Show Hide image

The new age of great power politics

With China, India and Russia on the rise and Western confidence shaken, how should Britain navigate this new and dangerous world?

It was in 2004 that the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington – best known for his thesis about the coming “clash of civilisations” – coined the phrase “Davos man” to describe a “global superclass” of economic transnationals, many of whom convened at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland each January. These “dead souls”, who made their fortunes through the globalisation of the international economy, had “little need for national loyalty”, viewed state boundaries as “obstacles that thankfully are vanishing” and saw national governments as “residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”.

After the end of the Cold War, Davos man had every reason to think he was on the right side of history. He (or she) was likely to be a talented and successful individual, boasting skills for which there was a global demand. What concerned Huntington was the extent to which the Davos understanding of the world had captured the minds of many in the international political class, in a way that was incompatible with the worldviews of a large number of those whom they claimed to represent. This was particularly the case in the West, where elite faith in globalisation as the vehicle for domestic social progress and the soothing of tensions between great power rivals verged on the cultish. Away from Davos, most people still held on tenaciously to national or local identities that they felt were under threat. Thus began the malign creep of “unrepresentative democracy”, reflected in the growing divide between a cosmopolitan upper crust and the average voter, that would come back to bite before long. Even on home turf, the foundations of the “liberal international order” were not quite so strong as they seemed.

In 2016 – the year of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory – it was often said we were witnessing the beginnings of the end for Davos man, and the fraying of the liberal international order which was so central to his existence. No sooner had Brexit slapped him on one cheek than Trump delivered a forceful hook to his jaw. The magpie-like mind of Steve Bannon, before he fell from grace as the apostle of the Trumpian revolution, regurgitated an abridged version of Huntington’s script in his railing against the liberal international elite. The naked economic nationalism of the Trump presidential campaign and inauguration speech broke from decades of an American-led international consensus about the benefits of free trade.

Two of the nations that had evangelised most about the liberal international order, the United States and the United Kingdom, seemed to lose their faith in its durability (and perhaps even its desirability). Even many of those who continued to value the citadel that had been built after 1945 believed that it was time to raise the draw-bridge, fill the moat and man the ramparts. Citizens of nowhere – a phrase that Huntington adapted from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations before Theresa May’s speechwriters got their hands on it – had their notice served. Absent the US as its guarantor, what would this mean for the rules-based international system that was supposed to be the great offering of the post-Cold War Western Belle Époque?

At last year’s Davos meeting, in the teeth of Trump’s assault on many of these precious ideals, the globalist crown was momentarily placed atop the head of Xi Jinping of China. In his keynote address, the president quoted Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and rebuked the “America first” rhetoric emanating from across the Pacific. So it was left to the head of China’s Communist Party to make a spirited defence of the long-term benefits of economic globalisation in promoting harmony and prosperity across the world. This still left the position of “leader of the free world” vacant, given that Trump seemed to be breaking with decades of Western consensus, on issues from climate change to moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The title was first offered to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who demurred politely. She had not sought such responsibility and Germany had, in any case, much better things to spend its money on than the bottom-line Nato requirement for defence (2 per cent of GDP).

Since then, with a general foreign policy malaise setting in among the other contenders, one could be forgiven for thinking that France’s Emmanuel Macron has been auditioning for the role by leading the way on climate change; developing a robust line on Russia; and getting out ahead on a range of issues from the Kurdish question, to the Gulf, and trade with China.



Outside the West, to state the obvious, such manoeuvring seems rather less important. This year, Xi did not turn up at Davos, even if Chinese state media credited him for influencing the conference theme, “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”. Instead, he sent his right-hand man, the Harvard-educated economist Liu He, to represent him. Attendance figures tell a story about for whom Davos really matters. The country with by far the greatest presence was the United States, providing an astonishing 26.5 per cent of all delegates. Next came the UK, at 9 per cent, which was about the same number as India and China combined.

In lieu of Xi, this year President Trump was invited to deliver the most eagerly awaited speech of the forum. He made much of strong figures on the stock market, which hit record highs in his first year in office. Employment is another strong suit for Trumponomics, with a reported two million jobs created. The broader story is more complicated. Many are predicting a stock market wobble in the coming months. Overall growth has slowed, remaining shy of Trump’s own target of 3 per cent, let alone the 4 per cent that some electoral strategists think is essential to give him a chance of re-election. The stock market wobble that some feared was on the horizon has now begun and it is unclear where or when it will end. Nonetheless, the apparent robustness of the American economy is a reminder, if one was needed, that capitalism can smell pungent and appear grossly deformed, while being apparently full of vigour at the same time.

There is an ugly reality about the emerging new world order but it is a reality that must be confronted, nonetheless. As president, Trump has proved to be even more ogreish than he appeared on the campaign trail, notwithstanding the mild softening of tone in the recent State of the Union address. So many taboos and conventions have been broken (he recently traduced Britain’s NHS) that it is far from inevitable that future aspirants for high office will try to raise the bar back up again, as opposed to muddying themselves in an effort to
squirm under it.

At the same time, however, Trump has also succeeded in trapping many of his most vocal critics in a pantomime of his own creation. In a seemingly interminable weekly cycle, he sets the bait with some new puerile fulmination and watches as the outrage against him flashes and then burns out. There is a whiff of the Stanford Prison Experiment in the entrapment of the liberal mind. The great moment of contrition that followed the US presidential election – when liberals recognised the full scale of alienation of many voters and promised to try to “understand” their exasperation with established centre-left screeds – is in danger of passing by, leaving little more than a few faint lines in the sand, to be washed away as the tide of the next election cycle begins to come in.


The current political atmosphere does not lend itself to cool-headed deliberations on the future. The Western self-confidence that was so prevalent at the end of the Cold War has been replaced by an intellectual virus of internalised angst. Some of the weakening of the Western model of progress is self-inflicted; much of it is the product of immovable historical forces such as the rising population and wealth of Asia. It is right to take stock of these changes. But the pendulum should not swing so far the other way – that we see every development through the lens of decay and decline, or simply interpret the world solely through our own travails. 

Twelve months after Trump’s inauguration, it is fair to ask a broader question: what, in material terms, has changed in global politics in the first year of his presidency? The answer is that the world does not revolve around Trump, but he does embody a profound shift in the atmosphere. There is a sharpening of elbows (and, in some cases, knives) in many of the world’s most powerful capitals, with implications for prosperity and security. An age of relative equipoise between the world’s major powers is ebbing away into an era in which inter-state competition will be more nakedly pursued.

There are three principal theatres of great power competition where these trends are most pronounced. The first is the growing superpower tensions between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region. Talk of “peaceful rise” (the humbler version of Chinese statecraft associated with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao) or “co-existence” (an ideal for Sino-American relations preferred by Henry Kissinger) is no longer de rigueur. Instead, we have heard much about the so-called Thucydides trap where a rising and an established power collide, often leading to war.

This dynamic affects the foreign policies of every other actor in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Nations such as the Philippines and even Australia – both long-term allies of the United States – are forced to ask themselves whether they might be living in a world in which China is pre-eminent within a few decades. While China combines pressure and charm to influence traditional American allies, the United States renames the region the “Indo-Pacific” and has made it a strategic priority to deepen its alliance with India, the area’s other major rising power, with which it had poor relations during
the Cold War. 

The second region increasingly defined by heightened great power conflict is the Middle East. With the United States in retreat from the region, others have sought to fill the void, notably Russia and Iran. Both have acted decisively to assert their influence in micro-conflicts and civil wars, from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Yemen.

In response to the opportunism of their enemies, other actors are trying to claw back some advantage. This category includes Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a bloody civil war in neighbouring Yemen, from where missiles have already been fired at its capital, Riyadh, and where it sees the hand of Iran.

Turkey has also begun a military campaign in Syria against the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the Kurdish-Syrian group that has been emboldened by being the West’s most useful ally in the fight against Islamic State. Russia claims that Nato-supplied weapons have been used to attack Turkish troops. An estimated 90 per cent of Turks believe that the United States is encouraging Kurdish separatism in Turkey itself.

Third, and not least, major concerns about the security and stability of Europe have reached a level not seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Just as America sought to downgrade the importance of Europe as a strategic theatre, as it turned towards Asia-Pacific, so a resurgent Russia recognised the opportunity to press home its advantage in Europe. Increasingly, Moscow has exerted its weight in unconventional ways. This includes a concerted effort to pollute the Western democratic process and to master the “grey zones” on its traditional frontiers. This has been trailed effectively in Ukraine with maskirovka – tactics that include the use of proxies, masking, camouflage, deception and decoy operations, stopping short of open war. There is also evidence of growing interference in the Baltic states through hacking and concerted misinformation campaigns to stress-test Nato defences.


In some respects, the fundamental challenge facing Trump is very similar to that articulated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The current administration must rebalance America’s diplomatic and military priorities without leaving itself at a significant disadvantage as soon as it turns its head elsewhere.  

As such, the negativity towards Nato has been gradually toned down, even if Trump remains unmistakably grudging about the disproportionate burden placed upon America for European defence (much as his predecessors have been). Equally important, the “blob” (as the US foreign policy establishment has now become known) remains firmly resistant to Trump’s radicalism on America’s carefully constructed alliance system.

Last June, the US House of Representatives endorsed by an overwhelming margin (423 to 4 votes) a bipartisan resolution reaffirming the commitment of the United States to Nato’s Article 5, the collective defence clause that holds that an attack on one member is an attack on all. In September, the Senate also approved the sending of lethal aid to Ukraine – new defence contracts have already been signed off the back of this – which indicated an escalation of the counter-campaign against Russia there. In real terms, the US army has actually increased its footprint and investment in Europe over the last year, across the Nato frontier.

Another European fear about Trump has also yet to be realised. Much alarm was caused by his condemnation of the 2015 nuclear agreement reached between the P5+1 and the Iranian regime. Thus far, the deal remains in place. In late January, secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that he would send a delegation of state department officials to Europe to see if the terms could be improved. Without question, North Korea remains the challenge most likely to see the Trump era defined by war. The costs of a military intervention against the regime remain prohibitive on many levels, but there is growing evidence that the American national security machine (specifically the National Security Council) is seriously considering the idea of a “bloody nose” or “limited strike”.

And yet, at this juncture, when everything is stripped down to the bare bones, even some of Trump’s most forthright critics concede that he has been less of a disaster for the world than was initially feared. Notable among them is Eliot Cohen, a former Bush administration official who has been at the forefront of resistance to Trump within the Republican foreign policy establishment. In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Cohen suggests that Trump was lucky in 2017, in that he faced no major unexpected shocks for which his generals did not have a ready-made answer.

By this reasoning, says Cohen, we should not fall into the trap of thinking the president is wiser than he seems, or is playing out an astute strategy learned from the world of business. The so-called adults in the room (such as secretary of defence James Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster) were able to soften some of the jagged edges. The fall from grace of Steve Bannon deflated the more exaggerated goals of the “anti-globalist” agenda. Overall, however, Cohen suggests there was no evidence that Trump himself had matured into the role, or developed a more refined understanding of a complex world. The “reassuringly non-apocalyptic foreign policy” of year one was a “product of good fortune, not restraint”.


During his presidential campaign, one of Trump’s favourite mantras was that it was time for America to “start winning again”. This rather inchoate notion referred to a range of matters, from trade to foreign policy, in which he felt that the United States had lost its competitive advantage. As crude as the message was, it spoke to a growing status anxiety in the American psyche, which is spread much more widely than Trump’s narrow base. On both left and right, there have been countless laments about the “state of the nation” in recent years. Complaints about foreign policy failures are just one feature of this collective wail.

Such periods of introspection are part of the superpower experience. American soul-searching bears some comparison to Britain in the early 20th century when concerns about the future of the empire, and its ability to stay ahead of rising powers (Germany, Japan and the United States) and old rivals (such as Russia and France) began to set in. The “two power standard”, by which the Royal Navy was required to be equal in size to the two largest competitors combined, was unsustainable in the face of these pressures.

The perceived need to revive Britain’s competitive edge infected almost every act of social policy at home (on education and social care) while also encouraging a search for stronger diplomatic alliances, a reshaping of the armed forces, and new ideas on trade (such as a turn to protectionism and a break with decades of free trade orthodoxy).

It may well turn out that Trump is not only a blunt tool but a self-defeating one as America attempts to regain its lead in the great power contest. What matters, however, is that the starting gun on a new era of competition has been fired. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that the jostling for material and military advantage is already well under way and playing out in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and even closer to home.

Sharper minds than Trump’s have been wrestling with this new dispensation. The headline themes of the new US national security strategy, published before Christmas, were “principled realism” and a new emphasis on “competitive engagement” to recalibrate America’s place in the world. There was more emphasis on the connection between America’s economic interests and its security than there has been in the recent past, when it was presumed that the market would take care of itself.

This was followed in January by the new national defence strategy, which came from the Pentagon rather than the White House and was therefore not so tied to the figure of Trump. This declared that America was “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding”. In a break with the focus on terrorism and insurgent groups that has prevailed since 9/11, it is now asserted that “inter-state strategic competition” is the main challenge to the United States and its allies. China was singled out as a “strategic competitor” – using “predatory economics” to intimidate its neighbours, while the elevated threat levels posed by Russia, North Korea and Iran were also highlighted.


New strategies can only do so much by themselves, however. Nothing that emanates from the Western world can possibly match the scale and ambition of China’s “One Belt and One Road” initiative, announced by Xi Jinping in 2013. This huge infrastructure, investment and development programme aims to create a new land-based “Silk Road” across the Eurasian landmass and a maritime equivalent from south-east Asia through to the Mediterranean. While the merits and the related costs of the project are still debated, it is nothing if not a Chinese grand strategy to secure interests and decisive influence across a vast geographical expanse. Any response that hopes to wish away these huge geopolitical changes, or somehow roll them back, is doomed to failure. Likewise, if the West simply seeks to hold on to a fading version of the rules-based international order, without recognising the extent of the contest for its terms, it will be left holding an increasingly devalued cheque.

In essence, the defining question facing most Western states (and multi-state institutions such as the EU) is how to preserve their economic health and security in a world in which the odds are no longer stacked in their favour. This is why Britain needs to get its head out of the all-consuming business of Brexit if it is to give itself a chance of thriving in this changing world.

The first and most obvious response is to find a place for oneself in the new economic ecosystems emerging in Asia and seek a share of the wealth they are likely to generate. Alongside this, however, it must be understood that there are more than natural market forces in operation. Indeed, for all the talk about the growing transnational influence of major multinational companies – particularly the giants of tech – initiatives such as China’s new “Silk Road” underscore the fact that ultimate power still resides within the nation state.

“By definition, these roads can only be shared,” warned President Macron, on his mission to China at the start of 2018. “If they are roads, they cannot be one-way.”  For the same reason, despite talk of a “golden age” of Sino-British relations, Theresa May was also cautious about being seen to endorse the initiative during her most recent visit to Beijing.

Yet it seems inescapable that a hard-nosed assessment of economic interests is likely to be given more prominence, at the forefront of diplomacy and defence strategy, in the coming years. There is a danger that this may come at the expense of the emphasis on human rights that Western nations have sought (not always successfully and certainly not consistently) to insert into their foreign policies. One of the clues to the expansion of Chinese influence in south-east Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa, is that it is free of the type of legal and political constraints that often come with Western investment.

In keeping with the change of mood, the message from the Trump administration is that “aid” and “trade” are going to be weaponised more effectively in pursuit of the national interest. On the first, warnings have already been delivered to both Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority that continued funding from the US treasury depends upon showing greater amenability to American demands.

On the second, the administration is already seeking to counteract what it sees as “predatory trade policies” on intellectual property, tariffs and dumping. What is most feared – and some are predicting for 2018 – is a trade war between the US and China. Thus far, however, the retaliatory campaign has focused on key American allies. Recent targets have included the Canadian-owned wing of Boeing, and Samsung and LG washing machines from South Korea.


How to understand Britain’s role in this changing world? It remains in the UK’s fundamental national interest to see the preservation of a rules-based international order in which major conflict is avoided and trade flows freely. However, this requires more than clinging on forlornly to a crumbling status quo. It is not that great power competition ever went away following the end of the Cold War. It is more accurate to say that there was a clear hierarchy of power and authority, tilted decisively in favour of America and its allies, which is now being corroded. Some adjustment of posture is required.

Nor should it be assumed that the challenge of ensuring future prosperity and security rests simply on the outcome of Brexit negotiations alone. Whitehall is in the grip of a fierce battle about defence spending that is arguably far more important to Britain’s long-term standing in the world then cabinet squabbles over the customs union. A large “black hole” has emerged in the coffers, estimated at between £20bn and £30bn, prompting the Treasury to attempt to rein in what it sees as spiralling defence costs.

The military hierarchy has been stirred to action. On 22 January, General Nick Carter, the chief of the general staff, gave a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in which he warned about the growing threat from Russia, in particular: “The risk we run in not defining this clearly, and acting accordingly, is that rather like a chronic contagious disease it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained – and we’ll be the losers of this competition.” Within elements of the British national security stablishment, the trend in recent years has been to focus on the mitigation of risk – on cybersecurity, counterterrorism and the protection of critical national infrastructure. However, the durability of this narrower conception of national security is now grinding up against the type of great power competition being seen in the theatres of the world that matter most to British interests.

Stopping the enemy at the gates is not enough. While the focus on Russia is justified, there is a danger that such headlines blur the broader picture. As Carter went on to elaborate in his speech, Russian revanchism was just part of the story. “We now live in a much more competitive, multi-polar world and the complex nature of the global system has created the conditions in which states are able to compete in new ways, short of what we would have defined as ‘war’ in the past,” he said, referring to the American national defence strategy rolled out by James Mattis a few days earlier.

It was only in the post-Cold War era, when Britain’s foremost ally emerged triumphant and seemingly unrivalled, that national defence spending dropped from an average of 3 per cent of GDP. In a world where Britain will have more difficulty in keeping its voice heard, it is time to revisit this question. When May made a point of stressing Britain’s role in European defence at the outset of the Brexit negotiations, it was widely condemned as a crude tactic. In other parts of the world, it is regarded as less uncouth to talk about such ugly realities. In Asia, in particular, where Western nations are now clambering for advantage, the relationship between trade and security is seen more explicitly in terms of a quid pro quo. As the UK government has sought to lay the ground for enhanced post-Brexit trading relations “East of Suez” – with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others – these conversations have all been tied to closer collaboration on security and defence.

The impetus behind “global Britain”, the current rallying call at the Foreign Office, is to make it clear that the UK is not going to pull up the drawbridge and turn in on itself after Brexit. It is also a recognition that trade remains the lifeblood of national prosperity and that new markets must be found to balance against those (such as the single market) that might have higher bars for entry than in the past.

Yet, if “global Britain” is to be more than rhetoric, it will also depend on how the UK navigates an international system in which soft consensus – predicated on overwhelming Western power – is giving way to fiercer competition. This may require more hard choices and risk-taking than we have grown used to in recent times, along with the recognition that the rules-based international order is not a permanent gift from God, but a product of historical contingency.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

The Wu-Tang Clan in 1997: l-r, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA, Method Man, with RZA at the front. Credit: BOB BERG/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Hip-hop’s unhappy families: rappers’ tales of brotherhood and betrayal

Hard knocks and Hollywood adventures in new memoirs by Gucci Mane, Wiley and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best pop music is a combination of individualism and unity. The Beatles, for example, earned lasting success as the sum of four very distinct parts. Few genres manage this as successfully as hip-hop, where bands such as NWA and New York’s A$AP Mob have released group albums and solo records. In a music industry run by a handful of corporations, hip-hop was always made up of hundreds of verticals.

A brace of new books act as a bridge between black music’s individuality and brotherhood. The most demonstrative example of rap’s independent streak can be found in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a thrilling though often superficial memoir by Radric Delantic Davis. The rapper helped build Atlanta’s “trap” sound on albums such as La Flare, has been to jail on numerous occasions and fought drug addiction for most of his adult life. His autobiography, written two years short of his 40th birthday, is an attempt to grasp the third rail of American life: atonement.

In November 2010, Davis was arrested for driving his Hummer on the wrong side of the road. He was sent to a mental health facility – the reckless driving charge was later dropped. The recording of his 2009 album, The State vs Radric Davis, went into hiatus when he failed a drug test and entered rehab. In its more satisfying moments, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is defined by a relentless pursuit of self-control. Readers may or may not entirely sympathise: Davis once spent $75,000 on a diamond Bart Simpson chain. The book ends with his release from incarceration in 2016, where he read Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Deepak Chopra. Davis got sober, shed 80 pounds and married. A film adaptation seems highly likely.

Eskiboy by Richard Kylea Cowie, the British musician known as Wiley, is an unconventional autobiography written by a committed individualist. The book is divided into 96 chapters separated by lyrics and includes contributions from friends and relatives, including his father, his sister and musicians Wretch 32 and Flow Dan. The effect is like watching an old episode of Behind the Music on VH1 or This is Your Life.

Cowie is a grime elder who helped dig the scene’s foundations. He eventually grew weary of London and now lives in Cyprus. Newcomers to songs such as “Wearing My Rolex” will enjoy his occasionally cantankerous opinions on the capital (“this is not a black man’s country”), fatherhood and food (“Yorkshire pudding, my God”), as well as the archaeology around the early years of his first group, Roll Deep. Cowie once released 200 songs online for free and first used MSN Messenger to distribute his music. He turned 39 this year, but Eskiboy reads like the worldview of a veteran.

Twenty-five years ago a New York group released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It became one of the most consequential hip-hop records of all time, and Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins offers a vivid portrait of the group that made it.

Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan’s prestige was initially hard won. While New York’s first wave of rap music excelled at the soldiery of hip-hop – where rappers formed constellations around groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – the East Coast had been overwhelmed by Californian soloists such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. Enter the Wu-Tang removed hip-hop from the warmth of the sun and returned it to the brownstone tenements of its birth. Released one year after albums by Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Enter the Wu-Tang depicts a life of defiance born of deprivation. On songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”, the group draws on stories of criminology, an African-American version of Islam called Mathematics and two obsessions, chess and martial arts.

Compared to the digital stutter of rap in 2018, Enter the Wu-Tang sounds antediluvian, with its nine rappers taking turns to deliver eight bars over dense beats. Yet the detuned rhythms of its producer, RZA, can be heard in music by Kanye West, Drake and Odd Future. The group’s core rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa – are responsible for the largest body of work in the history of hip-hop.

In the seven years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 2000, the Clan and its members released 31 albums and compilations, as well as comics, books and documentaries which have helped shape a universe built on Shaolin and numerology. One of the more poignant biographies from Planet Wu is the 2014 chronicle of the short life of Russell Jones, who died in 2004, aged 35, of a drugs-related heart attack. Jones called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB, “because there ain’t no father to his style”. Outlandish and addicted to drugs to alleviate a host of psychological issues – he once arrived to collect a welfare cheque in a limousine – Jones attracted both tabloid and police scrutiny.

Lamont Hawkins, also known as U-God or U-God Allah, is the latest Wu to publish an autobiography. In the group’s hierarchy, he was never a top-tier rapper, but was part of a second wave who released solo records in the late 1990s. Despite his late arrival, his memoir is the most vivid piece of writing to emerge from the Wuniverse.

Hawkins grew up in a single parent family in Brooklyn and Park Hill on Staten Island. Whenever he inquired about the family patriarch, his mother would reply, “God is your father!” Unlike Mane, who describes being orbited by grandparents, aunts and uncles, Hawkins’s childhood was blighted by black-on-black crime and drugs-related violence. He describes witnessing his first death when he was four years old and watched a woman leap or fall from the roof of an apartment building. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. Hawkins was a member of gangs called Baby Cash Crew, Dick ’Em Down and Wreck Posse. He carried a gun from the ages of 14 to 21 and recalls watching one of his babysitters shooting up heroin on the couch. Years later, Staten Island’s rappers would describe Park Hill as “Killa Hill” in their music. “Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time,” writes Hawkins. “It was like a concentration camp for poor black people.”

While Raw is full of the despairing tales that inform the Wu-Tang’s music, it is also fuelled by the gallows humour that runs through albums staffed by fictionalised gangsters called Tony Starks or Lex Diamonds. Hawkins describes watching thieves steal his mother’s handbag on five separate occasions. One day, as she walked him home from school, a young man pulled the jewellery off her ears. Years later, she saw a man on TV who she swore was her attacker – it was Mike Tyson.

Hawkins’s teenage years were a fountainhead of illegal and legal labour. Like Gucci Mane, who describes selling marijuana by the age of 13 (the discovery led his mother to evict him from the family home), a teenage Hawkins was selling crack and making a profit of $2,500 each day. He met his future Clan bandmates before he was 14. In one passage in Raw, he relates how authorities in Park Hill struggled to process the daily body count. He wanted to become an embalmer and applied to study mortuary science before deciding to follow a career in music.

The early years of the Wu-Tang Clan were a maelstrom facilitated by the kind of family grift that usually leads to acrimony. The group already contained RZA’s cousins GZA and ODB, as well as friends such as Cappadonna, a part-time taxi driver. The Clan was managed by RZA’s brother, Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. A third RZA cousin called Mook became their road manager. Mook drove the tour bus and accepted cash-only payments from promoters.

Any attempt at organising the group was futile. On tour, the crew sometimes numbered 60 members. Cappadonna failed to make recording sessions for Enter the Wu-Tang when he was sent to jail. Hawkins was incarcerated four times for parole violations and only managed brief contributions to two tracks. It would be different four years later when the members had all signed to major labels and the Clan’s second album was released, selling 612,000 copies in its first week. Hawkins writes with eye-opening details about how his life changed; at one point, he was dating 12 women.

He also expresses regret at the group’s more lurid behaviour. He describes arriving at a Beverley Hills party after consuming a large quantity of rum; other guests included Leonardo DiCaprio, the rapper Q-Tip and members of Metallica. At the party, Hawkins got into an argument with DiCaprio, Ghostface urinated off a balcony and later destroyed some flowerbeds. A moment of kismet is delivered on another occasion when the Clan reaches Mike Tyson’s house only to discover the world heavyweight boxing champion won’t allow them entry.

For a group of young men who had never left the US, hip-hop also presented an opportunity for travel. A trip to the Colosseum in Rome provided a hilarious awakening. “I thought it would be big like fuckin’ Yankee Stadium, but that place was a Little League arena at best,” writes Hawkins, bitterly. “The reality of it broke my heart. I remember thinking Hollywood had fed me some bullshit with the Gladiator movie and all that about its size.”

The final section of Raw returns to the matter-of-factness of its beginning. In the period between the Wu-Tang Clan’s first and second album, Hawkins’s two-year-old son, Dontae, was shot in one hand and kidney when, during a gunfight, one participant picked him up to use as a human shield. Dontae lost his kidney and has walked with a limp since. “RZA and the others didn’t make it any better, ’cause they didn’t give a fuck,” writes Hawkins.

The Wu-Tang’s once indomitable friendship has occasionally publicly soured over musical differences and financial disagreements. In 2007, the group even embarked on a tour without RZA. He replied with a rival series of solo concerts.

Wiley writes equally frankly about his long-running feud with former Roll Deep rapper Dizzee Rascal. The pair have quarrelled since Rascal was stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003. “I am a part of why he’s Dizzee,” Wiley writes, offering reconciliation. “And he’s a part of why I am Wiley.”

Hawkins admits that the challenge of competing for space on albums has taken a toll: “Nine MCs going at each other, battling for who gets on the song can lead to some hard feelings.” In the mid-2000s, RZA became a filmmaker and the Clan felt his attention diminish. Hawkins describes Wu Tang-Clan’s 2014 album, A Better Tomorrow, as “some wack shit from start to finish”. In 2016, he sued RZA over unpaid royalties. Hawkins was also absent from last year’s album, The Saga Continues.

It isn’t wholly surprising that a group of middle-aged rappers is often at loggerheads over their direction and legacy. In the final pages of his fearless memoir, Hawkins unexpectedly calls for a renewal of the brotherhood that bent him to its will. “Yeah, we don’t always get along,” he writes, “but what family does?” 

William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang
Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Faber & Faber, 292pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry