20 Years Ago This Week, Wu-Tang Clan Bombed Atomically In A Rap Triumph (Video)
1997 was an interesting year for Hip-Hop music. Death Row Records, coming off of an empirical reign, had fallen, and fast. Tupac Shakur was dead. And while Makaveli and Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather dominated the charts, Tha Row’s two founders were not anywhere close to the label’s steering wheel. Dr. Dre had jumped ship and swam safely ashore to his newest venture, Aftermath. Suge Knight, Dre’s former partner, was incarcerated for probation violation (and would not see his label headquarters until the new millennium).
In Death Row’s absence, Biggie (who would be gunned down in just weeks from mid-February), Puffy, and Bad Boy Records were ramping all the way up. The two men and their cohorts crashed the charts with new music that was squarely aimed on bringing street culture to mainstream, sweetly packaged in digestible samples and catchy choruses for singles. Plus, Ma$e was close behind. Busta Rhymes, once contained in the Leaders Of The New School, was emerging as his own incredible made-for-MTV talent. Other major forces included Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, fresh off of their “Crossroads” success, and a strong cultivation for an under-represented Midwest Rap contingency. Master P, an independent veteran, was also creating a militia of music to bring his Bayou Bounce across the country in the symbolic form of 24-karat plated No Limit tank.
From the early 1990s, things were changing. Names like The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and Snoop were still as prevalent as ever, but the once lyrically-forward music had given way to greater emphasis on controversy and more statement-driven music. Wu-Tang Clan was in a different position. Their 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a game-changing release that predated most of their peers’ work. The nine-man collective defied logic and convention purely by existence. Furthermore, the coded language, avant-garde rhyme styles, and dusty beats were not aimed at the masses, but squarely at those in-the-know. The subversive style took, and by 1997, Wu-Tang were household names.
However, no one knew exactly what to expect on album #2. Five solo albums had released between 1993 and 1997, in addition to Gravediggaz and other affiliated efforts. Those albums were critical and commercial successes, each with RZA at the helm. How could (or would) Wu compete against a class that came after them (Biggie, Nas, Jay Z, etc.) would be a lingering question.
Wu-Tang Forever was on the horizons. The sprawling double album (at the height of the trend) was set for mid-year 1997. However, in the long roll-out for major releases, it was February 11 that Wu struck with “Triumph.” The five-plus-minute song did not sound like a carry over from 36 Chambers. The sound was enhanced and the look went from the rugged lands of Shaolin to the state of the art green-screens. Still though, the Wu was not about conforming to radio, video, or any Rap peers’ paths to #1 spots. They did it their own way.
Including Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s intro and interlude, the song involves all original nine members, in addition to Cappadonna. The video, directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Tower Heist) is as technically advanced as ’97 could get.
Notably, the song makes a tremendous effort to shine on the Clansmen who were not in the light. Just as he’d done on the 36 Chambers singles, Inspectah Deck perhaps shines the brightest—with the opening lines, and compelling skyscraper crawling to leave the impression of his career. Method Man seamlessly enters, audibly and visually, on motorcycle. U-God’s mahogany voice shines in his part. GZA’s rhythm is air-tight during his verse. Ghostface and Raekwon follow, symbolically presented together (just as RZA and GZA are). The video is one of the most choreographed moments in Wu history. Perhaps thank to its director, the legions of new fans are able to understand the dimensions of the collective, and through comic book imagery, infer some of the styles and personalities within.
Several months later, Wu-Tang Forever would arrive at #1. Even if the double LP never caught the acclaim of its predecessor, it marked a zenith in popularity for the group. If Bad Boy and Death Row were thriving off of cinematic storylines in their rises and rivalry, Wu-Tang simply used special effects to enhance their pure skill. This collective of New York MCs could be paid and powerful, and still represent the culture like their own influences. At a watershed time for Rap in the commercial space, the W was a brand that Heads could trust, and the counter-punch to a cookie-cutter industry at the top.