The story of the Wu-Tang Clan is two parts legend, one part fact. Two-and-a-half decades of original releases, spin-off projects, and external collaborations have produced plenty of fodder for journalists—and more than a few differing accounts of the group’s history. Documentaries from members U-God and ODB offer alternative interpretations from, say, RZA’s Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu books, while interviews with each of the 10 official Clansmen recall events through varying lenses.
One perspective that is rarely heard, however, belongs to the second-to-last member inducted into the group. Typically opting to let his music talk, Masta Killa—also known as Jamel Irief—is the self-described “ninja” of the Wu-Tang Clan. Quiet and mysterious, the rapper’s voice seldom appears in the pages of newspapers. When it does, he offers a rich and colourful discussion.
“I’ve always been the observant one,” he tells the Georgia Straight, on the line from New Jersey. “It’s not that I’m not into partying—hey, I’m here to party. But maybe I’ll be the one who’s driving everybody home tonight. I’m the Black Panther of the group. When you think about the comics, look at who you’ve got. You’ve got Iron Man, and Method Man, and all of these superheroes. Black Panther is just starting to get his props. He’s been in the Marvel comics the whole time, but hasn’t got the movies of X-Men, or Captain America. Now it’s his moment.”
It’s been 25 years since Irief appeared on the hip-hop collective’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Like any anniversary—particularly those that end in a five or a zero—the occasion is a reflective one for the artist. In 1993, he was a non-rapper attending night-school classes. When he heard the Clan’s underground hood anthem “Protect Ya Neck”, he decided to change course. Mentored heavily by de facto group leader RZA, the aspiring performer was competing with established rapper Killah Priest for the final verse on the album’s standout song, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ”. While Killah Priest fell asleep, Irief stayed up all night writing rhymes. When Priest awoke the next morning, Masta Killa’s rap was already on the track.
“It’s funny—sometimes when I tell people that verse was my first actual rhyme, they can’t believe it,” he says, with a chuckle. “For me, it’s the realest thing I could have wrote—the best thing I could have wrote. It still has me here, relevant, to this day. I was a student to all of that which you hear with the Wu-Tang Clan. Everybody else had rhyme books. I had one rhyme. To make that roster, that’s what it took. Those grandmasters had rhyme books on them. I was still learning, I was still developing, and I was at the best school—the school of Shaolin.”
The Wu-Tang Clan’s first record was bulletproof. Over the course of 12 songs, the then-nine members created a new rap universe outside of hip-hop conventions. Fresh, idiosyncratic slang was juxtaposed with samples from kung-fu films, overlooked soul samples, and a celebration of playing chess. Pinpoint rhymes and cutting delivery introduced the narrative arc of every group member, each with their own superhero-esque identity: RZA, the visionary producer; GZA, the respected patriarch; Ol’ Dirty Bastard, an unpredictable daredevil; Method Man, the magnetic performer; Raekwon and Ghostface, two hood chroniclers; Inspectah Deck, a quick-fire rapper; U-God, tirelessly energetic; and Masta Killa, an enigmatic wordsmith.
“Oh, man,” Irief says. “Those were the best times. The best memories of everything are at the beginning, because it’s the making of it. When you’re in it, you don’t really see it, because you’re doing it. But after you start looking back in time, you can see the work. When you’re in it, making it, it’s like the beginning of any relationship. It’s still beautiful, but that making—there’s nothing like that.”
Seven Wu-Tang albums, four solo records, and more than 60 features later, Irief has cemented his status as one of the gurus of hip-hop. Unlike megastars like Kanye or Jay Z, however, his ego takes a back seat to his talent. Attributing his success to his fans rather than his artistry, the rapper considers it a privilege to be headlining Centre of Gravity festival in Kelowna with the Clan, 25 years after his first bars were released.
“I feel like we’re still blessed,” he says. “We’re doing it because the fans are still listening. That’s a special thing. I don’t want to lose sight of that. That’s where all the praise and shit goes, to the fans who are still listening. We’re just blessed to still be delivering the message.
“I don’t care if it’s 10 people, if it’s five people listening to us,” he continues. “If there’s one person listening to you, you have to be thankful. So imagine—I see thousands of people listening to me, all these years later. That’s indescribable. I say, ‘Don’t reach, or think that you’re something special.’ Stay humble, and be thankful for every breath.”
The Wu-Tang Clan plays Centre of Gravity festival in Kelowna on Saturday (July 28).
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