Last night, Showtime premiered Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a documentary series that chronicles the history and legacy of the most important hip-hop crew since Public Enemy. There’s no bad time to celebrate this Staten Island outfit, but we decided to use the new series — and the group’s newly christened street corner — as an excuse to write about our favorite Wu tracks.
My personal pick isn’t an obvious one. Their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), remains their high-water mark, but I often find myself drifting to a song that’s featured on its overlong, hit-or-miss follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever.
Lots of Wu-Tang cuts are moody, mournful and slow-moving, but “A Better Tomorrow” is legitimately spooked. On the song, which samples Peter Nero’s Romeo and Juliet theme, several of the group members take turns lamenting life’s darkest aspects, including prison stints, broken families, racism, crime and addiction. Every verse is filled with haunted portraits of wrecked souls. Annoyingly, RZA’s raps about no-good women “pulling down your pants / while your man’s on tour / you’re spending up his advances” is sexist bullshit, but then he segues into a brilliant dissection of the American flag’s stars and stripes that definitely feels like it came to him while enjoying some good weed.
I haven’t lived close to the life that the Wu-Tang has, but “A Better Tomorrow” has always served as a grim reminder of the importance of staying focused and not getting distracted by temptation or self-destructive tendencies. Over that skeletal beat, the chorus is like a credo of hard-earned wisdom:
You can’t party your life away
Drink your life away
Smoke your life away
Fuck your life away
Dream your life away
Scheme your life away
‘Cuz your seeds grow up the same way
My wife and I don’t have kids, but I think about how I try to lead by example in terms of how to live a serious, meaningful life. I have godchildren and nieces and nephews, and I’d like them to be proud of me. I don’t want to dream my life away or scheme my life away. I want to stay away from the traps that pull so many people under. “A Better Tomorrow” is far deeper and more tormented than my relatively glib reading would suggest. But the stark vulnerability and sadness of the Wu’s rhymes get me every time. I’m always instantly scared straight.
Below, other members of the MEL team write about their favorite Wu-Tang Clan songs, either from the group’s albums or their solo joints.
“Raw Hide,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Return to the 36 Chambers was the first solo album released by the weirdest and most individual member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. (He earns his name because “there ain’t no father to his style.”) On an album that features songs like “Shimmy Shimmy Yah” and “Brooklyn Zoo,” the one that stands out to me the most is “Raw Hide.”
Sampling the theme song from the old Western TV show Rawhide, the beat (which was produced by RZA) sounds like something out of a horror movie. It’s simple but eerie, and the track features verses from fellow Wu-Tang members Method Man and Raekwon. Lyrically, it’s the best song on the album, possessing all the dark and demented themes that resonated with me as a struggling teen.
“Protect Ya Neck,” Wu-Tang Clan
I was raised by the Clan. Their music gave me the lessons to survive a NYC upbringing. My older brother was a few years younger than the Wu, but he had the same bleak outlook on the world after surviving the Crack Era. Wu always reminded me of him and his friends.
Basically then, my love for the Wu is deep — so deep that while doing this list, I was thinking of all my favorite album cuts and surprise verses and remixes just to prove how hard I stan for them. But then I thought: That’s not real. What’s real is that my favorite Wu track ever is “Protect Ya Neck” — the same song that introduced the world to the nine deadly MCs from Shaolin, and the song that attacks ya ear with the energy to jump out the window of a moving vehicle.
I know every word of this song forward and backward:
First things first, man, you’re fucking with the worst
The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
It just so perfectly lets you know what this group is all about: dope bars, kung-fu references, gritty beats and brothers. Plus, unlike other popular cuts like “Triumph” or “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” you can’t really pick a solid “best” verse. If you ask 10 different Wu fans who had the best verse on “Protect Ya Neck,” you’ll get 10 different verses. But in my opinion at least, the GZA got the best. — Tarik Jackson, Story Producer
“Duel of the Iron Mic,” GZA
“Duel of the Iron Mic” is the second track on Liquid Swords, GZA’s seminal 1995 solo album. Twenty-four years later, on a record that’s a masterpiece from top to bottom, I still think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
Overflowing with samples from epics like Shogun Assassin, “Duel” has the perfect combination of atmosphere (hat tip to RZA’s sparse piano-and-drums production) and killer, vivid rhymes that equate escaping the dangerous life of a drug dealer with that of the Clan’s biggest influences, the rōnin antiheroes of Japanese cinema. Check out GZA’s first verse and Inspectah Deck’s last verse in particular, but it’s all so, so good. — Jeff Gross, Social Media Editor
“Back Like That (Remix),” Ghostface Killah
Wu-Tang has always been the epitome of East Coast/New York City black guys. Being a black guy from the South and not knowing any guys from New York City growing up, that always seemed about right — aggressive, raunchy, scary and really, really baggy jeans. I mean baggy baggy. They were 10 completely different, yet exactly the same, dudes. (How do you put 10 people on a song anyway?)
Honestly, I was never a big fan of Wu-Tang as a kid, but during my musical awakening in the early 2000s, I ran across the song “Back Like That (Remix).” It spoke to everything I was about at the time, or thought I was about — fly, flashy, cool as shit and completely heartbroken. Ghostface was able to capture a host of attitudes and feelings that normally repulse, somehow managing to express hurt in a way that still comes off as hypermasculine. Additionally, the flow is so silky; it rides the beat like a surfer catching the perfect wave.
After playing “Back Like That” on repeat for a week, I was sold. I downloaded every Ghostface song and then the entire Wu-Tang catalog (shout out to LimeWire). All it took was an overly aggressive heartbroken Ghostface Killah on a Ne-Yo hook. “Theodore for life, yo.” — Ernest Crosby III, Video Producer