There are some Hip-Hop instrumentals that demand respect from the very moment you hear their first bar. Beats that are immortalised and will always command the attention of the space they occupy. Those who can proclaim themselves as architects of these works of art are far and few between – respected names like DJ Premier, Pharrell and Just Blaze immediately come to mind. But as with any art form, some heroes go unsung. Despite producing the bulk of each and every Wu-Tang Clan album since 1993 (with even the unique anomaly of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin being a fair assumption), RZA’s name is far more scarce in discussions than any of the aforementioned producers.
Picking your favourite Wu-Tang beat is like picking your favourite child and for many of them, dissertations could be written. But one in particular carries an extra dose of historical context that for the most part has gone by unnoticed. ‘Triumph’.
‘Triumph’ is special in a number of ways. For one, it is the highest charting Wu-Tang single in the US to date with a peak of #6 on Billboard’s weekly Hot Rap Songs list. But more importantly, as the first offering from their second album, it killed any rumours of a sophomore slump and was the reintroduction to the Wu, establishing them as a dominant force on radio as well as for their core Hip-Hop supporters worldwide. Not to mention the fact that it contained vocals from every single member of the group plus one. “We did the impossible,” RZA told VIBE in 2005, “we got a six-minute song on the radio.” It was unheard of.
RZA crafted the beat at 5AM in the 36 Chamberz Studio and later mixed it in LA, likely ignorant of the fact that he was crafting a masterpiece and a sound for the ages. Poetically, somewhere down south in a remote town called Fayetteville, a 12-year-old was watching his older cousin from Louisiana rap and he wanted in.
The only lyrics he’d written to date were a few lines when he felt obliged to commemorate the death of 2Pac. Naturally, it would take him a few years to develop his own style, start producing his own music and for the hunger to share his verses to grow. By the time he was 17, he was officially a starving artist. That’s around when he joined a website called Canibus Central named after one of his favourite rappers where under the username ‘blaza’, he’d sometimes record and sometimes type out verses for other users on the forum to discuss. By this time, Wu-Tang were four albums deep and a decade strong with a legacy cemented.
Verbal exchanges in Hip-Hop were not uncommon in the early 2000s, even if they took place on message boards rather than an underground cipher. This was largely by virtue of the Wu who constructed their songs as if they were recordings from the grimiest of rap battles. ‘Triumph’ is an ample illustration of this, with no chorus to its name and the only pause between verses being a slick interlude from the late ODB. Some of the group even finish their verses a few bars early for the next MC to take over and do the same, a concept later mastered and refined in 2011 on Hell: The Sequel.
As a result of competitive music like the Wu’s, just after the new millennium Canibus Central became a hub for aspiring rappers to post music, anticipating raw and honest feedback and even participate in tournaments against each other. One of the older rappers on the site was from Houston, Texas and went by the moniker Ravenous. He took on an OG role, schooling the youngsters, whether they cared to be schooled or not. Naturally, he and blaza (whose rap name was Therapist), quickly recognised as one of the best “amateur rappers” on the site, would soon clash.
First came ‘The Youngin’, a six and a half minute diss (where admittedly the final 60 seconds was all instrumental) over Canibus’ ‘Watch Who U Beef Wit’ where Ravenous described himself as “a pervert who battle little kids for kicks”. He left no stone unturned, unleashing an onslaught of verbal ammunition on Therapist’s crooked teeth and absent father amongst many other topics. Whether he wanted to or not, a reply from Therapist was mandatory.
An opportunity to bomb atomically presented itself and Therapist picked his instrumental wisely.
Over his version of ‘Triumph’ which was only appropriately titled ‘The Elderly’, Therapist did just as much damage as Ravenous in half the time. “How can I call you a has been? You never have been” is a personal favourite. For an 18-year-old to do the beat justice is more than praiseworthy, especially when he had just started rapping during its inception. 10 years on from that battle, Therapist (now known as J. Cole by the way) freestyled over the ‘Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit’ instrumental for what it’s safe to say was a slightly larger audience on Funkmaster Flex’s show. Around that time he also jumped on another Wu classic, ‘It’s Yourz’. But it’s a different freestyle on a different radio station in a different country that brings this story full circle.
Long before he could even think of selling out The O2 Arena, J. Cole was in London in 2010 for a very brief visit on Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 show. Before doing a run-of-the-mill interview where he talked about the usual Drake comparisons and being signed to Jay Z, he let off three verses to show his gratitude of being let on the show last minute. The verses are still among his finest and were later revealed to be from Friday Night Light cuts but the genuinely awe-inspiring thing to take away is that Westwood, seven years after an online battle which he had absolutely no knowledge of, picked the ‘Triumph’ instrumental for Cole to rap to.
Seven years on from then, here we are. Being able to admire journeys like these is a thing of beauty. ‘Triumph’ was track number two on disc number two of album number two, Wu-Tang Forever. Today, that album turns 20-years-old. Let us rejoice in celebrating the Hip-Hop group which was, is and always will be a voice for millions. Just as they did with Cole, Wu-Tang will continue to inspire the generations of fans and rappers to come and this is just one example of their classic album’s reach. Happy birthday.
– by Akaash Sharma