My Back Pages is a series that explores our relationships with the music we grew up with. Wu-Tang Clain is the subject of this installment.
In the winter of 1994 I was an 18-year-old white kid in Scranton, Pa., who was pumped for the party that would be the end of senior year and dreaming of what life as a Penn State English major would be like. In the winter of 1994 I didn’t know much, but one thing I did know was that I did not want hear the cassingle of a song called “C.R.E.A.M.” by a ridiculous-sounding group called the Wu-Tang Clan!
It was not because I didn’t like rap music. In fact, I loved hip-hop! The Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had soundtracked my high school career as much the grunge bands that ruled the “alternative” charts.
No. My problem was I thought I was cooler than the kid who handed me the tape as we sat in my buddy’s Oldsmobile Cutlass. “Listen to this shit! It’s the motherfucking bomb!” His words cut through me. You are not black! We are not black! Just listen to the music! Stop pretending! I did not want to hear the Wu-Tang Clan!
I was wrong…The tape whir kicked in and…”What’s that nigga want, God? Word up. Look out for the cops ya’ll.” As we cruised to the Nativity parish parking lot to do doughnuts in the snow and try to score 40s, I thought, “These guys sound like bored kids hanging out it an alley bound to get in trouble! These kids are just like us!”
We listened to that song all night! Raekwon and Inspectah Deck were my new favorite rappers, and little did I know they were only two of nine members of the greatest hip-hop collective of all time. The next day I ran to the Steamtown Mall during fifth period lunch and bought “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” The Wu W, the fencing masks and the black hoodies. There were nine of them? Without knowing it I was being primed to enter the mythology of Shaolin, Long Island, N.Y.
The RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon The Chef, Masta Killa, U-God, Ghostface Killah and the Method Man! What? No MC this or DJ that? This was something brand new for hip-hop. This album had a plan. It wanted to create a new mythology in black culture steeped in the mystique of the kung fu films that cousins RZA and Ol’ Dirty loved to sneak into as kids. These films were heavily sampled in and around the RZA’s cinematic beats. Each member excelled in telling raw ghetto stories through this filter while still developing their own styles. The album was meant to springboard each member to their own solo careers. It did this to varying degrees of success. However, none (in my opinion) matched the greatness of the Clan as a whole.
Inspectah DeckThe Wu had everything: Method Man and Ghostface were the clear rock stars. Raekwon and Deck the soldiers. RZA the mastermind, and GZA the old soul and father figure. Then the mysterious members U-God and Masta Killa, who appeared briefly but to great effect. They had to make an impact as they recorded their verses over the phone from prison. Both would contribute greatly to later Wu-Tang albums.
The final element and the X-factor that made The Wu unforgettable was the ODB! He went by many names — Dirt McGirt, Osiris and Big Baby Jesus — but he was best known as the Ol’ Dirty Bastard “because there was no father to his style.” He was the court jester with aspirations of being king. His rhymes were not technically perfect and his voice had hint of tone deafness, and this just made him better. If he couldn’t hit a note, he broke it in half. If he couldn’t find a rhyme, he simply made up a word. He did it with a style and flair that has not been and may never be replicated.
Russell Tyrone Jones, the rapper known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, died of a drug-induced heart attack on Nov. 13, 2004, at age 35. He was in the recording studio shortly after being released from prison. He lived hard and fast. May he rest in peace.