Every Wu-Tang show begins the same way, depending on the group’s current emotional/quantum state: Anywhere from five to eight Brooklyn-hardened, showbiz-softened MCs skulk onto the stage and face a sea of multicolored hands all forming the shape of a “W.” It’s loud, sure, but disciplined. To jump around and wile out at this point would be tantamount to kicking off a Rocky Horror show without first sacrificing the virgins; permission has not yet been granted to go nuts. Wu mastermind RZA leads the crowd in a synchronized chant of a cappella braggadocio – “Bam! Aw, man! I slam! Jam! Now scream like Tarzan!!!” The crude boom-bap of 1993’s “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” erupts and, finally, so does the crowd.

Look closely at the rapturous faces of the Wu-Tang Clan’s fanatics, however, and you’ll see the smiles are slightly out of place. They mask a decade and a half of psychological domination: disappointment followed by empty promises, the flaunting of side-project floozies who could never understand what Wu and their fans have, and the near-physical torture of “reunion albums,” all at the hands of their beloved Voltron super-rappers.

Wu concerts are notorious for last-minute cancellations, late starts and missing crew members. Their current gigs in support of their fifth album, 8 Diagrams (the Wu, however, are not playing any songs from Diagrams live), feature seven members instead of the original nine. RZA, who produces the majority of their music, has fallen out with the group and opted not to tour with the guys, and founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard died of an accidental drug overdose in 2004. Still, like so many abused lovers, critics and fans have been unanimous in their praise for remaining members GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, U-God and Masta Killa and the energy they put into what’s left of the group.

“They sounded, if not complete, at least massive,” proclaimed the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages. “The high-wattage energy level … was maintained principally because of the group’s huge membership,” said The Hollywood Reporter of their Sunset Strip show in late-December. As long as most of the gang shows up, it seems they can do no wrong.

The unhealthy relationship extends far beyond the stage and into record stores, courtrooms, even the FBI.

After the Wu exploded onto the rap scene with the seminal Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), reintroducing a Compton-obsessed, early-’90s commercial hip-hop market to the mean streets of New York, the crew splintered into solo projects that would themselves help influence the rap sound of the decade. Within three years, Wu members Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface, GZA and O.D.B. had each released instant rap classics that defined them as individual stars but also expanded the Wu mythology into a hip-hop religion. In 1997, Wu-Tang Forever was released as a double album, hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell over eight million copies.

Unfortunately for the fans, the massive success would breed countless (Wikipedia lists over 300 by the mid-’90s) affiliated groups, unknown-for-a-reason rappers who latched onto vague associations with the group to help get out their own product. The mass bandwagon- hop saddled the original members with hangers-on and quickly oversaturated their basic appeal. From a fan’s perspective, it’s difficult not to fault the original members for spinoffs of spinoffs like Shabazz the Disciple, who released an album unfortunately titled The Passion of the Hood Christ.

Hollywood called and the abuse piled on. While RZA reinvented himself as the new Quincy Jones, scoring the films Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Ol’ Dirty Bastard made an ass of himself at every turn – taking two of his 13 kids, by limo, to pick up a welfare check … on MTV … while his solo album was in the top 10. And Method Man appeared in the Fox sitcom Method & Red, complete with canned laugh track and wacky misadventures. (Meth is currently atoning with solid work on CSI and The Wire.)

Lawsuits follow Wu members everywhere they go, but this month brought the saga to laughable levels, with current touring member U-God suing the Wu Corporation for $170,000 dollars in unpaid income. Last year, reports circulated that RZA is being investigated by the FBI for ties to the Gambino crime family, though no action has been taken thus far.

What’s a Wu fan to do with all this drama? In truth, it shouldn’t matter as long as the music is still there, but Diagrams debuted at No. 25 on the charts and slipped quickly down thereafter. Fan reception so far has ranged from mixed to indifferent.

Sales and attendance for the current tour have been very strong, however, proving once again that, after 15 years together, Wu and their fans don’t intend to separate any time soon. Perhaps this isn’t an abusive relationship, then, but just some gentle S&M – you know, to shake things up a bit.



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