Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud, 1993)
The obvious choice is the only choice. As Los Angeles was shifting hip-hop’s power base from its historic New York home, nine powerful necromancers emerged from the shadows of Staten Island, “the forgotten borough”, to rebuild the east coast in their own image. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a new blueprint in slimy-grimy NYC street rap. The spirit of regional greats like Kool G Rap loom over their shoulders, but the Clan pull you into their own forbidding image of the city, built from components of gangster rap, Five-Percenter ideology and hours of kung-fu movies.
RZA’s beats sound as if they’re forged from melted-down knuckle-dusters. With the chemistry of a group of spiritually connected Shaolin monks, the Clan pass the mic like a hot potato, each outlandish personality already feeling fully formed as they veer from solemn street revelations to goofy wisecracks to send-you-crying-to-your-momma threats. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is not just the Clan’s genesis – it remains the purest distillation of their collective expression.
GZA – Liquid Swords (Geffen/MCA, 1995)
GZA raps like a boxer methodically finding holes in an opponent’s tight defence, or Houdini unpicking a lock. No syllable seems arbitrary. Released during the first wave of post-36 Chambers solo albums, Liquid Swords utilises GZA’s icy vocals, cerebral rhyme patterns and bleak worldview to shed the Clan’s aesthetic of all pop leanings. Emboldened by RZA’s rawest back-to-front production job (the hiccupping sample that propels the title track, or the rumble of 4th Chamber), GZA embraces the role of neighbourhood correspondent. On I Gotcha Back, GZA solemnly shakes his head at the struggles he sees in his home borough, Brooklyn: “Could’ve wrote a book with a title Age 12 and Going Through Hell.” Coupled with the wicked beauty of the beats, it adds up to the greatest album to ever be stamped with the Wu symbol.
Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele (Epic/Sony/Razor Sharp, 2000)
The Clan entered the new millennium with cracks in their armour. The solo records released following second group album Wu-Tang Forever hadn’t resonated. Then came Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele. Recorded after a self-imposed exile in Benin – where he sought relief from diabetes outside of western medicine – Ghost gave a clinic in outlandish rapping that plays like an abstract art piece swaddled in street scripture and comic-book lore. The English language has never felt so limitless – the opening verse of first song Nutmeg alone sees Ghost reference John McEnroe, compare kids caught up in the American legal system to Rapunzel and picture himself opulently “lamping in the throne with King Tut hat” – while the beats evolve the Wu’s grainy style to more bitter noir orchestrals, prominent samples and outlandish experimentation. Being in a legendary group dominates many great artists’ legacies, but Ghostface Killah has forged the broadest and best solo discography of any rapper to emerge from the 36 Chambers.
Wu-Tang Clan – 8 Diagrams (SRC/Universal Motown, 2007)
The narratives around 8 Diagrams have to an extent overwhelmed the music. That members of the Clan were unhappy with the direction RZA pulled the album in is part of the unvarnished Wu-Tang history. Building a collection of songs when a group is not united is hardly optimum, so that a classic record emerged feels even more extraordinary. It’s true that RZA was determined to wrench the Clan from the sounds that had defined their legacy, moving towards lusher orchestration. But by retaining the kung-fu mysticism, and with no member slouching in the recording booth, 8 Diagrams always feels like a Wu release. Almost every experiment hits: Campfire is built around what sounds like soldiers humming as they march off to battle, a heavy drumbeat that could have been excavated from an ancient tomb, and a heavy splash of martial-arts movie dialogue. It’s hard to make a case for 8 Diagram’s legacy – it’s currently the only Wu group album not on streaming services – but it’s a key document of how RZA pushed them forwards.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II (Ice H2O/EMI, 2009)
The first Only Built 4 Cuban Linx saw Raekwon, heavily supported by Ghostface Killah, write and star in a gripping drama swathed in the myth of the American gangster. Young men at the time, they never sounded all that youthful, their voices rippling with ruin, as if they had already seen too much. Released 14 years later, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt II sees the duo cast as grizzled street veterans, older and wiser but no less willing to drop their enemies on their heads.
The album follows a similarly cinematic outline to the original – Black Mozart is bold enough to reinterpret the Godfather theme tune. But there’s a bitter dose of reality: on Cold Outside, the pair sullenly contemplate children murdered by their parents or killed by stray bullets. As the 2000s stretched on and Clan members became caught up in other interests, relationships strained and comedy sketches threatened to demystify the music, Raekwon and Ghost continued to make great albums. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt II reasserted what everyone paying attention knew: Wu-Tang is for ever.
For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.
The Wu-Tang Manual, by RZA and Chris Norris
By breaking down each individual component of the Wu – from comic books, films and chess to Five-Percenter philosophy, economics and language – RZA deconstructs the Clan’s history and mythology with a brevity that’s welcoming for newcomers.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, by Cyrus Bozorgmehr
The Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin art project drew headlines when the single-copy album fell into the hands of “pharma bro” and real-life comic-book villain Martin Shkreli. The story is detailed in this book by Cyrus Bozorgmehr, who served as a senior adviser on the enterprise. The prose is wild, yet Bozorgmehr’s mix of New York street slang (at least how an English-born, Morocco-based creative consultant might perceive it) and intense mythologising strikes the right tone for this impossible saga.
Supreme Clientele, by Jeff Weiss
As part of Pitchfork’s Sunday Review series that delves into old notable albums, Jeff Weiss bestows a perfect 10 on Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, writing the definitive thesis on the record in the process.
• Dean Van Nguyen is the author of Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah
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