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Has the Wu-Tang dynasty fallen off? Rumors of strife within the group, along with Old Dirty Bastard's legal troubles and declining record sales, all suggest the kings of Shaolin may have lost the power that they once wielded over the rap industry like a mighty sword. With so many Wu-affiliated projects flooding the marketplace, has the public's taste for Clan product reached the saturation point?
Charter Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah don't think so. To challenge the naysayers, the "Chef" -- Raekwon -- and Ghostface have teamed up for two sequel records to their 1995 collaborative classic, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
"Me and Ghost are doing two albums this year," says Raekwon. "One's called Ragu; one's called Bulletproof Wallets. You know it's the Cuban Linx-era right here, so we considered both of these as Cuban Linx Part II. With both albums we trying to do something real phenomenal."
Considered one of the classics from the Wu canon, the RZA-produced and Raekwon-and-Ghost-penned Only Built 4 Cuban Linx --with its icy samples and Gambino tales of growing up in the Park Hill and Stapleton projects of Staten Island -- helped establish these MCs as street reporters of the highest order. Tracks like "Glaciers of Ice," "Incarcerated Scarfaces" and "Can It All Be So Simple (A Remix)" provided a glimpse of what these guys were doing to make ends meet before they blew up as rap stars with Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Clearly, dope rhymes weren't the only things these cats were slanging in their pre-Wu days on Staten Island: "Stand on the Block/Be-bop gun cocked/Avalanche rock get paid off...Strive for whys/Mad lodged in lies/Max sell and enjoy the highs," Raekwon rapped on "Glaciers of Ice."
Not one to hold back in assessing his mike skills, Raekwon reflects on the impact that Linx had on its listeners.
"Not only was that one of the top records that came out of the Wu-Tang family, it's one of the top records that's ever been made in rap itself," he says. "What makes that record so special is that back in 1994, we was already glorifying the material things that we wanted to be able to have. We told a story about big, major niggers that didn't have no money. In our eyes, you could see a kid on the block, and in his eyes, he's got to get money. He's got blood in his eyes, he's determined to do whatever. At the same time, he knows how to balance certain things in life, as far as the good and the bad. Everybody now is talking the same shit we were talking back then. To me, it was like a road map to what a lot of brothers is making now."
You can expect the new records -- tentatively set for September and October releases, respectively -- to deal with the gritty urban scenarios that might be found in a Donald Goines novel.
"The storyline is basically dealing with reality," Raekwon says. "It's not really about trying to be tough or talk about killing families and kids. It's just about skills. Keeping it where you supposed to be and furthering your knowledge at the same time. That's all Cuban Linx ever was: Brothers that ain't never have nothing that was trying to make something out of nothing into something."
Although Raekwon will not reveal many details of the two upcoming albums, he does drop a few hints.
"It's Batman and Robin behind the mike again," he says. "We're dealing with a lot of samples. It's more of what the streets are really calling for, with a twist of us doing what we gotta do to satisfy the mainstream. We've got various producers, such as RZA -- you know he is going to be the mastermind. I've got a few other guys who I feel got capabilities. We're dealing with a few guys from the industry, my man Pete Rock and newcomers coming up like Alchemist."
The last we heard from Raekwon and Ghost (apart from their appearances on the last Wu album, The W) was each MC's solo effort. While Ghostface prominently featured RZA on 2000's Supreme Clientele, Raekwon introduced a new stable of producers on his 1999 disc, Immobilarity. As a result, many critics panned the disc because of its often flossy production style. Ghostface's record got some major airplay with the surprise hit single, "Cherchez LaGhost" -- a creative reworking of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band's "Cherchez la Femme" -- but Raekwon's record barely registered a blip. Despite lackluster sales, Raekwon remains proud of the disc.
"Immobilarity was me going through a world of maturing and growing up and witnessing a lot of things," he says. "I could of sat there and talked about all of the bad things that happened to me, but I chose to think better and think more positively. I felt good about it, because I never really made an album where I got wreck so much by myself. It's still a classic, regardless of how many units it sold. People still respect my flow. But that was the time it came, that was the time it left. Now we dealing with the present."
If the past is any key to the present in the Wu Chronicles, though, the members tend to shine best when RZA is at the production helm. For the new records, the triumvirate of Ghost, Raekwon and RZA ensures a certain chemistry that will translate well on wax -- and should make the Cuban Linxsequels worthy listens. When Ghostface Killah and Raekwon trade raps, there's a kind of telepathy between the two.
"It's just natural. We sit there and write together," says Raekwon. "It ain't like he write his thing and I write my thing. We help each other. It makes it more fun, and it makes it more of an initiative. When I see him, I see a reflection of me, and he sees a reflection in himself because we walk as one."
This time around, the duo tried to avoid an overreliance on slang and obscure references. You'll still get the innovative wordplay that marks both rappers' work, but it's likely to be cloaked in a more direct, straightforward style.
"I'm slanged out automatically," says Raekwon. "You're definitely always going to hear some new shit coming out of my mouth. People say, 'Raekwon and Ghost, they say shit we really can't understand.' So we went a little easy this time, made the words a little bit clearer. At the same time, we still used the chemistry that got us where we at."
As a writer, Raekwon says he sees himself "as a Robert DeNiro type of brother. I can make visual things happen on paper, such as movies like Once Upon a Time in America. And I can do simple shit like Meet the Parents,just cosmetic shit. I'm more like a versatile author. I'm a teacher, because I'm teaching you. Our albums travel from wherever we at to all over the world -- to inside schools, prisons. I'm just a brother that will be a motivator to others. I'm going to show you that as long as you feel like you believe in something, you can achieve it."
Raekwon and Ghostface Killah have definitely come a long way from spitting in the ciphers in the stairways of the projects in Staten Island. But in rap, there's always someone out there trying to take out the top dogs. Raekwon realizes that now, more than ever, the competition is fierce.
"The competition is like sports," he says. "Every team ain't going to like the other team. They come in and win, and that's that: 'We don't care about the next man's team.' But you got to deal with sportsmanship at the end of the day, and that determines whether you're a real man or not. If not, you're going to hate, and to me hating is a part of striving. I've been hated on all my life. I thrive on hate. I love when you hate me, because when you hate me that means you got love for me, too."
The Wu still get plenty of love, but with disappointing sales of sophomore releases from Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and GZA -- as well as relatively meager numbers for the Clan's third disc -- one has to wonder if the rap world has grown Wu weary. These days, when it seems like every rap artist from Staten Island -- including groups like Killarmy and Sunz of Man -- are displaying the Wu icon on their albums, original members like Ghost and Raekwon are faced with the very real possibility that the excitement over their own offerings has been diluted by too much product.
"[There are] nine members that came from the W: Anything else is a duplicate," says Raekwon. "We're a brand name. We're like Pepperidge Farm. You got Pepperidge Farm bread, and you got white bread. It's the brand itself that people are coming up under. It's just affiliation. You could be affiliated to your neighbor down the block, but that doesn't make you family, it makes you just business partners."
Few groups have been as prolific as the Wu-Tang Clan. In the early '90s, the Clan helped resurrect New York hip-hop when Dr. Dre's California G-Funk ruled the airwaves. The group brought the street-brotherhood mentality back to rap. With ruminations on topics like numerology, Five Percenter Islamic philosophies and Kung Fu, the group elevated the lyrical game and set it amidst sinister, sparse backdrops. The Wu-Tang Clan has established a legacy that undeniably will live on in the annals of hip-hop.
"I want to be in one of them rap social-studies books as one of the most influential groups that was ever made," says Raekwon. "Let the music live and stimulate others and help them. I'd know then that I did my job."
With any group that's been together for close to a decade, there's a struggle to keep the unit tight. The Wu-Tang Clan has had to deal with the temporary loss of its clown prince, Ol' Dirty Bastard, who's been in and out of correctional and rehab facilities for the past couple of years. The group has also seen its share of squabbling amongst its inner circle -- something well documented in the Russell Simmons-produced film The Show. Currently, the group is trying to map out a strategy on when to release its next joint, though individual members can't seem to agree on a timetable. RZA has stated in the press that Wu-Tang will drop another album by the end of the year, but Method Man claims the group needs to get the family in order before that happens.
While Raekwon acknowledges these various recent disagreements and setbacks, he tries to put such things in the proper perspective. "The best always go through whatever they go through, the ups and downs, that's part of experiencing any struggle that you in," he says. To some, it may look like the Wu-Tang is in a state of rebuilding and transition, but Raekwon offers a different viewpoint.
"To the world it may look like that, but as long as we know what we dealing with, we don't worry about what people say," he says. "They can say that, 'Yo, we need to have more of y'all together,' and I respect that. But at the same time, brothers is older, some brothers is living far away from each other. I'm not just saying that as an excuse, but sometimes you ain't always going to get these collaborations. Brothers have responsibilities where we can't always meet together. We got to still hold the flag up one way or another, regardless if they hear us together on one song or they hear two of us. The bottom line is we speak for the W, and the W is what it is."