Shfl Guide: The Shaolin Diaspora: Solo Wu-Tang

It’s wild when you think about it: there were nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan as they existed in 1993, and we got good-to-legendary albums out of eight of them. (No hard feelings, U-God.) Many of them were shepherded into existence by the RZA, the crew’s production sifu and philosophical center; just as many were collaborative beats-by-committee jobs that felt just as broad-scope in their ensemble casts as the pure, original vision of 36 Chambers. And this was by design: from the moment Loud signed the Wu-Tang, RZA had it written into their contract that each member could negotiate with any label they wanted when it came time to put out their solo releases. With RZA executive-producing it all, he actually positioned himself above the labels, treating them practically as a sort of middleman afterthought (quick, which label did Ironman or Liquid Swords come out on?) with corporate machinations proving subservient to the artists’ collective visions. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was all about spreading the doctrine to a world outside Shaolin temple walls, and the Wu embodied that principle masterfully.

The bigger-picture miracle of this in an artistic sense is that the Wu-Tang brand was applicable to such a wide range of flows, lyrical approaches, and storytelling styles. The RZA could be the unifying factor as a producer on that first wave of solo joints, but you could still get everything from straightforward taped-knuckle shit-talk (Method Man) to Goines-meets-Scorsese tales of organized crime (Raekwon) to untethered, diabolical sing-song mindfuckery (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) to clinically intricate focused intensity (GZA) to some aggregate by-our-powers-combined embodiment of all those things (Ghostface Killah). And with even the less-hyped members like Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa, you have MCs who can carry a record better than many of their East Coast late ’90s/early ’00s peers. While the solo Wu records have tapered off recently — with the exception of extended family member Killah Priest’s remarkable dawn-of-the-’20s run, at least — there’s still more than enough depth in the catalogue to justify their rep as far more than just a product of oldhead nostalgia.

Tical cover

It scans that the first Wu member to hit solo was the one who got his own titular showcase on 36 Chambers. And if the initial mission was to prove that the gravel-voiced Meth could get even wilder than invocations of coathanger torture and deranged hooks ganked from Hall & Oates, it was also a much-awaited sign of assurance, especially in retrospect, that the Wu-Tang would own the ’90s. The title cut sways like a drunken boxing master topping off pulls from the wine jug with a few puffs of indica; “All I Need” is hardcore hip-hop making R&B cross over the other direction; “Bring the Pain” turns Chicago soul into a sparring session that shakes all the weakness out of your body.

Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version cover

ODB’s always been kind of tricky to parse — a rapper whose intensity could approach the ridiculous, though it was never entirely clear how much of it was signs of a troubled life, impositions from outside interpretations, or his own well-constructed kayfabe. But what really matters is that his voice, from timbre to inflection, was unprecedented and irreplaceable. And his solo debut is the ideal display for it, with zero-fat beats that waste little effort giving him a rhythm to bounce off (the frenetic piano loop of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is the closest we get to “maximalist”).

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx cover

Argue about the parentage of “Mafioso rap” all you want, but it’s without question that Raekwon’s ’95 solo debut set the bar so high that Shaq would have a hard time touching it. Rae and co-billed Ghostface Killah mastered a vision of high-crime storytelling that made the tragedies inseparable from the triumphs, while the litany of top-tier guest verses from other Wu members and RZA’s most dramatically vivid scene-setting collections of beats proved that their collective steel had only gotten sharper since ’93. The rap-sheet intricacy of “Criminology” alone makes the Scarface it samples seem Disney by comparison.

Liquid Swords cover

After being boxed in by the commercial moves that Cold Chillin’ expected of him on his failure of a pre-Wu debut, GZA didn’t so much atone for Words from the Genius as he evaporated it on contact. This is the kind of album you get when someone who was fucked over is finally liberated to make something he always wanted to make, with the merging of two Wu-Tang cultural touchstones, Asian martial arts films and chess, intertwined with his perceptive breakdowns of interpersonal conflict. Built off RZA beats that feel like they’re meant to loop forever — including the infinite tension-building of the title track’s plucked-nerve riff and the oscillating nightmare synths of “4th Chamber” — it slices its way directly into your brain and cuts a new notch into it with each listen.

Ironman cover

Imagine putting out an album with the greatest ballad in hip-hop history as its first single (the heart-rending childhood reminiscence “All That I Got Is You”), a god-tier funk monster of a banger as its second (sickest “Nautilus” flip ever “Daytona 500”), and some of the most breath-snatchingly soulful beats RZA ever put together, and still having it considered a debatable runner-up in this category. Still, in a world without Supreme Clientele this is a gimme for Ghost’s best solo joint, and the coup de grace in an unfathomably amazing first-wave run of Shaolin masterworks before Wu-Tang Forever reconsolidated it all.

Blackout! cover

Meth was always formidable carrying entire tracks by himself, but something about the Shaolin/Brick City merger between Johnny Blaze and the decade-long reigning king of Jersey-based blunt-hoovering bravado just clicked. Ergo the kind of hip-hop superduo that bridges Cheech & Chong and Run the Jewels: the rapport’s immortal, two roughruggedandraw maniacs with V12s in their chests booming out the kind of rhymes that give verses the same charge as most rappers’ hooks. In the process, they make cannabis sound like a stimulant, and the heavy presence of Erick Sermon on the boards made choosing between this and EPMD’s excellent Out of Business a tricky proposal for cash-strapped ’99 record shoppers.

Uncontrolled Substance cover

There are few what-ifs in hip-hop more dispiriting than the story behind Deck’s first solo album, which was meant to drop in the mid ’90s amidst all the other solo releases but had to be remade from the bottom up after the studio flood destroyed RZA’s beats for it. What emerged instead was a more modest yet still gripping record that showed Deck and other lesser-feted Wu members Masta Killa and U-God meeting their potential, while affiliates like 4th Disciple, Mathematics, and True Master proved to be a whole bench of sharpshooter 6th men when stepping in for production duties. Deck’s own beats shine, too — check for “Elevation,” which was so immaculate Ghostface reused it the following year for “Stay True."

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Music from the Motion Picture) cover

He’s not to be underestimated as an MC — something worth remembering, and if you forgot, revisit that first Gravediggaz album — but RZA’s production is always going to be the thing that makes him endlessly fascinating from a musical perspective. The “digital orchestra” about-face style he started transitioning to circa Wu-Tang Forever and displayed most prominently on his Bobby Digital albums actually works best in a cinematic context — literally, this time, as the eternal movie buff jumped at the chance to give Jim Jarmusch his best connection to the hip-hop world since Rammellzee’s Stranger Than Paradise cameo. Leaving big seams in the loops and creating string-section basslines that bounce more than soar adds a recognizable Shaolin grime to the film’s East-West hood-bushido milieu.

Supreme Clientele cover

It’s still up for debate who the greatest MC in the Wu is, but this album is the reason most people won’t object if you claim it’s Ghostface. Already a master at storytelling and dropping evocative details of wealth and poverty alike, Ghost went even further on solo joint #2: here he rapped like he was in a fugue state, shaping every last bit of his subconscious language affinity and life experience like he blacked out and woke up fifty million dollars and one million bars ahead of everyone else.

No Said Date cover

Even more than ten years after 36 Chambers, it still felt like some members had something to prove — which might be why No Said Date, the last solo debut to come from the original nine, still sounds hungry long after the Wu empire was firmly established. Much of the same production crew is back from rescuing Uncontrolled Substance five years earlier, with Mathematics’ caged-jaguar boom-bap and the blues-ish / blood red skulk of True Master’s beats more than holding their own alongside three captivatingly weird RZA originals. That makes the steely confidence of the headline rapper sound like he’s swinging hammers even at his most reserved, an embodiment of the idea that it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for.

Grandmasters cover

There’s something about GZA’s style that makes him feel like more of a six-moves-ahead tactician than a freestyle-ready improviser or a haymaker-ready hook-thrower. It’s an approach that might alienate segments of a broader mainstream rap audience, but has had an invaluable impact on successive MCs from Ka to Boldy James who find strength in deep-focus delivery. Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs has always worked well with the more atmospheric of the East Coast MCs, and even if the jump-cut loops and vocal soul samples he brings to the table can nod blatantly to RZA, they also play perfectly to GZA’s strengths as a cool-headed lyricist with beneath-the-surface intensity — an ideal next step if Liquid Swords left you craving more.

Fishscale cover

Tony Starks’ career could be wildly unpredictable post-Supreme Clientele, whether it was through bad luck (Bulletproof Wallets and its butchery at the hand of sample clearance issues) or just overloaded expectations (like every album that followed this one). But Fishscale holds a place in the Solo Ghost Holy Trinity because it finds him in this odd space between mainstream and underground that the Wu-Tang in general and Ghostface in particular always felt comfortable in. The de rigeur coke-trade chic and luxury-brand-name exotica of the ’00s are run through with more idiosyncratic reflections on childhood beatings (“Whip You With A Strap”) and Motor Booty Affair-goes-spiritual below-sea epiphanies (“Underwater”). And the producers on this — Just Blaze, Pete Rock, J Dilla, and a litany of jaw-droppers from MF DOOM — are brought into a world that Ghost made nuanced and experienced enough to have it all make sense.

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II cover

In one sense, this is only a sequel to Raekwon’s magnum opus in name: the three-years-gone J Dilla gets more beats (three) than RZA (two), the guest-verse roster spans far further outside the Wu than the original’s sole nod to Nas, and the production appears to sacrifice a cohesive sound for a Dream Team of sample-slayer icons like Pete Rock, Marley Marl, The Alchemist, Erick Sermon, and Dr. Dre. In another, more important sense, this is the much-needed return to form that arrived after a late ’90s/early ’00s run of neglectful, half-formed solo enterprises — the don reclaiming his turf with consigliere Ghostface at his side. As franchise continuations go, it’s like the difference between the tension-and-horror dynamic of Ridley Scott’s suspenseful Alien and the explosive action-flick bombast of James Cameron’s sequel.

Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons to Die cover

As a collective, Wu-Tang’s reputation always felt like it came from the strengths of a unified force, but it’s been pretty clear for a long time now that Ghostface is their breakout star — or at least the member most consistently out there finding strange new things to use his rep to bring into fruition. While the Wu’s always been a favorite of the live-band hip-hop-meets-funk fusion set — word to El Michels Affair and their own ’70s-noir take on RZA beats — Adrian Younge brought out something a bit more unconventional for Ghost, a triangulation of hip-hop, soul, and giallo-flick soundtracks that shifted the Ghost mise en scene from the Chinatown/Little Italy intersection to the studios of Rome. That adds a frisson of vintage weirdness to an album that otherwise features Ghostface in straightforward storyteller mode.

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