Many rap music purists cite the year 1996 as the end of a “Golden Era” for experimental sounds of the gritty boom-bap. The East Coast sounds that drew us so close to the era was the sound of the 808-bass drums with jazz-laden snares, hard rock guitars, or funky blues samples, high standards of lyrical prowess, mixed with soundbytes from ‘70s Blaxploitation films or excerpts from African-American civil rights activist’s speeches and cartoons, had long defined the East Coast sound since the late eighties. Also, the popularity of the West Coast thematic “G-funk” with whiny, melodic keyboards and syncopated hardcore rhyme styles that dominated the charts for the earlier part of the nineties decade had given way to the emergence of Southern rap. There also was a couple of civil wars in the hip hop industry. One being the media-perpetuated “East vs. West” coast artists, and catapulting the diss records for those within and outside of their respective regions. Millions of rap fans across the country began to help their comrades erect their own “Iowa Jima” style flags, standing firm for their respective regions and favorite artists according to the hype. The other civil war was between the emcees who posed as hardcore to “keep it real” in their videos and records, and the artists who mocked the regimented styles of those who exploited themselves as one who kept it real “hard to the core.”
The death of Tupac Shakur in September 1996 shook not only the hip hop world, but the music industry wholly to its core. Several rap artists would thereafter begin to follow the formula for successful records by recording eulogies about how they miss their dead homies, or predicting their own deaths like the immortalized Shakur had done in his music, drowning out fans with radio-friendly rap ballads about how they miss their Uncle Charles (y’all). Also, Southern rap that began to emerge that year, with groups such as The Dungeon Family headed by Outkast and Goodie Mob in Atlanta, Three 6 Mafia from Memphis, and then-local powerhouse labels like No Limit and Cash Money from New Orleans, Rap-A-Lot and Suave House from Houston began to popularize the Southern twang, tick-and-knock bass- sounds “bounce” and “screwed up” sounds from their cities, and created their own space on rap video shows and the rap sections in record stores. We also should not forget how hip hop soul was becoming a force to be reckoned with, as popular bubble-gum and hardcore hip hop artists alike would find successful runs for daytime video and radio airplay via collaborations with popular R&B artists. For all these reasons, crate digging rap junkies that upheld the torch for underground hip hop felt akin to DJ Shadow’s lament in his cover story “Why Hip Hop Sucks in 1996” in URB Magazine for the release of his debut album that year, Entroducing.
Yet like DJ Shadow, the release of debut albums from rap artists who eventually became legends (i.e. Jay-Z, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes), along with albums from stalwarts like Redman, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, Nas, Pete Rock, Too Short, Jeru The Damaja, Heltah Skeltah and OGC of the Boot Camp Clik, Outkast, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest to name a few made the music succumb to “Great Schism of Rap Music.” In other words, the imagery of artists from the popular artists from within these subgenres by music corporations that had their own urban divisions or distributed rap record labels for fans to identify themselves socially and fashionably with. In other words, rap fans became subjected to market segmentation: if you listened to Boot Camp Clik, Pete Rock, or Bahamadia, you were likely deemed by peers to wear a backpack, oversized camouflage pants, and a “wife-beater” tank top and had a unkempt afro or dreds; gangsta-rap fans, you were deemed a “gangsta” wearing Chuck Taylors on your feet, Dickies button-down shirt, and khaki pants with a cuff and a crease; or being “jiggy” showcasing a supposed bottomless wallet image to you peers with top designer lifestyle brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Nautica, and Versace.
The Wu Tang Clan’s image engulfed all of these images since their explosion into the 1993, and they came off of pivotals year of dominance in the East Coast rap scene with the release of their collective Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, leading member Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and The GZA’s Liquid Swords. Until the October 29th, 1996 release of Ironman, the only Wu Tang solo member album release that year, Ghostface Killah was not necessarily deemed as one of the more venerable or charismatic members by fans like Method Man, RZA, or ODB. Ghostface’s style was widely perceived as dramatic and boisterous with his flow featured on other Wu member albums, tracing his styles on the debut Wu Tang album. Fans of the Wu crew already knew Ghostface’s muscular vocal style from the Enter The Wu Tang debut, and knowledge of the drug trade from his collaboration with Raekwon on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… The cinematic crime scenarios plotted with his partner-in-rhyme Raekwon on “260” was also a continuation of the street saga on wax that was anything but dissimilar to the format of Raekwon’s debut. Although, the Ironman album also detailed a range of love for Blaxploitation and street films like Dolomite and Fresh, his creativity with his own shoe and clothing alterations on the Ironman album cover, and even a sober mentality to display his spirituality in “The Soul Controller” and “Black Jesus”. Ghostface Killah’s debut had been laced by RZA’s produced that ranged beats for dance rhythms for the ladies shake to and hard-rock dudes to pose hard holding their dicks while pantomiming the lyrics to on the opening cut “Iron Maiden.” From the end of the album’s opening skit, the beat to “Iron Maiden” felt like a car chase that you had no choice but to ride in the backseat of the getaway car once you pressed the Play button. The CD version of the album had of a Wu Tang emblem supplanted on the Ironman superhero body armor, and Ghostface’s battle rap prowess on songs like “Box In Hand” and “Fish” showcased his depth in poetry to live up to his adopted namesake. Also, songs with lyrical dexterity from the frequent featured verses of Cappadonna and Raekwon catered to slang-trading street and suburban kids to memorize songs like “Winter Warz,” “Faster Blade,” and “Daytona 500.” Single men got a chance to feel justified when hearing the breakup fight-theme to spite former lovers in “Wildflower,” and got to long for a new love connection with intimacy for valentines on “Camay.” We cannot forget the heartfelt appreciation to parents for all their struggle and hard work in keeping a stable household in the album’s most successful single “All That I Got Is You,” nor Ghostface’s aspirations to be recognized by the listening public and revered rap magazines that held court for giving out awards on “Poisonous Darts” and “After the Smoke Clears.” Tony Starks was able to show audiences that he was no longer a supporter of Raekwon’s rhymes, but could stand on his own and even eclipse his fellow Wu members. People tend to forget that Ghostface was the first person that Wu fans initially heard on the first song on “Bring The Ruckus” from Wu Tang Clan’s debut. Ironman made for great reason to show and prove why he was given the first verse to introduce his crew’s sound and ambitions to the world.
The Ironman debut had been encompassed all for rap fan of all the segmented subgenres and all regions of the US to visually enjoy whether via videos from the singles from the album, or audibly from the bass that blared from track to track. It was the last Wu solo album release that held fickle rap fans attention to await the second collective Wu Tang Forever album the following summer, and made people appreciate Ghostface as a man on a mission to uphold Wu Tang’s integrity in the market shift towards what rap purists perceived to have sucked for much of the rap music that was released. The point to remember the quality of rap music’s output reached a climactic boiling point that fans had never experienced from each end of the US, and there inevitably had to be a denouement for the genre musically. The coming of the Ironman album had prevented rap music from a crash landing, in the wake of corporate America finally giving a full embrace to the culture that served as important marketing tool to have their various goods and products dovetail with rapper’s images on television and records. Like the final song on the LP, this album had insured us all that Wu Tang will forever remain a brand and sound to marvel. -Dana Scott, @MUSENOMIX