Pioneering, fractious, brilliant, confounding, frustrating, crazed, peerless, complicated, enigmatic.
Those nine words only begin to describe the nine dudes who formed the original lineup of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time.
Indebted, to varying degrees, to kung fu matinees, Far Eastern philosophy, ’70s soul music, chess, women, reefer and organized crime, the Wu was to ’90s East Coast hip-hop what Bruce Lee was to Nixon-era karate flicks.
What’s really distinguished the group is how different each member is from one another, both personalitywise and in terms of skill set.
In honor of the Clan’s upcoming two-night stand at Brooklyn Bowl, we rank each MC:
9. U-God. U-God’s the Wu-Tang Clan’s utility infielder, capable of coming up clutch situationally but not a go-to guy. He’s a big dude with a big voice, which he bounces hard atop the beat like he was dribbling a basketball. He has his moments, but much like his game itself, they’re limited.
8. Masta Killa. With a laconic, pulse-slowing flow, Masta Killa’s an entrancing presence, the hip-hop equivalent of staring at a hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch. He was the last of the group to release a solo record, by a long shot, and that says a lot: The guy’s just not incredibly active, either on his own or with the Wu. But when he does show up, he tends to come correct. Check “Duel of the Iron Mic,” from GZA’s “Liquid Swords,” where he demonstrates that he could be higher in these rankings if he dueled more consistently.
7. RZA. The brain, conscience and soul of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA would top this list if it measured overall importance to the group. But, we’re talking strictly about mic skills here, and while RZA has plenty, they’re not his focus. Still, he has an awesomely elastic flow, firing off his extraterrestrial rhymes with what sounds like a swollen, bee-stung tongue. His words tend to go every which way at once, like a sack of marbles let loose on an icy sidewalk.
6. Method Man. “Personality goes a long way,” to borrow a line from Jules Winfield of “Pulp Fiction” fame. To wit, there was a time when Method Man was undoubtedly the most popular member of the Clan. And he still might be, with his gravelly, cotton-mouth delivery, wide-as-a-highway grin and stoner charm. He was the Clan’s first breakout star, hitting the charts and the bong with equal vehemence.
5. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It’s hard to describe in words a man who treated words like a kid does a wad of Play-Doh, mashing them into new shapes of his own design with only the loosest connection to identifiable forms. One of the most inimitable MCs of all time, O.D.B., who died of a drug overdose in 2004, was less a rapper than a full-on nutter occasionally confined to a vocal booth somehow. Still, there’s a crazed genius to some of his rhymes, which are like the grammatical equivalent of Jackson Pollack’s paint splatters.
4. Inspectah Deck. Both lead-off man and cleanup hitter, Inspectah Deck always brings the lumber. His solo albums have never been all that, but with the Wu, he’s come hard with some of the Clan’s most kinetic, one-of-a-kind rhymes that blossom like verbal mushroom clouds. His appearance on “Triumph” from 1997’s magnum opus “Wu-Tang Forever” is, in fact, a triumph, and maybe the single greatest verse in the group’s history. “The Rebel,” Deck’s still making more noise than heavy metal.
3. GZA. Of late, GZA has been participating in a classroom initiative using hip-hop to help teach underprivileged kids science, and who better to lead such an endeavor than a man for whom hip-hop is a science? At times, absorbing GZA’s phrenic yet nimble rhymes is akin to being knocked upside the head with an algebra textbook. GZA’s classic 1995 album, the equally fierce and philosophical “Liquid Swords,” remains as sharp as the samurai blade that he likens his wordplay to via its title, his rhymes coming like the flying fists and feet of his kung-fu heroes.
2. Raekwon. “The Chef” keeps cooking, his rhymes a kettle set to boil. In a way, Raekwon’s the backbone of the Wu-Tang Clan, his gritty, yet stirring storytelling and thick-voiced delivery grounding some of his more lyrically wayward group mates. He’s also among the most versatile MCs of the bunch, equally at home adding some gravitas to a Kanye West track or verbally sparring with underground oddball MF Doom. His many collaborations with Ghostface Killah have made them the Clan’s best tag-team duo. Speaking of which …
1. Ghostface Killah. At 6 feet 2, Ghost’s frame is long. His catalog, though, casts an even longer shadow. No Wu-Tang member has dropped more must-have albums than Ghostdini. He’s fond of likening himself to Tony Starks, and true to that designation, his discography is iron-plated, armored with classics like the serrated soul masterpiece “Supreme Clientele,” the grim urban fairy tale that is “Fishscale” and the totally underrated “Apollo Kids.” The dude’s a breathless presence on the mic, with the lung capacity of a long-distance runner. Above all, he’s smooth, though, like the satin sheets he’s always trying to get the ladies between.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.
9 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 19
Brooklyn Bowl at The Linq, 3545 Las Vegas Blvd. South