February 28, 2011

Last Friday at the EMP Pop Conference, Tal Rosenberg and I presented a paper on the economics of Wu-Tang. In the course of our research, I interviewed Power, the financial mastermind of the Wu-Tang. Therein, I learned about Wu-Wear’s re-launch, the history behind “Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance,” and the unfulfilled plans for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s line of “Dirty Drawers.” Read this shorty and you ain’t even have to go to business school.

So you’re currently at the Magic Show in Vegas to promote the Wu-Brand and relaunch of Wu Wear?
Yup, Wu Brand. Wu Brand is in the building for Magic, it’s our first foray coming back after a few years off. We haven’t been on the set for a while now, but we’re doing some big shows this year. There’s another huge one in August.

What exactly is Wu-Brand?

Wu-Brand is the new title of the line—it could be a title or subtitle as compared to Wu-Wear. It’s strange comparing then to now. When I first started Wu-Wear, there weren’t many examples preceding us. There weren’t rules written as law in the business. Now coming back with so much time having passed, we’re trying to bring the Wu-Tang brand back around. The Wu-Brand is what we’re going to start with, it’s for the people who are tastemakers. It’s going to be more elite nice stuff and not as ready and available. Then we’ll eventually be bringing back Wu-Wear.

Has it been difficult trying to re-launch a once thriving brand after so much time away?

We’ve been implementing a lot of things. We’re bringing the Wu Brand stuff back on a boutique level. The customers are different today. Look at that store that came to America –H&M. People today will wear stuff from there and mix it with the Gap. They mix and match fashions. You can someone wearing H&M with a Chanel bag or a Gucci hat and Gucci sneakers. It’s the same way with Wu-Brand. If they can afford it, we have the Wu Brand, which is high end. On the less expensive end, will be Wu Wear.

You guys were pretty much the first hip hop clothing line other than Naughty Gear, correct?

As far as hip hop, it was naughty Gear. But the main person that we looked up to was Karl Kani. He was the major force In the industry, the kid to look up to, he made the urban cut and the urban fit fashionable and brought it to the hood. When I brought Wu Wear, I took a cue from him as far as the cuts. But on the musical side, I saw that Naughty had a dope logo and I loved the music, so I figured that we could do it too.

Did you have any education in the business world before coming out with Wu Wear?

Listen, Wu Wear was pretty much like our entry in the fashion biz, but before I was in Wu Wear, I was making and marketing the first Wu records with RZA. Everything that we learned was hard knock life, you figure it out as you go along, and take cues from those that are actively doing things. A lot of it was trial and error. There were no models, there was a time when even Kani was fighting back to keep his name alive. It wasn’t just cut and dry.

Was it just a matter of having good instincts or was there premeditated strategy at hand?

Again, I think it was a combination of strategy and instinct. I understood marketing naturally, but I never went to school. Me not being a rapper or a producer, that was something that could occupy my time. I was at the lead and forefront—no one in the camp was being vocal about that, so I took over that aspect. I put our records in a t-shirt. I looked up to Karl Kani for the cut; I looked at big business, I looked at the Tommy Hilfigers and the Polos, because just as much as I looked at Kani, I wanted to expand and look outside our world.

I saw Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger on a bigger level, with different demographics and different politics involved. I understand that you have to sell different ways to different sets of people to reach middle America. We were an urban hip hop company, but the aspirations were to do the same thing – be commercially viable to everyone.

It’s been said that there were initially a lot of skeptics within the crew. Is that true?

That’s 100 percent true. My crew had plenty of skeptics, doubters, and non believers. It wasn’t nothing personal, but I’d say that everyone is an individual and they didn’t really understand what I was doing or what I was initially trying to get across, or where I was coming from. They just hadn’t seen it. It hadn’t been done before, and it led them to be skeptical. I was laying my own trail. First and foremost, yeah it was going to benefit me, but at the end it would benefit all of us. I knew thought that it was ultimately about showing and proving.

My first foray, my first two records were “Protect ya Neck and the method man” join. And then it led into 36 chambers. We all saw the first cycle of solo records as a cohesive unit and it was all the pieces of history that we planted.

The rumor had it was that you, Ghost and Rza were the three who put up the funding for the original “Protect Ya Neck,” single. Was that how it went down?

I think I came with most of the money. I was more the financial guy and Ghost and RZA were the guys that had the musical talent. And, also you can’t leave out Divine.

So were you down with them during their stints at Tommy Boy and Cold Chillin’?

Even when they was doing that at Tommy Boy, I would always keep company with them and follow them on their adventures. I wasn’t a rapper, but the thrill of being a part of going and where they went, it was the inspiration for how it ended up that lead us all to going back, soaking up what we’d absorbed and coming back with “Protect Ya Neck.”

So what did everyone learn from the experience with those labels?

Here’s the deal for me, again I was with them on a business side. When GZA had done “Come do Me” and RZA did “Ooh, We Love you Rakeem,” I was more or less moral and friend support from the neighborhood. When that didn’t work for them, Rza came back home and talked to me about going forward. He said, I want to do this and that. I understood how much talent he had in a way that the labels didn’t. He’d only put out a couple records, but I knew that from being in the neighborhood how far they could go. And a light bulb went off, and I knew that we could create something there.

How much of it was a sense of bringing a sense authenticity that wasn’t being well represented? Especially considering the failure of those first GZA and RZA efforts?

The authenticity shows for itself. First of all, we’re fans of the music, we’re fans and part of the culture. We grew up with Kane and Rakim and Slick Rick and all of these different dudes. We look at everyone, even the ones coming now because there’s uniqueness of those sets and individuals. We have to be able to communicate and personify their demographic, be it 718, 602, Arizona or whatever wherever. Our uniqueness was that we could distinguish Shaolin, that was our own thing that no one had seen until then.

How important early on was this sense of needing to brand yourselves?
It wasn’t necessarily that we were the first. There had been lots of things that had transcended before we came, but we reinvented things. We put our spin on it. We carved a star onto the brand. We were the stars and faces of the brand. We were our own Ronald McDonald’s.

What were the negotiations like?

Business is business, no matter what. They weren’t playing us. Once we came back and did what we did, they was definitely open for conversation. They were trying to get the best deal for them, and our job was to get the best deal for us. They was trying to do business on the level that they was accustomed to and we came and we re-wrote another model. The end game was for everybody to be happy, not just the record company and not just us. It was part plan, part touch and go.

It’s been reported that in the early Wu financial structure, the Clan was sharing all profits. For instance, if Method Man had a big album, the spoils would trickle down to U-God and Masta Killa. Was that true?

Here’s how it went—you gotta’ think it’s like Wu-Wear was my album, my chance to show and prove. Again, I wasn’t a rapper or producer, and so we were all going to share. When each of one of us blew up, we all shared his success, it was our success. The same way that our failures are our failures too.

We’d already had a pact when we’d gotten our deal. No one knew how it was going to work out or who would get to shine when. But we knew that if a brother got a deal for 150k, he could keep the majority of it, but it also would facilate and help the other brothers. It was part of our core and movement for us to spread the money around and help brothers eat, without a project out. It was like we were trust fund babies. You don’t have an album out, Meth’s is popping, so we can send you $10 grand, but Meth may have gotten $120,000. It made business sense.

When things took off, you must’ve been bombarded with offers left and right. What was that period like?

Yo, it was crazy. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. We were so hot and on fire throughout those first years that phones rung off the hook for anything Wu-related. Wu was so fresh and so new, the money that I was earning from the record business, I was spending actively just trying to get a start in business. That’s the difference between the record business and the clothing business. When a record guy does a show, he gets the check. Clothing is a pay to play business. So when I got my check for $10,000 to $20,000, a little bony check, I’d have to figure out how to make more money with it. I’d have to make sure that it wouldn’t run out. I was always coming to RZA and strategize and talk about plans. You need to do this and that. I need more marketing, more promotion.

So how did Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance come about?

This is how it went down. Craig Kallman called for a Soundtrack that he was doing and I had just been on RZA’s back about needing more marketing and more promotions. I knew I could sell, but I needed that marketing and promotions to do it. So Craig calls RZA asking for us to put in work and then RZA hits me up back immediately on some, son say no more, I got you. I’m a shoot a video and do a song for you. It’s going to be crazy promotion. That’s what it is. So I went down there, taked to Craig, they made the song, next thing you know, we’re shooting a video with Mekhi Phifer.

That was perfect synergy, huh?

You couldn’t get no better than that. Craig Kallman, the head of Atlantic doing his project and thus giving us all the juice and backing to promote our project and brand, which in turn created for that boom. But we realized early on, that we couldn’t just ride the gravy train, we had to keep creating.

You hear numbers well into eight figures getting tossed around regarding revenues. Is that true?

You know a lot of those figures are wrong, you know how the lazy journalists can get. But yeah, we was getting our shit, we did our numbers, we never starved. There’s a lot of different stories and everything, but we made our money and helped create an industry. That’s to give you an idea of the beginning, the making-of, we wrote chapter one for Roc-a-Wear and Sean John, but we were the only one that was unique to its own. At the time, there was just us and Echo, that was hip hop, it was graffiti, but it wasn’t like Wu-Tang. Think about it, Marc Ecko and them, look at that dynamic vs. Us. We were from Staten Island, we were high school drop-outs, convicted felons. We’d been through things, and we were competing with dudes who came and make it with college degrees in marketing. But that’s how they came in, they came in with a love of culture and hip hop music and graffiti, that gave them their own lane, and they had smarts.

In a way, did your lack of formal business education, pay any dividends because you didn’t get bogged down in arbitrary rules that you’d learned from a book?

It’s the gift and it’s the curse. There’s no schooling, so the value comes from learning life lessons. Every day you can learn lessons if you tune in, if you tune in for what’s bullshit and what’s not. Everyone doesn’t have a Wu Tang story, there’s lots of dudes from the streets who don’t make it. The reality is that you can be from the streets, but have your eye on the wrong dreams, and certain things never come to light, you don’t have the wherewithal. We was blessed, but at the same token, at the same time, we strived to make a way for ourselves.

What was the period like when you guys decided to shift towards the more gritty and true-to-self street rap?

It was a natural, organic grassroots transition. Rza and Gza had just came from that whole pressure of being something they weren’t, and it didn’t work. We were from the neighborhood, where there were cats like us. The uniqueness came from us wanting to show and prove, but show the piece of who you really are and not who they wanted you to be. The record company told them everything and they listened and it didn’t work. When it didn’t work, they were smart enough to pick up the pieces and keep it moving. Rza was smart enough as an artist that watching his own career, he and his brother came back home, they got their battery charged. No matter how big you are, you have to come back to basics.

With Wu-Wear, when did the decision come when you decide to open up actual brick and mortar stores?

Everything was in phases. I started selling shirts at Freaknik and Summer Jam, and it progressed from there to mail order. Then I decided to open a store in Staten, because if you can’t win in your backyard, you can’t win nowhere. I saw there was the need for wholesale, but wholesale is a whole other biz. But I figured that out, I started to think like McDonalds or K-Mart, only two or three of the stores were stores that I owned and operated. The store in Virginia and Atlanta, were owned by other people. I was thinking more on a franchise level, these guys were family and friends getting in the biz and everything was Wu Wu Wu.

And Wu Wear and much of the business end was all you, correct?
Listen, anything that I did, I made it my own way, no one. Not the Rza ain’t come to tell me to do this or that. I took the opportunity and I actively pursued those routes.

I was the one who targeted the video game company. Here’s how it happened. I was watching a show one morning—early. I’d been running around in the music biz entertainment biz, staying out late all week long. So I was halfway sleeping, trying to wake up on a Sunday afternoon, wearing my clothes on from yesterday. And there was a show on TBS, where I saw a company making all these programs from the garage of their home in Silicone Valley.

I was like, ‘oh shit, that’s how we did ‘Protect ya Neck.” So I got their info directly and cold called them with a cold call and that ended up coming to life. Anything I did, from clothing to merch to brand stuff, I did. Rza didn’t appoint me to do that. He was the big Abbot and we did great together, but these were all my ideas based on what we had done as a team. It’s like nobody tells Rae or Rza when to be inspired. When RZA made the beat for “Triumph,” he just felt like that that one day. And when I wanted to do Wu wear, I was like this is what I’m doing right now. When I did the video game, I was like this was happening.

What sorts of stupid ideas were brought to you?

Plenty of stuff. Everything under the sun—I can’t even remember. They came at us with beer, stuff like that. Even when it comes down to the branding, my role in the branding was another part that I took on myself. I understood the value of it even if was only on a small level at first. Coming from where we come from, we’re territorial and that was my territory and my duty to be a forcefield. I can’t even begin to imagine the things that never saw the light.

The one thing that stands out was beer and people coming to do that. We ain’t really like promoting that to the people. For the beer, they’d wanted ODB to be the spokesperson, but we weren’t with that. I had people coming like that to me with bullshit. I had the dopest idea that never happened though. I kept on trying to get ODB to have his own line of underwear—I thought that was the best idea.

So what happened when that initial unity started to disintegrate?
We was only as tight as we could keep it, the basic inception of this thing, the immaculate conception of this thing, which I would say was around 91-92, from those years to about 97 to 98, we kept it super tight. The people out there would agree that we were flawless until then. The first round of classic shit is still what made us get talked about today. The Clan just came off tour for two months. They don’t perform anything after 98-99, from the first record to Wu Tang Forever. They might got a couple songs here and there, but they earn their money singing their classic shit,. They’re not singing the album that just dropped.

One of the things that always struck me about the Wu was that it was almost like a signal of sorts. It was a strong brand, one that bonded people together.

That was the other thing. Rza and myself started looking at things from a big biz sensibility. The Wu brand and logo was subliminal,. It’s just like when you see a Pepsi and say let’s have a Pepsi together. The logo and the Wu was like an international communicator. It’s like if you familiar with Gucci or Louis Vuitton, you just identify and go towards it because it’s familiar. You identify to people with that aesthetic.

What made you want to take a break from running Wu-Wear?
I was disenchanted with the way the biz was going. After feeling that and having a nice break and having time to be energized and everything, I was ready to get back in. I’m in tune with what’s going on in the universe, if I’m not readily available to the people, I’m on my mission, paying attn to what’s going on. I’m a cat that’s inquisitive. I pay attention to everything.

How large of a challenge is it to re-enter the game now?

There’s a whole new nature and culture that’s been created You have Undefeated, Rocksmith, Billionaire Boys Clubs, but all of them were created on the strengh of Wu Wear, whether they want to give it up, any smart journalist or person of information can do their 1-2 1-2 and find out why that’s a reality. I was never one to hold my nuts big. I let the work show and prove. I see the value of what I was able to create, knowing that every day you have to reinvent or re-think yourself to be part of growth. It’s my duty to see my brand, it’s my shill. This is the US of America, I’m American, I’m wu tang, I’m a general and its my duty to do it. Nobody else in the clan can do it, that’s my thing.

Download:
MP3: RZA ft. Method Man & Capadonna-“Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance”

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