It may be hard to imagine nowadays, but in the late ’70s to late ’80s, rap was mostly seen as a fad by corporate America, if it was even noticed at all. With hip-hop being left alone to build its own infrastructure, it seemed like anyone who was plain dope enough had a shot at making a name in this game of rap. One of the many young men dreaming of leaving his mark as a rapper was Robert Diggs, who learned to rhyme from his cousin Gary Grice in the summer of 1980. He would go on to pass those lessons to another cousin of his by the name of Russell Jones, and the three would eventually form a group called All in Together Now. Born in 1969, Robert came of age during those formative years in the 1980s when rap did well, but when he and his cousin Gary were finally granted a turn to rock mics themselves in 1991, something in the hip-hop landscape had dramatically shifted: Money had entered into the equation.
Gary, the most prolific rhymer of the two, had recorded an album for Cold Chillin’ Records titled Words From the Genius, an apt if not subtle reference to his stage moniker, the Genius. Though Cold Chillin’ was the recording home to the legendary Juice Crew, the crew that consisted of some of the biggest stars in 1980s hip-hop like Marley Marl, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, and Big Daddy Kane, their reliance on the trusted crew dynamic that propelled hip-hop to such creative heights in the 1980s was close to defunct.
Hip-hop had become big business, and as such, record labels sought to make sure their investments were returned.
This influx of cash into the rap industry certainly had its perks as far as promotion was concerned, and the growing market for hip-hop music had at first significantly diversified the genre simply by offering more and more recording opportunities to promising talents. However, by 1991 the pendulum was swinging into a less liberating direction, as studio execs sought to infuse rap records with more radio-friendly traditional R&B sounds and subject matter, to appeal to a broader, mainstream audience. Some acts prospered in this slicker style but not Gary and Robert, who saw themselves as hardcore rhymers and liked rough, gritty-sounding beats that complemented their cerebral lyrical styles. But the Genius wanted his record to get out, so he gave in to Cold Chillin’s pleas for a single they could market and recorded "Come Do Me." It landed with a resounding thud and was left off the album for its 1994 rerelease.
Meanwhile, his cousin Robert was going by the name Prince Rakeem and had signed a deal with Tommy Boy Records that would give them an option for an album if his single turned out to be a success, which Ooh I Love You Rakeem did not. Disillusioned by their failure to attain stardom in the music industry, it would have been understandable if the cousins had let their dream die at that point. But Robert would go on to forge a path diametrically opposed to the one the music industry had tried to set them on: Instead of watering down their sound to come across as friendlier, nonthreatening rappers, he would double down on their hardcore aesthetics and strange cocktail of local slang and Five Percent terminology. The key was in the word he and his Staten Island friends used to describe that style, to describe anything that was cool really, the word he had already used to mark the slightly rougher remix to "Sexcapades," the b-side to his underwhelming single: Wu-Tang.
Years before Robert released his first single, he shared an apartment with his older brother Mitchell in Stapleton, a neighborhood in the northeast of Staten Island, an island connected to Brooklyn by the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. Mitchell sold newspapers on this bridge with his friends Oliver Grant and Corey Woods (who would later become known as Raekwon), until Oliver got into the far more lucrative crack trade and brought his friends into the fold.
Mitchell put many of his earnings toward buying musical equipment like samplers and keyboards for his younger brother, while their home became a hub for a variety of friends who came over to dabble with said equipment, watch the kung fu movies they shared a passion for, or discuss the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation (also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths), an organization from Harlem that split from the Nation of Islam in 1964. Within the nation, its female adherents are referred to as "Earth" and male adherents as "God," while they collectively also refer to themselves as "scientists." They use a system of numerology known as Supreme Mathematics and a system of interpreting text known as the Supreme Alphabet, from which their circle of friends derived new names like Ason Unique for Russell Jones (who would later adopt the stage moniker Ol’ Dirty Bastard) or Justice for Gary Grice (the Genius, who would go on to name his son Justice as well).
The name Wu-Tang however, was derived from the Wudang mountain in China, home to a clan of remarkably adept swordsmen in several of their favorite kung fu movies, most notably 1983’s Shaolin vs Wu-Tang, directed by and starring Gordon Liu. It was Dennis Coles, one of the many friends hanging around the brothers’ apartment who started referring to anything that was considered cool or superior as “Wu-Tang.” Dennis, who had adopted the name “Ghostface Killah,” after the villain of 1979’s Mystery of Chess Boxing, had a penchant for creating catchy slang terms that would stay with him throughout his future career as a rapper, and this particular one caught on amongst the loosely knit circle of friends like wildfire. Their native borough Staten Island got renamed by them as well and was rebranded as “Shaolin.” Over the years, their intoxicating mix of Five-Percent terminology and mythology gleaned from their favorite Chinese action films grew into a vernacular wholly its own. After Gary and Robert were unceremoniously dumped from the music industry, they figured that this particular aesthetic would be their ride back in. This time however, they wouldn’t let anybody who wasn’t “Wu-Tang” at the helm ever again.
All in Together Now, the group consisting of Gary Grice (the Genius), Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and Robert Diggs (Prince Rakeem), had formed the seed, but there were more friends and associates in their circle who were active as rappers. Robert’s master plan was getting them all into one super group: the Wu-Tang Clan. Mitchell’s friend Corey was known as Shallah Raekwon and was in a group called DMD (Dick ’em Down), together with Clifford Smith, who received the name “Method Man” on account of the amount of “method” (weed) he smoked, and Jason Hunter, a.k.a. Rebel INS or Inspectah Deck, a rapper with a remarkable knack for attention-grabbing opening lines. Dennis Coles, a.k.a. Ghostface Killah, who had already struck up a friendship with Raekwon in high school as well, was down with the idea from the very beginning. Raekwon in turn was from Park Hill, the same neighborhood as the gravelly voiced Lamont Hawkins, who joined the group as U-God. Robert convinced them all to sign on to a company called “Wu-Tang Productions,” headed by an executive board consisting of him, Oliver “Power” Grant, his brother Mitchell “Divine” Diggs, and Dennis “Ghostface” Coles.
The gist of his pitch to them was that they should let him lead their group efforts for the next five years. “I want all of y'all to get on this bus. And be passengers,” he said. “And I'm the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I'm taking us to No. 1. Give me five years, and I promise that I'll get us there.” Rounding out the crew was the enigmatic Elgin Jamal, a friend of the Genius who joined the crew last. Appearing only on a single track (“Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”) on the group’s debut album, his deceptively calm and almost authoritarian flow was actually the least experienced in the group. With the first rhyme he ever wrote he went to his rapping friend and asked, “What you think about this?” without telling him he wrote it. After reading it, an impressed Genius gave him some pointers on how to further improve the verse and told him he “might have a career here.”
Robert now went by the name the RZA, which was meant to evoke a pulled-back scratch of his original stage name, Rakeem, the same reasoning behind the Genius adopting the alias the GZA. It didn’t hurt that it potentially cleansed the public’s palate of their previous endeavors either, while it allowed them to not have to fully turn their backs on their established names in the process.
In 1993, the group recorded a 12” single that they distributed themselves across record shops in New York. The song was called “Protect Ya Neck,” and though it garnered a serious buzz within the industry, the single didn’t immediately lead to record labels knocking down the door for the group. Rather, labels tried to cherry-pick solo artists who they figured were the most bankable from the crop and give them deals. This was more in line with the recording industry at that time, which had moved away from the large crews of rap’s earlier years and rather focused on solo artists, who were usually easier to both steer and market.
Although Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen initially showed interest in signing the whole crew to Def Jam, they didn’t meet all of RZA’s demands and were offered only Method Man, who was considered the prime catch at the time. “We all went to sit down with Russell and (Def Jam A&R rep) Tracey Waples at some little restaurant. It was mad bougie in that bitch,” Meth recalls. “Their offer was about 250 grand and shit. So RZA’s like, ‘I’ll give you one muthafucka’. They went for it.” Meanwhile, Elektra Records had its eyes set on Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Meth and ODB would eventually release solo albums on those labels but not before a stroke of genius landed them an unprecedented contract as a group in the music industry. A relatively small label by the name of Loud Records, run by Californian Steve Rifkind, went along with RZA’s ostensibly insane demand, the same demand that had put a halt to the group’s signing at other labels: that all group members should individually be able to sign solo deals with the label of their choosing.
Loud Records turned out to have gambled right though, as the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was a resounding success that sounded unlike anything their peers were releasing. The rough, rugged New York sound couldn’t be much further away from the West Coast funk by Dr. Dre and his protegé Snoop Doggy Dogg that was dominating hip-hop at the time, or the slick swing GZA had half-heartedly attempted to push while signed to Cold Chillin’ Records. Their unique slang, a heady brew of Five-Percent terminology, kung fu movie references, and NY street talk, only added to the appeal. It was dense enough to conjure up a mysterious flair, while systematic enough to be fully decipherable for anyone willing to dive in. Through its hazy linguistics, their work rewarded repeated listening and garnered them a cult following, wholly in sync with the origins of their name.
Enter The Wu-Tang would soon be followed by Method Man’s solo debut, Tical, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers (The Dirty Version), both critical and commercial hits with a similarly gritty appeal. The winning streak only intensified with the release of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... in the summer of 1995 and GZA’s Liquid Swords a few months after that, both bona fide classics that helped shape hip-hop as we know it.
Spreading the crew over several record labels meant that their joint promo budget increased with each contract, because the famous W logo, designed by the group’s DJ Mathematics, would be present on every single outing. As such, promotion for one group member would indirectly promote the others, who were on other competing labels. A mere two years after their debut album came out at the tail end of 1993, the Wu-Tang insignia had already grown into an instantly recognizable seal of quality to hip-hop listeners worldwide. Though their undisputed reign over hip-hop would ultimately come to an end, their uninterrupted string of classics from 1993 to 1997 remains a feat no crew in the rap game was ever able to repeat in the 25 years following the Genius’ humble first outing. Because, as Ol’ Dirty eloquently put it when he bumrushed the Grammy Awards in 1998, “Puffy's good, but Wu-Tang is the best."