RZA had a secret plan to bring the Wu-Tang clan to no. 1 within 5 years. Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, GZA, ODB, U God, and Masta Killa had no idea what they were signing up for. But amazingly, the plan worked.
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In 1991, an fairly unknown rapper named Prince Rakeem launched an EP called “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” with a minor record label, Tommy Boy.
“Ooh I Love You Rakeem”
Few took notice of the low-rent Will Smith sound.
Nor was anyone paying much attention to Prince Rakeem's cousin, whose LP “Words From the Genius” launched in the same year.
“Come do me”
The cousins were, of course, RZA and GZA.
Leaving their respective record contracts, they would soon unite with yet another cousin, who you may know as ODB, to form a group called Force of the Imperial Master. They wouldn't get signed to a record contract, but their track, “All In Together Now” would gain traction in the underground hip hop world.
RZA knew he was on to something. He would bring in 6 other relatively obscure rappers (seven, if you count Cappadonna, which of course you shouldn't) to join him in a revolutionary project: a five-year plan to turn a loose collection of unknown artists into rap stars, each with the opportunity to launch solo careers, side-projects, even movies.
RZA's plan was brazen, elegant, and innovative. But it was also a secret. No one was allowed to know what exactly they were signing up for.
“I wan't all of y'all to get on this bus,” RZA told them, “and be the 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.”
Sure enough, he did just that. But, how did he know he could? Why did it work? And, let's be bold enough to ask what his crew could not when they agreed to join the Wu Tang Clan:
What's his plan?
RZA's plan involved more than just producing music. It involved innovating the way record contracts were written and developing a wholly distinctive visual and auditory brand. It was a rich and complex plan, with multiple components working in concert. And amazingly, it worked.
A Distinctive Sound
If the Wu-Tang Clan was going to make it to number one, they would have to stand out in every way: and sounding radically different was no small part of this.
Including samples from old movies, particularly the Kung Fu movies that RZA loved so much would eventually become part of the Wu Tang Clan's signature sound. But there was more to it than that.
RZA would do everything possible to depart from the sound of mainstream commercial rap. His beats would be raw, gritty, and simple to emphasize the equally innovative vocals.
Their first single, Protect Ya Neck (released in 1993) would sound like nothing else in hip hop at the time.
In the same year this song came out the longest-running song on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts was Freak Me by Silk.
Gross. But even the serious gangster rappers sounded nothing like Wu-Tang at the time. Here's Dre's Nothin But a G Thang, again from '93.
Okay, obviously this song awesome. But it's also conspicuously commercial: with sophisticated beats, fairly predictable vocal rhythms and a mind-numbingly simple, catchy chorus.
The song has no chorus, not even a hook. And Wu-Tang rappers would generally avoid the on-beat rhythm which was still popular at the time. Even Ice Cube was rapping on the beat in 1993.
But Protect Your Neck would also introduce the world to this sound...
More than the Wu Tang's battle cry, the sound would become an instantly recognizable auditory logo, and prominent feature of the Wu Tang Brand.
The Wu Tang Brand
Accompanying Wu-Tang's distinctive sound was their visual brand, the corner stone of which was, and still is, the W.
No, not the album, but the logo featured prominently on it. It's perhaps the most significant and recognizable symbol in music history.
It's featured prominently on every Wu Tang album, proudly worn on T-Shirts, and formed by its fans' hands at concerts.
Think about it. Metal fans might throw up this sign. 60's hippies used the peace sign. And hip hop fans generally might throw their hands in the air like they just don't care. But not Wu Tang's fans. They'd throw up a W.
The logo would also feature prominently in their music videos.
As would the hard streets they came from, surreal imagery, and visual references to Kung Fu—in particular the sword.
The Wu-Tang derived their name from a fictional sword in one of RZA's favourite kung fu movies.
But the word 'sword' would also come to allude to the craft of writing in the Wu Tang Clan's parlance. In fact, language was another way in which the group distinguished itself...