Clan Rally

Can Iron Flag reestablish the deposed kings of hip-hop? Just ask Masta Killa.

The Wu is back.

The Wu wishes it didn't have to remind you.

The Wu does, though, and the Wu will.

Protect ya neck, kids: The Wu-Tang Clan -- a nine-man hip-hop hydra head from the slums of Staten Island -- is vying to rule a rap landscape it once dominated.

Let us hark back to 1993, when the group's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), hit like a largemouth bass to the face. Primary weapons: old kung-fu movie samples, disembodied piano lines, macabre beats and a dense, endlessly verbose stream of lyrical profundity. The crew -- GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa and producer/de facto leader RZA -- terrified you, even as its cocksure bravado rubbed off on you.

But the Wu could use some of that mojo back. The ensuing decade has diluted its power: Wu-Tang Forever, 1997's double-disc follow-up to Enter the Wu-Tang, was convoluted and unfocused, a feeling that still lingered when 2000's remarkably more manageable The W began the unenviable task of pulling the Wu's fans back in.

Plus, the group's as fractured as ever -- the absence of ODB, currently (and famously) in the pokey on drug charges, robs the group of its invaluable comic relief/free spirit.

If it's a comeback, then, it's a tough one. Still, the group's latest, Iron Flag, is a tough record, brazenly approaching the covert/overt mission of reestablishing the Wu as the dominant force in hip-hop. Clearly, the group is trying to reassert itself.

"No. Never," says Masta Killa, ringing in from the Iron Flag tour. "Wu-Tang has always been consistent. There's no reason to reassert ourselves. Our fans still love us. People are still here. You just gotta keep workin'."

Does Iron Flag contradict him? Yes. The phrase "The Wu is back" makes frequent appearances, particularly on "Uzi (Pinky Ring)," the groovy, horn-blasted lead single. Lately in interviews, some members openly compare themselves to prizefighters seeking to reclaim their belts.

It's a comeback record. Shhhhhhh.

But not that kind of comeback record. Much intellectual hay has been made of "Rules," a fractured-funk track that helps launch Iron Flag and contains perhaps the first high-profile hip-hop rhymes to address the September 11 terrorist attacks. Ghostface Killah thunders thus: "Who the fuck knocked our buildings down?/Who the man behind the World Trade massacre?/Step up now/Where the four planes at? . . . Fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits."

Don't read too much into that. Asking Masta Killa if September 11 has inspired any reevaluation of the Wu's message, lyrics or artistic credo is a good way to inspire a rant.

"People lose family every fuckin' day," he says. "I'm sorry for those families, but yo: There's many tragedies, man. September 11, September 11, September 11. I lost family members. That's not printed. People don't know about that shit. Shit been happenin' to my people for years. People should let them mourn and let things go on in peace. It's all about life, man. You know?"

Instead of grieving, then, the Wu aims to soothe its hometown by reconnecting with it. Gritty, grimy tracks like "In the Hood" and "Babies" abound on Iron Flag, powered by both lyrical and clearly audible gunshots.

That's balanced with a somewhat flashier, more West Coast-style sound -- horns, bombast, massive grooves, cooing female vocalists robustly encouraging you to "bang that shit retarded." And you will. Unless you'd rather not. Your choice. The Wu gives you plenty of them.

Everyone in the group, with the exception of Masta Killa, has dropped at least one solo album. And many of those records -- GZA's Liquid Swords and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, for instance -- have tore shit up all by their lonesome. The Wu market is thus constantly flooded. Aren't they afraid of burning out?

"When you're an artist, it's hard to spread yourself too thin," says Masta Killa, who's dropping his own solo debut later this year. "You got nine artists in one group. Everybody's capable of at least goin' gold. So, it's like 'burning out?' You get tired of Dirty, there's Meth. You get tired of Meth, there's Ghost. And I ain't even punched y'all in y'all faces yet."

Still, Masta Killa occupies the Wu's hypothetical "second tier" -- along with U-God, Deck, and Genius -- which consists of the members who lack the ubiquity and star power of an RZA, a Meth or an ODB. But don't worry about it. Killa certainly doesn't.

"I'm very capable of comin' off the bench and scoring 50," he asserts. "I can dunk. I can shoot threes. But that's not what was needed. They needed a point guard. Someone to come down and just give an assist. So that's what I been doin'. But the world knows I'm very capable of scoring 50 very easily. It's like an all-star team, man."

But it's an all-star team without a lot of heat in the hip-hop world nowadays, particularly with the Nas/Jay-Z battle raging on. Killa dismisses the overblown feud as standard industry practice.

"That's how hip-hop has been since my knowledge of hip-hop," he says. "I love the sport, the art of hip-hop, but I wouldn't disrespect anyone to the point of making him feel other than a man. You might say, 'Damn, Masta Killa tore your ass up in that battle,' but you know, that's just music. I wouldn't talk about your mother, your wife, no shit like that. Whatever you do, there's always lines you shouldn't cross, regardless. That's just respect."

Are Nas and Jay-Z crossing that line? Don't ask Masta. He's got his own message.

"Long as that shit don't come on toward me and none of my Iron Flag brothers, yo: It'll be all right," Killa says, both chuckling and raising his voice in anger. "'Cause I know nobody out there -- no groups, nothin' -- will never survive comin' through my brothers. You won't survive."

You tell him the Wu ain't back.

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