The typical legal, social, and financial setup of what constitutes "a band" got turned upside, downside, long-ways, and catawampus with the revolutionary hip hop band Wu-Tang Clan. The concept was revolutionary; a true testament to the potential of Capitalism itself: Wu-Tang Clan was established in order to produce hit music, after which the respective members would endeavor to produce as many spinoff acts and byproducts as possible, thereby maximizing the financial potential of the collective and its members. > Read more
Does this offend your purist musical sensibilities? It shouldn't. Their model merely planned from the beginning what most bands inevitably fall into, anyway, though other musicians probably fail to reach their full potential because the spinoffs, subsequent solo careers, and "band magic" weren't planned and executed from the beginning. If you support free enterprise, the model is nothing short of sheer, unbridled genius.
Wu-Tang's Un-Wu-sual Name & Business Model
No one could argue, whether Wu-Tang Clan was established simply to make money or to produce great music, that they weren't successful. Indeed, they managed to achieve both goals. Specializing in hardcore rap and hip hop, they top the charts both in terms of commercial success and in the realm of critical acclaim. As quickly as 1994 (the group was formed just one year prior in Staten Island, NY) they managed to build a fortress of more than 300 affiliates, known collectively as the Wu-Tang Killa Bees. The Killa Bees include numerous rappers, music producers, record labels, and other industry professionals.
The unusual name for the group came from a 1983 film produced in Hong Kong called Shaolin and Wu Tang (or Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, as it is listed in the Master Killer Collection). The movie pits two schools of Chinese martial arts -- Shaolin Kung Fu and Wu Tang or Wudang quan -- against one another.
Sometimes the Clan liked to create backronyms (acronyms formed after the fact that weren't actually used to create the name) for their name, such as "We Usually Take All Niggas' Garments," "Witty Unpredictable Talent and Natural Game," and "Wisdom of the Universe and Truth of Allah for the Nation of the Gods". The last is a nod to the belief system most members ascribe to, known as Five-Percent Nation or the Five Percenters.
In terms of music, they produced 7 studio albums (under the name Wu-Tang Clan), an astounding 21 singles, and numerous compilations, scoring them some 6.5 million record sales in the US and a whopping 40 million globally (including sales of individual members, which was kind of the point).
But, who are they?
The Men That Make the Wu-Tang Clan
The unofficial leader of Wu-Tang is Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, or RZA. Primarily a music producer, he also has a successful career in film, including box office hits like Kill Bill, American Gangster, The Man with the Iron Fists, and others.
Gary Grice, RZA's cousin, has been in the hip hop biz since it was nothing but a trendy New York club act. He was the first to take advantage of their odd hit-manufacturing scheme, releasing Words from the Genius in '91. His style is deliberate and relaxed, utilizing heavy metaphors and many references to his interests: Samurai flicks, the game of chess, and the doctrine of Five Percenter.
Otherwise known as plain old Corey Woods, his other nickname is "The Chef" because he has a "lyrical flavor." Well, that, and because he has the culinary skill of cooking regular cocaine into crack rock. He is both the inventor and purveyor of countless classic New York slang terms, which he utilizes in his raps, usually presented in an aggressive style and fast tempo. Most of his lyrics involve tales of drugs, and he's one of the legends of Mafioso rap, popular in the last half of the 90's, a subgenre of Gangsta rap and hardcore hip hop and extension of the G-Funk rap notable on the West Coast. It heavily features topics like mobsters, mafia men, and organized crime. His solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, is considered to be one of the best of any solo productions by a Wu-Tang Clan member.
Born as Clifford Smith, he was the first of the Clan to record a solo album, called Tical. He also reached the greatest heights of commercial success, while still managing to hang on to his gangsta reputation. He lays claim to Platinum albums, a Grammy, and some TV and movie credits as an actor. His style of rap is distinctively smooth, but often described as "grimy," and he's achieved no shortage of musical collaborations with other notable artists.
Known for his heavy use of deep metaphors and complex rhyming, he was born as Jason Hunter and is successful as a producer, beat producer, and a rapper. He has several solo albums apart from his work with Wu-Tang Clan, but none of it has lived up to his exceptional work on Wu-Tang Forever.
Entering the world as Dennis Coles, his rap style is both energetic and emotional. His music has achieved both critical and commercial success, and he's one of the most dependable members of the Wu-Tang Clan. He's also produced the most solo albums of any member, with the current count of 12.
Marked for his deep bass voice, U-God hasn't achieved the high-profile success of his Wu-Tang Clan counterparts, at least partly because he was in jail during much of the time spent recording 36 Chambers. Born Lamont Jody Hawkins, his unusual moniker comes from his belief system, Five-Percent Nation. U-God is short for his religious name, "Universal God Allah". The Five Percenters are a split-off from Malcolm X's brand of Islam that began in Harlem, New York in 1964.
Elgin Turner was the only member of Wu-Tang Clan who was not already an established musical performer when the group was established. Like U-God, some jail time kept him out of the studio during the production of their first album. His rapping style is markedly intellectual, it sounds a lot like plain talking, and his solo work (though limited) achieved both commercial and critical acclaim. His rapping skills are most evident in the closing verse of "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'", "Dual of the Iron Mic," "Snakes," and "Winter Warz".
Ol' Dirty Bastard
Originally Russell Tyrone Jones, he was the band's wildest and most unusual character. He made his mark in music with his offbeat rhythms, a somewhat garbled way of rapping, and vocal inflections well outside the norm. OBD, for short, was exceptionally popular among rap fans, earning him both strong record sales and a collection of excellent collaborative partners, including those outside the rap and hip hop arenas, like Mariah Carey. Tragically, OBD collapsed in 2004 while at the Clan's recording studio. A subsequent autopsy ruled his death an accidental drug overdose.
Born as Darryl Hill, he was childhood friends with most of the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan, and made his musical debut on the track "Ice Cream" by Raekwon. He first joined up with the Clan in '97 to perform on one of the singles on the album Wu-Tang Forever called "Triumph". Cappadonna's relationship with Wu-Tang can best be described as on-again-off-again.
Why Wu-Tang Isn't Your Ordinary 'Rap Group'
Aside from their unorthodox business model, Wu-Tang breathed new life into the arena of rap and hip hop at a time when the music was getting, well, a bit tired and stale. Their brand of East Coast hip hop originated in NYC in the 70's. It's noted most for its complicated lyrics, which lend especially well to just listening, whereas many of the other rap subgenres are best for dancing. Wu-Tang Clan brought attention, prestige, and credibility of rap music to a mainstream audience.