Hoping For A Better Tomorrow: How The Wu-Tang Clan Got It Wrong
…and how Ghostface got it right
In 2013 the Wu-Tang Clan announced they would celebrate their 20th anniversary with a new album, A Better Tomorrow. However the year ended without release of a full-length and only with a few half-baked singles seeping out that were panned by fans. To add insult to injury, earlier this year Raekwon began publicly voicing dissent with RZA in interviews, suggesting that he would not participate in a new album due to concerns on both the creative and business sides of the music.
Things got stranger as the year progressed, with RZA introducing the concept of a one-of-a-kind $5 million Wu-Tang Clan LP, and then suddenly Raekwon changing his tune. At the top of December, we would finally see the release of A Better Tomorrow, touted as the final Wu-Tang album, which was greeted with mixed reviews. For a group with many classic albums in its catalogue, just how did we arrive at this point? Is there hope for Wu salvation? Cuepoint explores…
Clan In The Front
Admittedly I am—or at least at one point in my life was—a die hard fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. As a teenager, I was an active contributor to the pre-web U-Wu email newsletter created by John Book in 1996. In the pre-MP3 era, I traded dubbed tapes by snail mail to get unreleased and obscure tunes from other kids, which led to demos of both Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and Gravediggaz 6 Feet Deep landing in my mailbox. As a budding DJ, I started doing a series of mixtapes called Wu-Tang Killa B-Sides, and I was even a proud owner of a pair of Wu-Wear jeans.
Along with the mysterious nine-diagram phoenix logo, my fascination began with a statement printed inside the album jacket for 36 Chambers, which in the “thank-yous” acknowledged:
“The entire 300 Wu-Tang Clan members”
My mind was blown. If there was this much talent in the original line-up of RZA, GZA/Genius, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Masta Killa, then who was waiting in the wings among these other unknown members?
Little did we know the full extent of RZA’s game-changing business plan, which would allow each Wu-Tang member to sign solo deals with different record labels. I bought into the idea of hip-hop’s 300 hook-line-and-sinker, snatching up each of the group’s solo albums, as well as all of the offshoot projects, swearing by albums from Wu affiliates La The Darkman, Killah Priest and Killarmy. I hunted down all the rare 12-inch singles from the more oddball offshoot acts, such as KGB, Rubbabandz and Brooklyn Zu. There’s a part of me that still awaits the debut record from the illustrious Shorty Shit Stain.
Can It Be All So Simple?
My fascination with the group remained on high throughout that first wave of masterworks, which included:
- Wu-Tang Clan Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (Loud, 1993)
- Method Man Tical (Def Jam, 1994)
- Gravediggaz 6 Feet Deep (aka Niggamortis in the UK) (Gee Street, 1994)
- Ol’ Dirty Bastard Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Elektra, 1995)
- Raekwon Only Built For Cuban Linx… (Loud, 1995)
- GZA/Genius Liquid Swords (Geffen, 1995)
- Ghostface Killah Ironman (Epic Street/Sony Music, 1996)
- Wu-Tang Clan Wu-Tang Forever (Loud, 1997)
These eight, arguably perfect LPs (at least in my mind) would define the Wu-Tang Clan, utilizing an “if-aint-broke-don’t-fix-it” formula of dusty, off-kilter samples and dirty drums, sewn together with unique slang, energetic vocals, and lyrics that were “raw like cocaine straight from Boliva.” Plus of course sampled dialogue borrowed from timeless kung fu flicks such as The Five Deadly Venoms, Shogun Assassin and Shaolin & Wu-Tang. There was never anything like it before and it was huge.
But then things changed.
“I lost 300 beats in the flood,” RZA told Chairman Mao in Vibe, in September, 1996. “When the first Wu album came out, we had all the other albums ready. I had the shit with everybody’s names on it, and everybody had at least 15 beats in their section. All that got washed up.”
That issue of Vibe—its third anniversary—also marked a turning point for the Wu-Tang Clan and hip-hop as a whole. It was no coincidence that Puff Daddy and The Notorious B.I.G. would grace its cover.
Aside from the tremendous work of The Notorious B.I.G., what would eventually help Puff Daddy land that Vibe cover in 1996 was a series of remixes that he was doing for other artists, redefining the sound and style of commercial hip-hop. Two of these remixes would take Wu-Tang Clan members Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to pop radio, who until that point were creating music that was deeply underground.
“All I Need” was an ugly track on Method Man’s 1994 debut album, Tical, that pulled inspiration from the 1968 Marvin Gaye / Tami Terrell song “You’re All I Need To Get By.” In April 1995, Puff Daddy would remix the song, bringing Mary J. Blige aboard to sing Terrell’s original hook, polishing the beat with slick production, and Meth’s unchanged lyrics went from rough to smooth instantaneously.
Meanwhile, adult contemporary vocalist Mariah Carey would get a hip-hop/R&B makeover as well, with a Bad Boy remix of “Fantasy,” utilizing a fairly obvious Tom Tom Club “Genius Of Love” sample and inserting a verse from the Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
“I reached out to Puff and said will you do this remix, because for me, the Bad Boy remixes that were happening were the best,” said Mariah Carey of the remix in VH1's The Tanning Of America documentary in 2014. “When people see me on the street, what do they say? Me and Mariah, go back like babies with pacifiers.”►
While both songs would help thrust members of the Wu-Tang Clan into the spotlight—combined with the rabid underground success the group was experiencing—it was only a matter of time before they were expected to conform to the new style of hip-hop music. This frustration was perhaps aired out during ODB’s pre-Kanye 1998 Grammy stage crashing, where he lamented: “Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children. You know what I mean. Puffy is good, but WU-TANG IS THE BEST!”
The next wave of Wu-Tang Clan albums was a series of disappointments, perhaps in part due to the effects of the flood and the increasing pressures from their respective labels to match the sales of 2Pac and Biggie. Case in point was in a skit on Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day LP, “The Check Writer,” where art imitates life. Then Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen leaves a message for Method Man, as follows:
“Yo Meth, I’m telling you right now man, if you don’t give me this fucking album, these motherfuckers at Polygram are going to fucking FIRE ME! THIS IS THE CHECK WRITER. I’M GOING TO BE THE CHECK BOUNCER IN A SECOND IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME THIS FUCKING ALBUM!”
While Method Man’s grimey Tical confused clueless consumers that loved his Bad Boy remix, he attempted to make up for it with the disastrous Tical 2000, an uneven record that didn’t know if it wanted to be “industry” or “in-da-streets.” Following that, RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo and Inspectah Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance were received with little fanfare and mixed reviews, while Ol’ Dirty Bastard attempted to replicate the success of his Mariah Carey remix with the Kelis-featured, Neptunes-produced “Got Your Money” from his incomprehensible N*gga Please LP. And who can forget Raekwon’s sophomore album Immobilarity, the follow-up to Only Built For Cuban Linx… (which is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time)? Just about everyone.
The problem with that second phase of records is that they broke the formula created by those first eight albums released in the five year period of 1993 to 1997. Multiple outside producers, radio ready singles (that failed to catch on), and an overall lack of direction quickly derailed what once seemed like an unstoppable train. A group that was once so different than everyone else, resigned to trying to be like everyone else.
And then Ghostface rolled up with Supreme Clientele.
Striving For Perfection
Starting with 2000's gold-selling Supreme Clientele, Ghostface would almost single-handedly steer the Wu-Tang Clan back in the right direction, with over a decade of consistent, critically-acclaimed albums. The Wu-Tang Clan was still able to carve out a platinum selling album that same year with The W, but many of those fans did not return a year later for 2001's The Iron Flag, which failed to even go gold.
RZA didn’t really need The Wu-Tang Clan anymore. He had moved on to bigger projects, like scoring Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). That is not to necessarily say that he abandoned them, however it was clear that he entered a different tax bracket than the other members, aside from Meth, who still enjoys an acting career. The Wu would not be reunited again until 2007's The 8 Diagrams, which was unfortunately another critically-panned LP. Other members attempted to keep the flag waving, but the once-bulletproof consistency among core Wu-Tang family releases had been long lost.
While early on everyone expected Method Man to be the shining star of the Wu, eventually Ghostface Killah would be bestowed with that honor. Ironically Ghost was once the group’s most elusive member, even wearing a mask in the early videos.
Over the past fourteen years, aside from his involvement in four Wu-Tang Clan albums, Ghostface has released an astounding ten solo albums, three collaborative projects with other artists, and has at least one album scheduled for 2015, Sour Soul with funk outfit BADBADNOTGOOD on Lex Records. There is also the previously-announced but still-in-limbo Supreme Clientele Presents… Blue & Cream: The Wally Era and the Detox of backpack rap albums, Swift & Changable with MF Doom.
Remarkably, Ghostface has not only released more product than any other member of the Clan, but each to critical acclaim. With the exception of his 2009 R&B crossover project, the ridiculously titled Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, each of his albums have resonated with fans and critics alike. Unlike many of the other members’ solo albums, Ghost clearly has an ear for production. He doesn’t accept whatever beats are thrown at him. He doesn’t pander to commercial radio or attempt to follow the Biggie formula of getting a song from every hot producer in every market. And most importantly, he makes albums that sound like Wu-Tang albums, with or without RZA.
Once Ghost raised the bar, other members would follow suit and get things back on track. Masta Killa would finally release the aptly titled fan-favorite, No Said Date in 2004. GZA/Genius would team with Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs for the Grandmasters album in 2005. Raekwon would successfully follow up his definitive debut with 2009's Only Built For Cuban Linx 2, with help from both RZA and Dr. Dre. Inspectah Deck would release arguably the best album of his career by teaming with unlikely indie hip-hop duo 7L & Esoteric for Czarface. A semblance of quality was returning to the Wu-Tang Clan’s solo projects.
12 Reasons To Die
In 2006, a band called El Michels Affair released a 7-inch vinyl single with mind-blowing live instrumental covers of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and Raekwon’s “Glaciers Of Ice,” followed by a full-length album in 2009 called Enter The 37th Chamber. The band was able to replicate the sound found on those early Wu-Tang classics, with the tracklist of covers mainly drawing from those initial eight releases.
RZA took note of this, taking a similar approach on a solid 2009 Wu-Tang side project called Wu-Tang Chamber Music. This album was marketed simply as a “Wu-Tang” album—minus the “Clan”—yet brought live instrumentation to the words of the Wu for the first time. A Brooklyn band called The Revelations was the brainchild of former Landspeed Distribution head Bob Perry, producers Noah Rubin and Andrew Kelly, rapper/producer Lil Fame of M.O.P., former Nas protégé / vocalist Tre Williams and musicians Josh Werner and Gintas Janusonis. The Revelations band was able to deliver that vintage sound on Chamber Music and its sequel Legendary Weapons, without relying on the use of samples.
The Revelations would also help out on the soundtrack to RZA’s directorial debut, 2012's The Man With The Iron Fists, a critically-panned love-letter to the kung fu flicks of his childhood. Although the movie was bad, the soundtrack was good, acting as another unofficial Wu-Tang LP, with help from Kanye West, Danny Brown, Pusha T and others.
These experiments would lead to a redefinition of the Wu-Tang sound, coming full circle on Ghostface’s monumental tenth LP in 2013, a concept album called 12 Reasons To Die. Ghostface raised the bar once again, fully embracing a live instrumentation by employing producer named Adrian Younge—even putting Younge’s name first on the album cover. Younge specialized in finding old, used instruments and manipulating them to produce a timeless sound of soul.
“RZA and Bob Perry own a label called Soul Temple Music, Bob was the A&R for the label. He was a fan of my music and reached out to me to ask me if I’d like to do an album with one of the Wu-Tang guys, and of course I’m not going to say no,” Adrian Younge told HipHopSite.Com in 2013. “He asked me if it was Ghostface I wanted to work with. Now, was Ghostface my top choice? Ummm, they’re all so good so it’s hard to say because if I did a Raekwon album it would have been the same thing. If I did a RZA album it would be the same thing. If I did a GZA album it would be the same thing. I like them all that much, Ghostface was just one of the choices I would have made. When I wrote music for the Delfonics album, Ghostface was popping in to my mind.”
12 Reasons To Die gave us the untold comic book origin of Ghostface Killah, a concept album that tells the tale of Tony, a young criminal that works for an organized crime family called The Delucas. The family eventually turns on him after he falls in love their leader’s daughter and kill him. They burn his body and press his ashes into twelve vinyl records—represented by the album’s 12 songs—only to see him resurrected as The Ghostface Killah, an invincible iron-man seeking revenge.
Aside from being one of the best Ghostface albums ever, 12 Reasons To Die is significant because it would be the blueprint for both Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, A Better Tomorrow and Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons, released within a week of each other this month.
Duel Of The Iron Mic
On April 12th, 2013, four days before the release of 12 Reasons To Die, Wu-Tang Clan announced that they would celebrate their 20th anniversary with a tour and their final album. “Wu-Tang Clan are currently working on their upcoming album A Better Tomorrow, due for release in July 2013,” the press release read.
Yet July 2013 came and went and so did the end of the year. Sadly, the 20th anniversary of the group was only observed by the tour, with no news of a release date for the new album. One year later, in April 2014, Raekwon announced that he had gone “on strike” from the Wu-Tang Clan, and was not interested in participating on A Better Tomorrow, due to the sound of the production.
“This shit is not right. It’s not making us give the fans the best that we can give them. So of course we have a problem with that. It’s like coming out with some music that you’re not feeling. Therefore, it’s being compromised by RZA and his brother Devine, Mitchell Diggs,” Raekwon told Rolling Stone. “My thing is, yeah, he’s right, we’re on different pages when it comes to being creative because RZA, you’re not in the field no more. I’m still paying attention to what’s going on and an amazing group that’s got so much potential to be bigger than what they are if they just focus and come out with great music.”
Raekwon fired off about one of the first singles from A Better Tomorrow, the R&B tinged “Keep Watch,” released a month before that interview.
“I hate it. I hate it. I don’t hate shit, but I hate that fuckin’ record. It ain’t the gunpowder that my brothers are spitting; it’s the production,” he continued. “And I ain’t shitting on the producer [DJ Mathematics] because he’s one of our soldiers. But if it ain’t where it need to be… It’s 20 years later. We talkin ’bout a whole new generation is sitting here representin’ and making fiery shit and you telling me that we comin out with some mediocre shit? That ain’t part of our plan.”
Naturally, the interview also pulled the curtain back on the internal business of the Wu-Tang Clan as well.
“In order for Chef to work, the Chef contract has to be correct. It has to be a situation where I can say, You know what? This is the best situation for me and my family. That’s who I work for. I work for my family,” Raekwon elaborated. “It ain’t about making me happy; it’s about doing business and negotiating the best terms and making me feel like, You’re not lying to me. But before anything, everybody else’s business might be taken care of correctly where they can move forward, but Chef is not! My shit ain’t together! I have to deal with that first.”
It was as if the dialogue from the 1979 film The Dragon, The Hero—as sampled on GZA’s 1995 track from Liquid Swords, “Duel Of The Iron Mic”—had accurately predicted the Wu-Tang’s future.
“At the height of their fame and glory, they turned on one another
Each struggling in vain for ultimate supremacy
In the passion and depth of their struggle
The very art that had raised them to such Olympian heights was lost
Their techniques vanished…”►
Before matters could be settled between RZA and Raekwon, this tale took an even more peculiar turn with the announcement of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a completed album from the Wu-Tang Clan for which only one copy would be manufactured. Encased in a nickel-silver box designed by British Moroccan artist Yahya, the 31 track, 128 minute album was produced by Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh and features every member of the Clan. The intent for the album was to treat it like “the scepter of an Egyptian king” (RZA’s words), to display it in museums and take it on “tour,” allowing fans to listen to it under tight lock and key.
“Offers came in at $2 million, somebody offered $5 million yesterday,” RZA told Billboard in April 2014. “I’ve been getting a lot of emails: some from people I know, some from people I don’t know, and they’re also emailing other members of my organization… So far, $5 million is the biggest number.”
The speculation ran rampant. Was this just an attempt to derail our attention from the internal beefs? Who would pay this astronomical fee? Would hackers find a way to get it and illegally distribute it on the internet? Was this the solution to making members of the Wu-Tang Clan feel financially secure in the digital music frontier? Was it even good?
A Better Tomorrow?
When the hype eventually died down, in October 3rd, 2014, Wu-Tang Clan announced that they had signed with Warner Bros Records, and A Better Tomorrow would be released two months from the date on December 2nd. RZA and Raekwon put their differences aside, and came together for the completion of the record. On November 3rd, the first official single “Ruckus In B Minor” was released, to great critical acclaim. Produced by RZA, Rick Rubin, and 12 Reasons To Die producer Adrian Younge, the energetic song had the same feeling of iconic singles like “Protect Ya Neck” or “Triumph,” somehow fitting all nine members of the Clan on the track. RZA even addressed the fallout with Raekwon in his verse.
“GZA, this is called ‘Ruckus In B Minor’
Rae, all those bad times is behind us
Ghost, put that mask on to remind us
Method Man, let ‘em know who’s New York’s finest!”►
If the whole album sounded like this, then fans were in for a real treat. However when it finally arrived on December 2nd, the response was all too familiar. Similar to the Clan’s last three records, fans instantly began trashing it on social media and the early reviews were mostly negative.
The energy created on the first single, which also opens the album, is immediately killed once the song ends. Masta Killa and Cappadonna struggle through the awkwardly structured “Felt,” while the Clan chants the cheesey hook of “We Will Fight” on the following track. Other terribly embarrassing moments include the Charmin-soft “Miracle” and “Preacher’s Daughter,” a ridiculously bad cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man,” obviously a nod to RZA’s friend Quentin.
Although most of the production is credited to RZA, A Better Tomorrow sounds like it was at least recorded using Adrian Younge’s equipment, as songs like “Mistaken Identity,” “Crushed Egos” and “Hold The Heater” do maintain that old feeling through live instrumentation. The experimental, more sample-based “Necklace” and “Pioneer The Frontier” also stand out, somewhat.
Yet the problem is for every good moment on A Better Tomorrow there’s an equally bad one. This glaring inconsistency makes the album an incredibly hard listen, as many fans may quickly lose interest and not even stick around for its better songs. This leads us to the one conclusion that has been looming in the back of our minds all of this time.
Raekwon was right.
The release strategy of Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons one week after the release of A Better Tomorrow begs the question if they were trying to piggyback the promotion of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album or make up for it.
History has repeated itself, as Iron Man has once again swooped in and saved the day—36 Seasons is proof of what a Wu-Tang album can and should be. Produced by The Revelations, Ghostface gets it right in the many places that RZA got it wrong.
Similar in theme to 12 Reasons To Die, Ghost’s 36 Seasons is another revenge-fueled concept album, which puts Ghostface in the role of a Carlito Brigante-esque character that has just been released from prison after nine years. He’s an older, wiser retired gangster that has returned from a long absence, only to find his neighborhood overrun by crime (“The Battlefield”) and his home life in shambles (“Love Don’t Live Here No More”).
Kool G. Rap is brought in to play the neighborhood kingpin, while AZ stunts as a crooked cop. It’s not long before Ghost loses a battle against these two and finds himself in the dimly-lit office of Dr. X, played by Pharoahe Monch. Rebuilding him like the Six Million Dollar Man, Monch delivers one of the best rap verses of the year, describing the creation of Ghostface’s mask with great detail on “Emergency Procedure.”
“The brilliant Dr. X, no scientist is colder
The mask I made specifically protects you from ebola
Its destruction is impossible, totally irrelevant
The compounds are not found on a periodic table of elements
Adamantium plus Vibranium
The force field it builds will shield your cranium
If anyone would try to place upon their face the mask will rupture
It is designed to match your molecular structure
Plus the, gold was to, give it a touch of luster
to match the eagle bracelet and adjust to your controls and thrusters.”►
Moments like this and the Tarantino-esque casting of seasoned, yet oft-overlooked artists make 36 Seasons a phenomenally entertaining listen. But really what sells it is the production of The Revelations. It’s played live, then filtered through a sampler, emulating the sounds of standards like Bob James’ “Nautilus” (“The Dogs Of War”), changed just enough to avoid legal trouble. There is clearly a bubbling creative process happening here, as the music changes at dramatic parts of Ghost’s lyrical narrative (“Double Cross”). These aren’t just beats, this is a score.
As a matter of fact, this album is so confident in itself, that it pauses for extremely well executed, elegant soul interludes “Bamboo’s Lament” and “It’s A Thin Line Between Love & Hate,” the latter being a perfect cover of The Persuaders’ classic.
36 Seasons is not just a great album, it’s a reminder of what the Wu once was. When placed next to A Better Tomorrow, it also negates fears that you’ve outgrown the Wu-Tang Clan. It truly shows you that these older gods—even non-Wu members Pharoahe Monch, Kool G. Rap and AZ—still have it, they just need the right producers to harness their talents in the correct direction.
While the Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow LP is not a proper send off for the 21-year veterans, 36 Seasons makes up for it. Truth is, I don’t really expect it to be the last time the Clan assembles for a full-length album. Because of the disappointment, its likely they will form like Voltron once again to make right by the fans with a stronger album. Pop culture doesn’t let things die: Star Wars was supposed to end at three movies, Twin Peaks is coming back, and Jay Z never really retired. Even if only through the numerous solo projects, there will be more Wu-Tang ahead. Hell, there’s a whole album sitting in a box somewhere in Morocco.
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