The 10 Best Wu-Tang Clan Deep Cuts [Deep Cuts Week]

illustration by Ruth Gwily

I was irked yesterday to read this article in New York Magazine in praise of an anthology of collected rap lyrics, the content of which the reviewer considered “pure rap.” By contrast, the author (a literary type, who by his own admission never listened to hip-hop) declared beats, hooks and flows as superfluous as hairstyles and clothes. To add insult to injury, he then said that based on his analysis, “Wu-Tang, surprisingly, also left me cold—much of their appeal seems to depend on their esoteric ghetto-karate lifestyle cult.”

My ass. If any rap group defines “pure rap,” it’s the Wu-Tang Clan.

Since exploding out of Staten Island in the early 90s, the Wu have combined every key aspect of hip-hop, and in many ways, took the form to its purest expression. The RZA is a uniquely talented beatsmith, crafting backgrounds and hooks from slowed-down soul samples, a method that other producers like Kanye West still emulate. The group’s collection of MCs embody almost every lyrical style — the smooth, humorous market-ready flows of Method Man, the ghetto storytelling of Ghostface, the insane ramblings of ODB, the Mafioso flash of Raekwon, and the studied genius of the GZA most prominent among them. Over the years, the MCs of Wu-Tang have worked with RZA and many other great producers, creating a library of tracks so varied and superb that it boggles the mind.

And yeah, they had their own clothing line too.

The Wu may not specialize in “lyric verse” that makes English professors swoon, but last time I checked, the purpose of popular music was not to serve as poetry wearing a fancy costume. Just as the greatness of the theater stems from much more than the work of the playwright, rap music gains its power from performances and production as much as from the words themselves. The Wu-Tang Clan can turn a great phrase, but what makes them awesome is that they attack each song like a bayonet charge over the top, with great MCs that just keep coming, supported by always-inventive musical tracks.

Let’s now appreciate the greatness of the Wu by exploring some of their finest deep cuts.

We Assume You’ve Heard: Enter the Wu-Tang / 36 Chambers in its entirety,  “Got Your Money” from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please, and  “All I Need” featuring Mary J. Blige from Method Man’s Tical.

Rap fans will be familiar with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo” from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers – The Dirty Version; “Knowledge God,” “Criminology” and “Wu Gambinos” from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…; “I Gotcha Back,” “Liquid Swords” and “Cold World” from GZA’s Liquid Swords; “Bring the Pain” from Method Man’s Tical; “Daytona 500″ from Ghostface Killah’s Ironman; “Triumph” from Wu-Tang Forever; “Judgement Day” from Method Man’s Tical 2000; “Cherchez La Ghost” and “Apollo Kids” from Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele; “Gravel Pit” from The W; “Shakey Dog” and “Back Like That” from Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale.

All of the above is highly recommended.

This list focuses on tracks from Wu albums and solo records, and ignores collaborations with other musical artists. However, I’ve included some of my favorite extra-Wu collaborations as bonus tracks.

10. “For Heaven’s Sake” from Wu-Tang Forever (Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Cappadonna)

“Verbal high, I leave styes in the eyes of Medusa.”

A lot of tracks contended for this spot, but I ultimately settled on “For Heaven’s Sake” because it has a sweet RZA beat and performances from three of the group’s most underrated MCs. This song is packed with great lines (“Ayo, my rap style swing like Willie Mays, my solar razor burns through shades”) and that vintage “Wu-Tang” chant that never fails to get me amped. Part of the excellent run of songs that opens Forever (it segues into the #1 song on our countdown), “For Heaven’s Sake” would have been at home on any great Wu-Tang album.

9. “School” from No Said Date (Masta Killa, RZA)

“Phat shoe laces and tri-colored sneakers, I stood like a man then I questioned my teacher: Why don’t we speak about the wisdom of the sages? And how did Europe black out in the dark ages? And when they got light did they white-wash the pages?…And why it seems that half the school is racist? She said ‘Diggs, to the office!’ We about faces.”

Masta Killa took forever and a day to put out a solo album, but when he finally dropped No Said Date it turned out to be a great disc. I particularly like this song, featuring great lyrics and tempo changes under RZA’s helm — the two MCs reminiscing about their days in school, aspiring to obtain the skills to outbattle their peers with rhymes and arguing with teachers about history. “Bbloop! School.”

8. “Jellyfish” from Fishscale (Ghostface, Cappadonna, Trife)

“Finicky thing, her kitten drink Poland Spring.”

This song is kind of ridiculous, but I love it anyway. Three MCs sing the praises of their respective special ladies. There’s some truly off-key crooning, some hilarious turns of phrase, and a sticky electric-organ-driven beat from MF DOOM. I can’t help but laugh every time Cappadonna sings “Let’s Get It On.” This song is nothing if not heartfelt, and I highly recommend it.

7. “Ice Water” from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (Ghostface, Cappadonna, Raekwon)

“My sweet tooth got a nigga throbbin’, ready for robbin’ — but first, hit Maria’s for a butter almond.”

Something about Raekwon’s entrance at the 2:35 mark of this track gets me improbably fired up. “Ice Water” is vintage Wu-Tang: the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and the combination of fierce MCing and original, raw production makes for a song well worth cranking up on your stereo. And I never get enough of tough street dudes name checking Tommy Hilfiger.

6. “Word on the Street” from Uncontrolled Substance (Inspectah Deck)

“The word on the street, this thing’s way beyond deep, promise me that you’ll keep your mouth closed and no leaks.”

Deck is an often-overlooked asset to the Wu — I wouldn’t call him the best MC in the crew, by a long shot, but he’s sort of like that great 6th man that you bring off the bench on a championship team. He does his own production on this track, raps solo, and sinks a clutch 3-pointer.

5. “Older Gods” from Wu-Tang Forever (Ghostface, Raekwon, GZA)

“Quick to spot those who bite, camouflage and blend. Those that got styles, they got identical twins.”

Wu-Tang Forever is an insanely good album that suffers, like many double albums, from a lack of editing. With close listening, you can boil it down to a dozen great tracks that would have benefited from less filler around them. “Older Gods” is one of those great songs — it’s every bit as good as the classic tracks from 36 Chambers. The group’s three best MCs attack this number in their own distinctive styles – Ghost taunting, GZA probing, Raekwon making moves. The refrain is particularly catchy in the distinctly non-commercial way that Wu-Tang does so well. Awesome track.

4. “Guillotine (Swordz)” from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (Deck, Ghostface, Raekwon, GZA)

“Fuck yeah! My crew down German beers! My career is based on guns, puttin’ cats in wheelchairs.” and “The nigga don’t get mad, I got mad styles of my own, and it’s shown when my hands grip the chrome microphone.”

The two verses above probably do a better job than I ever could at symbolizing what I love about Wu-Tang. On the one hand, there’s the violent braggadocio that evokes a Clint Eastwood movie, as put forth by Ghostface. On the other, there’s GZA’s placid lyricism, favoring displays of superior technique over threats of an ass kicking. These elements exist in perfect harmony on the best Wu-Tang tracks, as if John Wayne was starring in a Shakespeare play and it was awesome.

3. “I Can’t Wait” from Nigga Please (Ol’ Dirty Bastard)

“I give a shoutout to umm…ummm…myself!”

This is kind of an outlier, an ODB solo track on an album filled with non-Wu production (most prominently, some great work by the Neptunes). This Irv Gotti track, based around the TJ Hooker theme song, was for some reason an ideal stage for ODB, or as he calls himself in this song, “Big Baby Jesus.” This four minute track shows ODB at his most certifiable and charismatic. He goes from calm to full-on screaming in a matter of seconds, then adds peaceably, “Dirt Dog don’t mean to be rude.”

2. “4th Chamber” from Liquid Swords (Ghostface, Killah Priest, RZA, GZA)

“Ayo, camouflage chameleon, ninja scaling your building. No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children!”

GZA’s record Liquid Swords probably is the closest thing the group has done to 36 Chambers, and it’s packed front-to-back with amazing tracks that showcase all the group’s talents. This song may not have warranted release as a single, but it’s a damned tight track that features four great verses and a nasty, vintage RZA beat along with the de rigueur martial-arts movie sample. This is definitely the only song in history that references both King Cyrus and Manuel Noriega.

1. “Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours” from Wu-Tang Forever (Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface)

“City overrun by young gun with bad intention and Wu-Wear garment. So I see no need to mention the potency of a sting from a killa bee.”

This is pretty much everything you expect when you think of a Wu-Tang joint — a great song that doesn’t rely too heavily on a hook, features three excellent MCs and contains superb rapping that evokes a mood rather than trying to convey a message. Nobody listens to rap to be educated, they listen to it for the same reason that everyone listens to music — to nod your head to the beat and have a good time. This beat is more than up to the task. Raekwon opens this track in his trademark style, dropping references to gangsters and rhyming deftly. Method Man hasn’t figured too heavily on this countdown, having done his best work on 36 Chambers and other heavily-heard recordings, but this is one of his hidden gems, culminating in the exultant “Cash rules, STILL don’t nothing move but the money!”

The track ends with Ghostface rapping hard straight into a fadeout, leaving us with the impression that this elite rhyme session might have gone on forever.

BONUS TRACKS

There are so many good Wu-collaborations with other great musicians, it’s hard to pick just a few. Put a gun to my head and this is what I come up with.

DEEP CUTS INDEX

Al Green
The Beatles
Blur
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Danger Mouse
Fleetwood Mac
R.E.M.
Talking Heads
Ween
Wu-Tang Clan

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About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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