Its genius was, of course, in its simplicity: diversification.
If you know rap at all, you'll recognize at least a few of these names: Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Genius (a.k.a. GZA), the RZA, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, U-God. Each has had his share of individual success in the rap game -- gone gold or platinum, made some crazy great hip-hop tracks, teamed up with some of the best, made the front page. All are part of the Wu-Tang Clan, which was formed in 1993 as a result of a number of rappers' frustration with the industry.
Their first bit of razor-sharp insight: Until the advent of the Wu-Tang Clan, most rap crews signed an all-encompassing record deal that gave the label the rights not only to the output of the group but to the output of each individual member. So if, for example, Public Enemy signed a deal with Def Jam, Chuck D and Flava Flav would also be signed to the label. But the individual members of Wu-Tang didn't play it that way. Rather, they hooked up; formed their "crew"; dropped a wild first single, "Protect Ya Neck"; and cut a deal with their label, Loud, in which the Wu-Tang Clan as one entity signed on the line and each individual Wu member was free to broker his own deal with whomever he pleased. The result? Eight distinct deals where there once was one, with each member getting paid both from the royalties of the two Wu-Tang Clan records and his solo albums. There are no financial struggles among the members, no ego-induced tugs-of-war -- just autonomy, and people getting paid some serious money.
Of course, a solid business plan and a bunch of fat brains mean nothing if your product sucks, but the Wu-Tang brand produces high-quality merchandise, some of which has changed the course of the game; the collective dropped some of the most exhilarating hip-hop albums of the '90s, especially their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and its 1997 follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever (which, in our opinion, is a better album); Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx; Method Man's Tical; and two recent explosions, Ol' Dirty Bastard's rip-roaring N***a Please and Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele. The Wu-Tang Clan has spun heads nonstop from day one, drummed ears and, yes, even influenced the fashion world with their Wu-Wear line of hip-hop clothing.
Actually, much of the kudos for the Wu's success should go to the RZA, who has produced the lion's share of the collective's music and has such a way with beats, samples and the glorious combination thereof that without him, the whole model would have dropped dead from the get-go. The RZA's got it: Where sound-alikes and wannabes simply rip off the flavor of the month, sneaking similar sound snippets between tired beats, the RZA has a vision and an aesthetic all his own. He writes the rules. Others follow.
RZA creates drama, understands soul -- not soul as in soul music but soul as in feel for the essence of music, the ability to create sound that resonates not just because of a catchy beat, a cool sample or a visionary sound. Soul like that buried in John Coltrane's tenor tone, in Howlin' Wolf's sandpaper bellow, in Otis Redding's throat.
Whereas most rap producers find a simple melodic sample -- say, a violin melody or a piano run -- crunch about three seconds of it and then repeat it over and over, the RZA stretches his samples, resulting in more complex and engaging cuts. He'll still repeat them, but because of their length and depth, they become more engaging as they pile up, not less, as most second-rate producers' stuff inevitably does. The RZA will change keys in the middle of a track, resulting in a weird wooziness that infects everything that follows.
Take "Reunited," from Forever. Its beautiful violin melody runs 16 measures -- an eternity in the four-measure world of most hip-hop. This beautiful violin then erupts midway through the song into a string breakdown that wouldn't be out of place at the Grand Ole Opry or in the middle of the Velvet Underground's "European Son." A shotgun blast serves as an exclamation point as Wu members trade rhymes.
Above the RZA, Wu-Tang emcees create, in their words, "poetry whirlpools," cramming so much energy and diction between beats that they threaten to crush all that's underneath. Often their rhymes spill over the edge of a beat and into the next, but the emcees are quick and dexterous enough to flip-flop the flub and turn it into a more complicated rhythm.
And then there's -- God bless him -- Ol' Dirty Bastard, who, in the course of a single year, was shot twice, nabbed for shoplifting a $50 pair of Nikes and helped save the life of a child hit by a car. Unfortunately for us (though, of course, fortunately for him), ODB won't be at this Sunday's show at the American Theatre, because he's in court-imposed rehab.
"Behind every fortune is a crime," rhymes Method Man on "The Projects," and though various Wu-Tangers have, over the years, been nabbed for petty crimes, their great crime is of the Robin Hood variety: They stole from the music industry and crammed the cash straight into their collective pocket. Good for them.