1. July 1, 1991, RZA belly-flops as a solo artist
In the early '90s, an unheralded new act named Prince Rakeem lamented his woeful fate on the single and video "Ooh I Love You Rakeem." The problem? It appears women just couldn't get enough of Rakeem's rugged charm. He had too many ladies, and he needed to learn to say "no." What pimply, virginal rap fan couldn't relate? Yet somehow "Ooh I Love You Rakeem" failed to find an audience. Prince Rakeem disappeared, only to be reborn, Phoenix-style, as RZA, the diabolical producer and mastermind behind Wu-Tang Clan. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. November 9, 1993: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) marks a new era in hip-hop
The Wu-Tang Clan's monster debut hit hip-hop and pop culture with the impact of a dozen atom bombs. It introduced not just a radically different new sound and style, but an entire universe for listeners to get lost in, complete with a dazzling array of larger-than-life characters, an elaborate mythology, and geek-friendly nods to comic books, martial-arts flicks, blaxploitation movies, and black pulp fiction. Hip-hop and the world at large were never the same again.
3. 1995: Wu-Tang goes pop, part 1 (ODB and Mariah)
In 1995, pristine pop princess Mariah Carey was hungry for hip-hop credibility. So she hooked up with a producer who epitomized glossy slickness (Diddy) and a rapper who embodied scuzzy rawness (Ol' Dirty Bastard) for the remix to "Fantasy." As ODB unforgettably screeched, he and Mariah did, in fact, go together like babies and pacifiers; the Ol' Dirty dog was no liar, and kept the fantasy hot like fiya.
4. 1995: Wu-Tang goes pop, part 2 (Meth and Mary)
Love songs don't get much darker than Method Man's "You're All I Need To Get By," a track that embraces romantic love as a bulwark against a hostile outside world. For the remix, Diddy once again lucratively fused grime and pop by adding superstar R&B songstress Mary J. Blige to the mix. Blige's contribution to the song made sense both commercially and creatively: Few artists convey pain and longing as movingly. But it nevertheless marked the beginning of a debilitating embrace of the mainstream on Meth's part, leading inevitably to deodorant commercials, cheesy sitcoms, supporting roles in Soul Plane and My Baby's Daddy, and musical obsolescence.
5. August 1, 1995: Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx marks the apex of Wu-Tang's golden age
After the release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA holed up in a studio lair where he produced damn near every track on every Wu-Tang solo album. The result was a sustained burst of creative brilliance, a mad rush of ingenuity and invention that led to a string of Wu-Tang classics. RZA's beat mastery reached its pinnacle with Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which combined Wu-Tang grime with Raekwon's fetish for Godfather flash, while solidifying Raekwon and Ghostface's standing as one of rap's most dynamic duos.
6. June 3, 1997: The golden age ends with the release of Wu-Tang Forever
Wu-Tang Forever is the textbook disappointing follow-up to a seminal debut. It's bigger without being better, and bloated with self-indulgence and filler. Moments of brilliance remain, but the focus and hunger of the group's first album is lost. The two-disc set was still a monster commercially, but Forever marked the end of Wu-Tang's golden age. RZA adopted a more hands-off approach to Wu-Tang solo albums, farming out production duties to a succession of sound-alike producers. Quality control suffered. Wu-Tang members like Raekwon, who triumphed with their debuts, released follow-ups that were ignored at best, and mocked at worst.
7. February 28, 1998: Ol' Dirty Bastard upstages Shawn Colvin
For a while, ODB was the soul not just of the Wu-Tang Clan, but of hip-hop as a whole—a beloved court jester who represented the id run joyously amok. During the 1998 Grammy Awards, ODB proved his genius for making a spectacle of himself was unparalleled when he interrupted Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech to drunkenly rant about how "Wu-Tang is for the children!", a statement seemingly at odds with the parental-advisory labels affixed to damn near every Wu-Tang release.
8. March 3, 2000: Birth of a film composer: Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai drops
While RZA's career as a rapper and producer gets less interesting with every passing year, his composing career got off to a rousing start with his atmospheric score for Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, a film whose central culture clash owes much to RZA's loopy oeuvre. The disc's soundtrack somewhat surprisingly crossed over to the NPR demographic, paving the way both for RZA's sample-crazy Kill Bill score and for his unforgettable appearance alongside GZA and Bill "Groundhog Day Ghost-Bustin' Ass" Murray in Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes.
9. February 8, 2000: Ghostface releases Supreme Clientele
Ghostface Killah's 2000 Ironman follow-up was the first Wu-Tang Clan solo album in ages to generate the kind of fevered buzz that greeted nearly every pre-Forever release. Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and RZA streaked out of the gate much faster, but Ghostface Killah is the only Wu-Tang member who's exhibited staying power.
10. December 18, 2001: Wu-Tang responds to 9/11
On "Rules," a standout track from the Clan's indifferently received fourth album, Iron Flag, Ghostface Killah defiantly proclaims, "Together we stand / Divided we fall / Sit down, Mr. Bush, I'm in charge of the war!" In spite of Ghost's bold announcement, Bush ultimately chose the safe route, appointing the usual brigade of generals and advisors to head up the war effort rather than eccentric rappers/bathrobe enthusiasts.
11. November 13, 2004: Ol' Dirty Bastard dies
After a marathon stint of flamboyantly bad behavior that included being arrested in a McDonald's parking lot, escaping a drug-treatment facility only to show up at a Wu-Tang gig, and enduring an extended prison stint, Ol' Dirty Bastard died of what was later revealed as an accidental overdose of cocaine and prescription painkillers.
12. March 28, 2006: Ghostface releases Fishscale
After hooking up with powerhouse label Def Jam and releasing 2004's stellar but strangely Wu-Tang-free The Pretty Toney Album, Ghostface Killah inspired Cuban Linx flashbacks with his fifth solo album, Fishscale. It's a masterful tour de force that combines the rugged, grimy, cinematic essence and ultra-vivid storytelling of early Wu-Tang with the dusty beat mastery of wizards like Just Blaze, Pete Rock and MF Doom. Suddenly, The Wu-Tang looked like it could be ascending all over again.