Recently, my homeboy asked me a really simple question: What's up with the Wu-Tang Clan? I hesitated, vexed. How exactly to answer this? With the family feuding? The secret fucking album that there's only one copy of? Or even the guy who cut his fucking dick off and jumped out a window? Where to start? The beginning, I guess.
The Wu-Tang Clan was a dream of dynasty that Robert "RZA" Diggs brought to his hand-selected band of heavy hitters, all hailing from Brooklyn and Staten Island. Their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), kicked off an East Coast rap renaissance. The Wu's subsequent industry-wide flurry of phase-one classics—and the truly triumphant sophomore crew album, Wu-Tang Forever, that capped them off—took the Wu from a mere hiphop crew into something never seen before: a virtual pantheon of new gods for the hiphop generation. Fans bought everything from albums to branded leather jackets, studying the science and philosophy of the Wu like the Clan themselves had studied the Nation of Gods and Earth's Supreme Mathematics. Time went on, and hiphop changed, as all things do. The Wu's relevancy wobbled, recovered, then wavered again. Their brother, the incredible Ol' Dirty Bastard, died from a drug overdose. Things, as always, haven't been the same since.
Fast-forward to last year—Raekwon, very vocal about his dissatisfaction with how the empire was being run, flatly refused to take part in the newest Wu album (titled by RZA, without the Clan's approval, A Better Tomorrow). This rift had been plain for some time, especially as Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 album made him arguably the most "relevant" Clan member of the year. Interviews and tweets between the Chef and RZA seemed to pop off around the blogosphere like distant muzzle flashes. A Grantland profile from earlier this year indicated a Clan scattered to the four winds, rudderless. Cappadonna smoking paper-towel blunts, reluctantly living in Arizona. U-God skulking through his old projects, completely unnoticed, to his chagrin. RZA isolated, asking the reporter what the other members were thinking.
Earlier this year, the Forbes website—not exactly known for being the place where hiphop lives—broke the news that a secret Wu-Tang album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was in the works, and incredibly this album was not to be released in any kind of traditional or digital manner. In fact, it wasn't going to be manufactured or distributed at all. There would be one—yes one—copy, encased in an ornate silver-and-nickel jewel case, inside a larger box of the same design, itself encased in a decorative wooden box, designed and constructed by a team led by British-Moroccan artist Yahya. Upon release, the album itself will go on a listening-party tour through museums and galleries, and then the one-of-one album will be auctioned off (RZA claims there's already been a legitimate $5 million offer).
All this was the brainchild of a Wu-Tang affiliate, the Dutch-Moroccan producer Cilvaringz. A Forbes video took reporter Zack O'Malley Greenburg to meet the producer, stopping through a marketplace full of faraway spices and gentlemen charming cobras—"I want exotic," one imagines the spot's producer demanding—before cutting to the studio where Cilvaringz agreed to play less than one minute of a song from the album. After half of that minute was spent on a dramatic siren-filled intro, Ghostface rips into a short verse, upon the literally explosive conclusion of which a woman's husky voice bellows, "Wu-Tang, baby—they run the world!"
"Does that voice," Cilvaringz asked, "sound familiar?"
"It kind of sounds like Cher," replied Forbes's proxy, with all the smirky gravitas of an infomercial cohost.
Is this the Wu's reward? A hokey reality-show teaser to promote an "event" album executed by the US's premier financial journal, all done in the name of the Wu by a thirsty satellite member? (Also: Cher?) Another pretentious, ill-conceived bid at art-world legitimacy to rival Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby"? Maybe it's a bid at immortality—the construction of an artifact that could be found and exalted by future civilizations, like "the scepter of an Egyptian king," as RZA said in an interview. The total lack of any of the Clan's presence in that video, and the fact that no Clan member besides RZA has even acknowledged the album's existence, bodes poorly, suggesting that this circus is purely the work of Cilvaringz, yet another Svengali producer trying to steer the ship. Though he secured all of their blessings, the producer admitted that at first, "they couldn't see the greatness of it, or the importance of it, rather."
The most interesting Wu-related story of the year, however, had nothing to do with the Clan itself, but with the Wu-Tang Killa Bee named Christ Bearer, from the little-known West Coast Wu affiliate crew Northstar. (Like the entirety of the Killa Bee massive that orbited the 10 core members, Northstar never quite took off.) Earlier this summer, Christ Bearer, under the twin influences of PCP and "literature about monks and vasectomies," chopped off his penis and leaped from the second-story balcony of his North Hollywood condo, not unlike that old limerick about Abe Lincoln. Though a virtually unknown affiliate (until recently), Christ Bearer is symbolic of the core Clan's present state—a fractured mind and body, lost in legend, cutting off its own nose—or other protrusions—to spite its face.
Back in May, though, word was that Rae and RZA had come to terms—and in August, the entire Clan appeared on The Daily Show. During their interview with Jon Stewart, their familial bond was palpable; still, Ghost tellingly admitted that even though he felt as if something was "off," he would gladly "take one for the team." A Better Tomorrow, the album meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1993's 36 Chambers, looks to be on its way, just a year or so behind schedule; though their performance of a new single, "Ron O'Neal," displayed their disconnect, their show-closing "Triumph" saw them finding that familiar crew magic, the same I saw up close the last time the Wu played Bumbershoot's main stage, back in 2007. They were a blast of controlled chaos then: no set list, nine dudes deep, looking and moving like a unit—locking up like a phalanx, splitting rank for a soloist to slip into the spotlight.
The Wu gave hiphop and the world more classic music, and brought more to the table, than arguably any other collective, and for this we must be forever grateful. Does the world still need them to be the standard-bearers they once were? Probably not—even Stevie Wonder's run of classics came to an end. God knows they still need one another, though, just as we all do. God bless the Wu-Tang, forever.