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Wu-Tang Clan talks about landmark debut album, legacy

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Twenty-five years ago, Wu-Tang Clan entered in style.

The New York-based hip-hop collective’s debut album, “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” was, and remains, a landmark -- in all of music as well as rap. The platinum-certified set introduced the world to a novel concept, nine MCs immersed in a landscape of Eastern philosophies and social commentary (with the occasional booty call), sharing microphone space and trading off distinctive styles in a manner never seen before in the genre. Songs such as “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Method Man” and “Protect Ya Neck” are still rap touchstones, and the Wu-Tang is spoken of in reverent and almost mystical terms.

The group -- save for Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones), who died in 2004 -- remains active and is working on a new album with Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles) taking over primary production duties from usual Wu-Tang majordomo RZA (Robert Diggs). All of the group’s members also have successful solo careers and other endeavors. This year, however, Wu-Tang is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Enter The Wu-Tang,” performing the album in its entirety at special shows -- including the closing set at this weekend’s Movement festival in downtown Detroit.

To commemorate the occasion, three of the Wu-Tang got on the phone to recall the making of “Enter The Wu-Tang” and muse on its continuing impact a quarter of a century on...

Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter, 47): It was a group that came from all over. RZA had this crazy idea -- it wasn’t so crazy at the time but we used to watch a lot of Kung Fun movies, and the Wu-Tang in the Kung Fu flicks, they were the ones that went against the grain. They didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. They were tired of getting bullied and being left out of things, and that’s where Staten Island was in the music game as far as New York. We weren’t Brooklyn. We weren’t the birthplace of hip-hop. We weren’t Queens (with) Run-DMC. Everybody had somebody to actually speak for their borough. So Staten Island, we took that idea out of karate -- we’ll die for our brother and this and that. At the time we were running from the cops and living as wild teenagers, so what did you have to lose, right?

GZA (Gary Grice, 51): It was important to us, y’know -- especially myself, being that I was on a label prior to that with a solo album and things came to a crash due to lack of support and promotion. It was a rough ordeal for me prior to making the album, and the same with RZA. So (“Enter The Wu-Tang”) was very important for me. It was a good moment in time to participate and make this album. But I didn’t know it would turn out to be what it is today.

Masta Killa (Elgin Turner, 48): I think the creative special that we all were in was to be original and to come with a style and mix it with a culture that we all loved, which was the Asian culture of martial arts. I just think that originality is why we’re still here.

Inspectah Deck: It was RZA’s vision, and he was able to get us to see where he was coming from. We used to come to RZA’s house and just record music and watch karate (movies) and try to incorporate that into our style. That’s kind of what made us different. It was intentional but unintentional at the same time.

GZA: It was just a lot of writing, a lot of paperwork and several notebooks. A lot of chess. A lot of hours of listening to beats non-stop, over and over and over. I just remember being in the studio for many hours on several different days and smoking blunts, playing chess, vibing, drinking 40’s and doing a lot of writing until it was time to go in the booth and recite the verse. A lot of bees swarming in the studio -- Wu-Tang killer bees, moving around and about and just vibing with each other and working together, collaborating. And sometimes we’d be outside and downstairs; Some of us would be in the car listening to someone’s album or a cassette tape, ordering food, sandwiches.

Inspectah Deck: RZA knows who should go first -- no, Ghost sounds better after Meth, (Raekwon) sounds better after GZA. He always had that knack to know who could go where. That’s pretty much how those records were made -- just throw the beat on, let us get busy and (RZA) would formulate it. We’d be asleep or nobody would be there, and the next time you come over and you hear the song it was totally different but it’s better than when you left it.

Inspectah Deck: That’s why you hear me first on a lot of tracks, ‘cause I used to walk around with a notebook all the time and just think of things to write. I was always kind of prepared so when RZA would throw a beat on I’d get my 16 (bars) in first -- not that I was in a race with anybody. It was just doing your homework.

Masta Killa: It can happen in different ways. Sometimes you can hear the music and know there’s a direction for this song. There’s a subject matter. You can come in and RZA has something on the grill and everyone starts to creatively go into their own space and write and get on the mic and somehow it meshes together.

GZA: If RZA made the music, sometimes the producer has an idea of what direction he thinks the music should go in. Before the track is even heard he may have an idea of who he thinks should be on the track, and then he presents the idea -- “This is the vibe I feel for this song. I wanted something like this” -- ‘cause that’s the kind of person he is. He usually doesn’t just put a track down and say, “Just go for it.” A lot of times he would have an idea of what direction he thinks we should go in. So it usually starts from there and he has an idea and it usually just follows suit and the strongest, most creative stuff that fits the track or the subject will make the song.

Masta Killa: (on his verse for “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.” GZA invited me to the studio and I was going to night school at this time; I didn’t go with him that night, I went to night school, next day we got together for our normal game of chess and he played for me what they had done in the studio the night before. It was “Protect Ya Neck,” which wasn’t even finished yet. At this time I only knew GZA, RZA and Ol’ Dirty (Bastard). I didn’t know the rest of the brothers, and I wasn’t even thinking about writing lyrics at this time. I just loved hip-hop. But (GZA) was telling me how everything was clicking and coming together, and when I said to myself, “When I get home tonight I’m gonna sit down at the table and I’m gonna try to put some words together.” So I came back to GZA, and I wanted him to at least respect it enough that maybe I can have a shot at being part of this awesome movement he’s been telling me about for so long. So I came back to him with thoughts on paper; He read them and said, “You wrote this?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Man, if you can learn how to say it, we got something,” and everything else is history. I only had that one rhyme (on the album), so if that one rhyme didn’t make it I wouldn’t be sitting here now, y’know?

GZA: it can be difficult sometimes because you have so many different personalities, so many styles -- the battling nature of it. You can’t always put nine people on the track, but you may have a beat that nine people want to get on. So there’s the competition. there’s the rivalry, but still there’s support and respect at the same time. And the honesty as far as opinions of who should be on a track who shouldn’t.

Inspectah Deck: We can all tell you sometimes you just go in there and we’re trying to do business and make a dope project. Other days I might walk in and hear Ghost just say the craziest verse I’ve ever heard, and then it becomes a friendly competition, like, “I gotta knock that out” and I might come with something and then Meth will come with his and so on and so forth like that.

GZA: It was something that was needed. The timing was perfect; It came at the right time, and people accepted it. There was a changing of shifts around that time. It was a whole new era of stuff coming in at that time. (The group) was so many individuals, and everyone’s different styles, different personalities, great music, different lyrical styles, and people just took a liking to it.

Inspectah Deck: My favorite moment was going on the road when nobody really knew us. So we went our there in two MPVs, like 15 of us, and did the grind. We went to Texas, Virginia, California, the Midwest, everywhere we could. There were a bunch of festivals where we’d show up uninvited and spread our work, hand out our tapes.

Masta Killa: It’s always a great feeling to be on stage with all your brothers, not one person there. The energy in that alone is through the roof. I think every thing changes the next thing, even performing-wise. You see your brother on stage and he’s killing it, and that heightens your energy. So when it’s your turn to bat and you have to grab the mic, you want to perform with that same amount of energy. So it’s always a great feeling to have every one there.

Inspectah Deck: When “Protect Ya Neck” dropped people got a buzz on us -- “Who are these dudes, these weirdos? They got karate chops in the beat?!” Then “Method Man” dropped and it let them see a whole other side, “Oh, they got this style of music, too.” We went to New York and played Trafalgar Square for our album release, and all of our peers were there, everybody in hip-hop at that time was there to support us. That was a big moment for me ‘cause I used to be the guy standing on the stoop, pocket full of crack and a gun, listening to Mr. Magic and Marley Marl, wanting to do that one day. So to see Q-Tip and EPMD and Big Daddy Kane and everybody I listened to personally, that just lets you know you’re accepted.

GZA: There’s been great support from fans, for many years -- almost three generations now of Wu fans, which is a great thing and unusual at the same time, especially with hip-hop or rap.

Inspectah Deck: When you’re different, people get nervous. If it’s something you’re not used to, it gets sent away a lot of times. I think wearing the masks and not showing our face on the album cover, just all the weird stuff that we did...We look back now and laugh at it. We didn’t really have a grasp of the magnitude of it.

GZA: It doesn’t feel like 25 years. It feels more like maybe six years, seven years. A lot has happened.

Masta Killa: Twenty-five minutes is more like it -- but it’s been a beautiful 25 minutes, through the highs and lows, all the good and blood, sweat and tears of it. And here we are with a blessed opportunity to have a 25-year celebration for what we started in 1992, 1993 and be together again. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Inspectah Deck: “First and foremost it’s just good to know you’ve been here 25 years, man, and you stood the test of time. And second of all that people still appreciate you like that. Just to have that privilege is wonderful 25 years later.

If You Go:

• Wu-Tang Clan

• 10:30 p.m. Sunday, May 28.

• Movement festival main stage at Hart Plaza, Detroit.

• Tickets are $85-$470.

• Visit movement.us for full details.

Web Site: www.movement.us

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