Originally presented by myself and Tal Rosenberg at this year’s EMP Conference. Re-printed at the request of a few Wu-Tang disciples. Peace to all the crooks.
“So what’s like your ultimate goal…
Method Man: We trying to make a business out of this. We ain’t trying to affiliate ourselves with them fake-ass A&R’s. We’re trying to make our own shit. So when our children get old, they’ve got something for themselves.”
Raekwon: We out for the gusto, man, and we gonna keep it raw.”
The Wu-Tang warned us that if it ain’t raw, it’s worthless. Most record executives originally disagreed—at least the ones who made power moves. They wanted suit and tie raps that were cleaner than a bar of soap. So said the Gza, and who am I to argue with a man whose own album cover claimed that he was a Genius?
Looking back 20 years later, the Clan’s rise seems pre-ordained, a divine alchemy of ability, acumen, and Ol’ Dirty Bastardry. But when they first emerged from the badlands of Brooklyn and Staten Island, they’d already suffered multiple failures. Less remembered are the RZA and GZA’s initial salvos, commercial flops that recast them as sub-Big Daddy Kane ladies men. In two years, they’d be admonishing you to protect your neck, but first they wanted you to come do them.
It was the tail end of the Afro-Centric era: the Daisy Age, bright colors, blowsy silk shirts, and high-rise haircuts [what’s a “paisley rhyme?”]. But while Arrested Development swept the Grammys, a young Staten Island man named Robert Diggs plotted his comeback. After the failure of his debut single under the moniker Prince Rakeem, “Ooh, We Love You, Rakeem,” Diggs needed to scrounge up money, fast. They were slanging crack and weed, combination making their eyes bleed. The life of a young buck selling drugs and such got Diggs bagged up. Luckily, he was acquitted, and vowed to manifest the tremors of the streets. He amassed jewels, he become the soul controller. He became The RZA.
The ensuing chapter reads straight out of Joseph Campbell, Bruce Bartlett, or Zig Ziglar. Returning to New York, the Zig Zig Zig Allah spent the spring and summer of 1991 skulking around Staten Island and voraciously devouring book after book. The Art of War. The Art of Peace. The I Ching. Secret Art of War, and The 36 Stratagems—an ancient Chinese essay teaching the way to triumph over chaos, enemies, and A&Rs who climbed mountains and played electric guitar.
While engaged in his studies, the RZArector realized something: On his own, there was only so much he could do. He would be like any other rapper, needing the financing of a label, unable to fully impart the breadth of his knowledge and studies. So he hatched a generator: If he amassed all of his friends, fellow MCs, and collected them under one umbrella, they could be much, much stronger. Nine times as strong.
So he called up his cousins: the Genius, now also The GZA, and Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones; as well as a-likes from Killa Hill and Shaolin: Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, and Masta Killa. They dubbed themselves The Wu-Tang Clan, named after the 1981 Gordon Liu kung-fu film Shaolin and Wu-Tang. In the film, the Wu-Tang sword style is invincible, destroying the Shaolin monks. Despite their skills, the Wu-Tang is expelled, mirroring the travails RZA had experienced in the record industry.
The first thing the Wu-Tang needed was a logo, an image for the killer bees. RZA’s pupil, Mathematics, a Wu-Tang producer, designed the logo: A decapitated head being held by the dreadlocks, the arm attached to an avian-shaped “W.” The logo was too gory, but RZA liked the way the letter was designed, so he kept it because, according to him, “The W looks like a sword, but it’s also like a bat raising up or a raven or a phoenix. Plus it had some Batman flavor. Not that I meant it to—but it didn’t hurt.”
The RZA came to Tommy Boy with his idea for the Wu-Tang. The venerable New York imprint assented to the scheme, even going as far to take out an ad in the Source magazine. But with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” number one on the charts, Tom Silverman and company opted for their own token white rappers, House of Pain.
To be fair, unless you were a woman who found him “handsome, charming, and freaky,” you too might have gone with the Kevin McHale fan club repping South Boston but really from LA.
In 1992, a few months before the Wu-Tang released “Protect Ya’ Neck.” EPMD released their single “Crossover,” which decried rappers selling their soul to go gold and hit the pop charts. Groups like Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and De La Soul may have sold massive sums of records in contrast to today’s attenuated Soundscans, but they were no match for Vanilla Ice, Tone Loc, Young MC and MC Hammer. KRS-One wasn’t getting Saturday morning cartoons. They went to the rap game’s other most prominent Chris’s—potentially saving us from edifying nursery rhymes about how Queensbridge was falling down, falling down.
The RZA described the period as such: “I was thinking, ‘damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me. I felt bamboozled.”
In 2011, rappers like Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Outkast, Eminem are wildly popular, critically adored, and some even get animated series on the Cartoon Network alongside the guy who once voiced “SpongeBob Square Pants.” Run-DMC and The Beastie Boys had managed platinum sales and mass respect prior to Wu-Tang, but neither represented the crime side, the New York Times side. The Wu were demiurges disguised as ninjas, clutching swords and scrolls and the intent to bring the ruckus. A nine-man solar system suffused with cryptic visions worthy of Carl Jung: comic books and complex numerologies, Staten Island stick-up slang and kung fu, shrouded in a cloud of 5 Percent Mysticism. Other rap groups had amassed cults, but Wu-Tang was the first religion.
For the group’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” each MC was asked to bring $50 to pay for the recording session. The self-financed run of 500 was marketed from the RZA’s basement and sold directly to record stores and DJ’s. When the Wu was finally snatched up by New York indie Loud Records, they aligned themselves with an imprint that refused to meddle with their uncompromising sound.
That was a real listener call-in on a City College radio station at 137th street, and it exemplified the grassroots popularity that Wu-Tang built almost immediately. Like a rap Steve Jobs chastened after his first success and flameout, the RZA had re-grouped and re-branded, aware that format and content were equally important. The Clan may have been the first rap crew to have its own in-house business mind squad, but even Erick Sermon would’ve approved of their methodologies.
Soon they were making money in a way that mirrored the DIY punk and indie rock booms that ran concurrently. Like grunge, the Wu let loose a dirty drugged sound, an underground variant that happened to catch fire within mainstream pop culture. But while Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder actively shunned widespread popularity by refusing to make videos and by making intentionally difficult records, the Wu Tang aggressively courted mass audiences on their own terms. “Protect Ya Neck,” might have won them an underground buzz, but “C.R.E.A.M.” was the only single to crack the top 10 of the Billboard Rap charts.
And you’re sitting here at a conference named after it, so you probably don’t need to know what that song was about.
Beyond their revolutionary music, iconography, and grimy aesthetic, what delineated the Wu from their peers was an unabashed love of Adam Smith. So much that there’s a chapter in the Wu-Tang Manual called “Capitalism,” with an epigraph by Dick Cheney. But the Wu-Tang never read The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, or The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Their business strategies came from Mecca and Midtown, Forty-Second Street. It was there that RZA used to drop a buck and a half to catch kung-fu triple features at Times Square movie theaters. One fateful day in 1979, he saw a preview for a movie starring Gordon Liu: It was called The Thirty-sixth Chamber. RZA, a big believer in numerology, was taken aback by this coincidence: On June 6, or 6/6, 36, or 6 x 6, would be released. The film became a foundational text.
The Thirty-sixth Chamber is based on the actual 36 stratagems of the Shaolin temple. RZA used these stratagems in all aspects of the Wu-Tang: He applied the stratagem “Build something out of nothing” to his low-budget production method as well as the building up of a crew where one was not there. Using “Wait at ease for the fatigued enemy,” he would hold out until record companies were tired of negotiating. And utilizing “reverse host and guest,” “sow discord in the enemy’s camp,” and “scheme in continuous circles,” he invented a contract that completely transformed the industry.
The RZA’s idea was to have Wu-Tang Clan sign one contract as a group, but part of the contract would allow each member to sign a solo deal with a different label. This was difficult to pull off, as most group contracts included a “leaving member” clause, which entailed that each member was under contract to the label regardless of whether or not they wanted to bounce. But Loud Records, a struggling upstart helmed by promotional wunderkind Steve Rifkind, was so struck by Wu-Tang that they were willing to gamble on this prospect, especially since Ol’ Dirty Bastard had already signed a contract with Elektra. He wanted to invest in Wu-Tang financial before they were too big for him to have a stake. So in exchange for the RZA’s conditions on the deal, he dished out the small sum of $60,000 as an advance for a single and album.
Conventional logic held that it was better to artists under one umbrella to get a bigger payday, but the Rza claimed, “I wanted my artists under many umbrellas because I wanted the industry to work for me. I wanted the industry to have friendly competition with my product, without even knowing they were competing with each other.”
The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album was named after their jointly treasured kung-fu flick: Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. It’s cost: $36,000. Also, each member of the Wu-Tang has four chambers in their heart. What’s nine times four? Thirty-six. Plus, there are 36 fatal points on the body, and if you multiply that by the degrees of separation between each point—which is ten—you get 360 degrees: A perfect circle. We could do this all day.
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was widely celebrated by the music press and the hip-hop underground, eventually crushing that barrier and entering the mainstream. Six months after its release, it went gold. A year after, it went platinum, singlehandedly making Loud a force and inciting a bidding war for the group’s solo records. It grafted the casting approach of Ocean’s Eleven onto a narrative with the scope of The Wire and also included hand-to-hand combat scenes, art-film cutting techniques, and a character who would take MTV cameras to pick up welfare checks in a limo.
The album ushered in a new studio—Wu-Tang productions, ruled by RZA and cohorts—his brother Mitchell Diggs, aka Divine, and friend Oli Grant, aka Power; also the two people primarily responsible for putting up much of Wu-Tang’s seed money and operating their finance. They were the executive producers and RZA was the director, co-producer, and co-writer.
The RZA crafted and marketed each album like a movie studio would, with albums having a specifically “seasonal” vibe. Hence, Tical, the first Wu-Tang solo project, and the debut of eventual megastar Method Man, was released around Thanksgiving weekend, the Wu-Tang’s version of the first Terminator film. The comparison is pretty fitting: A slack-jawed superstar spouting catchphrases in a bleak, bombed-out urban apocalypse. It’s no coincidence that his sophomore album would be called “Judgment Day.”
The following spring, a surrealist tragicomedy starring, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. That summer, an epic Mob film saga starring Raekwon, and prominently co-starring Ghostface Killah, called Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, replete with alternate Mafioso identities for each of the Wu-Tang paisans. The GZA’s Liquid Swords was half Bergmanesque art film—with Seventh Seal-referencing chess scenes and appearances by the Grim Reaper—and half Marvel Comics feature. And finally, Ghostface Killah, whose Ironman was the Wu-Tang’s version of a Blaxploitation film, including gritty small-time capers and colorful costumes— a rainbow array of fur coats and Clark Wallabees.
The RZA sculpted each project’s score and direction, offering each a distinct tone and identity. Most importantly, each debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard charts. The Wu-Tang brand was so successful that RZA convinced all five labels to band together and create a “Christmas Bin” in record stores for all the Wu-Tang solo releases. It was the first time that all the labels made a unified deal for separate artists, and everyone’s sales doubled.
Though no contractual obligation made them do it, the entire Clan reaped the benefit of their collective and individual triumphs. As Power notes, “When each one of us blew up, we all shared his success—it was our success. The same way that our failures are our failures, too. But we knew that if a brother got a deal for 150k, he could keep the majority of it, but it would also facilitate and help the other brothers. 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.”
The reflexive inclination is to say that this business practice is a socialist one, but it’s actually a mixture of corporate practice, Five Percent Nation ethos and the 1983 Gordon Liu kung-fu film The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.
In the Five Percent Nation, the ninth of the nine basic tenets is that the unified black family is the vital building block of the nation. Therefore, the only way for the Wu-Tang, nine members, to build was to stay unified. And in The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, the central message of the movie is that, regardless of what maladies befall you, brotherhood must always stay intact. As The RZA says, “You’re living in the hood and you’ve got knowledge and dreams and you got wars between neighborhood and neighborhood and neighborhood. Everybody’s backstabbing everybody. And when you know someone who’s got your back, that’s a life-or-death thing. That’s a real bond, a brotherhood.”
Of all the initial Wu-Tang solo releases, the most critically lauded was Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, particularly for its lavish orchestral funk and fly slanguistics. Overlooked by critics was album booklet’s spread of clothing—not just t-shirts—but hockey jerseys, rugby shirts, and fishermen hats. All featured the “W” insignia and advertised a new line of clothing called “Wu-Wear.”
Music wasn’t Power’s forte. If RZA had the ear, and the rest of the Clan had the voices, then Power had the eye. He possesses a unique thermometer for cultural climates. He knew how to operate small-time drug running operations, and, after listening to RZA’s homemade music, he knew the Wu-Tang Clan would be big, shortly thereafter agreeing to be RZA’s patron.
Power saw the concurrent rise of hip-hop fashionwear. Labels like Karl Kani and Cross Colours were flying off of Macy’s racks, and hip-hop’s visual element was becoming the sartorial choice of youth culture. Power also took notice of Naughty Gear, a New Jersey store that sold the merchandise of then-popular rap trio Naughty By Nature. Power could see where both labels were struggling: Kani and Cross Colours were making visually exciting clothes, but they were catering too closely to the street, lacking the refined elements of mainstream fashion lines by Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, whose top-shelf clothes were coveted by people in Wu-Tang’s neighborhood because of their implicit connotations of high-status and wealth.
Naughty By Nature wisely extended their music into merchandising, but their gear was one-dimensional—mostly limited to shirts and hats—and catered to herbs, haters, and hagglers.
Power saw a way to stitch Kani’s streetwear tailoring to Naughty By Nature’s branding and take it beyond the hood and into middle America. When the first Wu Wear store opened up in Staten Island, it was ripe for invasion . The store had everything: shorts and button-ups and camo jackets and socks and underwear and visors and goggles and headbands and doorags and Gilligans and Timbalands and Lo Gooses and Flavor Wallys. But Power’s shrewdest move was to include the mail-order information inside the Wu-Tang booklets, so that anyone who bought the albums could buy the threads as well. Though Power tried to convince Ol’ Dirty Bastard to have his own underwear line, the man refused.
It was pure serendipity that Steve Schneider happened to walk into the Wu Wear store. Schneider owned a clothing distribution company called Urban Sales, and he saw the possibilities for Wu-Wear. All he had to say to Power was “wholesale.” Within two years, right next to Polo and Timbaland and Clark’s was a Wu-Wear display featuring all of their signature items, except with a “W” insignia. And by that point, the “W” had greater cultural capital than a polo jockey on a horse, an encircled tree, or beige moccasins.
It was in this atmosphere that Craig Kallman, the head of Atlantic Records, approached RZA about putting a Wu-Tang song on a soundtrack he was producing for the new Jon Lovitz-starring spoof High School High. Power had approached RZA about marketing Wu-Wear through the music, and RZA now had the perfect outlet to make that happen without sacrificing the thematic and narrative cohesion of a Wu-Tang album. Power aptly summed it up: “I went down there, talked to Craig, they made the song, next thing you know, we’re shooting a video with Mekhi Phifer.”
At the time, Big Beat/Atlantic executives thought they’d been screwed. But the Wu had so much juice that “Wu Wear: The Garment Renaissance” was the biggest single on the High School High soundtrack, hitting #6 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart and #60 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not bad for a song that’s a blatant shill for a clothing line.
It was now 1997. The Wu-Tang had six gold and platinum albums under its belt and a clothing line generating crazy cream. The anticipation for the follow-up to Wu-Tang Forever was like a 4th of July blockbuster. When it dropped, it detonated with a humongous advertising campaign by Loud Records, an hour-long special on MTV, midnight sales parties, and a $4 million advance. The album was a double-disc release, but still managed to push over 650,000 copies in its first week. Inside the album’s booklet was the Wu-Tang’s next venture—the digital world. There were advertisements for both Wu-Wear and Wu-Tang’s website, as well as 900 numbers for each of the members of the group. There were pull-outs where you could submit mail orders to the Wu-Wear store. One of the CDs was an enhanced CD-Rom that let you tour a fictional Wu-Mansion atop a thunderous cliff. And there was a full page for Wu-Tang Clan Membership, which, by joining, one would receive t-shirts, posters, stickers, CDs, cassettes, videos, and even a personalized photo ID. All for the low price of $30.00.
The music was even more dense and abstract than Enter the Wu-Tang. In his review for SPIN, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that “Wu-Tang Clan are basically selling avant-garde music as pop to the world. “The first single off the album, a $1 million video directed by Brett Ratner, had no discernible chorus, and featured some of the most complex, intricate rhyming by the Clan members. It is also nearly six minutes long, the “Like a Rolling Stone” of the hip-hop era.
The Wu-Tang’s forays into the digital realm didn’t end at the inserts for Wu-Tang Forever. After watching TBS half-awake one Sunday morning, Power saw a profile of video game developers Paradox Development, operating out of Silicon Valley. He immediately set about contacting them, and two years later, with the help of Activision, Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style was released on the Sony Playstation. In the game, the Wu-Tang Clan fight the various minions of Mong Zhu in order to rescue their teacher, Master Xin. To beat the game, The RZA must throw a gas bomb from his talisman into Mong Zhu’s mouth, then ignite it with a lamp made out of his late master’s skin. Trust us, it sounds a lot cooler than it actually is.
But by the time, the video game hit malls, the Wu’s star was already beginning to wane. Like a rap Stalin during that first five-year plan, the RZA’s stranglehold over the crew eventually began to relent. Absolutes of supply and demand meant that certain personalities would shine, others would have to sulk in the shadows, and still others would be U-God. But when the volatile cocktail of ego, money, and drugs mix, the only possible outcome was combustion.
Despite revenues climbing into eight figures, Wu-Wear fell victim to the caprices of youth culture. The street-wear business is notoriously boom or bust, and soon the Clan was swarmed by an influx of competitors. Jay-Z had Roc-A-Wear. Puff Daddy had Sean John. Master P had No Limit Gear. And with the clan on hiatus from 1997-2000, there were no soundtrack smashes to provide a hypodermic boost. Like Brett Ratner, their one-time director of “Triumph,” the Clan went Hollywood. Everyone split up into respective camps and cliques. The RZA ingratiated himself with Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, scoring flicks and learning to play the guitar from John Frusciante. The Ol’ Dirty Bastard was frequently incarcerated and he eventually died at only 35, still a relatively young dirty bastard.
Economic realities conspired to tarnish the Clan’s brand. With CD sales declining, the pie became crumbs, the clansmen struggling to survive and support growing familiars. Some became actors, some forged viable solo careers, others faded into relative oblivion, popping up only for the rare under-promoted solo record or spot dates to pay the bills.
Different schools of thought cropped up on how to carry the brand into its third decade. During the recording of “8 Diagrams” a civil war erupted, with Method Man, Ghostface, and Raekwon preferring to preserve the clan’s gritty Staten Island samurai rap and RZA fantasizing about storming the Opera House with fluttering violins and orchestral swells. But the other clansmen weren’t into suit and tie raps and the failure of the record—partially due to a refusal to promote it, and partially due to the vagaries of the industry—meant that the Wu remain asunder to this day (unless you’re a promoter willing to pay the right price).
As for Wu-Wear, the long moribund line is hoping to stage an unlikely comeback. Earlier this month, Power attended the Magic apparel convention in Las Vegas, still politicking and making deals. While no concrete announcements have yet been made, Power’s attempting to take a binary approach—a new upscale Wu-Brand to compete with Sean John and Roc-A-Wear and the more budget-oriented Wu Wear. But after more than a half-dozen years out of the game, it’s difficult to see where Wu-Wear fits in, particularly without new music from the unified Clan. Yet it’s difficult to wager against them, the Clan’s genius lay in their ability to construct their own lane and fill it with Mazda MPV’s, every week making 40 G’s.
But whether Wu-Tang really is forever is less important than the impact they wrought. Not only does every crew of their generation engender comparisons to the Wu—from Hiero to Boot Camp Click to Mobb Deep’s Queensbridge family. Even Odd Future, currently the most hotly tipped young rap crew in America— are compared to Wu-Tang in spirit if not sound. After all, the Clan pioneered an unusually balanced blend of raw rebellious music and fiscal savvy. When Odd Future head, Tyler the Creator signed a one-off project with XL Recordings, it was a page out of the Wu Tang playbook. Negotiate from a position of strength and don’t lock your crew into a long-term bind, lest you cede any creative control to a label.
The Wu-Tang cloaked high art in hood parables and strange semiotics. Their art was their life was their business. Rap as religion, rap as brolic style, a gully planet sharp with poisonous darts and bunt metal lungies. The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum, but for a few years anyone worth knowing under the age of 25 was locked in alignment. One galaxy, nine planets, 36 Chambers of death, kid. Consider the gusto got.