Never Ran Never Will, Park Hill
Do or Die, Bed-Stuy
By Temple A. Stark, Casa Grande, AZ
I grew up in the 80s
Turned 20 in the 90s.
Can appreciate the music
That boiled over from the 70s.
Talk here ‘bout New Wave?
No, I’m talking rap.
Make some people groan outright.
That’s their right.
Given 10 years I’ll detest what’s then new
With the disdain only nostalgia can bring
Right now, 2 zero zero 5, I still overhear conversations — where I work, I shop, I sit — about how being a rapper requires no talent except being a thug. Like being a country singer requires no talent, just the fake accent.
In an especially amusing exchange a few weeks ago now, I heard someone (about 58, and 5-foot 5) cry that the only thing rappers have to do is learn to “move records back and forth underneath the needle.”
You know, like playing the lute is just moving your fingers up and down the strings.
What I’m trying to say is, I like rap as a genre and I’m glad.
That enabled me in the mid-90s to appreciate the tour de force that was the Wu-Tang Clan. Early on I didn’t know anything about them. I subscribed to (Corporate) Vibe magazine then and while most of it was fluff, there was a lot that brought a perspective about living a life unknown to me. I’d never lived in huge cities, only near Seattle and London. I was educating myself.
What I read about the Wu-Tang Clan showed me their focus was success but not the materials. And the focus wasn’t raging against former and current oppression; a point and an issue that I felt Public Enemy (and others too numerous to mention) had said, and said well, all there really was to say on the subject.
The WTC had set up — quite completely and quite quickly it seemed — an entire mythology and atmosphere around them. It was something that went beyond a lot of the rap and hip-hop. More than slinging rhymes. So, while in college I bought Enter the 36 Chambers. I loved it with the excitement of the new discovery of a new world. There were references to Shaolin and vocal film and audio clips. It wasn’t about “the 411”, the fun of murder and the bitches.
You know what I really want to say? Bearing in mind the era-straddling, rap-fu piece that is the Wu-Tang Clan I know it sounds too too corny, but I consider the Wu the audio equivalent of Caine from the early 1970s series, Kung Fu – the best character ever on television in terms of idealism and walking a path toward making the world he directly encountered a better place.
Both are non-violent, unless pushed first; like Kung Fu, The Wu is a strike-when-needed-art. And Caine was also so correctly regretful and apologetic about your need to have him subdue your aggression down, without even breaking into a deep breath.
I won’t strain the parallel too far, but they remind me of each other and I respect the message of both.
Still, you can’t take everything they say seriously. Why? Because you’re not supposed to and they don’t want you to. From Shaolin to living rough there are many deep themes here. But with this intelligence comes men who also have a sense of humor, a comics obsession – and names like U-God and Ghostface Killah.
Also, since there’s nine of them, I’m sure they spend a lot of time looking over at each other going, what the fuck? Nevermind an outsider plugging in, trying to get in on it.
Except a lot of people have plugged in.
Reading the book is like having the manuscript of the play in front of you, or being in on the conversations that got the producer, directors and performers to the stage. Anyone who has listened to the Wu will hear the writing, and recognize it as the sound just like RZA’s rapping.
There are no simple ways to describe the vocal delivery of any of the Clan. None are simply “machine-gun” or “raw”, none just “laid-back” “blunted” or “smooth.” They are unique in the world of rap – especially that mack, I’m-scared-and-you-can-hear-it-in-my-voice, Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
There are a lot of layers.
If you watch the vid for “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” — you can pretty such see why Ol’ Dirty Bastard is now gone, dead. A heart of gold I’m absolutely positive but drugged up and out. I’ve been saying for a long time that I never liked ODB’s first solo album “Return to The 36 Chambers, Dirty Version” Perhaps I should listen to it again to be sure.
I’ve tried to break down the overall picture of the Wu-Tang Manual here. But some of the specifics of the Manual include great mini-bios of each of the nine members of the crew: RZA (Robert F. Diggs, 7.5.69), GZA (Gary Grice, 8.22.66), Ol Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones, 11.15.68-12.15.04), Method Man (Clifford Smith, 4.1.71), Raekwon (The Chef) (Corey Woods, 1.12.70 – stretching those threads!), Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles, 5.9.70), Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter, 7.6.70), U-God (Lamont Hawkins, 10.11.70), and Masta Killa (Elgin Turner, 8.18.69).
All the instrumental voices of the Wu. Collectively in one span of about five years the members of the WTC had released 20 albums.
The history of the group – and their many names – is delivered, split across different chapters, when the time and the context is right. The chapter on Technology describes some of the early sampling machines and how RZA experimented with different sounds – and used some of his early creations in songs that came years later.
You get a surface feel – a blackprint – for how it all coalesced, from The Five Deadly Venoms film, to the Park Hill, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, Stapleton projects birth to “The 36 Strategms” book. The title of one Chapter says it all about the underpinnings of the group: “The Way of the Wu: the Grand Spiritual Megamix.”
On these pages, eight songs are deconstructed to explain their references, who’s rappin’ what, their context and their source materials such as samples and voice clips.
And fuck the rest but I finally got to figure where the spoken word intro words to “Bring da Ruckus” came from, so that right there was my reason for reading the book.
RZA talks about his visit to Sifu in China, the original Shaolin Temple and the birthplace of kung fu. As RZA aka The Abbot, describes it, “The Abbot of the other Wu-Tang” gave him a tape of their music.
I don’t listen to rap because I see myself there or want to be there or think I can flow. I just enjoy it, some of it – the music that’s creative and isn’t all about buying and collecting (although if it sounds good … )
So since I consider my knowledge about the Wu-Tang Clan incomplete the introduction of a book, The WTC Manual offers to complete a circle of knowledge.
Like watching that obscure avant-garde play or a new creation by a favorite playwright; you know there’s a plot, you hope something strange will make you look at the world in a different way, and no, you’re not supposed to understand it completely.
The Wu-Tang Manual service is done best when RZA explains, throughout his longer term plan for the group, his five-year plan for marketing everything from Wu-wear to organizing the release dates and the labels for the solo records by the Clan performers.
It’s a lesson:
(page 226)”Even before Wu-Tang was officially a group, I was the nucleus, because I’m the common denominator. Before they knew each other they all knew me. Once we all came together, I became the seven in the center of Wu-Tang. It was just my role – to be the source of energy for the rest of the band, the gravitational center that pulls everyone together.
People ask me how I can get all these different MCs – each one being so brilliant and unpredictable – to listen to me. It’s hard for me to define how it works but it goes back a long way.
The common thread was Mathematics [the mechanics and measuring of the earth]. There’s always one among us who’s the best knower. Within the Wu-Tang Clan, that was me. I had the answers to the most questions at the time. And the truth is magnetic. It attracts everything to it. And that’s what I was dealing with – with a true vision and a true past, and my own honesty, the way I dealt with equality.
At the same time, some brothers were still stuck out in the street, not living morally. I was already coming to an understanding of myself, but I also understood what they were going through. So I was able to deal with this equilibrium.
At the same time, I knew what I was doing, and I was very firm about it. I wasn’t a pushover. I was more like, “This is where it is, this is how it is, and that’s that.” Brothers respected that. and they respected my judgment.
Back then Masta Killa was a student of the GZA. I was also the GZA’s student, but even the GZA submitted his enlightenment over to me – as we say, he came over to my guidance. So right there that gave Masta Killa the freedom to feel the same way.
At that time, my word alone was enough to strike terror. Not because of what I was going to do with someone, in a street way, but because the truth is terrifying. I was 100-percent true. I had a true vision, true execution. I never crossed anybody. I’d been true with all these particular people since I was a child. I mean, I’d crossed other people, but with these guys I was always straight and clean. I’d developed this reputation before it ever came down to music.
Of course, there’s another side to it, too. Even if you’re living righteous and providing a powerful example to others, it helps to have some game if you want niggas to follow you.”
– from the chapter, “The Way of the Abbot.”
He later says the early days were like a dictatorship, and that he feels a kinship with men like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, two who could do their thing but realized the greater power of an orchestra – or a collection of vocal instrumentalists.
“(page 231) The universe is chaotic, yet it does follow a mathematical plan. So it only seems like chaos until you figure out the equation. I knew Wu-Tang was definitely chaotic according to everybody else, but to me it was organized. At least I knew the direction it was going. It’s like water. Water is chaotic really, but if you cut a path for it, it will flow.”
In a chapter on Chess RZA says he used to be the best chess player, but he’s been both a teacher and a student since instructing the other members of the band on the basic structures of the game.
“I learned chess when I was eleven years old, from a girl. The same girl who took my virginity, she also taught me how to play chess. I started to love the game as a game – it’s fun, it’s a thinking game. … It’s a strategic game that helps to calculate life, business, power moves. A good chess player can think three to four moves ahead. If you can do that, you can really manipulate a situation so that you’re winning.”
Next time you’re in NY and see a group of black men walking toward you – it could be the Wu-Tang Clan. Carry a chess board and try and stay ahead. It’s all much more than a battlefield of black and white.
My personal site is TempleStark.com