Like a fake Rolex or the Soviet Union, the Wu-Tang Clan has fallen irreparably apart. While the group's nine key members have spent the past year promoting A Better Tomorrow and Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, two last-call reunion albums, Raekwon, Ghostface, and Method Man have all publicly bucked RZA's creative direction and financial control of the Wu, having spent the past decade-and-a-half tending to prolific and profitable solo careers of their own.
Amidst a new wave of public bickering, as RZA prepares to auction the Wu-Tang Clan's one-of-a-kind final album, there's a creeping dread among many fans and rap critics who regret that the Wu's best days are now, indisputably, more than a decade behind them. As two thoughtful mourners of the Wu's expansive legacy, Complex staffers Justin Charity and khal shut themselves into a room for half an hour to determine when, exactly, the Wu-Tang Clan died, who killed it, and whether the Wu-Tang's influence is, indeed, forever. The following is the transcript of their discussion.
CHARITY: Alright, so let’s start at the end. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the final Wu-Tang album. An album about which Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan have said, “Fuck that album.”
KHAL: I’m not mad at Method Man. You want people to hear an album, you want people to hear why you’re still ill, why you’re still relevant. An album as an art piece is cool, but music is meant to be heard and enjoyed. What’s the point of all this grandiose shit if nobody can even hear it?
At this point, one-third of the Wu-Tang Clan—Meth, Ghost, and Rae in particular—have spent the past year dissing RZA in interviews. None of these guys sound happy with how Shaolin or A Better Tomorrow came together.
Not at all.
Half of them don’t want anything to do with the albums and yet those albums exist. How did we get here? Sure, the Wu-Tang Clan has always had messy internal politics that play out in publicly messy ways. But they’re a car wreck at this point.
“Wu-Tang forms like Voltron, and RZA’s the head.” Now Wu-Tang is still kind of like Voltron, but everybody wants to be the fucking head. Whether it’s the head or being the arm, the leg or what have you, they’ve all split up, they’ve all done their own shit. They all got their own success separate from each other, and I think it’s hard to then come back and try to fall in line under one person’s thinking.
Raekwon is a grown-ass man.
Most of these guys have kids, wives.
It’s like going to Christmas dinner and having your one uncle trying to tell your other uncle what the hell to do. If y’all are around the same age, it’s only so much that someone is really gonna follow.
I imagine that whatever RZA is talking about doing is probably far different from the BadBadNotGood shit that Ghostface is doing, or the mafioso shit Rae wants to do; whereas RZA maybe wants to do more spiritual, kung-fu-influenced stuff. People are growing apart.
But of all those guys, is RZA even trying? As a manager and “abbot,” he’s a figurative despot. Notoriously. But I kinda doubt that he has the stylistic vision to back that management style up anymore.
Maybe that’s the problem. I can imagine Ghostface being like, “I can go get 50 Gs over here, so fuck what you’re talking about right now. I’m not tied to this. I don’t have to dip back into the Wu-Tang pool to further my career.”
When, do you think, was the beginning of the end for these guys? Was it Raekwon’s OB4CL2 in 2009? Was it Fishscale in ’06? All those modest, late-career solo successes? What’s the exact year when the Wu-Tang Clan kinda stops making sense, and jumps the shark?
Was it 8 Diagrams?
And that was ’07. Let’s see. ODB died in ’04, and after that there’s a U-God album, then Fishscale, an Inspectah Deck album, Method Man’s 4:21... The Day After.
The highlight projects are like Fishscale and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. 2 and those are solo projects.
And even those—they were dope on their own merits, but they didn’t really measure up to what Rae and Ghost were doing previously.
I like Fishscale and OB4CL2. What’s most important about those two albums, I think, is that they prove Ghost and Rae can still rap and write songs. So what’s frustrating with the Wu-Tang Clan is, like, these guys are rare examples of rappers who do not go through the weird Ice Cube transformation of straight-up forgetting how to rap. The talent is there, yet RZA doesn’t know what to do with it.
Is the question then, what’s up with RZA? Has RZA creatively peaked? If we’re going back to the Wu-Tang albums being ideas that come out of RZA’s head, and for the last seven, eight years anything that’s Wu-Tang Clan related in terms of a full album isn’t really living up to anybody’s standards, who is to blame?
The talent is there, yet RZA doesn’t know what to do with it. —CHarity
Even Deck can still spit!
I just think at the end of the day you have a grown-ass man getting frustrated by another grown-ass man. They know that we’re living in a digital age. They can go get money three, four different ways around here. They don’t really need RZA if he’s only gonna be more forceful with his views.
It’s not to say that RZA can’t do good on his own. But can he make something current? Can he make something tangible in 2015 that the other members can respond to and create a solid body of work?
It’s all a very Wu-Tang-ass problem, a sort of paradox, that the guy who has the most narrow and despotic vision of the Wu-Tang Clan is the one guy who, ultimately, doesn’t have much of a vision at all.
Or maybe that vision is just old.
I remember ’93 and the years around it, getting magazines and having them break down, “There’s nine members of the Wu, this guy’s signed here, this guy’s signed there,” and it being groundbreaking to have one group signed to one imprint with the ability to sign individually everywhere else.
In 2015 there’s too much money, too many different options for people. Family or no family, that’s nine grown-ass men plus however many handlers, managers, and what have you.
Juvenile was on the Breakfast Club last week, and ironically he explained all of this better than anyone. Talking about re-signing with Cash Money, and how his having a family life put in perspective that Baby and Wayne aren’t really family, they’re business partners.
Niggas got kids!
As a legacy, though, what I want to get to the bottom of is this: How do we go from the Wu-Tang Clan being a tremendously iconic representation of American pop culture and the 1990s—the Internet’s favorite decade—to the Wu-Tang Clan now being a clusterfuck of albums that no one wants to make or hear? My sense is that all of the RZA’s creative fuck-ups, and all of the group’s internal strife’s and sniping each other in the media have basically tanked the brand value of the Wu-Tang, such that you fast-forward to last year, the 20th anniversary of Illmatic, and realize that Nas, the most mismanaged rapper of his generation, has aged far more resiliently than the entire Wu-Tang Clan. That’s insane.
As big as Wu-Tang became, it ended up being their downfall, when they had to live up to that. You got Killarmy, you got Popa Wu, you got all these different factions of the Wu that by the time the time the late ’90s came, a lot of their brand got eroded because who the fuck wasn’t in the Wu-Tang at that point?
I was in L.A. a couple weeks after that one Wu-Tang affiliate cut his dick off. That’s a stain on the brand, to the point when somebody is talking to RZA about that he has to dance around it. No matter what RZA was telling dude back in ’95 or ’96, “yeah, you get the stamp of approval, homie,” now it’s like, “uh, yeah, we were cool with him for a minute.”
It’s like affiliate marketing. The Wu-Tang Clan is Wake Up Now.
On the one hand, band breakups can be wild irritating if you’re a fan of the group. With N.W.A, for instance, the guys all had beef, then Eazy died, and sure they made up a decade later, but the point is that there’s a definitive beginning and end to N.W.A’s musical legacy. Same with Run-DMC and A Tribe Called Quest. With the Wu-Tang, I wonder if their legacy would be in a way better, intact position if they’d just broken up after Wu-Tang Forever.
If Wu-Tang Forever had been the end of it, at least for a time, it probably would have been better overall. If later they wanted to do 8 Diagrams, because I know some people did like 8 Diagrams, they could’ve done it then. But it’s hard to have Shaolin be the last album. There’s so much turmoil about it, and nobody’s gonna be able to fucking hear the album anyway.
Wu-Tang rose at a time when your credibility was based off of getting put on. Where in 2015, you’ve got Chance the Rapper, who is still not signed to a record contract yet has so much buzz behind him and doesn’t need to sign a contract. It’s a totally different mentality.
That’s a good point. The incentives that created the Wu-Tang Clan are very much opposed to how rappers should think about longevity and output now. Rugged individual self-interest is very much the smartest approach to being a new, young artist with buzz in 2015.
I’m just not sure if a new Wu-Tang album at this point is really necessary. The only way they’re gonna make money, aside from whatever funds come in from actually purchasing the album, would be from touring. But they’re not fucking with each other right now, so they’re not gonna tour. So what is the point?