic high-voiced singing on it, it’s almost a-tonal in places, and has whole sections without any drums at all. But this works quite well with RZA’s chant-y delivery. This also represents RZA’s softer persona: he’s always had quiet sideline in more “romantic” numbers. One of the other curious things about this, and perhaps this is a nod to Blake being English, but RZA drops a few unexpected British references here (“I wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid”, “Candle  light dinners of fish and chips with vinegar”). I quite like this, but can see it might not be for everyone.

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Jedi Mind Tricks feat. GZA – “On the Eve of War” (Julio César Chávez mix) (from Legacy of Blood, 2004)

This is among the coolest hip-hop tracks ever made featuring some fantastic production by Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind – Jedi Mind Tricks are a pretty underrated group in general actually. This track is built around GZA’s guest spot, with a sample from DJ Mugg’s “Third World” (see above) used as the hook. The way the music and samples build to GZA’s verse (he is second here) is phenomenal – it gets you to the point where you are actively excited for him. And of course he doesn’t disappoint dropping a sick verse in which, among other things, he name checks Freddy Adu. I love this one.

Q-Tip feat. Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne and Raekwon – “Renaissance Rap” (from The Abstract And The Dragon, 2013)

You’ll find this on the free Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes collaborative mix-tape that was released late last year – it’s a great beat. Raekwon is hanging with two of the all-time flow masters here … and Lil Wayne (who I don’t really care for). Rae takes verse 3 and properly kills it. He shows that he can flow with the best of them on just about any beat.

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LL Cool J feat. Canibus, DMX, Method Man & Redman – “4, 3, 2, 1” (from Phenomenon, 1997)

One of the benefits of being signed to Def Jam for Meth was getting to enjoy the big paydays and increased exposure of guesting on singles by his label mates. Erik Sermon provides a stop-start beat here and, as pretty much always, Method Man rides it like total pro. The way that Meth’s verse becomes almost sing-song on the line “Gotta love me, G-O-D, no one above me” is typical of his style.

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Mariah Carey feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Fantasy” (Bad Boy remix) (1995)

This is truly bizarro world: a Mariah Carey single, remixed by Puff Daddy featuring … ODB!! What the hell? And it had an MTV video! You have to wait three minutes for an actual verse from him and it’s mostly just rather tame nonsense. That said “Me and Mariah / Go back like babies and pacifiers / Old Dirt Dog’s no liar” is quite funny.  Elsewhere in the song there are some excruciatingly embarrassing exchanges between Mariah and Puffy (“What you gonna do when you get out of jail?” … “I’m gonna make a remix” might be the lamest thing ever recorded). I’ve included this just to demonstrate how much mainstream exposure the Wu were getting in the mid-90s. And this more or less launched ODB into being a household name in his own right. If you want to check out another classic ODB guest spot video, look for the remix of Busta Rhymes’s classic “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” which features him and Bussa Buss in straight jackets, goinig ape-shit in a padded cell – this just missed the cut on my twenty-five picks here.

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Mark Ronson feat. Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, Trife Diesel & Saigon – “Ooh Wee” (from Here Comes the Fuzz, 2003)

Ghostface’s appearance on this club favourite in 2003 did quite a lot to raise his mainstream profile. His onomatopoeic “Slot machines, ding-ding-ding-ding, when they ring off” is just one of many tricks in his verbal repertoire.  He also can’t help but tell a little story in the minute or so he’s allocated here. This is Ghostface showing he can tone it down and be on a big radio-friendly mainstream single if he wants to – and he has always had a line in that. I’ll never forget that he did a song with the shitty UK boyband Another Level! Of course, he also did that song with Amy Winehouse (“You Know I’m No Good”, also produced by Ronson, which is not listed here because it’s included on his album,  More Fish). More recently, he guested on Josh Ono’s positively cheesy “Redemption Days”.

Missy Elliot feat. Method Man and Redman – “Dog in Heat” (from Miss E… So Addictive, 2001)

Method Man and Redman were always great to get in on a funky track around this time, and few made them funkier than Miss E. Meth has to wait until the third minute for his verse, but is absolutely perfect on this disco-flavoured Timbaland beat.  The definition of “flow”.

Mobb Deep feat. Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Big Noyd – “Right Back at You” (from The Infamous, 1995)

With its grim realist tales of street life, Mobb Deep’s hard, gritty classic, The Infamous, was a perfect setting for Ghostface and Rae to drop in for a guest spot in 95. They deliver just one verse between them as a kind of symbiotic tag-team; they talk mainly about selling crack. This track would be a good test to see if you can tell the difference between Ghostface and Rae at this stage.

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Notorious BIG feat. Method Man – “The What” (from Ready to Die, 1994)

Method Man had the honour of being the ONLY guest spot on the entirety of Biggie’s stone-cold masterpiece, Ready to Die. Meth and Biggie trade sex-fuelled rhymes over a real lava-lamp of a beat from Easy Mo Bee. One of the coolest moments in rap is “(Assume the position) / Stop look and listen /I spit on your grave then I grab my Charles Dickens”. Especially since I like to imagine that Meth is not just talking about his dick but opening up the possibility that he actually reads Dickens.

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Outkast feat. Raekwon – “Skew it on the Bar-B” (from Aquemini, 1998)

Ah Aquemini, what an awesome album. And, not to be outdone by Dre and Big Boi, two of the rappers with the dopest flows ever, Rae drops one of the all-time great guest verses here. He takes verse two. Two very characteristic Raekwon traits here: first is his love of using latinate feminine end-rhymes on vowel sounds (“Deliver this through your audio, ghetto mafioso” – where the “O” sound carries the rhyme); second is that way he builds the verse around two or three keynote rhymes.

Deliver this through your audio, ghetto mafioso
Grow
hydro, then bag it up slow
Price that, longevity suggest make moves slow
Take time, grow eight, react nine, blow!
Hydro slide raw like fuck Ronaldo
Fly ride though, shit lookin wild dope
Then glide yo, flippin’ the page, I go
Watch five-oh, jump on my meat, ride slow
Watch those, undercovers, cop those, rock those
Glocks blows
leave em baggy and collect spot grows
Keep a watch froze, lean on the yacht and wash clothes
Let the chop’ blow, bag a half a block plot grows, what?

The entire verse is built around the “O” sound of “Mafioso” but as it continues he starts developing further rhymes, first the “time” / “nine” and “wild” / “glide” / “ride” internal rhymes, then the full-blown double rhymes in which the “O” sound gains an “s” to become “those” /  “grows” (etc.) and also gains a prefix  on the “watch”  “cop” / “rock” / “Glocks” (etc.) sound. This is a good example of Rae using his flow in conjunction with assonance to force rhymes out of words that don’t ostensibly rhyme – a technique mined later by Kanye West. But Raekwon was arguably the master at it. And this verse is arguably one of the very best on Aquemini period. Look out for Outkast and Rae’s fairly obscure reunion “Royal Flush” which was released on digital download only in 2008.
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Pete Rock feat. Inspectah Deck and Kurupt – “Tru Master” (from Soul Survivor, 1998)

Another exhibit in Deck’s case for “most in demand rapper for 1998” here as super-producer Pete Rock recruited him for his debut solo album, and for the lead single no less. And this one is a tour de force of sampling, showing off Rock’s production clout to the fullest. As ever, Deck takes the first verse to kick things off and it’s a very solid one. Again you can hear his characteristic “up and down” or “swinging left to right” delivery. Another feature of Deck’s writing is in his use of caesura, or in the lay terms, well-timed pauses early in the line. I will demonstrate:

Your highness,| live from the bricks, one six
Pete Rock bang your head, |break the drumsticks
Verbal assault,| rhymes rippin through the mix
Specialist, |with the smash hits that can flip

In this way Deck controls the momentum of each line and it makes for a masterful flow. He manages to hit each rhyme at the end of a bar and the phrases before each caesura take are used to ensure that the timing is perfect. So as the rhyme hits the loop climaxes. It also makes for a very interesting cadence: note that the caesura falls in a different place in each line: if the second half is short (e.g. “break the drumsticks”), the momentum speeds up and we’re carried fast into the next line. I’ll say it again: Inspectah Deck is one of the most underrated emcees ever to hold a mic.

Pete Rock feat. RZA and GZA – “Head Rush (More Base)” (from Soul Survivor II, 2004)

As you can see now, the Wu often worked in these little “tag teams”, both when featuring on tracks and in media appearances and interview situations: Raekwon and Ghostface would work with each other, Meth would team up with an outside partner in Redman, and RZA and GZA, as the senior members of Wu-Tang, would also appear together. Here they are with one of the greatest hip-hop producers, Pete Rock, who liked working with the Wu it seems. Rock masterfully samples the Mavis Staples track “What Happened to the Real Me”, distilling the melancholy essence of that number. He loops her vocals right at the start of the first line — You went away without a warning” – so it goes “You You / You / You”. It’s a very cool beat. RZA takes the first verse and for one of the only times in his career drops a verse to rival GZA’s both lyrically and, remarkably, in delivery which RZA just nails here. He also provides a neat little Street Fighter 2 reference to keep the nerds like me happy: “From the valleys of Ohio, to the sands of Cairo / Still hit, like the whirlwind kick of Ryu”. Awesome. Not to be outdone, GZA characteristically nails his verse too – this is the sort of beat that GZA eats for breakfast. It’s a fairly typical GZA verse: he works through a series of chess metaphors, but it’s one of his more brilliant versions of that. In particular this phenomenal one-two: “The king’s the kick, the queen’s the snare / The bass are minor pieces that move in a pair” – possibly the only time in history anyone has imagined that a hip-hop baseline is akin to the bishops and the knights in chess. Yet another awesome Wu guest spot.

Pete Rock feat. Raekwon and Masta Killa – “The PJS” (from NY’s Finest, 2008)

By now it is clear that Rock just loved working with Wu-Tang. Rae, who we’ve seen a lot of on these guest spots now, employs a more subdued, quieter delivery than usual but still with the characteristic “relentless” flow, he gets two verses here for some reason. This beat sounds a bit like shattering crystals in a diamond palace with fountains – or something like that – but this lusciousness suits Masta Killa who takes verse two in his usual controlled and unexcitable manner.

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Pras feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mya – “Ghetto Supastar (What is What You Are)” (from Ghetto Supastar, 1998)

Anyone who was around in 1998 will remember this smash hit single. What the hell happened to Pras? He went from being potentially the coolest member of Fugees to being a joke in the space of just a few years. No one was to know that here though, especially before his pretty poor debut album dropped. “Needless to say”, this is another pretty high profile appearance from ODB and certainly one of his more disciplined efforts. He shows he can really rap here and drops not only some coherent lyrics, but also some politically conscious ones. People forget that this single was originally from the soundtrack of Bullworth, a film about a senator who starts rapping, starring Warren Beatty. And ODB’s verses seem to keep that in mind much more than Pras’s, which just seem like random rhymes. ODB puts himself in the role of the senator and has some great lines here (“The rich go North, ignore the tug of war / While the kids are poor, open new and better drug stores”, “I find myself walking the streets / Trying to find what’s really going on in the streets”, “Well I’m paranoid at the things I say / Wondering what’s the penalty from day to day”, “Picking on the small fries, my campaign telling lies”). Don’t care what anyone says, this is still a good single.

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Public Enemy feat. Masta Killa – “Resurrection” (from He Got Game, 1998)

This was the B-side of PE’s big comeback single “He Got Game” which was made a decent splash in ’98. The Bomb Squad has stripped back their sound for the He Got Game soundtrack, and here they give us a menacing synth-driven beat. Chuck D murders this loop with two awesome verses as Flava Flav does his usual hyping in the background. Flav gives Masta Killa a few lines of hype too to welcome him on the third verse (“Aiyo Masta Killa I want you to put one up in ‘em son / And show ‘em you ain’t done son / Ball ‘em with the back of the gun son / Make ‘em run son”). As Masta Killa comes in the beat flips to a quieter and more sinister affair and he brings poetry here: “Onto the paper the pain pours”. As we’ll see in Part 2 of this guide when we walk through all of the Wu-Tang albums, Masta Killa killed it on just about every guest appearance he made until his debut album in 2004.
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Redman feat. Method Man – “Do What Ya Feel” (from Muddy Waters, 1996)

Bizarrely, this awesome track is produced by none other than Pras from the Fugees! I say this is bizarre because most of the production on both The Score by Fugees  and Pras’s solo album was handled by Wyclef Jean and Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis. Weird. Anyway, in fairness to Pras this is a cool slightly sinister beat which is perfect for Meth and Red here. Method Man takes the first and fourth verses and drops one of the best wrestling references in hip-hop history (“Dreamin’ bout Toni Braxton, blowin her back out like Bob Backlund”). Typical awesome flow from Meth here, but honestly I think Redman kills this track.
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Shaquille O’Neal feat. RZA and Method Man – “No Hooks” (from Shaq-Fu Da Return, 1994)

Yes, you read that right, Shaquille O’Neal , the basketball star. RZA produced this surprisingly grimy number for Shaq, who was clearly making a bid for underground credibility with this. I’ve included this not only to show the sort of demand Wu-Tang were in even as early as ’94, but also because RZA demonstrates his hard, raw Gravediggas flow here, which one wishes he might have utilized more often. He absolutely kills this:

Spectacular cardiovascular attacker!
Shaq’s on the track with the blackular
Puzzler! Rugged slugger, 40 oz guzzler
Gold nugget fangs punch holes inside your jugular

His delivery here is great and he’s completely on beat. How many times in RZA’s solo career wasn’t that true. Shaq takes verse two and in fairness to him, he doesn’t suck and manages to stay on the beat. His lyrics aren’t terrible either, he doesn’t embarrass himself. Then Meth finishes things off, and as ever delivers a very catchy, smooth verse. Not bad at all.

Tha Alkaholiks feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Hip-Hop Drunkies” (from Likwidation, 1997)

The legendary Marley Marl provided the funky  beat for this surprise minor hit from 1997 for West-coast party specialists The Alkaholiks. Tash and J-Lo are both smooth with nice flows, but a track like this is made for ODB. He takes verse two in his usual style but then during the second half of the track flips to rap like RZA, which is both funny and bizarre. This is catchy, funky and yet another good guest spot for Ol’ Dirt Dog. Be sure to track down the album version (at almost 5 minutes) because the single edit takes out a lot of ODB’s contribution, presumably because he couldn’t make the video shoot.

7. Depth chart

I may live to regret doing this because lists are always controversial, but I wanted to get over just how highly I rate the various members of the Wu and also give an impression of their overall standing within hip-hop to the total newbie. Below, I have come up with five top ten lists ranking and highlighted the Wu-Tang members:

1. Producers: these are in my view the all-time ten best producers in hip-hop. Q-Tip, Organized Noise and 9th Wonder would have been 11, 12 and 13.  Some younger fans might point to guys like MF Doom, but honestly such fans are just clueless in my view.

2. Rappers (for flow): this is just a straight-up “who’s got the best flow” deal (see definition above). One omission from this list that might have some heads scratching is Tech N9ne, who some rate as having the best flow in hip-hop — I think they are wrong about that.

3. Rappers (for lyrics and content): I’ve conflated here both lyrical complexity and content, even though they are not the same thing. 90s lyrical masters like GZA and Nas tended took after Rakim in tending towards verbal complexity and poetic devices, whereas 2Pac and Common followed Chuck D towards more socially and politically conscious content. But the dichotomy is neither absolute nor mutually exclusive, so it makes sense to take these together.

4. Hip-hop artists (for volume of quality output): For whatever reason, historically, hip-hop has been a young man’s game — it’s usually the case that a fresh new artist debuts with their strongest album and then struggles to follow it up and fizzles out or else dies. Accordingly, hip-hop has yet to produce its equivalent of The Beatles or Bob Dylan. There simply aren’t any artists with 10+ bona-fide classic albums. At least not yet there isn’t. It’s very rare for any hip-hop artist to have more than two “five star” albums. So volume / longevity is an interesting metric to consider.

5. Hip-hop artists (overall): This is my all purpose category for taking everything into account, including historical importance, innovation, fundamental skills, beats, rhymes, flow etc., who is the greatest hip-hop artist or group of all time?

Producers Rappers (for flow) Rappers (for lyrics and content) Hip-hop artists (for volume of quality output) Hip-hop artists (overall)
10. P Diddy and the Hitmen Ma$e Common Boogie Down Productions 2pac
9. J Dilla Q-Tip 2pac Gang Starr Run DMC
8. The Neptunes Snoop Dogg Ice Cube The Beastie Boys Eric B & Rakim
7. Rick Rubin Krayzie Bone / Bizzy Bone [Bone, Thugs and Harmony] Eminem Ice Cube Eminem
6. The Bomb Squad Big Boi / Andre 3000 [Outkast] Inspectah Deck LL Cool J Notorious BIG
5. Kanye West Busta Rhymes Mos Def Outkast N.W.A.
4. Pete Rock Big Punisher Nas Kanye West Outkast
3. RZA Raekwon Chuck D Public Enemy Jay-Z
2. DJ Premier Notorious BIG Rakim Ghostface Killah Public Enemy
1. Dr Dre Method Man GZA Jay-Z Wu-Tang Clan

Author: Parv

Parv is the co-host of the Where the Big Boys Play and Titans of Wrestling podcast but his interests are not limited to the squared circle. Parv is a professor by day and an obsessive pop culture enthusiast by night. Send Parv an email