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Clan in Da Front: A Better Tomorrow

The success of Shaolin

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American hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan are expected to release their new album A Better Tomorrow this year.
Courtesy of Wu-Tang Clan

“I smoke on the mic like smokin’ Joe Frazier, the hell-raiser, raising hell with the flavor,” Inspectah Deck growled over the rugged beat of “Protect Ya Neck,” Wu Tang Clan’s first single, which they self-produced and released. They were chaos contained, ready to explode.

The Wu Tang emerged as the definitive Hip-Hop super group, nine emcees strong, taking the world by storm in the mid 90s. Broadening Hip-Hop’s audience internationally, they redefined the independent movement. A chaotic barrage of unique styles and sounds, the Clan has created classic after classic as a group, from individual members, and from spinoff acts. Marking the 20th anniversary of their debut album Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers (1993) the clan is poised to release two full projects, in spectacular manner only possible for them.

It’s been seven years since the last Wu Tang album, 8 Diagrams (2007), yet they are as relevant as ever. Many members have transitioned into other areas of the entertainment industry. Method Man is pursuing an acting career, and RZA has become a respected member of the arts community, directing and acting in films, writing scores, and producing music. Other members, such as Raekwon and Ghostface have continued to keep the Wu current in Hip-Hop, consistently releasing material of the highest lyrical caliber.

The original roll call still brings chills, “the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghost Face Killah, and the Method Man.” Committed to originality and skill, the Wu have benefited from a cohesive theme, built of obscure martial arts movie samples, a fascination with chess, strong ties to the philosophies of the Five Percent Nation, playful skits, and eerie in-house production. A trip through the 36 chambers of perfected style includes GZA’s masterpiece Liquid Swords (1995), Method Man’s Tical (1994), Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), Ol’ Dirty’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1996), and Ghostface’s Ironman (1996) to name just a few.

A Better Tomorrow and Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the two Wu projects to potentially see release this year, add to a legendary journey that began in Staten Island, NY over two decades ago.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, recorded in secret and shrouded in mystery, is a nod to the clan’s early days and features all of the original members, including verses by the late Ol’ Dirty recorded before his passing. Unlike any other album, there is only a single copy in existence, which RZA has said will be auctioned off after making a tour through museums and galleries. Currently residing in Marrakech, Morocco housed in a custom-crafted wood case made by artist Yahya, the album has been likened to “the scepter of an Egyptian king,” and has reportedly received a five million-dollar offer.

Although criticized by many since day one as a betrayal of their core fans who would never be able to match such a bid, I offer an alternative viewpoint. Through his actions, RZA has placed Hip-Hop among the fine arts and is continuing the push toward Hip-Hop’s popular acknowledgement as an art form. Additionally, fans have created a Kickstarter to jointly raise funds to see the album publicly released.

Sharing a name with the tenth track of their second album, Wu Tang Forever (1999), A Better Tomorrow has been plagued by controversy since its announcement. Gone are the early days when all members of Wu Tang were signed to their independent label, shared a common vision, and collaborated together outside the influence of their individual egos. RZA has stated that he wants the album to include all living members of the Wu, while Raekwon had announced he was on strike against the project, taking a strong stance with regards to the creative direction of the album.

To many Hip-Hop and Wu Tang fans, their signature sound includes the rugged sonic backing perfected by RZA and his production disciples, and a tight circle excluding collaborations outside the Wu with few exceptions. The allure of making a celebrity studded guest list on the album is a real option and can be seen as a celebration of the group’s success, but it also goes against the philosophy of early Wu Tang. Undoubtedly, the project will be well executed, and we can’t expect the Wu Tang to remain the same as artists — they should experiment, evolve and grow in their own direction. The end result, no matter what, will better the art of Hip-Hop.

So throw up the W, represent, and let your feet stomp.

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