Wu-Tang Clan. Loud Records promotional photo, photographer unknown, 1993. Courtesy, Pete Nice
Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA once said, “Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx, but it came of age in Staten Island.” Though Staten Island is the only one of the five boroughs of New York City not connected to the others via subway system, it is linked another way: through a shared spirit of hustle. The borough was all ears to the new sounds of the City in the ’80s and ’90s—especially in Stapleton, birthplace of Staten Island hip-hop. Those were rough times for the area, but as hip-hop history dictates, artistic innovation comes from the streets and the drive to create can emerge from difficult circumstances. This is the story of Staten Island writ large, the home base of one of the greatest rap collectives of all time: Wu-Tang Clan.
Read on for more about Staten Island’s role in the culture and how the Wu-Tang helped cement the borough’s place in hip-hop history.
Who Is from Staten Island?
Composed of an eclectic group of artists with many affiliates, Wu-Tang Clan features 10 core members, most of them hailing from Staten Island: RZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Method Man, U-God, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB), who passed away in 2004. The group created a mythology of their hometown, which they refer to as “Shaolin,” devising a uniquely rugged sound and a well-considered vision for everything from their philosophy toward life to the merchandise they sell. While all members of the crew have gone on to enjoy successful solo careers, extending the Staten Island influence over the genre, few new borough artists have been able to rise to the group’s level of acclaim.
RZA, the Wu-Tang’s de facto leader, believes being geographically separated from other parts of the City gave the Staten Islanders an original perspective and cultural identity. As he told Lit Hub, “Staten Island was the type of place that had its own style; where our slang became isolated; [where] we had our own thing.”
That included concocting a mythos influenced by the Chinese kung fu movies that captivated RZA as a boy. Beyond the fighting, the message of brotherhood implicit in the action films appealed to the young artist, who made upholding and defending community the cornerstone of his philosophy. In that same Lit Hub article, he said, “Films like The 36th Chamber...show a foreign government oppressing the local people. You see people defending their nationality, joining the revolution.”
The response to their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—the title an amalgamation of the kung fu films Enter the Dragon and 36 Chambers—launched the young upstarts to the top of the charts and into the consciousness of hip-hop fans everywhere. Inspired by the Wu-Tang’s impact, locals started calling the island Shaolin, referring to the Shaolin Temple in China, the birthplace of kung fu. The group’s sound resonated with many fans looking for a more combative strain of NYC hip-hop to stand up to the hardcore West Coast sound, which was then eclipsing New York’s “conscious rap.”
Over the Years
Before the Wu-Tang Clan, local group Force MDs (briefly the Force MCs) bridged hip-hop and R&B with a string of tunes in the 1980s, including songs that appeared in the hip-hop movies Rappin’ and Krush Groove. Rapper Lord Shafiyq enjoyed brief success with his 1987 single “My Mic Is on Fire,” bringing some renown to Staten Island. And around the same time that the Wu-Tang got its start, the United MCs had two chart-topping hip-hop singles from their 1991 album, Fruits of Nature. Haas G, a member of the group, turned to producing and scored a hit with the classic “Magic Stick” by Lil’ Kim featuring 50 Cent.
But after the Wu-Tang’s debut, the borough was officially on the hip-hop map. The group’s impact is difficult to overstate. Over the course of seven studio albums and innumerable side and solo projects, Wu-Tang Clan has become part of America’s cultural lexicon. The artists have worked with fellow NYC rappers Nas, Mobb Deep, Busta Rhymes and a host of others; they’ve appeared in films, television series and documentaries; they’ve produced clothing, footwear and accessories in collaboration with the likes of Nike and Alife; they’ve starred in video games and comic books; and they even came to the attention of the US government after the last album they produced, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, was seized by the Fed. Only one physical copy was created—with no streaming or downloading available—which was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, the infamous “pharma bro.” When Shkreli’s assets were taken to fulfill a $7.4 million penalty judgment for securities fraud, the album was among them. (It was later sold for $4 million to a cryptocurrency group.)
There have been plenty of producers, writers, DJs and other hip-hop figures from Staten Island over the years, including DJ Drewski, DJ Megatron and Mack Wilds, best known for “Own It,” whose video is partially shot on Staten Island. But the biggest group of rappers to come out of the borough since the Wu-Tang is the Wu-Tang’s second generation. 2nd Generation Wu features iNTeLL, the son of U-God; PXWER, son of Method Man; Sun God, son of Ghostface Killah; and Young Dirty Bastard, son of ODB.
Staten Island Ferry. Photo: Jen Davis
Pockets of Hip-Hop Culture
Due to the borough’s lack of subway connection to rest of the City, many people travel to and from the island on the free, 24-hour ferry. This has made it a meeting ground for all types, especially late at night, when the ferry would be full of artists and entrepreneurs and offer them the chance to make connections.
The neighborhood that used to be Wu-Tang’s stomping grounds is now Staten Island’s official Wu-Tang Clan District. During a formal ceremony in 2019, the City unveiled the sign on the corner where they got their start. Despite their long and successful careers, members of the Wu-Tang were still touched by this recognition in their hometown. “I never saw this coming,” said Ghostface. “I knew we were some ill MCs, but I didn’t know that we’d take it this far.” The intersection above is also close to the start of the route RZA said he would frequently take as a kid walking from the Stapleton to Park Hill housing developments.
Where Hip-Hop Culture Can Be Felt Today
In 2018, November 9 was officially declared Wu-Tang Day in Staten Island, 25 years after the release of their groundbreaking LP, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album, considered one of the best hip-hop records of all time, introduced the world to still-classic tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” and was also commemorated on the anniversary with the release of For the Children, a short film about the LP.
What started out as an online designer coffee brand now has its flagship brick-and-mortar location in the rapper’s hometown. In the shop, the walls are lined with tributes to Wu-Tang.
Wu-Tang Clan Mural. Photo: Nicholas Knight
At 112 Canal Street, in Wu-Tang Clan’s home neighborhood of Stapleton, the group is immortalized in a mural. The artists, Projectivity and Will Power, said that the art piece was created with no grants or city funding, and is “purely for the love of hip-hop culture.” In a neighborhood that’s nearly synonymous with the hip-hop group, it’s fitting that there is finally an artistic tribute to the musicians who created the culture.
Shaw-Naé’s House. Photo: José A. Alvarado Jr.
Aside from being a delicious soul food restaurant, Shaw-Nae’s House is a community center and a deep part of Staten Island’s hip-hop culture. Shaw-Nae Dixon is a self-taught cook who learned from her grandmother. Now she is a chef and friend to the stars, including Cappadonna, Method Man, RZA and Raekwon, as well as local radio personalities Angie Martinez and Charlamagne tha God.
Located in Rosebank, close to the heart of Wu-Tang territory, this well-loved restaurant is known for its New Orleans cuisine, performances and events where local artists and hip-hop fans gather.
Here is a selection of songs by Staten Island-based hip-hop artists that provide a sampling of how the genre has evolved.
Lord Shafiyq, “My Mic Is on Fire”
Mack Wilds, “Own It”
Wu-Tang Clan, “Bring da Ruckus”
Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M.”
Wu-Tang Clan, “Can It Be All So Simple”
Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah, “Heaven & Hell”
GZA, “Liquid Swords”
Raekwon featuring Method Man, Ghostface Killah & Cappadonna, “Ice Cream”
2nd Generation Wu, “Royal Genetics”
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