Method Man, U-God, Ol' Dirty Bastard, InspektahDeck, Genius, Raekwon, RZA, Master Killer and Ghostface Killer are... Mad, bad - but awfully nice when you get to know them. Emma Forrest travels Europe with American rap stars the Wu-Tang Clan. Photographs by Steve Double
I was previously unaware that the Sheraton Hotel in Brussels is the staring capital of Europe. Everywhere I go, they eye you creepily, even after you have made angry eye-contact. So I can only imagine what they think of Method Man in his over-sized, bright orange T-shirt, one trouser leg tied at the shin with an orange handkerchief, a pair of skiing goggles perched on his head; or of Ol' Dirty Bastard, lolloping up and down the hall in a Versace shirt over a ketchup- and-Bailey's-spattered vest, merrily chanting "pussy, pussy, pussy!" to a tune existing only in his head.

You know the Wu-Tang Clan are staying on the sixth floor because of the smell of weed and the sound of RZA's latest keyboard composition. The weed is extra-strong (they smoke "Philly blunts" - emptying a cigar of tobacco and stuffing it with the little dried leaves), and the notes are extra-paranoid, too.

RZA (pronounced "Rizza") is the man at the helm of this band, and has been ever since his murder trial in 1992. He was acquitted and decided that, from that moment on, his destiny would be forged by him - not by the crack or the gangs or exploitative record contracts. He would oversee everything. Contacting friends he had rapped with since school, men who were crackheads, dealers or jailbirds, he put together the Wu-Tang Clan.

He wrote and produced their debut, Enter the 36 Chambers, an album of edgy, eerie soundscapes, miles away from the watered-down pop-rap flooding the charts at the time. And, in an unprecedented deal, RZA secured the nine-strong band a deal whereby they signed to BMG but were free to record solo albums for other labels. Now the Clan have sold around seven million records. 36 Chambers has become one of the seminal works in hip-hop and made the Wu-Tang the most revered rap stars since Public Enemy.

But, unlike Public Enemy, whose image was taken largely from Sixties radical politics, the Wu-Tang have their own belief system, even their own island (they re-named Staten Island, where they come from, "Shaolin", after a type of kung fu. Their collective obsessions are martial arts movies, chess, DC comics, the Mafia and women. They all have at least two identities: CappaDonna is also Cappuccino, Raekwon is Lex Diamonds, U-God is Golden Arms, and Method Man was Johnny Blaze but is now Hot Nikkels - like U-God, he's planning to get into acting, and, "I might write a book about my life". They have their own hugely successful clothing franchise, even their own nail salon. They are self-styled superheroes, martial arts MCs. "Hip-hop is like swordsmanship," says RZA, "Every samurai, ninja and shogun wants to be the best. I want to retire undefeated."

On 36 Chambers, you could hear a Seventies soul influence (they grew up on Gladys Knight, The Spinners, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes). Nowadays, RZA doesn't need to sample other songs. The new album, Wu-Tang Forever, is an urban hip-hop symphony. I tell RZA that it sounds like a panic attack. He laughs. "It's like trying a new drug for the first time - it can be scary at first but, when you start loving it, you love it." He must be right. It has just been number one in the UK and USA, and top five across Europe. RZA had the record company fax the charts straight to him and was back on the phone in minutes, demanding to know why the Clan weren't being pushed properly in Spain.

My encounter was supposed to be a half-hour interview, but the schedule kept getting pushed back until, after two days of hanging around, I ended up flying to Holland. Three days after, I was in Brussels and still not ready to go home. Mook, the Wu-Tang's imposing manager, was always loath to wake his charges.

"Can't she do it on Thursday in Sweden?"

"Mook, she has to go home sometime," complains Eva Ries, the German-born, New York-based head of International Promotions at BMG.

Maybe being on tour in the middle of nowhere makes the Wu-Tang crave company, although, considering the band count is currently up to 11, this seems unlikely. But everything I'd heard about them hating women and whites was wrong. They shared their food, arranged a room for me, and offered to sort out my flight.

Admittedly, after a few days, the line was crossed from being a journalist to being a factotum. DJ Mathematics asks me to hold his on-stage props, a pair of Samurai swords. After a half-hour, I hand them to Mook. Mathematics is furious: "But I told you to hold them." U-God backs him up: "He asked you to hold them out of the goodness of his heart - and you let him down."

The only time I see Eva close to walking out is when they demand that she watches the cooking of the pizza they ordered in case someone tries to poison them. Like any band who suddenly have money and power, they are basically big kids, determined to be as troublesome as possible. Not without reason is the tour bus dubbed The Baby Express.

CappaDonna, then, is the world's tallest two-year-old.

I buy him a child's windmill at Toys 'R' Us. It has blue-and-red aluminium wheels, and in the centre is a plastic teddy. CappaDonna stretches out with the windmill perched between two seats in front of him. As he falls asleep, it looks like a baby's toy, tied to a cot. When we reach our destination, he tries to adjust the hotel air-conditioning to make the wheels turn.

Cappa, like other Clan members, used to deal crack: "But I never sold to children or pregnant women."

Method Man is equally tall and baby-faced. He is obsessive about comics, lugging them on tour in plastic wrappers, not letting anyone touch them. He once came skipping into Eva's room distraught because "the carpet in his hotel room smelled funny". Last night he had sex with a girl whose spine was deformed: "It was like an elbow sticking out of her back."

"Ha ha," laughs U-God, "a humpback whale!"

U-God is pale, with eyes so light and brown they look golden. He is the spit of Leroy from Fame, but looks terrible in photos because he is always so cross about having his picture taken. When he is 80, he will shout at children and hit them with his stick for playing too loud. He's smart and well read, and I like him immensely, but at 3.30am we will have a flaming row about his refusal to believe that there can be rape within marriage: "If you aren't prepared to give your man love whenever he wants, then you have no business being married to him."

Method has already stunned me with his claim that television has programmed women into asking for things they don't deserve: "All that Oprah shit - `Fuck all men, I can do it by myself!' On every show you have women talking about `You should just leave him'. Every man that goes on gets crucified, or they're proposing on the show or some shit like that... Goodness!"

The "Goodness!" at the end of this vile statement takes me aback, but they say these things that a middle-class Jewish girl cannot abide and then, with the tape recorder off, they are sweethearts. Every time you fall in love with them, they say something hideous, and every time they say something hideous, they end with "Goodness!".

I probe them about the Nation of Islam. They insist it is neither anti- Semitic nor anti-white. Dirty's uncle, who's called Freedom, tells me, approvingly, that I am halfway to enlightenment because I have dark hair and eyes. White people, says CappaDonna, are white because they "are blacks who went to cold countries and became pale", a version of the old "black people are whites who were left in the sun". They are so uncommunicative about Nation of Islam and Five Percenters, the offshoot to which they subscribe, that at times I even wonder if they know exactly what it is themselves. Actually, the Five Percenters' line is that 85 per cent of the world are ignorant, ten per cent are devils and five per cent are wise.

"George Bush," spits Dirty jubilantly, "was King Devil!" Then adds, "But I also say, `Fuck Farrakhan!' He sits at the same table as all the others, up there with Bush and Clinton, Hussein and the Pope, trying to kill their own people."

I sit down with Ol' Dirty Bastard. He won't be here for long, he says - meaning "on this planet": "Only until I've finished building my spacecraft. I don't want nobody building my ship for me. I'm studying electromagnetic frequencies at the moment."

Raekwon is shorter and stockier than the others. Whereas in a fight, U-God looks like he would spit in your eye, and Method would play dirty, Raekwon would whack you flat in one go. Like Method, he is rabidly homophobic. Genius and InspektahDeck complain that their million-dollar video looks crappy, even on its sixth re-cut, partly because Method won't let anyone put make-up on him, not even powder, in case it "makes him gay".

Dirty disapproves of their homophobia. "Everything in the universe is my family. You getting mad 'cause of how someone else is? Worry about your motherfucking self."

There are two defining moments in Dirty's life. The first was in the womb, when he was "racing 17 billion other motherfuckers to get to the mothership". The other was when he was shot by a sniper in Brooklyn. "I was running one way, and I thought I got shot in the back and it went through my front. Really, I got shot in the front and it went through my back. They were aiming at my spleen because the spleen is your earth. They took my earth."

I have been slightly obsessed with Dirty since his duet with Mariah Carey, where he rapped, "me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers". I have never seen such a star in my life. He's like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and the unhinged reggae legend, Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Perry bit is the spaceship talk, the Monroe is the vulnerability, the sense that, no matter how many parties he makes, "the Mothership and the Fathership are coming for me".

I ask Raekwon if he thinks his friend is nuts. "No, he know exactly what's going on. He know what time it is, what his duties are. He has 13 kids. He has to know his duties."

You learn to take the nicknames at face-value. Genius, who looks like a cheeky dolphin, won't do the interview because he is in the middle of a chess game. Asked what he will be doing in, say, 15 years' time, Mathematics answers, quick as a flash, "in 2012?". And Ol' Dirty Bastard is... a dirty old bastard. Every few yards, he will order the tour bus to stop so he can talk to a woman with a pair of pink leggings or in a floppy hat. He holds my hand and tells me, "You remind me of Mary Lou Retina." He is thinking of Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast, but I like it all the same. I am pleased to have my own Clan name.

On my first day with them, they played a lousy gig at the Brixton Academy in south London. They were jet-lagged and lazy, half of them weren't there, and a lot of the audience asked for refunds. In Rotterdam, they headlined a hip-hop festival at a 30,000-capacity stadium. The show was getting good until the angry, white, promoter pulled the plug after the Clan threatened to run over time and cost him profits. But the Brussels show was electric, largely due to RZA, Genius and Dirty turning up. "I enjoy it most when all the brothers are here," says CappaDonna. Now, all 11 of them bounced across the stage, knocking into each other as if they were trapped in a giant game of pinball wizardry.

"Hip-hop is like an emotion - you feel it," says RZA. You can see that in the eyes of the fans, flickering as if they are dreaming. This is such an enticing world - of Superheroes, Shaolin warriors and $3,000 in cash stuffed in your back pocket. "It's a soundtrack for our own lives," says Genius. "Our history is a movie. It isn't in theatres, but it's a movie going on right now." They are a thousand miles away from all those bands revered for ripping off The Beatles.

"The Beatles?" beams Dirty as "Love Me Do" comes over the tour bus stereo. "They're my niggers."

At times I feel like the Wu-Tang Clan are my Vietnam. They'll still be scratched into my brain 20 years from now, and no one who wasn't there will understand those moments when Dirty, for example, stares out the window and talks to the sky: "Come and snatch me, motherfuckers! Take me away from here for a little while. I think I deserve it."

I'm trying to work out how all this happened, how I ended up here and why I don't want to go home. I want to stay and be Mary Lou Retina. When I finally board my plane, I feel like Dorothy going back to Kansas. I'll miss you, CappaDonna, and you, U-God, and especially you, Dirty.

The plane takes off. I click my ruby slippers and wish that Dirty finds his way to Oz, whatever planet it is on, and that they give him his spleen back