Hiphop has its Great Wall of China, and it is the Wu-Tang Clan. Essentially nine members—one of whom, Ol' Dirty Bastard, is now dead—at their commercial and creative peak, '92 to '98, they had 300 affiliates (producers, promoters, record labels, rappers, DJs, activists). Nothing in hiphop before or after the Wu matched the size and ambition of their enterprise. And now that it's all over, now that their greatest moment is sinking deeper and deeper into the past, we hear the music of this supergroup, their pseudo-Arabic mythologies, their kung fu movie samples, and the profusion of identities generated by the core members (Prince Delight, Johnny Blaze, Ironman, Golden Arms, Method Man, Prince Rakeem, Manifesto, Charliehorse, Lex Diamonds, Ghostface Killah, MZA, Big Baby Jesus, Sun God, Ticallion Stallion, Dirt McGirt, Joe Bananas, Freeloading Rusty, Tony Starks, and so on, and so on)—we see all of this as one sees the Great Wall of China. It is an impressive ruins; the ruins of an idea concocted by a mad man.
"In April 1991, I came back to New York," says RZA in The Wu-Tang Manual, recalling the birth of the Clan. "That was a dark time. I walked the street for months, strategizing, pondering what to do next... Back then, I remember this one girl who used to see me out there walking from her window. She said, 'We used to think you were crazy. We'd see you out there, walking, talking to yourself.' I told her, I wasn't talking to myself. But I probably was talking."
These crazy walks produced a crazy plan that "by the force of will" would lead the Clan to total domination of hiphop: "I counted how many hiphop artists I had and realized that we could do it [take over hiphop]. We had Meth, Ghost, Rae, RZA, and there was Sunz of Man, Killarmy, Royal Fam... I figured by a certain year one-third of hiphop would be governed by me. My five-year plan was to take the energy of the Wu-Tang Plan under the dictatorship of me and my idea, and five years we be number one." (RZA never reveals the exact details of this "Wu-Tang Plan.")
At the moment of the Wu's expansion—the mid-'90s—it seemed nothing in the world of hiphop could resist the force of this crew from Staten Island. Every rapper, rap style, rap label, and rap city was being absorbed into their Wu-niverse. Even Los Angeles, the epicenter of hiphop at the time, was on the verge of surrendering to the Wu's East Coast sound and mode—and in a way it did; L.A.'s underground, led by Lootpack and Jurassic 5, owes a lot to the program and plan of the Wu-Tang Clan. Even France wasn't safe from their influence. What else is IAM but a French Wu?
But how did all of this greatness, this massive musical and cultural project come to an end by 1998? How in the world did the greatest musical mind at the end of the 20th century, RZA, become a shadow of himself in the 21st century? What undid Wu? Wu undid Wu.
A sample near the end of "Unkle Main Title Theme" tells the entire story of the greatest hiphop empire known to mankind: "There were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." There were too many of them, for a while they had access to too much money and equipment, and in the end they one by one went insane. But their project of complete domination was, from its inception, insane. RZA and his team of gifted beat architects and engineers, Wu-Elements (Y-Kim the Illfigure, Arabian Knight, 4th Disciple), could not sustain it. Soon, a lot of stuff started sounding like the same old stuff. The music lost its surprises. We knew what to expect from a Wu-Tang record: a sample from a kung fu flick, a soul lick, a dusty (dirty) beat, soaring strings or a sorrowful cello solo. As for the raps, we knew also what to expect: something crazy from Ol' Dirty Bastard, something supernatural from Method Man, something intellectual from GZA, something bad (bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good) from RZA, something criminal from Raekwon, something bizarre from Ghostface Killah.
Had the growth been slow and the number of affiliates low, the substance of the Wu-Tang Clan would have lasted longer. But that's wishful thinking. Wu-Tang were not designed to grow but to explode. Nothing about RZA's plan was practical. Its mood was hyper, its manner viral, its dream total. "In a way, this plan was too good, it was too successful," says RZA like a madman. "It gave artists too much power... And the industry put an end to the plan." But the plan was the problem, because what mattered to it most was sheer escalation and amplitude. The music was great, but the plan was outrageous.
Which is why whenever we return to the expansive ruins of Wu-Tang Clan we are impressed by things we may have missed during the glory years—recordings that were swamped by RZA's overproduction, tracks that are still beautiful, samples that are as marvelous as rare jewels, beats that come from deep space. Exploring these ruins can be as exhilarating and exhausting as the building of the empire was for the warriors of Wu.