Historically, Staten Island hasn’t contributed much to the music world besides David Johansen, but after the prolific and massively successful Wu-Tang Clan, New York’s forgotten borough doesn’t really need to. As Buddy Holly did for Lubbock and Elvis for Tupelo, the rough and ready Wu-Tang Clan — named after a cinematic tribe of martial artists — has put Richmond County on the map with one group album and a steady stream of solo records, all of which typify ’90s East Coast rap style: loping funk beats, a devotion to smoking pot (“tical”) and gangsta boasting that doesn’t trivialize sex or violence, dealing firmly with the big city’s relentless intensity and leaving random explosions of lurid melodrama to the Californians.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) introduces the extended crew: Prince Rakeem (The RZA), Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, U-God, Rebel INS, Ghost Face Killer and the Genius (GZA), only some of whom actually come from Staten Island. Surprisingly cohesive and organized given all the mic competition (credit producer Rakeem for cool beats and the take-a-number verbal discipline), the album uses cinematic samples, TV references, team cheers and loosely arranged vocal weaves to shape inoffensive raps that flow loosely in carefully contained tracks. Maintaining a stylistic and literal connection to New York’s old-school tradition, the crew pays tribute in the soulful “Can It Be All So Simple” (a song remade by Raekwon on his solo album) and follows through on the autobiographical “C.R.E.A.M.” Otherwise, the band’s head-swaying atmospheres are more effective than its rambling lyrics.
While watching the money pile up for that multi-platinum album, five Wu-Tang Clan members cut solo projects (and Prince Rakeem was in the Gravediggaz and launched the Razor Sharp label); in light of their creative diversity, the unanimity of the group’s album seems almost inconceivable in retrospect. With his husky voice, melodic flow and full-time sens-smoking hobby, Method Man is the most active and audible member on Enter the Wu-Tang. (His eponymous track begins with a comical series of memorably vulgar threats.) His solo record, produced in woozy, disorienting pass-it-over-here behind-a-wall-of-muslin style by Rakeem (Robert Diggs), is a low, slow simmer of odd sounds, muted beats and the rapper’s cloudy delivery. Method Man spends a lot of the record smoking chronic and clearing his lyrical throat to no serious effect, but he occasionally coughs up a surprise: the heartfelt love jones of “All I Need,” the “I Will Survive” melodics of “Release Yo’ Delf,” the falsetto crooning of the guest-heavy “Mr. Sandman.” A convincing evocation of blunted oblivion, Tical makes the most of its blurry focus and casual progress.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones) has it hectic in real life (he was shot by robbers in Brooklyn in late ’94 and later arrested for breaking into a Queens house — and that was just for a start of his criminal career); he keeps it reckless on his riotous solo debut, the cover of which pictures him on a welfare ID card. A bizarre outrage joke of rowdy vulgarity and raw self-indulgence that uses some of the scratchiest old records for its tracks, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, produced with feverish invention by the RZA and others, includes a rude Blowfly song, nostalgic romantic crooning, kids’ voices, girlfriends discussing his merits, gunfire, chronic, silly noises, theatrically rendered boasts and this financial statement: “Who the fuck wanna be an MC if you can’t get paid to be a fuckin’ MC?…26 years old, still on welfare/So I gotta get paid fully.”
Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… begins with a dramatic prayer and then launches into “Knuckleheadz,” a gangsta spiel performed over curtly simple drums, string bass and a bit of piano. Although produced by the RZA and featuring verbal contributions from Tony Starks (Ghost Face Killer), Method Man and other bandmates (not to mention Blue Raspberry, the lame female group that has sung on various Wu-Tang joints, and the usual film bites), Raekwon’s first album is way different than his cohorts’ (something he makes a point of in a studio conversation entitled “Shark Niggas [Biters]”); the lyrics — which casually incorporate the argot of the 5% Nation Muslim sect — are harsher and more frightful than other Clan members, the beats firmer. Without the personality of Ol’ Dirty Bastard or the distinctive flow of Method Man, Raekwon plays it gangsta straight, bringing nothing more than energy, conviction and smart studio support to his project.
The Genius/GZA (Gary Grice) also brings drug-dealer action, gunplay and fervent religious philosophy to his tough, provocative and deceptively low-key Liquid Swords, setting it all up as cinematic narratives. “You witness the saga/Casualties and drama/Life is a script/I’m not an actor but the author of a modern day opera/With a main character/It’s presidents and papers the dominant factor,” he explains in “Cold World.” Far more compelling than the likeminded Raekwon, GZA tumbles out his words like a Martin Scorsese/Abel Ferrara student armed with a rhyming dictionary. Over spare, inventive, subtly atmospheric tracks (produced, in further proof of his incredible diversity, by RZA) and numerous snatches of ninja film dialogue and TV news reports, GZA — deploying a low, conversational voice ominous with taut intensity — reveals an intriguing sense of what constitutes fair rap game: the bizarre “Labels” merely strings together several dozen record-company names: “from EastWest to Atco, I bring it to the Next Plateau.”
Released well before there was a Wu-Tang Clan, Words From the Genius was produced mainly by EZ-Mo-Bee (but with Prince Rakeem doing the honors with the rapper on the blunt-puffing “Pass the Bone,” added to the reissue and billed on its front cover as a “smash hit”). This unstylish, all-over-the-place collection has little of Liquid Swords‘ slashing damage. The Genius tells how he came to be an MC (“Those Were the Days”), paints women as gold-diggers (“What Are Silly Girls Made Of?,” using female spoken-word inserts to confirm his faith), paints himself as a hood (“Life of a Drug Dealer”), picks up a drunk nymphomaniac on the subway (“Superfreak”) and details the ups and downs of tavern life (“Stay Out of Bars”). The rhymes are rude but involving, especially when he’s recounting stories; the beats blandly adequate.