Surprisingly, the plan worked. All of the various Wu-Tang solo projects elaborated on the theme the group laid out on their 1993 debut, the spare, menacing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Taking their group name from an powerful, mythical kung fu sword wielded by an invincible congregation of warriors, the crew is a loose collective of nine MCs. All nine members work under a number of pseudonyms, but they are best known as RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem; aka Rzarecta, Chief Abbot, and Bobby Steels; born Robert Diggs), Genius/GZA (aka Justice and Maxi Million; born Gary Grice), Ol' Dirty Bastard (aka Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, and Osirus; born Russell Jones), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze, Ticallion Stallion, Shakwon, Methical, and MZA; born Clifford Smith, Raekwon the Chef (aka Shallah Raekwon and Lou Diamonds; born Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (aka Tony Starks and Sun God; born Dennis Coles), U-God (aka Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Baby U, and 4-Bar Killer; born Lamont Hawkins), Inspectah Deck (aka Rebel INS and Rollie Fingers; born Jason Hunter), and Masta Killa (aka Noodles; born Elgin Turner).
Although he wasn't one of the two founding members -- Genius/GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard were the first -- the vision of the Wu-Tang Clan is undoubtedly due to the musical skills of RZA. Under his direction, the group -- through its own efforts and the solo projects, all of which he produced or co-produced -- created a hazy, surreal, and menacing soundscape out of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs, and minimal samples. Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.
It wasn't always that way. Like most rappers, they began their careers trying to get ahead whatever way they could. For RZA, that meant releasing a silly single, "Ooh, I Love You Rakeem," on Tommy Boy Records in 1991. On the advice of his label and producers, he cut the humorous, lover-man single that went absolutely nowhere. Neither did the follow-up single, "My Deadly Venom." The experience strengthened his resolve to subvert and attack record-industry conventions. He found partners in Genius and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Genius had also released a record in 1991, the full-length Words From the Genius on Cold Chillin', which was preceded by the single "Come Do Me." Both records were unsuccessful. After the failure of his album, Genius teamed with an old friend, Ol' Dirty Bastard, to form the crew that would evolve into the Wu-Tang Clan within a year.
RZA quickly became part of the crew, as did several other local MCs, including Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa, who rarely raps. The nine rappers made a pact to a form an artistic and financial community -- the Wu-Tang Clan wouldn't merely be a group, it would be its own industry. In order to do this, they decided to establish themselves through a group effort and then begin to spread the word through solo projects, picking up additional collaborators along the way and, in the process, becoming stronger and more...