I like a bunch of different music, I'm all over the map. I have some friends who can't stand my passion for rap and hip-hop, but others fully embrace it with me and we lay down the lyrics right along with the artists. There is a group who played a major role in opening up the industry to hip-hop and they are called the Wu-Tang Clan.
Over the 12 months of 1993, Wu-Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest and more than a dozen other rappers released albums that helped to change the sound of America. One of those albums wasn't just a collection of songs though, it was also a business concept. The Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut was the start of a 20-year plan to open the music industry to hip-hop.
Robert Fitzgerald Diggs knew the best rappers on Staten Island. They came to his house to watch kung fu movies and battle rap and study the teachings of the 5 Percent Nation (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam). Two of these rappers were his cousins, one was his roommate, and a couple were technically his rivals. So he had to do some convincing, but he recorded a verse by each of them, added one of his own and pressed up an eight-verse, low quality sound, no chorus, vinyl-only single, "Protect Ya Neck."
Diggs set up a company called Wu-Tang Productions, named after the bad guys in a kung fu movie. "I thought that Wu-Tang was the best sword style," he says, "the best sword-style of martial arts. And the tongue is like a sword. And so I say that we have the best lyrics, so, therefore, we are the Wu-Tang Clan."
He changed his name to the RZA — an acronym that refers to his theological studies, asked his roommate's DJ to make a logo, and he called a meeting. "I used the bus as an analogy," he says. "I said, 'I want all of y'all to get on this bus. And be passengers. And I'm the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I'm taking us to No. 1. Give me five years, and I promise that I'll get us there.' "
"Us" was the RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon and Masta Killa. They all signed on to the plan. For Ghostface, he said signing wasn't even a question. "This is what we loved to do. We rhymed all day," he says. "Still now, but at that time, we really, really, really, really loved it."
In the winter of 1992, some of them snuck into one of the few radio stations in New York City that was playing hip-hop (Columbia University's WKCR) and tried to convince DJ Stretch Armstrong and host Bobbito Garcia to play it. "They weren't being nice," says Garcia. "They were definitely like, 'Yo man, play this record, it's dope. La la. Put that on right now son. La la.' I listened to it, I previewed it about 15, 20 minutes later, and I was like, 'Oh, wow, this record is incredible.' So I played it. I gave the record to Stretch. Stretch can tell you what happened from there." Stretch remembers, "I played it again and again and again."
Listeners called in. And Stretch and Bobbito soon weren't the only ones playing it. Ghostface Killah remembers the first time he and Raekwon heard "Protect Ya Neck" on the radio. "Rae, he jumped to the f- - -ing ceiling," says Ghostface. "I remember that day. Me and him was at the house, waiting for it to come on. Kid Capri played it. And it was on." Club DJs, promotions people and music writers all thought it was the hottest thing out.
One of the first record execs to come around was Steve Rifkind, who had a new label called Loud. The RZA got him to sign an unprecedented deal: For only $60,000, Rifkind got the Clan as a whole. BUT the RZA also convinced him to allow each individual in the group to become, in essence, a free agent. They could sign a solo deal with any other company, and take the Wu-Tang name with them.
The RZA's plan was to spread his group's sound as widely as possible. And just a few years later, members of the Wu-Tang Clan were recording for five of the six major labels, back when there were six major labels.
Getting to No. 1 depended on each artist growing the Clan's fanbase. The RZA explains:
"I recall telling GZA, 'You'll get the college crowd,' " because he's the intellectual. "Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas" — their metaphors read like a police blotter — "Meth will get the women and children — and he didn't want to do women and children. He didn't know that, though. Method Man is a rough, rugged street dude, but all the girls love him." Method Man is playful. "Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock 'n' roll," says the RZA, whose rhyming style is up tempo.
The 1993 debut album was called Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and it wasn't obvious that it would work. Everything the band had released so far was raw. Members contributed ideas and even some of their own money, but nobody knew how the RZA was going to pull it all together. He rented time in a Manhattan studio with the then-new editing technology Pro Tools and packed movie clips and old interviews into the music.
"It took me like a whole week or two to keep doing it," says the RZA. "And the rest of the band didn't know it. They didn't hear it until it was done." Over these surrealistic backing tracks, the MCs rapped hard, updating the old-school attack with vicious violence, martial arts imagery, and a welcome warped humor. By 1995, the sound was one of the most instantly recognizable in hip-hop.
Five years after the group signed on to an idea, the 1997 followup, Wu-Tang Forever, debuted at No. 1. It shipped 4 million copies in less than six months. The RZA actually had a 20 year plan, and it worked. "This may sound unbelievable to you," RZA says, "but I told the crew in the basement meeting that from my calculations, and from what I'm feeling, that this will last 20 years. I said, 'If we smart, we can plunge at that moment, or we could gracefully make a safe landing to 20 years.'" Safe was an understatement. The improbable success of the Wu-Tang Clan — their platinum plaques and world tours, solo and together — kicked open the door for other rap groups that wanted to make music.