The Triumphant Album of My Youth – “Wu-Tang Forever” at 20

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“Reunited, double LP, world excited”

It wasn’t just an album release. It was an event.

While we are currently in the midst of the surprise album era, when some of the biggest artists in the world unleash a disc of new music unexpectedly in the early morning hours, things were decidedly different back in 1997.

It was still a couple of years before major hip-hop albums leaked online months before their scheduled unveiling and the run-up to an album release could last nearly half-a-year. Such was the case with Wu-Tang Forever, the highly anticipated second group album by Wu-Tang Clan. “Triumph,” the first single, dropped in February, 1997, a full four months before the album’s release date. The moment I heard it, with its rumbling bassline, the harmonic female voice chanting “oooh hooo” in the background, and Inspectah’s Deck’s incredible opening verse, I was hooked. That song and its accompanying video were ubiquitous in the first half of ’97 and we couldn’t wait for the full album.

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“Return like Jesus when the whole world need us”

When you’re a teenager, a piece of pop art can change your life.

At that age, it’s still possible to have your worldview shaped or altered by a book or movie or album. Maybe it stopped you from harming yourself by giving you hope. Maybe it inspired you and showed you that you could also do something creative. Or maybe it just connects with you and resonates in ways that you can’t even understand, let alone explain.

For me, that is the case with Wu-Tang Forever.

I loved Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers] and I adored the first round of solo albums – particularly Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Liquid Swords, and Ironman – but it wasn’t until Wu-Tang Forever that the Wu-Tang Clan became more than just a group whose music I really liked, along with Public Enemy, N.W.A, Mobb Deep, Tha Dogg Pound, and many others. They became less of a musical act and more of a way of life, so much so that to this day I display my loyalty and allegiance with my morning coffee every day. They have become an extension of my identity and will remain so for the rest of my life.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in hip-hop over the overwhelming presence of white kids at rap shows and nowhere is this more true than when the Wu is performing.

While it’s true that all successful hip-hop artists have white fans, the Clan has an army of white kids (present company included) that treat them like demigods. For some reason, they just resonate beyond hip-hop heads and connect with listeners that otherwise eschew rap. The skater kids that liked KMFDM? They liked Wu-Tang. The grunge kids that thought Eddie Vedder was god and Kurt Cobain was Jesus? They were down with the Wu.

My wife hates it when I say that Wu-Tang changed my life. To her it’s hyperbole to claim that a group of musicians – only one of whom I’ve ever even met – could have such an impact on my life. And, truthfully, I don’t know if I can ever explain it. While the classic music is a huge part of it, it’s far from all of it.

Some may argue that the group’s popularity was due to superficial reasons like the iconic logo, the amusing antics of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and just because it’s what other kids liked, so it was also the thing to do. But I think there’s another, deeper reason. The Clan connected because it was different. Before the Wu, the vast majority of mainstream hip-hop was either bragging or threatening. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but prior to Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers], no one was rhyming about playing chess or watching kung-fu flicks. Nowhere is this more evident than on “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man.” While he would ultimately receive praise for his lyrical prowess, the rhymes on Method Man’s self-titled single, with its references to different brands of peanut butter and Sylvester the Cat would never be confused with Rakim:

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Ironically, on his spoken word intro to the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever, RZA denounces “Cat in the Hat-ass rappers…you Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, simple minded” MC’s yet he produced this classic single that shouts out a Dr. Seuss classic.

But that was the point. They did things their own way and matured and improved during the time of RZA’s secret “Five Year Plan.” They blazed the trail. Their look, their delivery, their contrasting styles – all of it was different. Even their business model was unlike anything else in the music industry:

One of the first record execs to come sniffing around was Steve Rifkind, who had a new label called Loud. The RZA got him to sign an unprecedented deal: For only $60,000, Rifkind got the Clan as a whole. But the RZA also convinced him to allow each individual in the group to become, in essence, a free agent. They could sign a solo deal with any other company, and take the Wu-Tang name with them.

This would ultimately present a paradox, but the Wu-Tang Clan proved that that not only could you be anything, but you could be yourself and do it your own way. At the time, that was largely a foreign concept in mainstream hip-hop and probably the reason that so many self-obsessed disaffected white kids were drawn to the group. Moreover, they were outsiders. While individual members were from other boroughs, the group as a whole represented Staten Island (which they referred to as “Shaolin”), not known as a hotbed for hip-hop talent like the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or even Long Island. They were the outsiders that were not content to simply infiltrate the in-crowd, but would not rest until they completely took it over.

Wu-Tang connected with fans all over the world and was at its absolute apex in 1997. How else does a six-minute song with no chorus get wall-to-wall radio and video airplay?


“Sell more copies than Kinko’s”

It felt like at least half of the upperclassmen skipped school that day.

I grew up in a relatively small town, but attended a fairly big high school (450 in my graduating class, 2,000 students in four grades) that has only grown in the years since. Normally, the school was teeming with students full of raging hormones. On June 3rd, 1997, however, it felt like a weekend. The halls were much less crowded and empty desks dotted the classrooms. Certain schools and areas have a higher concentration of fans than others and Pennridge was thoroughly a Wu-Tang district. Scores of my friends took the day off so they could drive to Sam Goody or The Wall and be there when the store opened to get the first copies of Wu-Tang Forever.

Through both words and actions, my father had instilled in me a pretty strong work ethic. Periodically, he’d come home with certificates or awards from work for having a perfect attendance record. This stuck with me and I was determined to follow him and finish high school without an absence. A few times, my mother actually encouraged me to take a mental health day or two, but I wouldn’t do it.

Early on June 3rd, as I was questioning my decision to go to school, I bumped into a friend of mine, another attendance nerd. We immediately began talking about the album.

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“I’m going to the mall right after school. You want to ride with me?” he asked.

“Definitely,” I said.

I spent the afternoon counting down the minutes, my eyes flicking to the clock every thirty seconds or so. The morning had been easy because school opens before the mall does, but by 2 pm I knew that I was late to the listening party. As soon as the bell rang, I hustled out to the parking lot and hopped in the passenger seat. It was a twenty-minute drive and we passed the time talking about typical high school stuff, but I was full of nervous excitement the entire time.

We parked and nearly jogged through the lot, into the mall, straight to The Wall (after all that anticipation, I wanted that blue lifetime guarantee sticker). We walked in and immediately saw a huge display that was already two-thirds empty but still had plenty of copies. They said they had already had to restock it once that day. We each bought a copy and made a beeline back to the parking lot.

We got back in the car and my friend immediately ripped the packaging off the CD and inserted it into stereo. We were so eager to hear it. I remember sitting in the car on the ride back from the mall and listening to that excruciatingly long intro, “Wu-Revolution” (sorry, Papa Wu). For nearly seven minutes, I impatiently listened, waiting and wondering when it would end so I could hear some actual rhymes. Secretly, though, I was also  thankful. It was like a reprieve because I didn’t want to hear the album for the first time in a friend’s car, regardless of how much money he spent on his system through the Crutchfield catalog. I wanted to consume it my own way, the way I consumed all albums back then, through my shelf stereo in my room and, most importantly, through my headphones.

The truth was that I had waited so long and was so excited that I didn’t want to share it. I wanted it all to myself.


The Wu-Tang Dynasty has emerged

No one knew about RZA’s “Five Year Plan,” but the album certainly felt like a culmination.

While the first album had been the aural equivalent of a beat down in a dark alley, this felt like a conquest. They had grown so much in the years between offerings. The bragging and battle rhymes were replaced by more layered, conversational lyrics, full of metaphors and allusions. And while they had acknowledged serious topics on 36 Chambers such as inner-city life (“C.R.E.A.M.”) and premature death (“Tearz”), they delved far deeper the second time around, looking at both the causes and consequences of lifestyles and decisions. Even their rhymes that focused on less somber topics were still intelligent and nuanced.

Method Man, the first group member to break out and still its biggest crossover star today, is all over the double disc, every verse dripping with charisma. GZA and Inspectah Deck both stepped up their games and brought even sharper lyrics while Raekwon and Ghostface Killah continued to evolve with more complex and nearly impossible-to-decipher rhymes. U-God and especially Masta Killa stepped out of the shadows to stand alongside their more well-known brethren as Cappadonna established himself as hip-hop’s ultimate sixth (or tenth) man. It would also prove to be the last real contribution from Ol’ Dirty Bastard. While many were disappointed that he didn’t rhyme (or sing) on “Triumph,” he appears on multiple tracks and offers a strong performance on each, particularly on his epic solo, “Dog Shit.” After this, it was all downhill as he’d be forced to record his verses over a prison phone and have a body double pretend to be him in a video.

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While Meth appears on three of the first four actual songs, neither Raekwon nor Ghostface are heard until track four (along with Tical), the hypnotic “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money).” As Ghost is rhyming the final verse, the beat cuts out, but he continues unabated, his voice slowly fading out, giving the impression that he could keep going forever.

Speaking of Ghost, Wu-Tang Forever further solidified his place among the greats. After co-starring on the operatic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and taking his mask off and letting us into his world on his own debut, Ironman, he used Forever as a platform to showcase his skills. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Impossible,” where his emotional story rhyme was named the best verse of the year by The Source as well as even greater praise by RZA:

In his 2004 book, The Wu-Tang Manual, RZA described Ghost’s verse on Wu-Tang Forever’s “Impossible” as “the greatest Wu-Tang verse ever written.” Nearly 32 bars long, Ghost’s “Impossible” verse detailed the shooting death of his friend Jamie, from when the ambulance was called to when he was “pronounced dead, y’all, at 12:10.”

In the years that followed, he would continue to carry the Clan on his back. While the majority of the second round of solo albums failed to reach the heights of the first, Ghost returned with Supreme Clientele, an undeniable classic and the project that felt closest to the group’s output from ’93 – ’97.

But the performance behind the mic wasn’t the only improvement. The production on Wu-Tang Forever is a more than a step forward – it’s a leap.

While part of the charm of 36 Chambers had been its gritty, muffled, basement sound, the music of Forever jumps out of the speakers with a clean, precise sound that envelops the listener. The studio is often referred to as the “lab” and during the creation of Wu-Tang Forever RZA donned a white coat and began experimenting by incorporating different instruments like fiddles and pianos along with old soul records, resulting in a robust orchestral sound backed by thumping basslines and featuring, of course, the group’s trademark kung-fu clips. He took everything he had done previously – the murkiness of Tical, the cinematic soundscapes of Cuban Linx…, the eeriness of Liquid Swords, and the soulful emotion of Ironman – and built on it to mastermind one of the best-produced albums in rap history, from the lush, symphonious sound on “Reunited” to the minimalism of “Duck Seazon” to the stop-and-start stutter step beat on “The Projects.”

Wu-Tang Forever also served as the birthplace of RZA’s new method of chopping and speeding up old soul samples to create new instrumentals backed with a sample voice that becomes very high-pitched, a technique that would ultimately become known as “chipmunk soul.” This type of production would be adopted by the next generation of producers, including Just Blaze and Kanye West, who has cited RZA as a major influence:

Wu-Tang had one of the biggest impacts as far as a movement. From slang to style of dress, skits, the samples. Similar to the [production] style I use, RZA has been doing that.

In fact, The Abbott’s influence was felt immediately as some of the album’s best beats were provided not by RZA himself, but by some of his protégés, known collectively as the Wu-Elements, including 4th Disciple’s “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money),” True Master’s “Heaterz,” and even superlyricist Inspectah Deck stepped behind the boards for “Visionz.”

Still, for as polished as it sounded, the approach was still unique and unrefined. It was like a cross of a familial gathering and an underground cipher – most songs have little traditional structure, many have no hook, and several include various members popping in and out seemingly at random. There’s Raekwon‘s conversational interlude about boxing in the middle of “Bells of War” that seems superfluous but actually serves as a prelude to Rae and Ghost trading storytelling rhymes about being in the building on fight night on the next track, “The M.G.M.” There are members finishing each other’s parts as if they all share a brain like on “Deadly Melody” when Masta Killa, U-God, and GZA combine for a few bars. And there’s Streetlife spitting a few lines before Ghost jumps in, almost like he’s interrupting, with his short verse, then Street returns to finish. Sometimes it’s more subtle like when RZA and Method Man pop up to serve as nothing more than hypemen for ODB on “Dog Shit.”


“The impact will blow trees back and crack statues”

Its promotion was also a product of the times. There was also the (still great) special on MTV’s “Ultrasound” (parts 1, 2, 3), the early-CGI of the “Triumph” video, and the “enhanced” CD that you popped into your computer and toured the digital Wu mansion, where each member had his own chamber.

While it looks pedestrian now, this final touch was so groundbreaking that it was the subject of its own New York Times article that began, “The multimedia posse has arrived.”

No one had ever done it before, certainly not the way they did it. And while their sales may have waned in the two decades since, their legacy has only become stronger and more legendary. This is largely because their impact has always been about more than just the music. When Wu-Tang Forever lost the Grammy for Best Rap Album to Puff Daddy’s No Way Out, Ol’ Dirty Bastard took to the stage during the Song of the Year presentation to proclaim that “Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best!”

More recently, RZA and Wu-affiliate Cilvaringz made headlines when they chose to auction off the single copy of its secret double album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

Today, they are like hip-hop’s version of The Rolling Stones. The vast majority of fans prefer to pay money to watch them perform their classics that came out years ago than they will for brand new music, regardless of how good it may be. But in the summer of 1997, it felt like everyone was listening to Life After Death, No Way Out, Makaveli, or Wu-Tang Forever.

Wu-Tang Forever sold 612,000 copies in its first week and would go on to be certified four-times platinum. Although they’d never reach those heights again – and we were foolish to ever expect them to – for their next album, The W, RZA and company wisely reverted back to a leaner disc of thirteen songs over much sparser beats.

In his book, The Tao of Wu, RZA reflected on Forever and its immediate aftermath:

It went to number one in the first week. We were the biggest music group in the world. And that was it; the five years were over. The plan was completed.

[…]

With Wu-Tang Forever, we had all fulfilled our destiny. My brothers in the Clan had lived up to their five-year promise, and I had lived up to mine. The planets had aligned, the cipher was complete. There was no more prophesy involved; everything else was gravy. Our future was no longer ordained.

The album dropped in June. By August it was over. Wu-Tang left Shaolin and got lost in the countryside – separated, pulled apart.

[…]

We had the world in our hands and we dropped it.

Perhaps to most fans it does not hold the significance of Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers], but to me Wu-Tang Forever is better. It is far deeper, more layered, more complex, and more polished. 36 Chambers was the raw introduction, but Forever is the apotheosis. Apart from the last couple of tracks on the second disc, it is virtually flawless. Like comfort food for my ears and my soul, it is the album that I turn to in those moments when music can carry me away.

For most of us, music doesn’t hold the same importance in our lives as we get older. We become consumed with obligations and responsibilities like work, family, and other hobbies. We grow out of it. New albums no longer have the same impact as they did when you were younger regardless of how great they may be.

But in 1997, Wu-Tang Forever was one of the most important things in my life. It changed so many things for me as a 17-year-old.

And it has only gotten better with age.


Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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