At the height of Wu mania, between 1993 and 1997, the opinion prevailed among the hip-hop public that this could get even bigger than it already was. These Killa Bees that crawled out of every crevice in Staten Island and Brooklyn seemed to move ahead with a swarm intelligence that would invariably lead to nothing less than world domination, at least until said world would come crashing down on December 31st 1999. As it turned out, “Wu-Tang Forever” was as big as it got. Perhaps more precisely, it was one of the reasons it didn’t get bigger.
When they first formed sometime between ’94 and ’95, Sunz of Man were a reincarnation of a group named Da Last Future, which comprised Hell Razah and 7th Ambassador (a/k/a Zodiac Killah) and later expanded to include Prodigal Sunn, Killah Priest and Shabazz The Disciple (a/k/a Scientific Shabazz). Hell Razah had been recording tracks since the early ’90s (then calling himself Rampage or Rated-X), inspired by his older brother Tray-Bag, a Red Hook Houses pioneer (“At a Jam”, 1987), and with the assistance of producer Supreme/Su-Preme. The persistence and skill that he brought into the group cast him in a leading role. While personal connections facilitated Razah’s entrance into the game (in addition to Tray-Bag being his brother, Bed-Stuy rapper/producer/radio host Vandy C was his cousin), the fact that Prodigal Sunn and 60 Second Assassin were, respectively, cousins of RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, established actual family ties between Sunz of Man and the Wu-Tang Clan.
As a crew, they plotted their ascent meticulously with three singles on Wu-Tang Records (“Soldiers of Darkness” b/w “Five Arch Angels”, “No Love Without Hate” and “Bloody Choices”). They reinforced the impression of an imminent global Wu takeover via collaborations with Killarmy (9th Prince and Killa Sin guested on “Soldiers of Darkness”, Prodigal Sunn and Hell Razah returned the favor on “Wake Up”). Killah Priest (with founding member Shabazz The Disciple) was on the Gravediggaz’ “Diary of a Madman” and “Graveyard Chamber” and Prodigal Sunn was part of the historic transatlantic team-up “La Saga” with Marseille’s IAM. Last but not least, three Sunz of Man members checked in for “Protect Ya Neck II” (on Ol’ Dirty’s first album).
An album tentatively titled “Nothing New Under the Sun” was planned for 1996 in partnership with Priority Records, but it wasn’t until 1998 that “The Last Shall Be First” saw the light of day (with another distributor), coming behind the similarly delayed Killah Priest solo debut “Heavy Mental”. Promotion lauded them as ‘The most anticipated offspring of the Wu-Tang Clan’, and even though the wait had stalled their momentum, Sunz of Man were expected to be the Wu ‘offspring’ most likely to succeed in regards to creating a legacy of their own.
Official hits are a minor indicator for a rap act’s impact, but in 1998 the stars had begun to align for the genre in such a way that even a group with a ‘hellraiser’ and a ‘killer priest’ (or is it ‘priest killer’?) in its lineup was probed for hit potential. “Shining Star” was the album’s designated hit. Falling into Wylclef Jean’s hitmaker period, it bears no small resemblance to another unlikely pop success from the same year – “Ghetto Supastar (This Is What You Are)” featuring Pras, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mya. “Shining Star” too was blessed by the exuberant antics of the incomparable ODB, but the R&B half of the equation had a much higher profile than “Ghetto Supastar”. Instead of a newcomer voice, it featured Earth, Wind & Fire personally attending this remake of their 1975 Billboard number 1.
It was not to be. Despite giving an universally beloved tune ‘a makeover for the millennium’ (Billboard), “Shining Star” didn’t chart anywhere, not even in the typically highly receptive (of US R&B and rap) New Zealand market, and neither in Germany, where the single was advertised with a TV commercial. The Wu legions still ensured that “The Last Shall Be First” cracked the top 20 of the album charts at home. Why “Shining Star” never gained traction is unclear – with the video flying the star-spangled banner and a rock guitar sounding its theme song, nonetheless -, but some might hold the opinion that it was because it dared to speak of higher values than capitalism, consumerism and celebrity. In the words of Hell Razah:
“For all my shining stars
from here to L.A. to Mars
Growin’ up in the ghetto when times is hard
No matter where you are, you a child of God
Born as a king, not a slave for jobs
There’s much more to life than to drink at bars
large bank accounts and these fancy cars”
The name of the group and their album would perhaps suggest that they primarily shared Christian beliefs. This was not the case. Prodigal Sunn and 60 Second Assassin were very likely associated with the Nation of Gods and Earths and Hell Razah and Killah Priest are hip-hop’s most prominent mouthpieces of the Black Hebrew Israelites ideology. Both are very much fringe positions (existing completely outside of Islam and Judaism) who preach that God has a plan for the descendants of Africans brought to America against their will. (Both persuasians are also sadly susceptible to anti-Semitism.) Despite differing beliefs, Sunz of Man make it a point to find common ground (of which Christian references are also a part, see Hell Razah namedropping Lazarus and John the Baptist within a few bars). “We all came from the same throne”, they establish in “Cold”, as Prodigal Sunn adds, “I represent for the ladies and gents, delinquents and peasants”.
By the same logic, Sunz of Man have a common enemy. “The Last Shall Be First” is renegade rap of the highest order, for once because it’s not a diatribe from a lone wolf but a joint effort and secondly because it’s more than just underground rappers railing against the industry. They engage in that as well, surprisingly informed warning their peers about the rap game on “Illusions”:
“Next thing you know they got a nigga dancin’
Chancin’ him out of his advancements
And how y’all gonna pay back these back taxes?
This ain’t healthy for your assets
It’s like your face done been bashed in
Your career ain’t happenin’
after monkey wrenches and forked tongues been stabbed in”
There is raw emotion in this album’s vocals, which to some degree substitutes technical nuances. Another aspect is that the listener can be under the impression that the MC’s speak in riddles. Were it not for Hell Razah, who excels at both vocabulary and how to use it to get his thoughts across, “The Last Shall Be First” would dissolve into a meandering stream of incoherent rhymes. This was an issue with the Wu-Tang Clan as well, but each clansman possessed a specific charisma and a class that was his own, while 60 Second Assassin’s and Prodigal Sunn’s verses here are often inarticulate and sometimes even unintelligible.
But “The Last Shall Be First” is about something else than rap skills. It’s about people and opinions being voiced that normally wouldn’t be heard if the powers that be really exerted full control over the rap game (they do not). This was about ‘the last’ entertaining the possiblility they could one day be ‘the first’. It was an act of mental liberation, perhaps not as effective as Brand Nubian’s “One For All” or Public Enemy’s “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” or dead prez’ “Let’s Get Free”, but with no less urgency. Also of importance was that this was a group where multiple voices work towards the same goal.
So a sense of inclusivity permeates Sunz of Man’s debut, again best illustrated by Razah, who’s sincerely “teachin’ harlots that be strippin’ for they garments” and vows, “Regardless to who your god is / I’ll still feed you food for your conscience”. Killah Priest, the member with the highest profile, doesn’t partake in this as much, failing to appear on “Shining Star” and indulging in some rather violent fantasies.
Ultimately, where the Wu classics were richly decorated yet highly organized, “The Last…” has a hard time getting into gear with its seemingly random sequence of vocalists and production of varying quality. More than once you catch one of the rappers squeezing words in just because there’s space left. Like the LP as a whole, several tracks drag on. “The Grandz” goes on and on as if they simply forgot to turn the music off. On the upside, this particular track, as riotous as it comes across, transports a sense of community and Sunz of Man’s longing to overcome the misery, Sunn grumbling “F**k the drug-dealing!” three times.
There’s simply a lot going on this record. A Juice Crew-inspired “Next Up” with Method Man. A track called “Five Arch Angels” that turns out not to be the pre-album track of the same name but an abrupt album closer. A noteworthy True Master cameo where he sounds like GZA and observes “still dissident factions within the kingdom”. Kung-fu flick samples. Bizarre production choices. Shitty drums. At least one abysmal RZA beat. An exasperated Hell Razah again and again driving his point home. Resignation. Protest. Spiritual vibes rising above loads of banter.
Gravediggaz, Killarmy and GP Wu all had more concise releases in ’97. “The Last Shall Be First” may appear busy but it’s still bogged down by monotonous stretches. Self-contained pre-album songs like “Soldiers of Darkness” or “No Love Without Hate” (both singles with videos) would have fortified the album’s ties to the Wu-Tang legacy. While Killah Priest is preoccupied with scenarios of revenge, Hell Razah shoulders the lyrical responsibility. If they had several MC’s this fluent, Sunz of Man could have been the rap group to bring light to the dark, without so much as resorting to bigotry or proselytizing. Considering Tray-Bag (here credited as Trebag) was at one point slated to be part of Sunz of Man, his powerful showings on “Israeli News” and “Natural High” (just like Priest’s engaging verses on “The Plan” and “Israeli News”) hint at what could have been. The same goes for Supreme’s diminished role as a producer, since he’s responsible for two of the best beats.
Yet even as you weigh the expectations against how Sunz of Man delivered on them, their debut remains an essential release in the Wu saga. When they say, “We gotta form a huddle”, they sometimes actually come out of it with a clear strategy in terms of battle formation, forming tag teams in “Tribulations”, penning impactful verses for the intended crossover single “Shining Star”, or taking turns singing the hook on “Israeli News” before they go into their individual verses. Indeed the vocal performance may be the album’s strongest suit, including teasers like the old school hip-hop harmonizing in “Natural High” or the “New York, New York” references by 60 Second Assassin in “Illusions”. Not to mention the second single, “The Plan”, where a supreme Ann Peebles vocal sample inspires passionate performances.
In conclusion, Sunz of Man remained a group in the shadow of the Wu-Tang Clan that, partially by their own doing, wasn’t able to escape from said shadow, even as “The Last Shall Be First” got a lot of things right, particularly the singles. It was released at the tail end of an era where rap albums with a message were standard, and for those eager to learn about hip-hop history, it certainly can’t hurt to revisit this particular record.