A little over a decade ago, the Wu-Tang Clan seemed unstoppable. The nine-member crew took hip-hop by storm, creating a dirty Staten Island sound that captivated millions of listeners. During the group's peak, six Wu-Tang–affiliated albums went either gold or platinum.
"Everything we were doing was fresh and new," says GZA, one of the crew's founders and elder statesmen, of Wu-Tang's early days. "I felt like I wasn't being held in, like I got a new start. And everything Wu-Tang was putting out was fire."
Today the members of Wu-Tang Clan aren't the mainstream darlings they once were. Aside from releases by Ghostface Killah, few of their solo albums generate mainstream buzz. Their last group disc, 8 Diagrams, was released in December with little promotion from their new label, SRC. It was a commercial disappointment, selling a modest 69,000 units in its first week and charting at 25. The days before its release were marked by sniping within the group. In one interview, Raekwon derided RZA, Wu-Tang's sound architect and unofficial leader, as a "hip-hop hippie" who had lost touch with the rest of the Clan, whom he claimed were unhappy with the vibe of 8 Diagrams. Ghostface echoed Raekwon's disappointment, adding that he'd wanted to bring in outside producers like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West to contribute to the album.
But GZA is out to recapture some of the old Wu-Tang glory. In an attempt to bring some back some of the mid-1990s spirit, he will perform his classic album Liquid Swords in its entirety this week.
Liquid Swords, released in 1995, has a different feel from other Wu-Tang solo albums. Its sound is darker, more sinister. It features GZA's razor-sharp lyricism, evoking images of bloodbaths in elevator shafts, MCs swinging swords through keyboards, drug smugglers with false legs, and booby-trapped bottles of champagne. It still strikes a nerve. "I never thought this would be an album I would be performing in 2008 in front of children who were two or three years old when it came out, rapping along with every single word," says GZA, who first dusted off Liquid Swords at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago last July. The response was so good, he says, that he started getting invitations to duplicate the performance at venues around the world.
GZA says he's friendly with the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the group is still on friendly terms. They've spent the better part of the past year touring, and plan to hit the road again in the near future. That said, RZA's absence from recent performances is glaring. As explanation, GZA will say only, "Families fight. We're all still Wu-Tang. As for the RZA, I've got no problems with him."
GZA saves his criticism for mainstream rappers: He's had some YouTube-fueled beefs with 50 Cent and Souljah Boy, neither of whom he takes seriously as MCs. He isn't shy about sharing his venom off-camera, either. "With rappers today, they're so basic in terms of skill, delivery, word play, cadence, and vocabulary," he says. "They're talking all 'googoo gaga' shit. They're 30, looking like they're damn near 45. Meanwhile, I'm 40, and I look 28. All that bad living is aging them. All that negative energy, spitting all that bullshit on the mike, is fucking them up inside."
The rapper says he has started writing rhymes for a new solo album. And in the meantime, he's speaking his mind with the same raw demeanor he displays with his lyricism. "I know people are going to say I'm old and disgruntled, but I don't have anything to be bitter about," he says. "I'm still performing in front of crowds of 2,000 people, so I know I'm relevant."
The Wu-Tang Clan may never achieve the same commercial success to which they grew so accustomed in the 1990s, but GZA hopes that a little taste of Liquid Swords will give his fans a reminder of the Clan they grew up loving.