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Wu-Tang Clan: Martial Law (Melody Maker, 1997)

"THE NEXT Wu-Tang Clan album will be in the year 2000, and we'll follow it up with a comet. A comet. Then an earthquake. Then Pestilence. We're gonna set off the New World", The RZA, 1997 

(First published in Melody Maker, 24 May 1997) 
Public Enemy's fall from grace left hip hop without a heroic focus. Enter WU-TANG CLAN, a crew from Staten Island whose ever-changing line-up has produced more solo albums than you can poke a stick at and rewritten rap's rule book

STRETCH LIMO. Ice white. In the front, a chauffeur – looking pissed off, chewing a toothpick for courage, dreaming of Sinatra. In the back, looking backwards, an MTV anchor woman – clutching a mic for grim life, dreaming of easier jobs, scanning with increasing anxiety the unknown New York streets the limo is now winding its way through. Facing her, a rap star – white suit, gold jewellery, the works. Cooing babe on each arm, kids playing at his feet, a bottle of Moet perpetually jammed in his slurring mouth, talking drunken nonsense, he leans forward and orders the driver to pull up outside an innocuous, low-slung building. Disentangling himself from the limo, he gets out of the car and enters. Minutes pass. The MTV VJ looks ever more desperate, wondering if he'll ever come back. Suddenly, the door opens and he's back in, champagne and wheels ordered to keep flowing. "What did you go in there for?" asks the VJ, timidly. "To pick up these," says the rap star, waving two welfare cheques at the camera. Eyes racing wildly off in different directions, as he jams the bottle back in his giggling mouth. He can do that. He's Ol' Dirty Bastard.

LIKE RAKIM said, "it's not where you're from, it's where you're at", but there's not doubt, the Wu-Tang Clan's history starts in and is defined by Staten Island. Out of the five New York boroughs, Staten – or Shaolin, as the Wu call it – remained fairly silent throughout hip hop's Nuyorcan birth and development. Whereas Queens, Manhattan, and especially Brooklyn and The Bronx had their own lost history of rap culture and local talent, little was heard from the Island until late '92, when a self-financed 12-inch called 'Protect Ya Neck' found it's way from the back of vans to the underground network of shops, clubs and radio stations that keep New York hip hop the most constantly changing and fascinating musical scene on the planet.

This was the first transmission from the Wu-Tang Clan, and even now it sounds as stunning as ever. It sounded as if the imposed isolation of living fenced out from the rest of the city and never even getting shout-outs on most hip hop records had twisted the minds of the music's creators, forcing them to build their own vision of hip hop straight from scratch to mic. Reducing the beat to a shuffling stumble, killing the soundscape with two huge, gothic bass-slabs, filling in what space was left with shards of Bernard Hermann soundtracks, it was the eeriest thing you'd heard in years because it was so impossible to predict. 'Protect Ya Neck' wasn't a refusal, or an affirmation of a hip hop world that had ignored them, it was a NEW hip hop world they had made for themselves. And nobody knew where the f*** it had come from.

What were these strange beats, these sudden bolts of noise mid-line, these vocal tics breaking out all over Method Man's monologue, the bizarre lyrics about "troops in Pakistan", "psycho flashback in the dark", "flowing like Christ"! As they started taking NYC by storm, people began to find out about The Clan: that they were nine, had known each other since childhood. That they comprised producer The RZA, DJ 4th Disciple, rappers Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, U God, REbel Ins, Raekwon, Ghost Face Killer and Genius "The GZA". That they were all martial arts experts and were named after the most elegant of all martial arts sword-styles. That they recorded their madness in their own studio in Staten. That The Genius and RZA had released solo records in the early Nineties for Tommy Boy and Cold Chillin' that had sunk without a trace.

Fresh on the underground success of 'Protect Ya Neck', the Clan signed to BMG with a clause ensuring complete solo freedom enshrined in the contract. And then came the debut LP that changed the face of hip hop. Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (the title referring to the 36 critical points of the body in Shaolin theology) is the most important rap LP of the Nineties – one of those LPs that changed the parameters of the future by obliterating the past, making you wonder where you were wasting your time before it came along.

Its arrival held three explosive changes for hip hop. Lyrically, it kick started the "reality" phenomenon – rap's bragadoccio and polemic ripped apart by a relativism and millennial anxiety that placed no limits on the rapper other than the life he leads, the fantasy and egotism of gangsta shot down and dragged through streets of doubt, fear and claustrophobia. Stylistically, it was the most complete concept since Public Enemy – a union of look, language and intent fused in ancient martial arts ideas (discipline, brotherhood, technique) and put in the Shaolin Staten present, the Clan appearing as faceless assassins on the sleeve, that perfect sublime logo everywhere and imprinted in your mind forever. Musically, and most importantly, 36 Chambers was like nothing you'd ever heard.

Like all shifts in hip hop (the only music form to progress less through revolutions than alien invasions), this was beyond fusing familiar sounds to create a new whole. The Wu bought completely new sounds to the mixing desk, and then mashed them together in an order, shape and mood you couldn't reproduce with an infinite number of monkeys, unlimited turntables and an eternity to play with. From the brutal murk of 'Bring Da Ruckus', the smoky funk of 'Shame On A Nigga', through the lush insanity of 'Clan In Da Front', 'C.R.E.A.M.' and 'Tearz', to the staggering distorto-groove of '7th Chamber', Enter The Wu-Tang shocked hip hop back to life when it was in danger of falling off the bench. It changed the lexicon of word and sound that the form could investigate, and crucially, was the first LP in too long that you learned by heart, that you let infect your everyday walk and talk. Setting the scene alight, it hit gold status almost immediately. The Wu had arrived; now we had catching up to do on those big blocks of lyrics we still couldn't fathom. But we didn't have time. The Wu never give you time. They keep going. You'll never catch up. That's the first lesson.

"IT'S NOT samples. I hate samples. We use one note and change it to anything we want. It's all noise, my beats are noise, noises put together over heavy drums, but to a formula only I and the other producers understand. And we're the best producers in the world, the best lyricists in the world. No question. We've got the ultimate powers to impregnate people with ideas through sound. That's all I want to do; not show my face, give any set pictures, just infect people with pure sound they can put their own pictures to": The RZA, 1997

FIRST TO exercise his contractual freedom and step out the ranks was The RZA, who along with ex-Stetsasonic psychonauts Prince Paul and Fruitkwan, plus Grym Reaper from Too Poetic, formed The Gravediggaz and dropped the stunning Niggamortis LP in 1994. Simultaneously creating and perfecting horror-core, it is the only supergroup LP in history that really matters.

Next to break was Method Man's Tical solo set, a nasty, short, brutish half-hour of advanced hebephrenia that was less interesting for Meths' warped vocal style than for the mind blowing out-ness of the RZA's production. The success of 36 Chambers now afforded him unprecedented freedom to create whatever fresh hell he wanted, fearlessly taking that remit to extremes some say the Wu have never surpassed. Crushing choirboys against the sound of rotting corpses, opera against sexmuzik grind, free jazz atonality with electro-precision – it was a dauntingly bleak, dark mini-masterpiece that Tricky spent a whole year listening to and which sent the rest of us either running scared or running out of superlatives.

The Wu were fast turning into stars, name-checked everywhere, cropping up on hip hop's most forward-looking moments (Mobb Deep, Show and AG), consolidating power, gaining gradual pre-eminence with entrepreneurial foresight and exercising ruthless control. Playing live for the first time in London and Birmingham in 1994, they were hailed as underground heroes; kids turned out in masks in worship of Ol' Dirty Bastard's newly-moneyed leeriness as displayed on his solo LP The Dirty Version. Here you saw 20-year-old B-boys swapping their Guinness for bottles of Möet in cheap ice buckets, Ian Wright showing out and joining in the pit's ruckus.

Meanwhile, back in the States, 36 Chambers went platinum, the first few Wu copyists chanced their arm and ODB cut an increasingly wayward figure, gate-crashing other people's stages, evidently too far gone too often to come back again. Method Man got in mainstream faces with a gorgeous Mary J Blige duet, 'You're All I Need', ODB palled up with Mariah Carey and then, almost to reaffirm their underground intent, if not to reiterate the RZA's visionary control of the Wu-world, the best LP any of the Wu have been responsible for was released – Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx. Recasting the Clan as an assortment of coked-out Goodfellas (Meth became Johnny Blaze, Ghostface became Tony Starks, the RZA was Bobby Steele, Master Killa was Noodles and even Nas got a cameo as Nas Escobar) and introducing the incredible new members of the Wu-Tang family (Sunz Of Man And Cappadonna) it was an immense record most of us haven't yet managed to fully grasp. Segued together with an impenetrable flow of John Woo samples and turgid streams of street dialogue, the whole album recreated the urban heat and cruel waste it so perfectly described lyrically. As a seamless continuum of beat and rhyme, it was the Wu's most flawless production yet; as one gigantic challenge to the rap world (and indeed, the entire pop universe) it still remains unanswered.

There are moments here when you're left frozen and stranded wondering what the hell is going on. It easing you in on the relatively straight-ahead 'Knuckleheadz' and 'Criminology', but by track five you were in unchartered territory and accelerating alarmingly; by track seven you were hitting the repeat in stunned confusion; come the insane acid rock and diseased psychedelia of 'Glaciers Of Ice' and 'Verbal Intercourse', you gave up the ghost and submitted.

With its immaculate rhyming, impossible richness of imagery and density of content, Cuban Linx was something you couldn't leave alone, couldn't stop exploring, something that still confers a pall of inferiority on much of the rest of pop every time you hear it. It was the album of '95; for the B-boy it's the greatest LP of the Nineties, full stop; vitally, its massive success gave the Wu and The RZA the vindication for their supremely untrammelled status as bona fide artists in the face of an ever more-interested and intrusive industry. To make the most innovative LP of a generation was one thing, to buck the old innovation/populism dichotomy so spectacularly was to set up the Wu as gods of their own art, give them a power and potential unheard of in rap history.

YOU COULD feel that freedom when the GZA released Liquid Swords late in '95. Here the RZA's psychedelic reach was given full scope; it ran wild on wide-open spaces and was possibly his most eclectic and eye-popping production yet.

Once again recasting the Clan (U God became Lucky Hands, Inspectah Deck became Roily Fingers) and introducing phenomenal new talents from the Wu stable (Life, Dreddy Kruger and the scarifyingly good Killah Priest) it immediately established itself as the most accessibly funky Wu album. GZA pulls some astonishing vocal tricks (the Maker unforgettably – and unforgivably – called it G-funk), with the hip hop world now falling at the feet of anything with a Wu-Tang logo anywhere near it. Even the notoriously slack style press admitted the RZA as musical genius of the Nineties and Ghostface Killer's Ironman LP simply forced it home, winning over what little resistance still lingered. What was so amazing, and so encouraging about the solo LPs was the unity and individuality they balanced so well, the feeling that there is so much more of this stuff to come, the fact that as yet the Clan have never repeated themselves and have potential in their protegees that will sustain them into the next century. As ever with the Wu, their future, what happens next, is the most inspirational and inconceivable possibility in pop. What does happen next? This does.

"MY destination was to seek life/I mean stars were so low they appeared as streetlights/I was shown the crucifixion/my true addiction/I mean war in heaven/I saw Christ with a Mac-11/so I joined his army/prepared for Armageddon/slowly taking me into the mental orgasm/ejaculating stimulating relating to life incubating/rotating around light-beams/from a light-beam I was formed in a white cream/and then redeemed like powder outta my maker/into nature/returned as vapor/Killah Priest/was born in the pillar of yeast/lost in the miscarried": Killah Priest 'Greyhound Remix'

TO CALL THE new Wu-Tang LP, Forever, highly anticipated isn't just an understatement, it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Wu really mean to their fans. You can't simply find a space for Wu-Tang in your schedule, make a lifestyle choice, file them away in a corner of your world. They're too total, their demands on you too huge to negotiate without obsession.

They seep into your body, affect the mind, burrow into your soul, colour your whole experience.

All the music the rest of this paper tells you about every week, every nuance, every emotion, every quality, every truth, is already there in the Wu's music, and brought to a more perfect exposition and elaboration. The deepest psychedelia, the richest soundscapes, the starkest minimalism, the furthest reaches of post rock, the maddest dub on earth. Hip hop. And if every Wu transmission thus far has cast a shadow over the rest of pop, Forever will dominate 1997's agenda like nothing else. Now that the rest of pop are finally dimly realising what the Wu have done, Forever will place a bomb in pop that the entire music scene will spend another era trying to get their heads around.

It's enormous, it's pure devastation, the skills developed over the last five years coming to full fruition, the energy, aura and potential of each solo artist fulfilled at even higher levels, RZA's protegees – Mathematics, True Master and 4th Disciple – weighing in with some truly jaw-dropping production. The struck-dumb truth that's so hard to imagine is that it's even better than the debut, even harder than anything that's come before; the impossible burden we as fans have to deal with is that perhaps we really will never catch up, perhaps the Wu are too luminescently blessed to be held down. Maybe the point is that with the next Clan LP set for the year 2000, and solo LPs forthcoming from Cappadonna, Killah Priest, Master Killer, 12 O'clock, Sunz Of Man and a new Gravediggaz LP, this awesome shit will not stop fascinating, engaging, changing and challenging us for a long time yet. Keep it com in'.

Introducing the nu Wu...

SUNZ Of MAN: With two stunning 12-inches last year and a forthcoming LP that should be all-conquering, 62nd Assassin's crew should tear up '97 a storm.

KILLAH PRIEST: Already heard on Liquid Swords and that incredible Jon Spencer remix (Spencer hated it, which shows how much he knows), the Wu's most complex talent drops his LP soon and the tracks we've heard signal a masterpiece.

12 O'CLOCK: Nasty Immigrant on the Nutty Professor soundtrack points towards great things for these Raekwon protegees.

KGB: 'Bless Your Life' was the great lost cine-funk classic of last year; RZA-produced, they can't go wrong.

CAPADONNA: As heard live at the recent shows and on that phenomenal split 12-inch with Real Live; Capa should blow up soon to become the latest addition to the Wu arsenal.

WU-WEAR: Not a band, but the Wu's own clothing brand. Ummm, can we have some please? Size? Fat.

© Neil Kulkarni, 1997, reprinted with thanks from Rocks Back Pages


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