Hip-hop acts have come and gone in the 15 years since the Wu-Tang Clan exploded from Staten Island, N.Y., to overtake the rap world and influence popular culture with their now-legendary 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
So what keeps the Clan relevant? Hard work, said Raekwon, one of the original nine members of Wu-Tang.
"The secret to our longevity is basically just doing it, you know what I mean? We work together as a family, struggling through tough times toward shared goals. We work our asses off," he said via cell phone while on the group's current concert tour.
"A few of us built this dynasty from the foundation on up, and it's like we all participate in the struggle and the rewards together. It's designed for us to be able to go off on our own and then come back to the fold, just like a family."
And not all families get along all the time, Raekwon acknowledged.
"We're all human; we go through different changes. Sometimes we love each other; sometimes we hate each other, but we always respect each other--who we are and what we do commands respect from each other."
Wu-Tang has combined the innovative soundscapes handcrafted by producer-ringleader RZA with imagery borrowed from martial-arts movies, science-fiction/fantasy epics, mafia culture, street life and stoner humor. The collective was designed to highlight individual MCs in the group setting and allow them to follow solo career paths as well.
Some Wu-Tang members have branched out into clothing lines, movies and TV, owning businesses and, in RZA's case, the WuChess Web site, which is dedicated to promoting chess.
Wu-Tang Clan will play Monday night, Dec. 8, at the Rialto Theatre.
Raekwon confirmed that all the original members are on the current tour, except Method Man, who is on tour with longtime conspirator Redman, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004.
So, in addition to Raekwon, Wu-Tang fans can expect to see and hear GZA/Genius, U-God, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck and RZA, who brought his solo alter ego, Bobby Digital, to the Rialto this summer.
Raekwon demurred when asked whether any auxiliary Wu-Tang Clan members (of which there are a couple dozen, including breakout acts such as Cappadonna, Killah Priest and Bronze Nazareth) or any guest stars would show up.
"I really don't know who else will be there. I wouldn't want to say. Best let it be a surprise if it happens. Anybody's liable to pop up."
The individual members of Wu-Tang are involved in so many projects, some of them might not even be aware of each other's work. For instance, Raekwon said he wasn't aware of the latest album billed to Wu-Tang: Soundtracks From the Shaolin Temple, which was released Oct. 7, even though he appears on it.
"I don't know nothing about that. Is it something that RZA is working on?"
Indeed. The album is intended as the musical backdrop to RZA's first trip to China and to the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of modern-day kung fu. The package includes a 90-page booklet of photos documenting the journey.
The record is a sampler that includes some new tracks, some material already heard on Wu-Tang members' solo albums and music from guest artists such as Killa Beez, Jedi Mind Tricks, Cilvaringz, Hi-Tek and Mos Def. Raekwon appears on the track "My Piano."
Considering all the work he's been putting into his latest project, Raekwon might be forgiven for not being aware of everything Wu-Tang of late. He recently completed the long-awaited sequel to his explosive 1995 solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... , which is widely considered to be among the best Wu-Tang solo joints and one of the most influential hip-hop albums of the '90s.
It's also revered as one of the iconic signposts of gangsta rap, thanks to Rae's canny conflation of mafia culture and hip hop through vivid imagery, sly narrative and character studies.
Although he has released a few other solo albums in the intervening years, it was inevitable that Raekwon would revisit the themes and stories of that groundbreaking album. Thus, Only Built for Cuban Linx 2 is expected hit stores sometime in March 2009.
"The constant question I hear, ever since the first one, was, 'We want the rest of the story; we want the second one,'" he said.
"At the end of the day, you go into my stuff like it's a restaurant, and there's a lot to choose from that you want to eat," said the onetime cook who also goes by the alias Chef Raekwon, but was born Corey Woods 38 years ago.
"I've served up a few different dishes since Cuban Linx. And I've been hearing the last several years the demands of ya'll. It's about ya'll. This is what you want to taste now."
Raekwon was not shy when it came to singing the praises of his latest recording.
"This is a very important album, and one of the most highly anticipated projects in hip hop. I think we made a complete masterpiece. Everybody has been wanting to hear a new sound and a new flavor of hip hop, and I think we have done a remarkable job on that."
The most recent official Wu-Tang Clan album was 8 Diagrams, which dropped December 2007.
The experimental production on that album proves RZA still has the goods to blow hip-hop minds (despite a truly lame variation on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," featuring Erykah Badu, John Frusciante and Dhani Harrison).
The current tour is billed on the Wu-Tang Web site as the "8 Diagrams Tour," but Raekwon denied this.
"This is not the 8 Diagrams tour," he said. "This is a regular tour. It's just us promoting our upcoming projects and coming back to see our peoples. We may have taken more time getting back to ya'll than we wanted, but we appreciate everybody being patient 'til we can get to them. We'll be rolling to you now, sooner than you expect it."