Wu, as they say, is life. It’s hard to underestimate just how important the Wu-Tang Clan were to the evolution of hip-hop as we know it today. Concepts like ‘hardcore hip-hop’ and ‘posse cuts’ had been firmly established within the genre. Still, the late 1980s East Coast hip-hop world was populated mainly by alternative groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, groups that were softened and more palatable.
Meanwhile, out in Compton, California, a new group brought a harder, more aggressive, and more streetwise version of hip-hop into the mainstream. To call N.W.A. controversial would be underselling it: this was a group whose most famous song was a direct attack on the police and got them a disapproving letter from the FBI as well as causing chaos and riots whenever they rolled into town. Never before had anyone in hip-hop inspired so much zeal, fuelled so much public rage, and attracted so much wanted and unwanted attention. The future of hip-hop was now on the West Coast, and so began a footrace to be the most authentic group possible. Wu-Tang Clan have a rich history but a richer discography.
The Wu-Tang Clan didn’t need to prove their authenticity to anybody. They were a collection of friends and family members from the Stapleton Houses projects of Staten Island; the Wu created their own world of ‘Shaolin’, complete with violent altercations, drugs, chess, and kung fu references. Stepping into their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) felt like stepping into an alternate universe, with its murky production and radical verses that found nine MCs, all bringing a different style to the fore. This is the eternal appeal of Wu.
As a nine-piece ensemble, they decided to record their first single. Every single thing necessary to make, promote and distribute was done by the crew and paid for out of their own pockets with RZA producing the track. From their various illegal sources of cash, the clan saved $300. With this, they booked a day at Boerum Hill studio, The Firehouse.
Again having to save and get money where they could, the crew took themselves to a Staten Island pressing plant to press twelve-inch vinyl. The vinyl had three versions of this song. They drove around Staten Island with the records and visited every hip-hop record shop in the tri-state area to sell their record on a sale or return basis. Furthermore, the crew contacted local underground radio stations and small clubs to promote the record. With the crew doing this across New York and the surrounding states before they knew it, Loud Records were asking to sign them.
Method Man once admitted in an interview that ‘Protect Ya Neck’ was wholly funded through the selling of crack. Costing around $900 in total to record and press-up, the rapper unveiled that each crew member had to give RZA $100. Talking to Complex Magazine, the rapper stated, “Ni**as was hustling on the block at the time, so $100 was like sell ten cracks and you in.”
‘Protect Ya Neck’ was the world’s first taste of the Wu-Tang, and everybody became hooked. Listen to the isolated vocals for that classic song below.