The Wu-Tang Clan is more than a hip-hop group. It’s more than a mere musical collective. The Clan and its members are a movement unto themselves.
“At this point, it’s fair to say they have even transcended the rap game, claiming their place in the cultural zeitgeist.”
That quote comes from S.H. Fernando Jr. in the preface of From the Streets of Shaolin, his thorough biographical account of the nine MCs that bum-rushed the music industry and changed the game forever with their unique style and unprecedented approach to the business side of the industry.
Such a large and influential crew deserves a robust portrayal and while 500 pages isn’t even enough real estate to fully cover the group and its impact, Fernando does a fantastic job of recounting the Clan’s history, particularly the early years when most of them were involved in the dangerous life of the streets, dreaming of bigger things.
Fernando had access to the group, so he was present for some of what transpired, even appearing as Mr. Grieco in a skit that preceded “Killah Hills 10304” on GZA’s Liquid Swords. The writing bears that is out, as he brings a combination of fandom, first-person account, and journalistic professionalism to the writing and, especially, the research. This book is phenomenally researched, with more citations and endnotes than some history books, and it brings a level of weight and gravitas to the work that is missing from most books on the group – and hip-hop at large.
In addition to telling the story of the background of the group and its members, Fernando also incorporates history and backstory on the elements that influenced them, their songs, and, by extension, became part of the fabric of hip-hop. He describes the New York City of the ’70s that birthed the music and how The Nation of Gods and Earths, kung fu films, and trying to hustle to make a living were all part of the equation that resulted in the uniqueness of the Wu-Tang Clan.
My superfandom of the Wu is well-documented, but there was so much I didn’t know, or didn’t fully understand, before cracking open From the Streets of Shoalin. Things that were mentioned in passing or references that I’ve been listening to for twenty years but never fully grasped are explained and placed in context, giving even greater weight to the group’s approach, most especially RZA’s vision and direction.
For as amazing at it is – and I think it’s the best book ever devoted to the Wu – it is a highly asymmetrical work. The group is approaching the thirtieth anniversary of its inception, but more than three-quarters of the book is focused on the years prior to 1998, dedicating a chapter to each of the group’s first seven offerings (two group albums bookending five solo releases). Even Wu-Tang Forever, the double-disc, quadruple-platinum global phenomenon of 1997 that is incredible, doesn’t get the same attention as some of the solo discs.
To the general public this may make sense. Most agree that Wu-Tang’s winning streak lasted from 1993 to 1997 – the manifestation of RZA’s “five-year plan” – but that doesn’t mean everything that came after was inferior. In fact, as blasphemous as this may sound, there were actually some albums that even surpassed the quality of some of the first round of solo LPs. Unfortunately, Fernando glosses over any music released after 1998, giving only brief attention to Ghostface’s brilliant sophomore album, Supreme Clientele, and failing to even mention Ghost’s incredible 2006 disc, Fishscale, which made numerous best of the decade lists or Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II, which certainly lived up to its predecessor and was even named the top hip-hop album of 2009 in numerous places, including The Source. There are more highlights like Masta Killa’s long-overdue but strong debut, No Said Date (2004) or GZA’s chess match concept album with DJ Muggs, Grandmasters (2005).
It would have been satisfying to revel in some of these latter-day accomplishments as opposed to an inexhaustible track-by-track breakdown – including samples used and instruments employed – of the first six releases. It’s clear Fernando prefers the group’s early output above all else (in the preface he writes how he was “lucky enough to be a fly on the wall as they worked on the first round of solo releases and their follow-up to 36 Chambers“), so the result is that the final hundred pages are left to cover the last twenty-plus years of the group’s activity in music, film, books, clothing, and business, twenty pages of which are dedicated to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s legal troubles alone. Unfortunately, this makes the final quarter of the book feel a bit like an afterthought.
That’s simply a personal nitpick. Overall, this is a work that very few could have produced, tracing the origins and unrivaled impact of an unlikely group from an overlooked borough with a gritty sound that challenged all conventional wisdom at the time.
The Wu-Tang Clan is greatest group in hip-hop history and and From the Streets of Shaolin is the greatest book ever written about them.
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books as well as a longtime Wu-Tang superfan. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.