February 3, 2017

wu tang

“It’s not like we started out without tension.” – RZA, 2007

8 Diagrams is the official end of Wu-Tang Clan. The first album created after ODB died. The first album where the members publicly trashed RZA during its promo run. The first album to feature Dhani Harrison and Shavo Odadijan instead of True Master and 4th Disciple. 8 Diagrams turned RZA from the Abbot to a guitar wielding hippie for white boys, to paraphrase Raekwon.

Rap beef used to sell records, but beefing with your own crew on release date did no favors for the album—it sold 68,000 copies its first week, less than half of Timbaland’s first week sales for Shock Value. While it was praised by critics, it was loathed by its creators and inspired a 4 mic response album Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang from Raekwon four years later.

The RZA behind the boards on 8 Diagrams was only a few years removed from grimy classics like “Kunta Fly Shit” and “Run” off Ghostface’s Pretty Toney Album, “State of Grace” for Raekwon, and “Presidential MC” for Method Man, all classic Wu-sounding production if your thirst for Wu is the heyday of ’93-’97.

And that’s been the major dividing point for years—what SHOULD Wu-Tang sound like? Raekwon, Ghostface, and Inspectah Deck are noted Wu-Tang conservatives: ’95 or bust. RZA is liberal. Meth, Masta Killa, U-God, and GZA are swing voters. Cappadonna will rap on anything.

“He wanted to make [8 Diagrams] how he wanted it and it ain’t come out right. He wanna always do the whole thing himself, produce the whole album. We’re like, let’s bring in some other producers too. Bring in Kanye, bring in Pharrell. You ain’t gotta do the whole thing yourself. He wanna make his own instruments and shit and it sounded real horrible.” — Ghostface

“When we listened to the finals of the finals, we was like, ‘Nah, this album is rushed. It’s not it. It’s not where we want it to be’…It’s just not what we want to present coming after six years.” — Raekwon

“I’ll listen to what people have to say, but after a certain time, the vote is in” – RZA, 2007

Musically, 8 Diagrams isn’t that much of a departure from Wu-Tang Forever or the overlooked brilliance of The W. There are live strings and guitars, weird singers (a staple of RZA projects—who the hell is Tash Mahogany?), and samples of Tom Scott, Freda Payne, David Porter, and Curtis Mayfield. “Take it Back” has Easy Moe Bee and RZA flipping “Nautilus.” 8 Diagrams is clean in places, acid-drenched in others. It’s a transitionary ordeal, a snapshot of a bunch of guys who have outgrown each other in an industry where they’re no longer needed. The biggest crime the album commits is a lack of jawbreaking singles that could fondly be remembered and sprinkled in mixshows. Iron Flag is crap but at least it had “Y’all Been Warned” and “Uzi (Pinky Ring).”

Ghost and Rae seemed to object RZA’s power then—he brought in John Frusciante and George Clinton with immunity. Ghost, by far the biggest star at the time, only appeared on 4 of the 14 tracks. His album, The Big Doe Rehab, dropped a week earlier and had Scram Jones, Sean C & LV, Styles P, and Beanie Sigel on the credits at a time when coke rap was still viable, but dwindling; 2007 was also the year gangsta rap would be buried alive due to Kanye’s victory over 50 Cent with Graduation. What Ghost didn’t realize was that his type of rap was about to be extinct on a major label level.

“I said, ‘Y’all have been making records without me for 6 years, and the shit ain’t go nowhere. The shit didn’t sell nothing.’ And then they’re saying, ‘Your shit has been weak’.” – RZA, 2007

For better or worse, 8 Diagrams sounds like no other rap album from that year because RZA no longer was competing on the rap charts. He had scored films like Ghost Dog, Kill Bill, Derailed, Blade Trinity, and the show Afro Samurai. None of those scores are outstanding by any means. But they did let RZA indulge in every weirdo idea he had since the birth of Bobby Digital, which is also one of the weirdest ideas that we’ve all just accepted over time. After all, his ideas usually worked really well: he approached Only Built 4 Cuban Linx as a Mafioso flick, Liquid Swords as a samurai film, and Ironman as ‘70s Blaxploitation.

“The first song on the album is called ‘Campfire’ and that sets the tone for the guiding theme. What the intro is saying is what I feel we need in the world for men. It’s saying, ‘how can I be a good man?’” – RZA, 2007

The approach on 8 Diagrams is more about RZA’s growth as a man enforced upon a group of other men: kindness, patience, justice, and honesty, as outlined by the dialogue on “Campfire” from the film Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. But those other men wanted Punch You in Your Shit Beats. His personal philosophy in 2007 wasn’t aligned with the mindset of his other killa beez like how it was in 1993, and yet he marched on. His courage was admirable, but it’s hard to be excited when key members of the squad are telling you it’s a corny piece of shit on its release date.

“When you do Wu, you get the opportunity to rap to the world. You might only get 5 lyrics out, but they’ll be remembered by the whole world. All of the solo albums we’ve got out, nobody knows the lyrics like that.” – RZA, 2007

To rework 8 Diagrams, I decided to shift RZA’s idea and make the album’s theme about friendship and to celebrate the idea of guys who just loved rapping with each other (also the theme of the latest A Tribe Called Quest album). There’s some Punch You In Your Shit beats and some oddities for the white boys on ball courts. But it’s about returning a sense of joy and comradery to the album. Wu-Tang has been a joyless enterprise since Ol’ Dirty died, and their best moments since he’s passed away are all on their solo albums. RZA was right:

“It’s about us adding a little wisdom, a little spirituality, a little consciousness, a little brotherhood. We’ve always had brotherhood” —Zilla Rocca

#1 “Campfire”

This is still a great opener. The drums are very clean for a RZA/Wu-Tang Clan song. The overlapping of Meth and Ghost’s verses feel like they actually wrote in the same room. The clumsy Cappa verse is charming: he wants to unite, get money together to buy a “ranch house.”

#2 “Take it Back”

Ever since “The Jump Off”, Wu has always made a throwback song to let you know they didn’t forget about ‘80s rap. “Take it Back” has Rae, Deck, Ghost, and U-God tearing shit up with Meth on the hook interpolating Eric B & Rakim over Bob James. The conservative Clan members probably heard how this came out and wondered why the hell the guy with the weird beard from System of a Down was even coming to the sessions.

#3 “Thug World” (remade and labeled “Unpredictable” on the retail version)

The album version of “Unpredictable” probably was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Deck, Ghost, and Rae. This version, available on promo CDs before the album release, has the same 30 bar killer verse from Inspectah Deck, but it ditches the cheesy guitar noodling from Shavo Odadijan and the bizarre hook from Dexter Wiggles. RZA’s original verse is more conflicted and raw: “I love my bitches like Chachi loves Joanie, fuck 200 pussies but I still feel lonely!” This was RZA’s first Kanye moment, going back to make changes to a great song that didn’t need it.

#4 “Gun Will Go” (Feat. Sunny Valentine)

This has The W feel to it—cinematic sparse guitar and strings, drum changes, and low key sinister drug talk from Raekwon, Meth, and Masta Killa, who blacks out: “We get ape up in the club off that juice and Hen, it’s a no-win situation fuckin with them, you mean like Ewing at the front of the rim, finger roll a dutch, million dollar stage is touched, tec gauge bust.”

#5 “My Guitar” (also known as “Black Cream”)

RZA decided to remake this outstanding Ghostface song into “The Heart Gently Weeps.” “The Heart” was fine—it was built for NPR with Erykah Badu singing The Beatles and Dhani Harrison playing guitar with a live band. The Ghostface version, over Jimmy Ponder’s Rhodes, was relegated to Supreme Clientele promo tapes and resurrected on countless J-Love/Ghostface mixtapes. “My Guitar” is a quick interlude on this version of 8 Diagrams and finds solo Ghostface at the peak of his popularity. It also features Singing Ghostface, which is the Best Ghostface.

#6 “You Can’t Stop Me Now”

This was a single on Bobby Digital’s Digi Snacks, but this is such a Clan track—RZA sums up the entire oral history of Wu-Tang and is bookended by ODB adlibs and a verse from Deck. The Whatnauts sample has been flipped by Nas, Mos Def, and Doom. This song deserved more than the third Bobby Digital LP that didn’t move the needle.

#7 “Windmill”

This song is just a bunch of the Wu guys rapping like a unit over the Nancy Sinatra joint from Kill Bill. It’s such a simple song—it reminds me of Wu-Tang Forever when all we needed from the Clan was three or four guys spazzing over dope RZA beats. “Windmill” epitomizes my idea of 8 Diagrams—a breezy joint where everyone does their job and keeps it moving. Meth’s flow remains the best of all time on here in a scant 8 bars.

#8 “Cameo Afro” (Feat. Big Daddy Kane & Suga Bang)

Jacked from the Afro Samurai soundtrack, “Cameo Afro” gives you a supreme rap nerd fix: Kane and GZA on the same track. Kane deserves his spot on a Clan album—he’s one of their biggest influences. Plus, Suga Bang does a TJ Swan-esque hook. Again, this song transforms 8 Diagrams into a celebration of rhyming and camaraderie, from a group of guys kicking it through the ’80s and ’90s into the new millennium. Rap is the only thing they all share together.

#9 Watch Your Mouth”

This was a street single on promo CDs that got yanked from the retail version. DJ Scratch did the beat, but the same beat popped up on a De La Soul song. It’s similar to “Y’all Been Warned”—gully as hell with the heavy kick-snare pounding. Ghostface has a corny punchline about George Foreman, but Meth, Deck, and GZA make up for it. It’s a true Clan song: 8 verses in 4 minutes. This is the kind of beat Rae and Ghost wanted the retail album to follow.

#10 “Sunlight”

Ok, this is where Rae loses some credibility—apparently, he pushed RZA to include this song on 8 Diagrams. “Sunlight” is one of the most bugged out and indulgent RZA solo cuts ever. It’s quintessential Birth of a Prince/Gravediggaz The Pick, The Sickle, the Shovel-era RZA. It’s a good intermission track and harkens back to the Supreme Mathematics/Five Percenter rap Wu embodied early on. “Sunlight” asks the question, “What if RZA never stopped writing his verse on ‘Impossible’?” This rhyme is so 1997 in the best way: “Before the mortal view of the prehistorical, historical, He’s the all and all, you searching for the Oracle, a Mission Impossible, purely philosophical, but you call Him on your death bed when you’re laying in the hospital.”

#11 “Weak Spot”

From woozy strings on “Sunlight” to detuned slide guitars on “Weak Spot,” we’re immersed in Good Weirdo RZA. Good Weirdo RZA was the guy who played all the keys on “Protect Ya Neck” before he knew music theory but saw Thelonious Monk drunkenly play keys in a movie and realized it was all about a feeling. Good Weirdo RZA made “Assassination Day” by buying a busted slide guitar at a pawn shop and deciding he was going to use it that day on a beat. Good Weirdo RZA added the stuttering and blistering drum fills on “Red Bull” from The W, the record-scratch-as-percussion on “Stroke of Death,” and included U-God’s Bed Bath & Beyond anthem “Black Shampoo” on Wu-Tang Forever.

8 Diagrams is the beginning of Bad Weirdo RZA, surrounding himself with directors, musicians who are too polished, and no angel dust in site. “Weak Spot” sounds like it was dug up from ’96 when RZA’s musicianship consisted of an ASR-10 and the appeal of ugly sounding instruments. In other words, it’s the best kind of RZA beat.

#12 “Rock Steady” (Feat. Tony Touch

Wu had a habit of tossing out some of their best vaulted joints randomly. “Put Your Hammer Down” wound up on a Funk Flex album. “Diesel” was thrown on the Soul in the Hole Soundtrack. “Wu-Wear”/”Full Metal Rap Jacket” were on the legendary High School High soundtrack (which I romanticized here). “Rock Steady” is Rae, Meth, and U-God flowing like water over a Gwen McRae loop. This song, originally on Tony Touch’s The Piecemaker 2, needed to be on a Clan album to bring back their disco roots. One of the secrets of Wu-Tang is how much they loved disco. The hook for “Daytona 500” is a flip of Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.” “Release Yo Delf” is “I Will Survive.” The video for “Shimmy Shimmy Y’all” is Dirty’s ode to Soul Train. Raekwon’s outstanding mixtape We Want to Thank You is just him rapping over shit like this for an hour. I can only imagine what Dirty would’ve done to this beat.

#13 “16th Chamber (ODB Special)”

The ODB memorial track “Life Changes” off the retail version is one of the most confounding songs ever—it’s a beautiful Freda Payne sample and each member pays their respects to Russell Jones. But it’s not a song that lends itself to many replays: seven verses with seven hooks. Seven hooks. Seven hooks. I keep typing that because it’s unfuckingbelivable. SEVEN HOOKS! Raekwon’s “Ason Jones” is a better memorial to Dirty because he’s able to spend more than 8 bars talking about his beloved friend (with seven less hooks no less).

“16th Chamber” was on the international version of 8 Diagrams and it’s an apt closer—a rough demo of Meth and Dirty spazzing over a filthy break. It sounds like it’s 1992 based on their flows. The loop from RZA would later pop up on the Ghost Dog score, but the star is Dirty, going toe to toe with Meth’s verse from “Release Yo Delf” back when rappers just had surplus verses on deck. Whenever I hear Dirty to this day, it’s impossible for me not to see him, from his wild braids, to his gold teeth and his one of a kind hand gestures. Everything about him was impossible to find in anyone else. “16th Chamber” is how I want to remember Dirty—singing like a wino in love, rapping STRONG with FORCE on certain syll-ABLES!