By 1997, Wu-Tang Clan had mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon. The vision of the RZA and the supreme talents of the whole crew thrusted the Clan into Hip-Hop's spotlight. No longer grimy underdogs, they dropped an ambitious double LP that affirmed the group out of Staten Island as world-beating superstars.
“The hardest thing is no privacy," Meth said at the time. "When you’re used to being somebody that could just blend in, making that adjustment is not easy. I’d rather just rhyme and make loot without anyone knowing me. I don’t really mind the autographs, but I could do without feeling like I’m on display every time I go somewhere.”
After their classic 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang...36 Chambers made them household names, Wu-Tang Clan had embarked on world domination. But now they were back in the lab, focused on crafting a follow-up. The opening bars of "Reunited" made it plain that they understand what was at stake: "Reunited/Double LP—world excited," GZA announces. All eyes were now on Wu.
“The way I look at it is, whatever we do in that studio is a recorded part of our life,” RZA said in a 1997 SPIN interview as he was completing the album. “So there ain’t no ever to that. As long as life is, there ain’t no ever to life, cause you’re living in it. Whatever happens, happens. Sometimes there’ll be all kinds of errors in the music, and to me it makes it sound fatter because you can never expect an error, or else you wouldn’t make it.”
In the late 1990s, Hip-Hop was awash in dollars. It was bitterly ironic that, in the wake of the deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., the rap industry had ballooned to unforeseen commercial heights. Those two fallen superstars had been at the forefront of the media-hyped East Coast/West Coast feud that had dominated headlines for almost two years; but they were also standard-bearers for a new kind of rap game opulence. Pac had come out of jail in late 1995 and signed with Death Row Records in L.A., and the label proceeded to drop an ambitious double album (All Eyez On Me) and a multi-million dollar music video for the album's first single ("California Love" with Dr. Dre). Death Row had thrown down the gauntlet; and rival label Bad Boy Entertainment soon followed suit. The New York-based Bad Boy dropped Biggie's posthumous Life After Death, (a double LP), and led it off with the wildly expensive video for "Hypnotize." Double albums and high-priced videos were becoming rap's ultimate status symbols.
And Wu-Tang Clan was paying attention.
The world hadn't heard new music from the Wu as a group in almost four years. And they had their own blockbuster in the works. RZA and the group had been grinding hard on a new Wu-Tang Clan album, and over the previous several years, solo albums by the individual members of the group had only bolstered its fanbase. Method Man dropped Tical in 1994, and the album went platinum; it was followed by Ol' Dirty Bastard going gold with Return to 36 Chambers a few months later. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... was released in 1995 to widespread critical acclaim; as was GZA's Liquid Swords, both gold sellers. Ghostface Killah had released the platinum-selling Ironman in late 1996. The stage was set perfectly for Wu-Tang Clan to return. And they would do so in spectacular fashion.
When you’re used to being somebody that could just blend in, making that adjustment is not easy. I’d rather just rhyme and make loot without anyone knowing me."
- Method Man (VIBE interview, 1997)
The debut of the "Triumph" music video was an event. MTV aired Wu-Tang Clan interviews and retrospectives in the days leading up to the vid's release; as fans eagerly anticipated the unified Wu in full flight. Things weren't entirely whole, however; Ol' Dirty Bastard (born Russell Jones) was incarcerated during the making of the video; on Riker's Island for a probation violation. He'd developed a rep for wild antics and was easily the most unpredictable member of the Clan. “I don’t like to see wack-ass niggas doin’ a show. If they not doin’ it right, I’m gonna show ‘em how it’s done,” he told VIBE that September. “I apologize for being like that, but that’s me. It’s something I’m trying to control,“ before he added, "I got Indian in me, and you can’t give an Indian alcohol. Once Dirty get that shit in his system — that firewater — he get crazy.”
But Wu-Tang Forever would give every emcee room to breathe and time to shine. The sprawling album includes 27 songs and runs a little over 112 minutes; including the scatalogical ODB showcase "Dog Shit." The sound of ...Forever is fuller and more cinematic than Wu-Tang Clan's grimy debut; evidence of the ever-broadening sonic palette RZA showcased the mid-90s solo Wu projects. The dramatic strings of "Heaterz" runs counter to sinister backmasked groove of "Visionz." U-God, who'd been often relegated to the background on Enter the Wu-Tang, steps out as arguably the Clan's most improved member; giving heft to album highlights like "Bells Of War" and the anthemic hit single "It's Yourz." And auxiliary member Cappadonna steps into his spot as the group's 10th member, after missing the Wu's debut because of a jail stint. This was the Clan at its height.
“Most of the time it’s like organized confusion, because you got nine members, nine individual thoughts hovering,” Inspektah Deck told SPIN in 1997. “Sometimes the beat can be on for three or four days with nobody saying nothing; then all it takes is that one head to go in there and lay that first verse, and then it’s smash.”
It had all been part of the plan. The group's splintered success had effectively bolstered Wu-Tang Clan both to the fans and across the industry. RZA famously negotiated for the group members to be able to sign as solo artists independent of the group's deal with Loud Records. It was an approach that was often likened to what George Clinton had pulled off a generation earlier, getting his P-Funk artists and various offshoots individual deals that enabled him to skirt contractual obligations. As a result of RZA's maneuvering; Method Man was a star for Def Jam; while Rae had shined for RCA, Ol' DIrty's deal was with Elektra and GZA was on Geffen. It was an ingenious way to build an empire.
RZA broke down the mathematics for VIBE months after Wu-Tang Forever was released.
“Let’s say Raekwon has a fourteen-percent deal, he gets fourteen points," he explained. "A point is usually worth about seven cents. Estimate seven cents, multiply by fourteen if he’s getting fourteen points, and that’s ninety-eight cents. Maybe one dollar to $1.03. So, say Raekwon sells eight hundred thousand records, that’s eight hundred thousand dollars. Like, Meth might have a fifteen-point deal. Wu-Tang Clan might have a seventeen-point deal. And it escalates. If you go gold, you get another point. You go platinum, you get another point. I got a deal right now with Gee Street. My shit is eighteen points. That’s A-artist status.”
Wu-Tang Clan might have a seventeen-point deal. And it escalates. If you go gold, you get another point. You go platinum, you get another point. I got a deal right now with Gee Street. My shit is eighteen points. That’s A-artist status.”
- RZA (VIBE interview, 1997)
The group's strengths are all apparent: Deck is the thoughtful lyricist ("The City"); Ghost and Rae deliver the grittiest project tales ("The Projects"); GZA is the soul and sage ("Reunited"); Masta Killa's the aggressive knife thrower ("Deadly Melody"); and Ol' Dirty is the wild card ("Duck Seazon"). The album drifts between myth-making epics like "Impossible," a seductive ode like "Black Shampoo" and the lyrical tour-de-force of "Hellz Wind Staff."
Wu-Tang Forever would be certified four times platinum by September of 1997, a testament to the popularity of the Clan. The album was originally released with an enhanced CD that gave fans access to the group's website and various online products; a groundbreaking approach in 1997 that pointed the way for Hip-Hop and cyberspace in the new millennium. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 with 612,000 copies sold in its first week.
And RZA had seen it all.
“He was telling me about how he figured out how to manipulate the whole industry," Prince Paul recalled in 1997. “'I’m going to do this, and I’m going to put these records out, then get bigger deals…’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, word.’ But everything he said happened exactly how he figured it out.”
He was telling me about how he figured out how to manipulate the whole industry; 'I’m going to do this, and I’m going to put these records out, then get bigger deals…’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, word.’ But everything he said happened exactly how he figured it out.”
- Prince Paul on RZA (1997 SPIN interview)
Wu-Tang Forever is the culmination of the first phase of RZA's vision. When he brought this motley crew of hardcore emcees together, he saw a way for them to conquer the music industry as a unit; but also a way to set them all up for individual affirmation and achievement. From 1993 to 1997, the Abbott of the Wu guided his cohorts through that ascension; and in 1997, they got to bask in victory. With Wu-Tang Forever, the Clan was sitting on top of the mountain. For everything that would happen over the next 25 years, it's hard not to look back at the album as a supremely high moment for the group and its legacy. They were at the apex of their powers here. Very few have ever gotten where they managed to go.
Hip-Hop is still reeling from the swarm.