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Wu-Tang Clan

Emerging in 1993, when Dr. Dre's G-funk had overtaken the hip-hop world, the Staten Island, New York-based Wu-Tang Clan proved to be the most revolutionary rap group of the mid-'90s -- and only partially because of their music. Turning the standard concept of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan were assembled as a loose congregation of nine MCs, almost as a support group. Instead of releasing one album after another, the Clan were designed to overtake the record industry in as profitable a fashion as possible -- the idea was to establish the Wu-Tang as a force with their debut album and then spin off into as many side projects as possible. In the process, the members would all become individual stars as well as receive individual royalty checks.

Surprisingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated on the theme the group laid out on its 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Taking their group name from an powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, the crew is a loose collective of nine MCs. All nine members work under a number of pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem; aka RZArecta, Chief Abbot, and Bobby Steels; born Robert Diggs), GZA (aka the Genius, Justice, and Maxi Million; born Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard (aka Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, and Osirus; born Russell Jones), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze, Ticallion Stallion, Shakwon, Methical, and MZA; born Clifford Smith), Raekwon the Chef (aka Shallah Raekwon and Lou Diamonds; born Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (aka Tony Starks and Sun God; born Dennis Coles), U-God (aka Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Baby U, and 4-Bar Killer; born Lamont Hawkins), Inspectah Deck (aka Rebel INS and Rollie Fingers; born Jason Hunter), and Masta Killa (aka Noodles; born Elgin Turner).

Although RZA wasn't one of the two founding members -- GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first -- the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan is undoubtedly due to his musical skills. Under his direction, the group -- through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced -- created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and minimal samples. Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.

It wasn't always that way. Like most rappers, they began their careers trying to get ahead whatever way they could. For RZA, that meant releasing a silly single, "Ooh, I Love You Rakeem," on Tommy Boy Records in 1991. On the advice of his label and producers, he cut the humorous lover-man single, which went absolutely nowhere. Neither did the follow-up single, "My Deadly Venom." The experience strengthened his resolve to subvert and attack record industry conventions. He found partners in GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard. GZA had also released a record in 1991, the full-length Words from the Genius on Cold Chillin', which was preceded by the single "Come Do Me." Both records were unsuccessful. After the failure of his album, GZA teamed with an old friend, Ol' Dirty Bastard, to form the crew that would evolve into the WuTang Clan within a year.
In August 2001, RZA issued his second Bobby Digital album, Digital Bullet; November brought solo albums from Ghostface Killah (Bulletproof Wallets) and Cappadonna (The Yin and the Yang). This time, though, there was no full round of solo projects in between Wu albums; the full group (minus ODB) assembled for its fourth album, Iron Flag, which was released in December 2001, just one year after its predecessor. Despite a lot of activity for the various solo projects, Wu-Tang released only a live album, 2004's Disciples of the 36 Chambers, during the subsequent five years. That document was one of the last places to hear Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died of a heart attack in November 2004.

In early 2007, in anticipation for the Clan's upcoming album, 8 Diagrams, Nature Sounds issued the Mathematics-compiled Unreleased, a collection of new remixes and hard to find, previously unreleased songs from the group and some of its friends. It wasn't until the end of the year, however -- after a couple of delays and some criticism from Raekwon and Ghostface directed at RZA regarding the overall sound of the record -- that 8 Diagrams came out. Solo albums from most members would follow, but the Clan itself would remain dormant until 2011, when the Wurelated compilation Legendary Weapons landed with some new tracks from the full group.

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