Shyheim: Recognizing the Rugged Child
By Kiani Williams
Shyheim. AKA The Rugged Child.
He rose to fame in the 90s as the youngest Wu-Tang Clan affiliate, a gifted 14-year old out of Staten Island. "The Rugged Child" would become one of the extended Wu family's most promising names. At the height of the Clan's influence and popularity, Shyheim was definitely one of the brightest stars in the Wu's orbit.
As a young child in the 1980s, Shyheim Franklin's parents fell victim to the crack epidemic and an unforgiving penal system. His father did several stretches in prison and that would be a constant in Shyheim's life; his mother was a teen mother who struggled with addiction. After his grandmother died, Shyheim fell in with Staten Island producers, ambitious rhymer Prince Rakeem and RNS, who'd found success producing hometown heroes UMCs. Rakeem would soon change his name to RZA, and RZA would soon found the Wu; but being taken under their wing helped shape the young Shyheim's future.
He landed a deal at 13, before the Wu-Tang Clan landed their deal with Loud Records. Shyheim signed to Virgin after a bidding war (the label fought hard for Shyheim after having lost out on teenaged R&B sensation Tevin Campbell). With the pressure of caring for a family while also trying to take care of himself, Shyheim was thrust into the world of professionals before he was old enough to drive.
But his debut would make it clear just how much talent this young emcee had. AKA The Rugged Child put the teen star on the Hip-Hop map. "On & On" found it's way into major video rotation, helping to make the youngest Wu affiliate a household name. He guested on Big Daddy Kane's famed posse cut "Show & Prove" alongside legends like Jay-Z and Ol' Dirty Bastard.
He took the stage at Madison Square Garden in 1995 for an epic freestyle that also featured The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac alongside Shyheim and Kane. He was "Little Shyheim" or "Manchild." Whatever nickname you gave him, Shyheim was clearly an up-and-coming star.
In R&B, fans and critics recognize teen prodigies. In Hip-Hop, we don't always view a young talent in such a way, but Shyheim, like a Frankie Lymon or a Tevin Campbell, was a remarkably gifted young performer whose talent seemed far beyond his years.
He was raw and he was real. And in the 1990s, the world seemed like it was waiting for the young star.
LL COOL J and Lil Wayne were recognized as emcees when they were still teenagers, but Shyheim came along at a time when being a young rhymer was often presented as a novelty or cutesy. Kris Kross sold millions with backwards pants and rhymes about missing the bus. But nothing about The Rugged Child was bubblegum.
Shyheim's fame came quickly and it was significant. Outside of the Wu, he became an in-demand talent across urban music, film and television. He landed a high profile guest spot on Robert Townsend's hit sitcom The Parent'Hood and also showed up in TLC's acclaimed video for the uber-hit "Waterfalls." He co-starred in movies like Original Gangstas and The Preacher's Wife.
He dropped his sophomore album Lost Generation in 1996 and followed it with Manchild in 1999. But a box cutter attack in 1998 left Shyheim with facial scars and some PTSD. Partying in a nightclub and rocking jewelry, the rapper/actor was slashed in the face and would need 300 stitches. The incident seemed to spark a shift in his life; as Shyheim started carrying weapons regularly.
In the early 2000s, his career took a downturn as his personal life got harder. He was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon, and charged with attempted robbery, second degree. His relationship with Wu-Tang dwindled, as Shyheim went on the run for almost two years before he was taken into custody in 2001. But after a prison stint, he resumed his career, dropping independent albums The Greatest Story Never Told and Disrespectfully Speaking via his own Bottoms Up label.
Shyheim would spend more time in prison over the next decade, as he struggled to get his life together. It's a story all-too-common for former child stars, and one that Hip-Hop sometimes doesn't recognize; there's not a lot of mentorship for young rhymers who blow up before they're old enough to legally go to a nightclub and celebrate. But it would be a mistake to view Shyheim's career as some kind of cautionary tale. It's real and it's raw, like the emcee himself.
Queens rapper and Drink Champs host Noreaga sparked controversy recently when he joked about Wu-Tang Clan affiliates on his popular podcast. N.O.R.E. drew Shyheim and fans' ire when he referred to Wu-affiliates like Shyheim, Sunz of Man, and Killarmy—as mere “flunkies."
But N.O.R.E. tweeted that he'd made peace with the one-time Rugged Child.
“Just spoke to @Shyheim_Rugged for 10 minutes DIRECT – NO middle men – Just Slime & Shy 1 on 1,” the Drink Champs host tweeted Saturday. “ALL POSITIVE ENERGY! Grown men sh** only! We spoke our peace; & he got his OFFICIAL invite to @DrinkChamps! Hopefully he accepts!”
Shyheim's talent and his legacy is one that should be recognized by any Hip-Hop fan who remembers the 1990s and by Hip-Hop fans everywhere. His is a story of perseverance and growth. He's no longer a rugged child, but the wisdom of a life hard lived is all over his face. He's earned his stripes. He's earned his rep. Everyone can recognize and respect that.