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Wu-Tang Clan

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After a tumultuous recent history which has seen its members incarcerated, dropped from record labels and at odds with one another, pioneering hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan will embark on what is said to be its final tour next year, Billboard.com can reveal. The 60-city outing will likely get underway in May or June, coinciding with Riverhead Books' release of the comprehensive group history, "The Wu-Tang Manual."

EDebuting in 1993 with the seminal classic, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Staten Island's WU-TANG CLAN's-RZA, GZA/Genius, Old Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa-introduced the world to a rhyme syndicate vacuum packed with ping-ponging emotion, larger-than-life personalities, eccentric genius, around-the-way commonality, urban gravitas and brooding menace. It wasn't long before the Clan reshaped the hip-hop industry in their own image; seemingly overnight, multiple aliases, the super-group motif, the new vision of a solo album, the contracts for solo artists, the family-orientation and countless other Wu-inventions became staples of the rap game. Nine years later, trends have changed, rap families have formed and broken up, movements have come and go, the Sun has set on countless crews, and labels have fallen off, but-after selling over 15 million copies of their own albums in the U.S. alone-the WU-TANG CLAN is still here. "Money could never break us up," says Ghostface Killah. Adds U-God: "We've made money together, we've made money separately and we still come back together."

Hip-hop's first family is back together again for their fourth album, the superb WU-TANG IRON FLAG, which comes a year after 2000's critically acclaimed, platinum selling The W. "This is the first time we ever came back [with a follow-up group album] in a year's time," notes Clan head and producer, the inimitable RZA. "I think the fans out there really need and love the brotherhood that we share. I think it's important for kids and other artists to always see us banding together. When we come together, we come together for a cause, and that cause is to show that united we must stand."

Ghostface is a bit more blunt: "If there is a message to this album, it's that we the kings of this shit." And U-God agrees. "This album was made to show who's the greatest," he says.

WU-TANG IRON FLAG, the crew's first album to be recorded in New York in almost a decade (1997's Wu-Tang Forever and last year's The W were recorded in Los Angeles), is a blend of idiosyncratic noise from collages of atonal sounds and anti-rhythmic tendencies. The first single serviced to mix show DJ's only, "Pinky Ring (Uzi)" is a reintroduction to the Clan's witty, unpredictable talent and natural game, creates music from splices of jubilant horns. "In the Hood" is authentic ghetto reportage aided by the sounds of sirens, gunshots, and truck horns. "Soul Power (Black Jungle)," which features Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, is powered by ambient conversation, a lilting flute and African drums. The freestyle assault "Radioactive (Four Assassins)" rides on frequency modulations, snake rattles and a lopsided drum pattern.

"As artists, we got to experiment with the music," says U-God. "We ain't just gonna cater to one sound and have that be Wu. We're global so for us to stay with one particular sound, we can't do that. Come out we sounding the same every time? We ain't them type of niggas."

On …IRON FLAG, the WTC also experiment, for the first time, with outside producers. "On The W album, we had a lot of emcees, so with this album we thought, 'Let's get a few producers and break bread with them,'" says RZA. "We don't need nobody and don't nobody need us, but it's like a respect thing. We respect what other brothers accomplish and we thought we should let them know that."

Super-producers the Trackmasters create a sickly soulful lick on "Back in the Game," which features the sublime crooning of Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers. The RZA-produced "Chrome Wheels" is a blast of vintage West Coast riding music. RZA also expands his already vast arsenal by making reclined bluesy jazz on the socially aware "Babies." "When I first made the beat, I knew I needed Ghost, Deck, and Rae to rip it. And they just ripped it."

Lyrically, the Clan is supposed to represent-and they do. Where many rap crews share one flow, WU-TANG members come together like fruit cocktail-there's Ghostface's emotional roller coasters, U-God's word cubes, Method Man's ring-around-the-rosy twirls, RZA's breathless pearl necklaces, Inspectah Deck's metaphoric house of cards . . . and the list goes on. And anything is fair game for a rhyme topic-lions, tigers, bears, friends, Romans, countrymen, stars and garters can make their way onto a Wu rhyme at any given moment.

"Brothers gotta understand that WU-TANG is not gonna keep on saying the same things," says Raekwon. Wu-Tang Iron Flag comes amid a flurry of WU-TANG activity. "We flooding them right now," says Ghostface Killah, whose Bulletproof Wallets was released in November. December 2001, will also see the release of Method Man and Redman's "How High" movie and soundtrack. RZA's Bobby Digital in Stereo was released in August, while Raekwon's RAGU and the incarcerated Old Dirty Bastard's The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones are set for releases in March 2002.

"As long as we stand together and represent this WU-TANG sound, no matter how many artists come and sell 5, 10 million records, we're still a reliable source of information," says RZA. " But if we waited another 2 or 3 years, the kids may not even have any idea of what we're trying to inject. I feel sorry for a lot of people out there because we've been real humble and real passive over the years, but right now the uzi's back and you're gonna hear that."

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