I wasn't really surprised when you two guessed that I would be writing about The Swarm Volume 1, the the first
The overall idea of The Swarm Volume 1 made perfect sense back in the last millennium, and it still works today: just like any success story in our chosen genre, the Wu-Tang Clan begat numerous imitators, so the group fought back by actually endorsing imitators of their own choosing, some of which actually brought some talent and spark to the table (such as the Sunz Of Man and, to a lesser extent, Killarmy), while the others capitalized on having the logo on their back cover art while essentially wasting everyone's time (see: nearly every single other affiliate). The RZA formed the very cleverly named Wu-Tang Records to house the majority of these acts, some of whom actually received guidance and direction from The Abbott (or at least a few beats). As the Clan was the bees' knees back in the late 1990s, The RZA had no problem securing a distribution deal with Priority Records; he also had no problem drumming up interest in this compilation (stamping the front of the album with the promise of "All New Songs" probably helped a tiny bit).
The Wu-Tang Killa Bees that are being presented on this project include some of the acts the Wu stans were already familiar with: Sunz Of Man, Killarmy, and various members of the Clan itself make appearances, and The RZA handled a good portion of the beats. The project is notable, however, for introducing more than a few crews to the so-called masses who actually sought out the album (such as West Coast stalwarts Black Knights and North Star, Virginia duo Wu-Syndicate, and Jewish rapper Remedy, which would have seemed more impressive had I not already written about the dude), along with crews only tangentially related to the Wu (see: The Beggaz, Ruthless Bastards, A.I.G.) and, for good measure, former child star Shyheim. As expected, the intent was for the listener to be exposed to the lesser-known rappers, but of course, the most critically-acclaimed track from this compilation comes from Ghostface Killah (that would be "Cobra Clutch", which I'll get to in a minute).
The Swarm Volume 1 ended up being the first chapter in an unofficial trilogy (I say "unofficial" because the Wu has never acknowledged any plans on making a fourth entry, but they've also not ruled it out, either), and only a few of the newer groups on here lasted long enough to make it to the next one. Not a terrible batting average, but that's a story for another day.
The liner notes end with the following statement: "We thank you for your support and we are sure that this product will satisfy your taste." I'm not joking. This shit may as well have been sold on QVC. Which, now that I think about it, would have been fucking hilarious.
2. THE LEGACY (ROYAL FAM)
The Swarm Volume 1 kicks off with an error during the very first actual song: “The Legacy” is incorrectly billed to duo A.I.G. (who we'll get to in a bit), but is actually performed by Royal Fam, one of the better-known Wu-affiliate crews even though they've never released a real album to store shelves. And by “they”, I, or course, mean Timbo King, who wasn't the only member of the group but may as well have been, since he dominated the Royal Fam tracks just as he does “The Legacy”. The RZA's instrumental gets the job done but isn't very memorable; Timbo fares better with his verses, even though the overly-wordy hook grows tiresome when delivered by his gruff voice the second time around. A fair start, but not that great.
3. CONCRETE JUNGLE (SUNZ OF MAN FEAT. TIMBO KING)
Timbo King's influence spreads so far that it couldn't be contained to just “The Legacy”; the dude also contributes the opening (uncredited) verse to this Sunz Of Man track. After he gets that shit out of his system, he then allows Prodigal Sunn, Hell Razah, and a very melodic, Ol' Dirty Bastard-sounding 60 Second Assassin to take over the proceedings. (On-again off-again fourth member Killah Priest is nowhere to be found.) The RZA's instrumental is dope in every way that his work on “The Legacy” was not: it bangs, sounds like vintage Wu-Tang, and you walk away wishing that the song had lasted longer. Not bad.
4. CO-DEFENDANT (SHYHEIM FEAT. HELL RAZAH)
Although Shyheim Franklin had lost his child-rapper gimmick by the time The Swarm Volume 1 was released, it being a victim of a brutal war against puberty, he still managed to sound decent enough with his random, unsolicited boasts on the RZA-handled “Co-Defendant”, at least when compared to Sunz Of Man's Hell Razah, who comes across as awkward, either because of his choice for a collaborator or the fact that he wasn't ready for this kind of exposure (as “Co-Defendant” is the second song on The Swarm Volume 1 that he appears on). Prince Rakeem's instrumental is pretty solid: the slight hint of melody he provides helps the music to not sound all that repetitive. One is left wishing he had given the beat to better rappers, though.
5. S.O.S. (INSPECTAH DECK FEAT. STREETLIFE)
The first sighting of an actual member of the Wu-Tang Clan behind the microphone takes place on “S.O.S.”, which is both produced by and features Inspectah Deck. One of the earliest Rebel INS beats, it resembles The RZA's trademark darkness and dustiness more than it does any of Deck's other production work (read: the music sounds pretty good). Deck and Method Man's star weed carrier Streetlife trade verses, debating the best way to murder an adversary, apparently (the titular acronym is short for “Shoot On Sight”, or, to hew more closely to the actual song, “Shoot 'em On Sight”), but both men sound relaxed and confident with doing so, which was a plus. Still sounds pretty good today, although the soft chanting at the end was a bit cheesy.
6. EXECUTE THEM (RAEKWON, INSPECTAH DECK, STREETLIFE, & MASTA KILLA)
Streetlife and Inspectah Deck pop up on this track as well, contributing a hook and a verse, respectively, to The RZA's unsettling beat. Chef Raekwon appears to be the only guy brave enough to tackle the deranged guitar plucking: both Masta Killa (credited as “Mastakilla” in the liner notes, which actually looks kind of cool) and the Rebel INS perform over a far-more-conventional-yet-still-dope instrumental. This was the song I immediately gravitated toward when The Swarm Volume 1 first dropped, mostly because of the guest list, so I'm pleased to report that it still sounds pretty good using today's ears. Probably could have used some more input from the rest of the Clan, though.
7. BRONX WAR STORIES (A.I.G.)
A.I.G. (see? Told you we would get back to them) is a duo made up of Allah Wise and producer-slash-rapper Darkim Be Allah, who snuck their way onto The Swarm Volume 1 by means still unknown to me; maybe Darkim once carried The RZA's groceries to his car or something. “Bronx War Stories” is the first song on the project with no true redeeming value; probably not coincidentally, it's also the first track to feature Wu-affiliates that you probably weren't familiar with before purchasing the album. Neither artist sounds confident behind the mic, and Darkim's repetitive beat seems to be focused more on aping The RZA (or maybe True Master) than it is on actually, I don't know, entertaining someone. Meh.
8. AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (BOBBY DIGITAL FEAT. KILLARMY & METHOD MAN)
It's important to classify “And Justice For All” as a Bobby Digital track and not a proper RZA song, since Prince Rakeem's cartoonish superhero persona dominates throughout, from his long-ass, meandering verse to the shitty beat, which hardly sounds like it came from the mind of the same guy who produced anything by the Wu-Tang Clan. Killarmy's Islord, Killa Sin, and P.R. Terrorist represent the Wu's more militant cousins, with Islord's hook sounding fucking terrible; at least Sin walks away from this explosion looking good. The song also marks what will be the only time that P. Dom Pachinorist and Islord would appear on the same audio track with Method Man, who sounds kind of dumbfounded that he was left off of “Execute Them” and that this was his sole consolation prize. However, he does mention Killarmy during his verse, so at least he was fully aware that the group existed in the first place.
9. PUNISHMENT (BLACK KNIGHTS OF THE NORTH STAR)
After an overlong intro included solely to keep up the pretense of The Swarm Volume 1 following some sort of specific theme, the Mathematics beat kicks in and immediately grabs your attention, as it is easily one of the most simple and yet knocking-iest instrumentals on the entire project. “Punishment” features the Black Knights Of The North Star, a West Coast-based supergroup featuring the Black Knights (made up of Crisis, Doc Doom, The Rugged Monk, and, at one time, Holocaust) and North Star (the duo of Christ Bearer and Meko The Pharoah); I'm still trying to ascertain the whereabouts of “Of The”, who went missing shortly after this album hit store shelves. None of that shit really means anything, though, because the only thing you'll remember about “Punishment”, and the absolute best reason to remember this song, is the now-former Black Knights member Holocaust's opening verse, which handily rips everyone else on this track to shreds, he's that good.
10. BASTARDS (RUTHLESS BASTARDS)
A ballsy choice, mainly because The RZA saw fit to include a track on The Swarm Volume 1 that indirectly dissed the Wu-Tang Clan. The Ruthless Bastards (still a badass group name), made up of Apocalipps, Blizzard, Iron Mic, Sha Gotti, and some guy named Truck, utilize a Blaquesmiths-produced dark piano loop to stake their claim in this here rap game, but they overstep their boundaries and become ungrateful little shits, as whoever the hell delivers the final verse ends it with the line, “From the Stat[en Island] where I live at / The bees is snakes, and they just feed off the fucking rats”. As anyone with eyes or ears who pays attention to shit can tell you, the multiple interludes on this compilation, let alone its title and album cover, equate the Wu-Tang Clan and their friends to killer fucking bees. No wonder these fuckers never got anywhere in their careers. Oh, the song? Still pretty good. Why do you ask?
11. ON THE STRENGTH (THE BEGGAZ)
The Beggaz were one of the larger Wu-affiliated groups at one time, but they're a curious case, as they broke up shortly after the passing of one of their founding members, which happened right around the time The Swarm Volume 1 hit store shelves. As such, it isn't important to even know exactly who was in this group, so I won't bother listing the names here. I will say that everyone sounded competent (if indistinguishable from one another), and Bolo's Kitchen's piano-loop instrumental (the second of its type in a row) wasn't bad. Still, even Wu-Tang history buffs will find it difficult to justify me wasting this much ink on a group that ceased to exist almost immediately upon impact.
12. COBRA CLUTCH (GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
The Swarm Volume 1 was released around the same time that the hip hop world was noticing Ghostface Killah's skill behind the microphone; “Cobra Clutch”, a collaboration with producer Allah Mathematics, figured heavily into Pretty Toney's success with his sophomore effort, Supreme Clientele (released two years later) and beyond. Ghost's two verses are witty, nonsensical, and contagious: the only real problem I have with “Cobra Clutch” is the repetitive beat, which still wasn't even all that bad. I wish Math had seen fit to play around with the music a bit, but it's hard to make that request of a song that was committed to wax approximately fourteen fucking years ago.
13. NEVER AGAIN (REMEDY)
As I've written before, “Never Again”, possibly one of the only rap songs written about the horrors of the Holocaust, is Remedy's signature song, a fact that the artist himself obviously believes to be true as well, as this is only the second of at least three projects on which the track appears. His instrumental still sounds dark, oddly uplifting, and depressing, as befitting the subject matter, and even when appearing within the context of a glorified Wu-Tang Records label sampler, Remedy's song (if not the man himself) still stands out. A triumph of the human spirit, or at least for Ross Fuller, anyway. Speaking of the Holocaust, I've always wondered if Remedy has ever had any kind of working relationship with the dude from the Black Knights with the same name. Why? No reason.
14. WHERE WAS HEAVEN (WU-SYNDICATES)
Wu-Syndicate is a Virginia-based dip made up of Joe Mafia and Myalansky, who focus on street tales and cocaine lore. Sound familiar? Well, Joey and Mya apparently hate the shit out of the Clipse, so they would appreciate it if you refrained from making the obvious comparison. Considering the critical (if not commercial) acclaim Pusha T and No Malice have found in the rap game, a bit of jealousy is to be expected. DJ Devastator's instrumental on here is cheesy as shit, as it seems to have been crafted solely to tug at heartstrings. But Myalansky's performance, which dominates the song, is actually really fucking good: thanks to his clear, concise delivery, you actually feel the man's pain and root for him to succeed. Huh.
15. '97 MENTALITY (CAPPADONNA FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
These days, when I write about an artist unleashing a Cappadonna “Winter Warz”-esque long-as-fuck verse, I'm not usually talking about Cappadonna himself, but that's exactly what the gypsy cab driver does on “'97 Mentality”; in fact, some of his bars sound so similar to his work on “Winter Warz” that I believe you could swap out the instrumentals and the songs could still work. “'97 Mentality” is hardly what you would call a song: Cappa rhymes for over two minutes straight (even getting in what could be misconstrued as potshots aimed directly at both the Flipmode Squad and the Def Squad, which is weird, considering the frequent collaborations Busta Rhymes and Redman have recorded with various members of the Clan), and then guest star Ghostface Killah drops by to spit a hook, apparently not having realized that the song itself was already over. The RZA”s repetitive loop never truly approximates the “burial ground sound” that Cappa speaks so highly of during the intro: it was okay, but I found it much more annoying today than I did back in 1998. Actually, that last sentence could also apply to my feelings for “'97 Mentality” as a whole.
16. FATAL STING (BLACK KNIGHTS OF THE NORTH STAR)
A weird way to end the project, as this sting is more of a mild aggravation than anything resembling fatal. The combined forces of the Black Knights and North Star join up once again over a decent Mathematics loop, but Holocaust, easily the breakout star of The Swarm Volume 1, is nowhere to be found, and the track itself seems to be incomplete, with long pauses between verses that could have easily housed a shitty-but-well-intentioned hook. Perhaps The RZA was approaching a deadline and had to take what he could get, but ending The Swarm Volume 1 with the unfinished adventures of Christ Bearer, Crisis, Doc Doom, and Monk makes Wu-Tang Records seem line a broke-ass amateur label run out of his garage. Sigh.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Since this is really more of a compilation than a cohesive album, bullshit interludes notwithstanding, it's not fair to judge The Swarm Volume 1 on those particular terms. However, just like most actual real albums, it's fairly scattershot, with only some of the tracks connecting, while a few of them evaporate from your consciousness immediately. Wu stans who somehow are unaware of this project's existence will sop this shit up with a biscuit, however, and that's due to its overall darker tone (back in 1998, the Wu wallowed in gloom and doom, at least with their grimy sound) and the production decisions that The RZA and Allah Mathematics (who is the only Wu-Element to lend a hand, regardless of what the liner notes say) made; they do their best to craft beats that allow the artists involved to get lost in the vibe, which apparently helps rappers feel comfortable enough to actually sound decent. The tracks from the outside Wu affiliates, which were all simply submitted to The RZA as opposed to being created under his watchful eye, vary in quality, but while there are mistakes being made, most of them are still interesting enough to warrant a spin or two. In short, The Swarm Volume 1 may be for Wu stans, who should use the links scattered throughout to buy it already and make Max some money, but some of the rest of you two may find some hidden gems that you wouldn't have heard otherwise.
BUY OR BURN? As mentioned above, you should buy this one. The whole "killer bee" theme gets old fairly quickly, but the music held up surprisingly well.
BEST TRACKS: “Punishment”; “Cobra Clutch”; “Execute Them”; “Never Again”