DENVER PHOTOS © JOSHUA WILDMAN

RZA then approached six other MCs who were drowning in negativity – his cousins, GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, plus Inspectah Deck, U-God, Raekwon da Chef and Method Man. He asked them each to write their best verse and stump up $50 to record a demo. The result was “Protect Ya Neck”, the first song to showcase their fondness for lyrical ultraviolence, martial arts imagery and warped black humour.


“I had a five year plan in my mind,” RZA recalls. “In 1992 I asked everyone to give me five years. In 1997, the five years were up, but I had promised everybody that we would be number one in the charts. And we were. We sold 600,000 copies of Wu-Tang Forever in our first week. I said, ‘after that it’s going take a least another fifteen more years to defeat us’. Right now we’ve got at least another five more years before people catch a surge of another fucking talent like this. It was like an intuition that I had.”


“To be honest, I didn’t even know what RZA’s five-year fucking plan was,” Meth says, while playing with his lime green, snake trim Adidas high tops. “I never went to the meetings and shit.  I just knew, ever since I was on the block scrambling, that RZA was going to do something. This small fucker used to come through the hood like a breath of fresh air, so when he asked me to join Wu I was right there in his back pocket.”


Brokering a historic group deal with Loud Records that enabled each MC to sign as a solo artist to any record label of their choosing (the Wu’s final member, Masta Killa, joined after being released from prison), in 1993 they released the dark and sinister Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Combining RZA’s sparse, off kilter beats and kung fu samples with the Clan’s hardcore, yet witty, portrayals of inner city life, it gradually went platinum and is widely considered to be one of the finest hip hop albums ever.


Following up 36 Chambers with a slew of genre shaping solo records, from Method Man’s weeded out Tical and Raekwon’s cocaine powered Mafioso odyssey Only Built for Cuban Linx to GZA’s grim Liquid Swords and Ghostface’s ghetto superhero romp Ironman, they dominated hip hop for five years, culminating in the group’s second album, Wu-Tang Forever, which sold 8.3 million units. On the side they lent their brand to comic books, Playstation games and launched Wu-Wear, a clothing line that netted them an average of $15 million a year.


However, somewhere between 1997 and 2001 their C.R.E.A.M mantra (“cash rules everything around me”) overwhelmed Wu-Tang’s quality control and the group over-saturated the market with endless Wu-affiliates, tawdry side projects and ropey group albums that outsourced production duties and didn’t feature the entire clan (The W and Iron Flag). RZA turned his attention to Hollywood, and the rest of the Wu, with the exception of Ghostface who released Supreme Clientele and Fish Scale to huge critical acclaim, began to seem like lame ducks.


“I became an asshole,” Meth recalls. “I started smelling my own piss. I had a big reality check. I had to check myself - the music industry said ‘fuck you dude’.  No support, none.  No magazines, no radio. It was bad. But you can’t fight fire with fire; you’ve got to fight fire with water.”


As Meth finishes the sentence, Masta Killa comes into the room and hands RZA a pad of paper. Today is the producer’s 38th birthday and the quietest member of the Clan has composed a birthday rhyme for him. Reading it to himself, RZA leafs though the pad, nods and pounds his fist against his heart. It resembles a scene from the Godfather. There’s no doubt who Vito Corleone is.

“I feel better now than I have done in my whole life,” RZA says, putting the pad down. “I’m looking forward to becoming 40, it ain’t nothing. When Mohammed turned 40 he became a prophet. I’m looking forward to that.”


“I couldn’t give a fuck about the age,” Meth riffs, peeling an orange. “I know 50-year-old men dating 22-year-olds because they’ve got the swagger right. Tommy Lee’s dating Rod Stewart’s daughter and she’s like twenty-four years old. He’s forty-four. It’s got nothing to do with age, especially when you get to our iconic stage.  Actually, I don’t know how we became icons and all that shit.”


As he finishes his sentence, RZA’s risotto and green salad arrives. Meth juggles an orange and gets ready for tonight’s performance.


A few hours later and the mixed young crowd at the Apollo start to boo when Wu-Tang, as predicted, fail to turn up on stage. Then, half an hour later than billed, RZA ambles on stage followed by all of his well-oiled clansmen. The boos turn into screams of adulation before the whole place erupts into a huge mosh pit when the birthday boy shouts out at the top of his lungs “WU TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT!” For the next hour and a half, the energy escalates as they run through their biggest group and solo hits, with Method Man walking like a messiah on top of the audience’s hands and Raekwon drunkenly wobbling about at the back of the stage like a Wu-Tang weeble. London, it seems, has forgiven the Clan for their misdemeanours.

A month later the entire Wu-Tang Clan arrive in Denver, Colorado, as part of the Rock the Bells tour. In the lobby of a swish hotel, endless Wu-Tangers and their entourages circulate, slouch and chat into phones while waiting for their room to be ready. The hotel also happens to be holding a dog convention in its basement, and the sight of Ghostface Killas slouching in a regal lounge chair is enough to bring curious stares from other guests. Upstairs on the third floor, GZA has got into his room and fielding a dozen phone calls. Today happens to be GZA’s 41st birthday. A huge gourmet food hamper lies on the floor and on his desk a portable digital radio lies unopened in its box. He hangs up his phone, leans back in his chair and assesses the Wu’s current cultural significance.


“Some label executives may tell you that Wu-Tang is not relevant to the kids,” GZA says confidently. “But when you look at our tour and where we played last night, in Salt Lake City, it was nothing but kids out there. Sometimes I think that they don’t know about the Wu, that they’ve just come because there’s a concert going on, but on each song they responded by singing hooks and verses that are over 13 years old. That’s been amazing to see.”


Since leaving London they’ve been to Poland, Slovakia, Germany and Serbia, where they played to 100,000 people at the Exit festival. Tonight’s gig at Red Rocks sees the Wu headline a bill including Nas, Cypress Hill, Supernatural, The Roots, Rakim, Talib Kweli and the cream of America’s hip hop underground.


“The fans don’t care how old we are. We’re like the Rolling Stones of hip hop,” GZA says placidly. “Wu-Tang fans are the kind that ask you to sign their drivers license, the back of their birth certificate, you know, official government identification. On my phone I have a photo of this dude with a big W on his face under his left eye. It’s a real tattoo, you can see the scars. I still feel like I’m 25. And I’m 41. There’s a lot of rappers out there now who are 25 and they look 41. We don’t age – we dry up. So I drink a lot of water.”


Upstairs, in the room of Wu’s DJ, Mathematics, RZA is putting together a snippet CD for their forthcoming album 8 Diagrams, partly named after Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Lau Ker-Lueng’s kung fu drama about a family of brothers who get betrayed by the government – only to crush them at the end.


“What made 36 Chambers unique is you never heard anything like that before,” RZA says, hooded up. “You couldn’t say that it sounded like this or that, it was in a world all of its own. Now, was 36 Chambers good or bad, who is to say? To me, our new album Eight Diagrams is heading towards that same place. I see it one step at a time, but Eight Diagrams is done now and that’s a beautiful thing, like bullets in the chamber, so we’ll see what happens.  We’ll see what the world wants to do really.”


As well as featuring the ODB tribute song, “Life Changes”, and the hardcore, DJ Scratch produced “Watch Your Motherfuckin’ Mouth”, 8 Diagrams also contain a re-interpretation of George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It features guitar playing from John Frusciante and Harrison’s son Dhani. RZA


“It’s true,” RZA says coolly after playing the demo in Mathematics’ makeshift studio. “George Harrison’s son was a real fan, he appreciated Wu Tang’s work. He knew all the kung fu movies that I sampled. Now a lot of people know some of the records that I sample, and John knew the song better than me – he was the one who told me the history of the song. I never knew that Eric Clapton was the person who played lead guitar on the track. That big, to see a legend respect another legend. I wanted to keep that type of spirit to the song.”


After borrowing one of his DJ’s white Kangol hats. RZA makes his way to one of the four huge tour bus across the street from the hotel. GZA jumps on and so does Shavo Odadjian, the bassist from Armenian rockers System of a Down. He’s a special guest of RZA’s. Outside U-God, Ghostface and friends chat on the corner. Drinking a bottle of Muscle Milk, Ghost looks perfectly at home, chatting to people who stop at the traffic lights. One of Raekwon’s “Ice Water” entourage, a man who resembles Flavor Flav’s skinny uncle, spontaneously bursts into self-promotion, publicising their forthcoming album to anyone with a video camera.

On the way to the venue, GZA plays, and wins, a game of chess against RZA while Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 18 year old son - The Young ‘DB - sings along to his late father’s debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers. He looks remarkably similar, spouting filthy rhymes with a warm, goofy grin. GZA also bursts into spontaneous Dirty lyrics, clutching an unopened bottle of champagne.


Arriving at Red Rocks, the Clan congregate for the first time as whole and wait outside two people cruisers to drive them up a 100 metre hill to the stage door. Except for Method Man. He had to fly back to New York to tape an episode of hit US police drama, The Wire. It doesn’t seem to matter. Ghostface and Raekwon share jokes while ducking questions, “Yo son, we’re like prize fighters yo! When the bells ring we’ll be there for an interview aight?”. Even U-God, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck look amped.


As the van drives up the hill, RZA looks out of the window at the red rocks of the mountainside and chuckles. “Yo! This is the real gravel pit yo! We’re going to rock the real gravel pit!”


Taking to the stage after a lengthy meet and greet with Colorado’s entire Wu-community of hip hop geeks and girls, they launch into “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With”, and the 10,000 people watching start chanting along, waving their ‘W’ hand signs in the air. While Meth’s rock star master of ceremonies role is missed, the rest of the band pull off an hour of shouty hits like “Protect Your Neck”, “Bring the Ruckus” and solo hits like GZA’s “Liquid Swords” and Raekwon’s mating call, “Ice Cream”.


“Wu-Tang in the cut, for real niggaz what? / It's the after party and bitches want to fuck / Ice cold bitches melt down when in the clutch / they want they titties sucked, ice cream” – Method Man on Raekwon’s “Ice Cream”


Denver’s kids love every second, especially when Young ‘DB grabs the mic for a karoke version of Ol’ Dirty’s anthem, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”.


After the venue closes, the Clan make their way back to the tour buses. Sitting next to Raekwon, who obsessively strokes his beard with a comb, Ghostface rips into a cold cheese pizza and agrees to discuss the Clan’s legacy on the drive back to the city.


“Yo, I’m feeling great dude! I’m gonna go to the hotel and wash my ass, do the do, go to the after party, have a birthday drink with GZA and, um, take it back to the hotel.”


As Wyclef and Akon’s recent remix of “C.R.E.A.M” blares away in the background, the man also known as Tony Starks gives his synopsis of his crew’s career so far.


“You’re looking at nine brothers who came through the door and smashed hip hop in the early 90s. We came and brought the truth to everybody. We’re like a bowl of…” Ghost pauses. “…cereal. A bowl of tricks. We brought the witty unpredictable talent and natural game. We got cultures man, we’ve performed to 100,000 people in Serbia – how are you going to have Wu fans in Serbia? We’re in the corners of every fucking bit of the earth. I don’t give a fuck if you’re Russian or Cuban man, Wu-Tang is forever.”


“We snappin’ niggas,” Raekwon interjects, exhaling a cloud of pungent skunk smoke. “We’re dudes off the block that be doing robberies, doing all types of hood shit, but on top of that we’re funny. We took nothing and turned it into something. It’s all about hustling.”


RZA sits opposite the pair, zoning out as blunts and cups of Grey Goose, Henny and Heineken circulate. Abstaining from everything, Ghostface reflects on how sad it is that ODB couldn’t witness the next stage of Wu-Tang’s evolution, an observation that made Method Man break down in tears back in London.


“We’ve all felt the loss,” he says in his famous wiseguy New York patter. “That was my heart. It’s like losing an arm. You’ve been with your arm since you were born and when it’s taken from you unexpectedly, it’s like, ‘Now what?’ You miss it. This room right here is one big energy ball; with Ol’ Dirty in it there was even more energy. But he’s still here. He didn’t go nowhere, he’s still here, physically he’s here because we’re here and his seeds are here. It’s all good.”


The tour bus arrives back at the hotel en route to GZA’s birthday after party.
As the Clan get out, a white Datsun pulls up behind them, driven by two trailer park groupies who have followed them from the concert. Attaching themselves to any passing Wu-Tanger, they jump on the tour bus, mount the bar and spread their pasty white legs, entrapping anyone who brushes past them. Raekwon jumps back on to the bus, passes an eighth of skunk to his friend to roll in a blunt, and marvels at how they’ve reached this stage.


“We didn’t really think about what would happen later on,” the Wu’s slang master says, stone-faced. “We just had something to prove; we wanted to get Staten Island on the map. We grew up with no fathers, so the streets moulded us to be men from an early age. Older people from the hood taught us how to be men from an early age. That’s why we work so hard to preserve our family, because we know, at the end of the day, that’s what’s it’s all about. Wu-Tang is a ghetto masterpiece.”


Pulling up to the club, Ghostface walks inside as his verse from “Protect Ya Neck” bursts through the speakers. The entire Clan get ushered on to a small stage at the back, even though the club is due to close in an hour and is half empty.


Almost immediately they all disperse in pursuit of women. Raekwon, Redman and others disappear down an alleyway to smoke some more buddah. RZA gets on the mic and dishes out various birthday shout-outs to a visibly tipsy GZA, who is more concerned with fingering his chocolate cake in the middle of the dancefloor. The club didn’t want to hand out knives for some reason.


At 2.15am they spill out of the club, followed by at least ten girls. And the two trailer hos. Some of the Clan purchase food from a dude selling burritos out of a freezer box before stumbling back to the bus. GZA sits in a corner, drifting in and out of consciousness. Inspectah Deck attempts to chat up their British PR, while U-God and friends take five groupies into the bedroom at back of the bus, slamming the door behind them. RZA boards and surveys the scene.


“It’s like Thanksgiving in this motherfucker!” he announces before squeezing himself between two girls, putting his arms around them at the same time.


“Once you go black, you never go back,” he whispers with a laugh.


“NEVER!!!” the girls slur in response.


“Ha! But once you hit pink, you don’t stop to think.”


“NEVER!!!” the girls shout back as Biggie’s “Hypnotize” rattles the speakers of the Wu’s travelling vice den.


As they arrive back at the hotel, the Clan scatter around in varying degrees of inebriation. GZA slopes towards the elevator. Raekwon hangs outside, eyeing the empty street, more out of habit than necessity. RZA buzzes around the lobby like a child who’s ingested too much sugar. U-God laughs at the trailer hos. Ol’ Dirty’s son hangs outside with Inspectah Deck trying to persuade girls to come back to his room, with little success.


Ghostface goes straight to his room. Perhaps he’s the only member who’s remembered that they’ll have to pack up in a few hours, jump back on the bus and do it all again 900 miles away in Minneapolis. Some old habits, it seems, die harder than others.


© TIM NOAKES 2007