Vancouver Jazz Fest 2019: The Wu-Tang Clan thrives on rivalry

Healthy competition between its members only makes the music stronger

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      The Wu-Tang Brand might unite its several performers under one musical banner, but the key to the legendary rap crew has always been its members’ differences. The nine-man troupe counts personalities that range from fiery to cerebral, with nearly all finding additional outlets for their creativity beyond the music—be it Method Man’s silver-screen appearances, Ghostface Killah’s entrepreneurial streak, or GZA’s science advocacy.

      In the group’s earliest days, as now, those differing gifts and interests stirred up a healthy dose of competition. From the first record, producer and de facto leader RZA pitted members against each other to earn the right for their bars to grace a song. The Wu-Tang contract involved kicking a percentage of each performer’s solo profits back to the other members regardless of how much they contributed themselves—a tactic that was less socialist utopia and more wily rivalry.

      But the creative tension worked, powering the group out of the New York projects and onto the Billboard 100. Twenty-six years after their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), exploded onto the New York streets, the Clansmen might be prone to interactions that range from brotherly ribbing to all-out fraternal fights, but—as RZA put it in an L.A. Times interview—“When steel rubs against steel, it makes both blades sharper.”

      “Everyone [has their own role],” U-God, the Clansman known for his distinctive baritone and virtuoso flow, tells the Georgia Straight on the line from a Connecticut tour stop. “It’s like a football team. You’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a defensive line, you’ve got special teams, you’ve got receivers—you know?...At the end of the day, we all seeking perfection. Some people feel that their vision is the vision, and sometimes it’s not. It’s just what it is. You just have to deal with it. When I’m incorrect about something, I correct myself.”

      Wu-Tang Clan, "C.R.E.A.M"

      U-God, born Lamont Hawkins, is often passed over in favour of his more high-profile bandmates—and unjustifiably so. Describing his role as the “underdog, the black sheep, the fucking secret”, the now 48-year-old is ready to set the record straight. Releasing his second full-length album, Venom, and an autobiography entitled Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang in the last year, the day-one Wu stalwart gives a visceral account of the group’s origins and his gritty experiences growing up in Staten Island’s Park Hill projects.

      It’s a tough tale to read. Hawkins first saw death at five, when he watched a young woman jump from the top of a building. As a child, a number of kids in his neighbourhood were shot and killed. Later, he had to rummage through all the drawers of dead bodies in the morgue to try and find his cousin. And just after he got out of jail for drugs and firearm offences, his two-year-old baby was shot when he was used as a human shield by a stranger.

      “My life is way more raw than the average person,” he says. “In my book—I can’t make these stories up at all. The stuff I talk about, it’s unfathomable. You cannot make this up. I don’t care how to try and think you might go about doing and living that life—no, I actually lived that life. We actually did things as kids that I look back on, and say, ‘What was I thinking.’”

      When his narrative turns to Wu-Tang, it’s clear that he’s relating the legend with a similar honesty. Hawkins’s Raw is a long way from RZA’s The Tao of Wu, a top-down appraisal of the formation of Wu-Tang: a move he claimed was part of a masterful five-year plan to take his friends, cousins, and rivals to the number one spot. Instead, Hawkins highlights how the Clan’s journey was fraught with chaos.

      “There’s no one message,” he says of the book. “It’s a journey. Life is a journey of lessons—many lessons. So you can’t sum it up in one thing. But one thing I can say is that I lived a life, man. I lived an incredible life. And I’m still living it.”

      Through Hawkins’s granular prose, it’s easy to see how Wu-Tang has stuck together and flourished over the past 27 years. Family bonds and shared origin stories have outweighed the tense moments of infighting, as has the group’s unrivalled energy when its members hit the stage. As a result, Hawkins is not surprised that the Clan is still headlining events around the world more than a quarter-century later.

      “We worked,” he says. “We worked very, very hard. People don’t really realize how hard we worked to get to this level of the game. We were the first [rap] group ever to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Tennessee. We’re talking about a place where you couldn’t be black and be there.

      “There’s a lot of groups out here who are gonna wish they’ll be around this long,” he continues. “People who gonna wish they’ll be in the rap game this long and get to the level. Because we ain’t gotta be on TV 24/7, you know? Our fans are the greatest fans on planet earth. We’ve got a cult following that it’s like the Grateful Dead, and AC/DC, and the Rolling Stones—we have that kind of level of fans. I love our fans. We’re hardcore motherfuckers, so we got hardcore fans.”

      For Wu-Tang’s supporters, as for the the artists themselves, the moments of sibling bickering aren’t what defines the group—it’s the way they continue to unite together under the iconic yellow batwings.

      “We talk about what we go through, but they don’t really care,” Hawkins says. “They really love us, and the music. In their eyes, we’re the greatest. And that’s cool, man. That’s a beautiful thing.”

      The Wu-Tang Clan plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday (June 23) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It runs from Friday (June 21) to July 1 at many venues around the city.

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays