Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 010: Wu-Syndicate - "Bust a Slug"

Wu-Syndicate - "Bust a Slug" (Wu-Tang Records, 1999)

In my recent post on the Wu-Tang Clan and live instrumentation I wrote briefly about The Swarm, the first of three Wu-Tang Killa Bees compilations the illustrated the Wu brand’s diminishing returns in the late nineties and early 2000s.[1] There are some throwaways throughout The Swarm’s sixteen songs, but for the most part it’s a great introduction to many of the Killa Bees. Some of the artists who provided these highlights (The Beggaz, Ruthless Bastards) never got the chance to put out albums due to financial mismanagement at Wu-Tang Records, while others (Black Knights of the North Star, A.I.G.) never lived up to their potential on subsequent releases. None of the new artists featured on the record sounded like they could ever surpass the Clan, but a few of them carved out effective careers of their own, although some of these careers were extremely brief.

Wu-Syndicate fits this latter description exactly. The group self-released one single under the name Crhyme Syndicate in 1996, but it unsurprisingly didn’t get much attention.[2] Somehow, this 12” found its way into the hands of the RZA, who signed them to Wu-Tang Records in time to include the b-side “Where Wuz Heaven” on The Swarm. Produced by DJ Devastator, “Where Wuz Heaven” is a great slice of ghetto life story song with a plaintive guitar sample, a ghostly soul vocal sample on the chorus, and great rapping from Myalansky.[3] The group changed its name to Wu-Syndicate, presumably as a way of helping it get more attention by making its affiliation with the Clan more explicit.[4]

“Where Wuz Heaven” appeared two more times, first as the a-side on the first single credited to Wu-Syndicate and again as the seventh song on the group’s self-titled debut album, released on Wu-Tang Records in 1999. Wu-Syndicate is a good artifact of nineties New York street rap, but the group struggles in a few respects. First and most importantly, the group never fully transcends its direct influences. DJ Devastator, who handles most of the album’s production,[5] is so indebted to RZA and Havoc that his beats lack personality on many of the tracks, even when his production is quite good. Myalansky, Joe Mafia, and Napoleon (who isn’t listed on the album cover but is part of the group) are all good MCs, but like most of the second-string Killa Bees they don’t quite have the personality or distinct enough personalities to anchor a whole album. As a result, the album’s eighteen songs blend together after a while. When a Wu-Syndicate song pops up on shuffle, I almost never skip it, but when I put on the whole album it’s far too easy to tune it out. The second half of the album suffers more than the first by default, since Wu-Syndicate fatigue isn’t really a problem until after “Where Wuz Heaven” passes around the album’s midpoint. Still, there’s one extremely bright spot near the end of the album that demands attention even if you’ve lost interest in what Wu-Syndicate is serving up: “Bust a Slug,” the album’s second single.

For promotional purposes, “Bust a Slug” was a smart choice for the second single, since it’s both memorable and the polar opposite of “Where Wuz Heaven.” Taken together, these two songs illustrate the spectrum of material that can be found on Wu-Syndicate. “Bust a Slug,” and especially its chorus by Trigga, is heavily reminiscent of Capone-n-Noreaga’s The War Report from two years earlier. The drums knock in a way that makes head nodding compulsory while listening to the song. A string loop and an echoed guitar sample are layered on top of the drums, and the interplay between the two instruments, with one frequently dropping out to give space to the other, is great and keeps things from stagnating over the song’s four minute runtime. Joe Mafia handles the first verse, and it gets the song off to an entertaining start. Joe Mafia is great at conveying menace with almost no clarity in slightly inscrutable bars like “Kinetic, my word is all I have, slaughter trash/Monster mash, half ass on the war path/Suffer land, give a fuck, grand crashin’ the Pan Am/My squad Van Damme, the shit was suntan.” I get the mood and idea he’s trying to convey, but half of what he’s saying is nonsense, albeit very endearing nonsense. Guest rappers Trigga and Ill Knob follow, and their verses are full of the kind of internal rhyming and casual threats against others that make them fit well on a Wu-related release.[6] They aren’t the most memorable verses, but they don’t do anything to drag the song down either. Myalansky comes in for a long final verse that solidifies his place as the best rapper in Wu-Syndicate. Lines like “Yolk for the smoke, back room, medallion man croak/Now kneel, no jokes, get back, now take it, no damn moat,” delivered with the kind of urgency that Myalansky musters throughout all of Wu-Syndicate pegs him as the kind of rapper that should have escaped the Killa Bee ghetto. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the Wu-Syndicate never really made it further than their first album.

The b-side of the “Bust a Slug” single is a remix that is identical to the album version, except Trigga’s verse is replaced by short verses from Lord Superb and Ghostface. Ghostface rerecorded his verse the next year for use on “Wu Banga 101” from his second album Supreme Clientele, and the recording quality and energy level of the “Bust a Slug” version are noticeably lower than the “Wu Banga 101” version. While it’s a great verse, its tacked-on quality does a lot to show how the Clan failed the Killa Bees. Outside of RZA’s executive producer credit on Wu-Syndicate, Ghostface’s appearance on this remix is the only time a member of the Wu-Tang Clan was involved with a Wu-Syndicate song, and the lackluster recording and the later recycling of the verse show just how quickly the Clan’s dedication to most of their Killa Bee protégés faded in the couple of years after The Swarm. A lot of people blame the decline in quality of Wu-Tang releases and the dilution of the Wu-Tang brand after Wu-Tang Forever on the group members spreading themselves too thin. If the generals had been better at sustaining their dedication to fostering new artists and making them worthy of the Wu-Tang name, then the brand would likely have remained stronger.[7]

The group’s history in the decade after Wu-Syndicate came out is kind of hazy. At some point, they began feuding with the Wu-Tang Clan, presumably over the poor promotion and the lack of commercial success for their album. They left Wu-Tang Records, but were silent as a group for years after that. Joe Mafia put out a solo record in 2002, and Napoleon and Myalansky followed in 2007 and 2008 respectively. When a few group songs appeared here and there during the 2000s, they were credited to The Syndicate rather than Wu-Syndicate. Also, Myalansky and Napoleon had some kind of falling out, and while both still record with Joe Mafia, they won’t work with each other. Apparently either ending their dispute with the Clan or realizing that the Wu name is hugely beneficial to them, Joe Mafia and Myalansky reunited for a new Wu-Syndicate album Grimlenz in 2009.[8] Its impact was negligible outside of the Wu-Tang Corp message boards, and to be honest I haven’t listened to it. Still, their first album and “Bust a Slug” do a lot to illuminate the successes and failures of the Killa Bee explosion of the late nineties.

"Bust a Slug"

"Bust a Slug (Remix)"

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Att Will
Cashless Society
Black Attack

[1] The Swarm was followed by The Sting in 2002, which had a few good songs but is one of the least essential Wu-Tang releases from the first half of the 2000s, the weakest period in the twenty year Wu history by a wide margin. The Swarm Part 3: Pollen followed in 2010, and it’s terrible. Stay away.
[2] I can see what they were going for with this name, but it does not look good on paper. The a-side of their one single was confusingly named “Crime Cyndakit,” and I can’t tell why they went with that particular spelling. Unlike the Boot Camp Clik, the guys in Wu-Syndicate have never been masters of artful misspelling.
[3] The DJ Devastator beat was good enough that it earned him a production credit on Raekwon’s 1999 album Immobilarity.
[4] They weren’t the only ones to do this. When they made their first appearance on Wu-Tang affiliate Shyheim’s second album in 1996, Gladiator Posse was credited as GP Wu. They changed their name to GP the Grain after they began an ill-advised feud with the Clan soon after they put out their first album. Also, Killarmy’s great first single was titled “Wu-Renegades,” which probably helped the song get a little extra attention from radio and MTV/BET/Music Video Box.
[5] Allah Mathematics, who is arguably the most consistent and lasting producer of the Wu-Elements (which includes 4th Disciple, True Master, and others), also contributes a few beats, as does Smokin’ Joe.
[6] These verses could also be slipped into a song from Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, Capone-n-Noreaga’s The War Report, or Kool G Rap’s 4, 5, 6 without interrupting the flow of those albums.
[7] And picking new artists that were worth fostering, fort that matter. Sunz of Man, Killarmy, and Wu-Syndicate deserved more energy, while American Cream Team and T.M.F. were never really worthy of the push that some Clan members gave them.
[8] Still with the weird spelling choices.

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