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Wu-Tang Clan, “It Don’t Stop” [Excerpt From the July/August 2012 Issue]

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IF YOU THINK ABOUT WHAT NEW YORK CITY RAP WAS LIKE 15 YEARS AGO, IN 1997, CHANCES ARE YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT disco beats and designer clothes and champagne and mirror balls. Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records showed amazing resilience in the wake of Biggie Smalls’ murder, “partying through the pain,” as Shaheem Reid wrote in this magazine six months ago, holding the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart for 22 weeks out of the 52 in the year and assembling Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Foxy Brown and others for the victorious No Way Out Tour. It was a fly, fabulous, glittery pop moment, reflective of the country’s burgeoning economic boom, the height of the “shiny-suit era.”

But there is another story, one that’s been buried a bit by the sands of time. A shadow history.

For a certain type of rap fan, in certain parts of the city, darker, smokier parts, places that didn’t smell so nice, perhaps, where the dresscode leaned more toward army fatigues and Timberlands, and the people that wore them leaned more toward the floor, 1997 represented something else: the pinnacle of a different era. A last stand of sorts, maybe, but a proud one. For hip-hop fans less inclined to dance to Puffy’s repurposing of 1980s R&B hits, 1997 marked the reformation and return of the greatest group in rap music history: 1997 belonged to the Wu-Tang Clan.

In the face of the trends of the day, the nine-man outfit’s second album, a 27-song, one-hour-and-52-minute-long opus called Wu-Tang Forever, was a dark, sprawling, uncompromising statement of purpose: Hip-hop should not be shiny. It should be grimy.

“This ain’t no R&B,” group leader The RZA says on the intro of the second disc. “With a wack nigga takin’ a loop, reloopin’ that shit, thinkin’ it’s gonna be the sound of the culture.”

“All that playa bullshit…” Masta Killa pipes in. “All that playa, dressin’ up, actin’ like this is some kinda fashion show, man. You know what I’m sayin’? This is hip-hop right here…”

The album puts those words into fuzzed-out bass drones and a hive’s worth of swarming synth strings, the music sounds anxious, worried, bristling with premillennium tension. Low on melody, highly vulgar, dense with labyrinthian, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and songs that clock in closer to five minutes than three, it seems almost purposefully engineered not to get played on the radio. Wu-Tang Forever is hip-hop as high art, unapologetically.


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