The second installment of our month-long Family Affair series descends upon Shaolin Island for a lesson in the rugged and raw styles of The Wu-Tang Clan.
A game of chess is like a swordfight,
You must think first before you move.
Like a swift and deliberate kick in chest, The Wu-Tang Clan landed with cold, calculated precision. And hip-hop wasn’t yet ready to see its breath. Gangster rap may not be native to the Mecca, but — through the collective and respective conquests of GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Killa, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and their founder/architect/lead-strategist, RZA — the group washed away the cute, clean sounds lining the top of the ’90s urban radio market. Hip-hop’s newfound commercial viability undercut by dusty soul loops, kung-fu-flick soundbites, and gut-jabbing grit. A swarm of styles over neck-breaking beats.
Born of a mutual love for those Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu classics of the late-70s and early-80s, Wu-Tang’s origins can be traced to RZA’s Staten Island home. Half-sanctuary and half-training ground, core members — RZA, GZA, and ODB — reconvened after a short stint as FOI (Force of the Imperial Master,) to spar, sharpen their blades, cycle through English dubs and Five Percenter-isms. It wouldn’t take long for the rest of the crew to assemble at RZA’s behest. The 1983 film Shaolin and Wu-Tang serves as a loose manuscript. Rival schools — one of the fist, the other of the sword — join together in vanquishing a common foe. Their disciplines could be at odds, even diametrically opposed at times. But in their union, a singular force is cultivated. RZA saw the thread and ran with it.
LISTEN: Family Affair: The Soulquarians
“Protect Ya Neck” was the first record to summon the unified front. Pressed to vinyl with no chorus, the debut single was not-so-passively pushed to local DJs Kid Capri, as well as Stretch and Bobbito, who ushered Wu-Tang through the gates of the underground with aggressive rotations and reverence. Not long after, mounting regional fervor for the Shaolin assassins reached fever pitch. They’d sign a historic deal with Loud Records that entitled each member to operate as a free agent, dispersing their talents across five of the six major labels at one point.
Their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang, roundhoused the game into adolescence, cementing the rugged and raw standard by which all else would be measured. As the brawling introduction celebrates a 25th-year with a reunion tour and a dedicated holiday in their home borough, we’ve pieced together a guided meditation through the catalog of the nine-man-army, curated by our very own, Michael Eric Gonik (ZO.)
Hear the latest installment of our Family Affair playlist series below. Subscribe to Okayplayer’s Spotify channel for the most essential sounds of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.