Emerging in 1993, the Staten Island, NY-based Wu-Tang Clan proved to be the most revolutionary rap group of the mid-'90s -- and only partially because of their music. Turning the standard concept of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan were assembled as a loose congregation of nine MCs, almost as a support group. Instead of releasing one album after another, the Clan were designed to overtake the record industry in as profitable a fashion as possible -- the idea was to establish the Wu-Tang as a force with their debut album and then spin off into as many side projects as possible. In the process, the members would all become individual stars as well as receive individual royalty checks.
Surprisingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated on the theme the group laid out on its 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Taking their group name from an powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, the crew is a loose collective of nine MCs. All nine members work under a number of pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa.
Although RZA wasn't one of the two founding members -- GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first -- the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan is undoubtedly due to his musical skills. Under his direction, the group -- through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced -- created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and minimal samples. Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.
The first Wu-Tang Clan single, the hard-hitting "Protect Ya Neck," appeared on their own independent label and became an underground hit. Soon, the record labels were offering them lucrative contracts. The group held out until they landed a deal that would allow each member to record solo albums for whatever label he chose -- in essence, each rapper was a free agent. Loud/RCA agreed to the deal, and the band's debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), appeared in November 1993. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful; although its financial success wasn't immediate, it was the result of a slow build. "C.R.E.A.M.," released in early 1994, was the single that put them over the top and won them a devoted following. The group wasted no time in pursuing other projects, as a total of five of the members -- GZA, RZA, Raekwon, Method Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard -- landed solo contracts as a result of the success of "C.R.E.A.M."
The Wu-Tang Clan finally reconvened and returned with their second album, the double CD Wu-Tang Forever, in June of 1997. Hugely anticipated, the album entered the charts at number one -- selling over 600,000 copies in its first week alone -- and quickly spawned the hit single "Triumph." There were several contributions from guest associate Cappadonna (born Darryl Hill), who'd appeared on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ironman, and would later become the tenth member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
The group (minus ODB) assembled for their fourth album, Iron Flag, which was released in December 2001, just one year after its predecessor. Despite a lot of activity for the various solo projects, Wu-Tang released only a live album, 2004's Disciples of the 36 Chambers, during the subsequent five years. That document was one of the last places to hear Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died of a heart attack in November 2004. In early 2007, in anticipation for the Clan's upcoming album, 8 Diagrams, Nature Sounds issued the Mathematics-compiled Unreleased, a collection of new remixes and hard-to-find, previously unreleased songs from the group and some of their friends.