I remember the summer of ‘95 for the Method Man.
Not that I was any kind of connoisseur or early-jumper to his bandwagon, not remotely. It will, I bet, fail to surprise you that as a kid of ten, going on eleven (and when you are ten, you are always going on eleven; this is preadolescent rhetoric 101) I spent a lot of energy aping the proclivities and opinions – musical and otherwise – of older kids. Specifically, my seventeen-year-old-cousin Shamek, who I doggedly trailed around Throggs Neck, a little peninsula hanging forgotten off the side of the Bronx, where our grandmother lived.
Sha and his friends were typical teenagers of that time and place, together a nearly undifferentiated blur of ski masks and Avirex jackets, Lugz boots and goggles tinted purposelessly yellow, each of them a lovingly-rendered impression of the Wu-Tang Clan’s breakout star.
Nobody needs another recounting of the Wu’s ingenious introductory rollout (Enter the Wu-Tang in ‘93; Method’s Tical in ‘94; solo efforts from ODB, Raekwon, and GZA in ‘95), but what I think broke the dam – again: in this place, with these people – was the Mary J. Blige-assisted remix of Meth’s “All I Need,” which to this day remains the standard by which I judge all pretenders to the “summer anthem” throne. The song was everywhere, welcomed in its omnipresence as it wafted through the barred windows of third-floor apartments, wailed out from sun-faded two-doors speeding down the hill on Dewey Avenue, spread out in attitudinal circles from boomboxes sitting next to the little grills that dotted the neighborhood like bugs or points on a map.
Nothing that summer was as good as the Method Man, and no group of wispy-bearded young men was as important as the Wu-Tang Clan.
There are many potential musico-social explanations for this Wu-Tang hegemony, but what strikes me now is that I’d never really heard anyone talk about Staten Island before. And once I’d had it described for me (once we’d had it described for us) it didn’t sound too different from Throggs Neck.
Throggs Neck, like Staten Island, is one of those far places in the City: Those two-fare phalanges come unscrewed from the skeleton of the subway. You can’t get anywhere anybody’s heard of without two, three modes of transportation and probably an effusive apology to whichever friend you’re trying to meet.
Besides the occasional drag race, it’s so quiet at night it’s almost country. You hear a voice or two, a tree dragging its leaves against a building.
Before the Wu, and before whatever came before the Wu (I don’t know; I still haven’t done the work) Staten Island’s South Shore was home to an enclave called Sandy Ground, one of the oldest American communities settled by free Blacks. In the eightyish years between 1827, when abolition was declared in New York State, and the very early 20th century, former slaves came from all over the East Coast, drawn by a growing oystering economy and the promise of a literal island of relief from the ravages of the human trade.
But the worst happened, as it does too often. Something went funny with the water off the Shore, and with the water went the oysters, and with the oysters went the neighborhood. A close-to-final blow came in 1963 – only three years before GZA, the oldest member of the Wu, was born – when a fire on the South Shore destroyed fifteen Sandy Ground houses.
Today, ten or so families on Sandy Ground can trace their roots back to the original settlers.
Eric Garner, a man whose gasped last words are now righteous fodder for protest chants and hashtags and T-shirts, lived in a neighborhood called Tompkinsville, on Staten Island’s North Shore, where most of the Island’s black population (largely heir to the Great Migration, not Sandy Ground) is concentrated today. Also on the North Shore sits Stapleton Houses, the public housing complex made famous by the Wu-Tang Clan, whose stairway echoes and rooftop breezes I swear you can hear behind each of RZA’s grit-flecked and super-syncopated early beats.
Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on a street named Victory, is a Staten Islander through and through: Just like Garner, just like the Wu. He went to high school locally, then breezed out of the College of Staten Island and directly into the PD.
He lives, and is probably at this moment holed up, afraid but alive, in Eltingville, on the same South Shore as Sandy Ground.
I have my theories about the artistic decline of East Coast rap, and one of them – perhaps the most important – is that the music somehow dislodged itself from place. Post-Puffy, mid-Jay, the industry in New York thought it could go “global,” but beauty is dilutable, and in art, a big tent is always empty underneath. The best creations in rap, the ones that perhaps paradoxically travel the farthest, evoke a time and a place, a specific tint through which to see the world. To lose, or intentionally discard, that particularity is to enact a kind of death.
This, I’m sorry to say, is what’s wrong with Wu-Tang’s newest album, A Better Tomorrow, dropped earlier this month. Instead of Staten Island’s secret places, behind the music hums the quiet of a studio booth, somewhere probably very nice. The production, while good, while still recognizably RZA, floats out into nowhere, into space.
But listen: what do I know? Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I just miss Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Still, this is what I’m beginning to believe: forgetful art can only be the product of a forgetful culture. A forgetful culture breeds forgetful people, and some forgetful people pass the test and become forgetful representatives of the state.
That, I fear, is where the danger begins.
On “Sandy Ground”.
“I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” by Method Man ft. Mary J. Blige.
Meth’s debut album, Tical.
“The video for the Wu-Tang Clan’s “A Better Tomorrow,” which uses footage from protests for Michael Brown and Eric Garner.