I think I speak for all suburban white children of the 90s when I say we never had any idea what the Wu Tang Clan was talking about. Sure, we liked their idiosyncratic stylings, but it’s not like we had Clue #1 what the organizational framework or meaning of their lyrics was.
Most rap at the time was about killing people, dealing drugs, or drinking Cristal in a helicopter. Wu Tang featured some of that, but they really specialized in vaguely mystical conjuring and an obsession with kung-fu movies.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard was particularly confusing. I never knew what the hell he was talking about, but he exuded a type of street preacher charm that defied logic and — to a certain degree — analysis.
However, this article in Slate answers some questions. A review of a new biography of ODB by Jaime Lowe, the article sheds some light on the upbringing that informed the rapper’s early life. Turns out he was born into a sort of urban religious cult that fused equal parts mysticism and pure crazy:
Born Russell Jones in Brooklyn in 1968, Dirty got the Five Percent knowledge from his cousin Popa Wu—the knowledge, that is, that there is no “mystery God” or supernatural deity, that the black man is the father of civilization and his own God, and that the human race breaks down into three percentages: the ignorant herd (85 percent), the exploiters (10 percent), and the enlightened (5 percent). Ornamenting these dogmas was the homegrown freemasonry of the Supreme Mathematics—a series of mystically interrelated numbers, letters, and verbal formulae on which the initiate would be tested and retested. The young Dirty must have been a devout student: Even at his mental nadir, decades later, the lessons stuck. “He could be high as hell,” ODB sidekick Buddha Monk tells Lowe, “and someone would ask him what’s today’s mathematics and he would know.”
That kind of thing was exactly what the Wu Tang Clan was built around:
Nine killer MCs pickled in late-night kung fu flicks, chess lore, Marvel comics, street life, weed cabbalism, and NGE slang eschatology—a hip-hop Middle Earth, with its own legends and grades of being. No other crew could match the sorcerous allure, the smoky Dungeons & Dragons vibe curling off those minimal Wu-Tang beats. “I lived in at least ten different projects,” wrote RZA in The Wu-Tang Manual, “and I got to see that the projects are a science project, in the same way that a prison is a science project. … And in comics, when a science project goes wrong, it produces monsters. Or superheroes.”
ODB’s adherence to quasi-religious folklore was evidenced in Wu Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck,” in which ODB references a story told by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad that “an evil scientist called Mr. Yacub created the white race by having his nurses stick needles in the brains of black babies.”
Under ordinary circumstances, goofy tenets like this are either frightening or outright comical. In the mind of ODB, though (he was diagnosed schizophrenic long after it would have done him any good) they congealed into a cacophony of outlandish lyrics governed by their own logic.
Or maybe he was just a crazy person shouting aggressive funny things into a microphone.
No Father to His Style [Slate]