In Chinese lore, dragons are bonded to the number nine. The ancient serpent has nine forms and nine sons. With the head of a horse, demon’s eyes, clam’s belly and snake’s tail, their interlocking parts can bring success or misfortune. Before greed, tragedy and Martin Shrekli, nine New Yorkers forged an unwieldy beast of their own. And it would never soar higher than Wu-Tang Forever.
Wu’s origin is cherished folklore, recited by greying pilgrims to the spin of anti-skip Discmans. After a failed Tommy Boy contract and vanquishing murder charges in Ohio, Robert Diggs set on industry takeover. A martial arts fanatic, Diggs was captivated by 1978 flick Five Deadly Venoms. The cult hit featured five warriors, each attacking with bestial ferocity. He conceived a similar cast of MCs spitting indomitable verbal Qigong. Diggs, now the RZA, plus his cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GZA along with Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa formed a nonagon of wit, knowledge and metal flying guillotines.
RZA guaranteed supremacy if they’d submit for five years. They’d have solo record deals, clothes, caramel sundae air freshener, our hearts, our minds – you name it. Stunningly, Diggs’ concept worked. Small time hoodlums became action figures and film stars. It was the mid-90s, and Wu-Tang were supremely cool at a time when “cool” was still bankable. It was also the dawn of rap commercialization, before Beats made Dre a fortune and Jay Z hosted reptilian board meetings. RZA, his brother Divine and associate Oli Grant chased Disney money. Their golden crane logo was everywhere. Power launched the Wu Wear clothing brand, cutting the path for Roc-a-Wear and Sean Jean. They created Wu Filmz, Wu nails (really), Wu management, multiple labels and had over 100 affiliate artists, including Wu Latino and that poor guy who cut off his own katana.
Musically, Wu-Tang were also completing a flawless coup. Their bulletproof debut was followed by peerless solo strikes with Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx and Ghostface’s Ironman. The dynasty prevailed with supreme talent and street-bred marketing savvy. Fans passionately debated favorite members like sports teams and the Wu were constantly pitched sponsorship ideas. Between Kenan & Kel‘s shenanigans on Nickelodeon, they had prime TV advertising. RZA foresaw going public on the stock market. For those who doubted rap’s buying power, this was a spin kick to the jaw.
‘Triumph’ is Forever’s accurately titled lead single, where Wu-Tang align with fierce verbosity on their finest group cut. At six minutes with 10 rappers and no hook, it radiates thermogenic bars with zero pop concession. Inspectah Deck conjures 25 years of solo shows with one uncanny soliloquy, his karaoke contingent bonded to the words, “I bomb atomically.” Ignoring commercial appeal for lyrical ballast, Wu topped the spire on their own terms.
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