When I was 12 years old and had just started the 7th grade, the Wu-Tang Clan changed my life. I was a somewhat regular 90s kid. I had just started smoking weed, had long hair dyed purple, and a collection of cassette tapes — 40 or so — all grunge classics like Nirvana, Pixies, and Fugazi.
When I first heard Wu-Tang, it wasn’t a revelation. It was a revolution of everything I thought I understood about music. The next day, I took all my cassette tapes down to a local used music shop and sold them all for 50 cents a pop. I got $20, which I proceeded to spend directly on my first two CDs ever, Wu-Tang’s debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 chambers), and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s first solo album. Wu-Tang became a soundtrack from my transition from a boy to a man, and nothing reminds me of leaving childhood more than Wu-Tang. Growing up with the clan, and watching each of the member’s careers unfold in a different way was similar to the paths my friends and I took.
On December 2nd, finally all the living members of the Wu-Tang Clan will reunite for their first album since 2007, and 21 years after the release of 36 Chambers. It is a monumental moment in hip hop. The Wu-Tang W has become an icon, and created a cult of devoted followers who wait anxiously for the new album, A Better Tomorrow.
I’m not special. They changed many more lives than just mine, but I’m an example. And to honor the new album, I thought I’d take a look back and rank the members of The Wu-Tang Clan. Wu-Tang Forever.
10. U-God aka Golden Arms
This isn’t meant to be hate, but someone had to be the lowest, and unfortunately, it’s the man with the golden arms. But let’s make this clear — U-God is a damn good rapper. His solo albums have been a rugged collection of street bangers that cater more to underground hip hop heads than to mainstream sensibilities. Although widely respected in the hip-hop community, he’s lacked a certain charisma and innovation that set many of the other members apart. Surprisingly, as one of the least known members of the Clan, he also delivered one of the most memorable moments in Wu-Tang’s catalogue; the opening verse to the Da Mystery of Chess Boxin’. U-God’s only verse on Wu-Tang’s first album has gone down in the pantheon of rap opening lines when he came in growling:
Raw I’m gonna give it to ya, with no trivia.
We’re like cocaine straight from Bolivia.
My hip hop will rock and shock the nation
Like the emancipation proclamation.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: Intro verse on Da Mystery of Chess Boxin’.
9. Masta Killa aka Noodles
Masta Killa was the last member to join the Wu-Tang and the only member who wasn’t a rapper previously. Masta Killa had been a friend of the group and was mentored by the GZA, only starting to write rhymes while 36 Chambers was being recorded. Like U-God, he started out with only one verse on the debut album because it was said it was the only one he wrote that was good enough. Quickly, however, Masta Killa defined his flow while rhyming on other solo releases by Clan members. He became a Wu-Tang shadow, haunting the background of others albums, dropping subliminal verses that lingered in your head. Masta Killa rarely gives interviews and is known as the most mysterious member of the Wu-Tang crew.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: His verse on Winter Warz off of Ghostface’s first album.
8. Cappadonna, which stands for Consider All Poor People Acceptable Don’t Oppress Nor Neglect Anyone
Cappadonna has long been considered the unofficial 10th member of Wu-Tang, and although its never been formally announced, it’s believed by many outsiders to now be official. The rumor is that he was originally supposed to join the Clan in its original incarnation, but the RZA required all members to leave the street life behind. Cappadonna said no and ended up in prison. However, since his first appearance on Raekwon’s solo debut and subsequent work on Wu-Tang albums, he’s cemented himself as not just a member, but a formidable rhymer.
His verses are centered around odd rhyme structures, that are often in contrast to the more standard form used by several members. They’re like a change-up thrown in between fastballs and curves to throw the listener off-balance. His verse in Triumph is a great example of this. Oh, and by the way, Cappadonna is known as the most flamboyant dresser in the Wu. Considering this includes the fur coat sporting, turban wearing Ghostface Killah, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: His first solo album, The Pillage.
7. Raekwon the Chef
Raekwon the Chef created a genre of rap: mafia-noir. He submerses the listener into a vivid underworld that’s at times chilling, others disgusting, often touching. His first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, was a masterpiece that was meant to play like a crime flick, with Rae as the star, Ghost as the guest, and RZA the director. It tells the tale of two crooks trying to make one last big heist before retiring from a life of crime. At the time it was the equivalent of a rap opera, and a great example of what Raekwon is capable of.
Raekwon has been a polarizing figure within Wu-Tang fans. His talent is unarguable, but it seems like he holds back on Wu-Tang releases. His work on his own solo albums, his cousin Ghostface’s, and features with artists, are usually incredible. However, after The W, it’s like he doesn’t show up for Wu-Tang albums anymore. He has repeatedly beefed with RZA over the directions of the albums, and seems to treat them like a duty. Even this latest album almost never came to fruition because Raekwon repeatedly would not agree to take part. Thankfully, he finally backed off that stance. Here’s hoping we get some top shelf Raekwon material on the album, rather than that bottle of Wild Turkey that of course we’ll begrudgingly accept.
Standout Wu-Moment: His verse on C.R.E.A.M, Only Built 4 Cuban Links…
6. GZA aka the Genius
The GZA is an amazing lyricist, who combines intricate rhyme patterns with the second widest vocabulary in hip hop. Yes, that is an actual fact. In 2014, a study titled The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop analyzed the first 35,000 lyrics of rappers who had enough material to meet that requirement. GZA ranked second, behind only Aesop Rock, as having the largest vocabulary in hip hop using 6,426 (He also beat Shakespeare by 1300 words).
GZA is called the genius for a reason; he’s really f’ing smart. And this comes across when you listen to him rap about everything from the universe, to chess, to god or lack there of. His next album due to be released in 2015, Dark Matter, is said to be a concept album that takes the listener on a journey through time and space. He’s even teamed up with an education group to promote science education in New York City through Hip Hop. The GZA’s contribution to hip hop has been an intellectual one, and in a world of Lil’ Wayne’s and 50 cents, that’s a good thing.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: The track “Liquid Swords,” his scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes with the RZA and Bill Murray.
5. Inspectah Deck
Inspectah Deck is the Wu-connoisseurs member. The clan wouldn’t operate the same without him. Hardly known to the casual fan, he’s been one of the most prolific members being a prominent contributor on every Wu album. He often provides a laid back style, with clever rhymes that balance against the often hyper activeness created by Method Man, Ghostface, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the RZA. He’s the chemical that balances out a volatile mixture, and stops if from the blowing up the whole lab.
The Inspectah also contributed arguably the most well known Wu-Tang verse ever, the intro to the epic Wu-Ballad: Triumph. When you take a look back at the Wu-Tang catalogue, it’s hard to find a classic song that Inspectah Deck didn’t appear on prominently. In Wu-circles, one of the most common debates is which Inspectah verse was the greatest. For me, I’m gonna say C.R.E.A.M.
Stand Out Wu-Moments: C.R.E.A.M, he produced one of the dopest Wu-beats ever, “Visionz.”
4. Ghostface Killah aka Tony Starks
Ghostface Killah is arguably the greatest storyteller in the history of hip hop. He is the Jack Kerouac of rap, creating emotional stream of consciousness narratives that make the listener feel as if they’re experiencing the sensations of the moment firsthand. A great example is his verse on the song “Impossible,” a detailed retelling of the experience of one man watching his friend be shot, then each thought that passes through his head in the aftermath. Few rappers can even compare with Ghostface’s ability to paint a picture verbally, and it has set him apart in the echelons of rap.
Ghostface’s voice has an urgency to it, like everything he’s explaining is the most important thing that could be said. He begs the listener to take it in, and digest it, to understand the world the way he sees it. His style is far from the typical hip hop that’s become popular to mainstream audiences, but surprisingly Ghostface has become one of the most successful mainstream members of the Clan. And to many respectable hip hop heads, he’s considered to be the greatest member.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: “All That I Got Is You” ft Mary J. Blige off of his first album, “Mighty Healthy” off of Supreme Clientele.
3. Method Man aka Johnny Blaze
There is a certain status of MCs who were born with such unique voices that they are so instantly recognizable that they become a cultural staple. There’s never any confusion when you hear them, you just instantly go ‘Oh it’s ______’. Q-Tip, Slick Rick, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg are a few, who like Method Man, were gifted with a voice distinct from everyone else on the planet. Method Man’s deep, lispy flow has been imitated countless times, but it just makes the biters more obvious. His is so unique, that when someone rhymes like that, then you just go, ‘Oh, he’s trying to sound like Meth.’
His lyrics fluctuate from hard to hilarious, creative to chaotic; Meth’s personality comes across in everything he does and has made him probably the most well known member of the Wu-Tang clan. He’s cemented himself in the hall of fame in so many ways beyond his work with Wu-Tang. His collaborations with Redman have become the modern day equivalent of Cheech and Chong. He was the only solo artist to be featured on albums by both the Notorious B.I.G and 2pac (the group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony also did it). He had the greatest intro to a song ever on the first single off of 36 Chambers, his solo track which was also named M.E.T.H.O.D Man (…and just keep feeding ya, and feedin ya…). Plus, his role as Cheese in The Wire was one of the most despicable characters ever created. There’s really never been another MC like Meth, so why not number #1?
Stand Out Wu-Moment: M.E.T.H.O.D Man off 36 Chambers, Blackout! his first collaboration album with Redman, his role as Cheese on The Wire.
2. Ol’ Dirty Bastard aka the Osiris of this shit.
O.D.B wasn’t born with a voice like Meth, he doesn’t have the descriptive skills of Ghostface, his vocabulary was peanuts compared to the GZA, but he may be even more impressive for one reason — he created an entire style. You could argue that other members of the Wu-Tang Clan were influenced by one rapper or another, but there is no precedent for the Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Method Man articulated it perfectly on 36 Chambers when he explains how O.D.B got his name, “there ain’t no father to his style.”
And it’s true, so that’s why he ranks #2. Compared to the other members of Wu, no one redefined what rap could be the way O.D.B did. No one had rhymed like that before — an energetic mix of shouting, singing, howling, growling. And no one has rhymed like that since. With the death of O.D.B, hip hop lost one of the most innovative voices to ever come out of the genre. Every time he stepped to the mic you actually had no idea what he would do, and he had no fear taking the genre places it wouldn’t typically go. Like Mos Def and Andre 3000, O.D.B had no limits to what hip hop could be, and unfortunately, the places he would have continued to take it will never be reached. It’s unlikely anyone will ever be able to truly cross the same frontiers that he was crossing, but the borders he’s broken down will remain an important part of hip hop history, and for that he ranks only behind…
Stand Out Wu Moment: Every verse of his on 36 chambers, ‘Wu-Tang is for the Children’ at the 1998 Grammy’s.
1. RZA aka Bobby Digital aka The Abbot
This was tough for me because if I was ranking simply his rapping ability the RZA would be 7th, below Raekwon and above Cappadonna. But when you take everything else into account, it has to be the RZA. The RZA is Wu-Tang. Period.
He created the Wu, he envisioned it and united the members under a single plan, and produced the first 2 albums along with a number of the solo albums. Everything was part of the RZA’s plan to take over the game, and he did it, step by step, methodically, exactly as he intended. Without RZA, there would be no Wu-Tang Clan so he had to be #1.
That being said, it goes beyond him being the founder and creator. His influence has touched outside of The Clan more so than any other member. He’s become an important person in the world of cinema, having scored the soundtracks to Kill Bill, Afro Samurai, and Ghost Dog; some of his acting credits include American Gangster, Californication and Coffee and Cigarettes; he wrote, directed, scored, and starred in the Kung-Fu throwback The Man with the Iron Fists. Oh yeah, and he’s written a couple books, studied Chinese medicine, and is a highly acclaimed chess player.
But back to music. The RZA is widely considered one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time and is credited with founding the use of sped-up R&B samples that others, notably Kanye West, have used to an excruciating degree (Kanye even admitted he got the idea from RZA). He’s produced not only for Clan members, but many of hip hop’s most well known and respected MCs. Still, it’s important to remember that the RZA is also a dope MC in his own right. His rhyme structures are eclectic, his topics diverse and strange. Outside of the Wu, he also founded the rap genre horrorcore with his group the Gravediggaz. Really, it comes down to one thing: the RZA has influenced not just the Clan, but the world, more so than any other member. He is a legend. He is Wu-Tang.
Stand Out Wu-Moment: Founding the Wu-Tang Clan, the production on 36 Chambers, his verse in Chinese on “Life Changes,” his continued collaborations with Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch.