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Days of the Wu
The RZA looks inside the Clan

It’s hard to believe now, but the Wu-Tang Clan were the original underground hip-hop. A crew of friends and relatives in and around New York City organized by the RZA, a rapper who’d had a bit of success as a solo act on the now defunct Tommy Boy, the Clan almost began as a Tommy Boy project, but as the RZA explains in the Wu-Tang Manual, "They made the decision to sign House of Pain over us. When they dropped me, I was thinking, ‘Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me.’ "

If you need further proof that the people who run the major labels don’t have a clue, the RZA provides it in waves. A street-educated troublemaker living with Ghostface Killah in Staten Island’s Stapleton Projects in 1991, he cobbled together an idea of a hip-hop clan based on the Eastern philosophy he’d picked up from kung fu movies, the watered-down Nation of Islam preaching he’d picked up on the New York streets, and comic books. By 1992, he’d collected some of the most talented MCs in the New York area — Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Old Dirty Bastard and the GZA (who first performed under the name Wu-Tang), U-God, Raekwon — and had fronted the money for the first Wu-Tang Productions single, "Protect Ya Neck/After the Laughter." "We pressed five hundred copies and sold it directly to record stores and DJs," he writes, noting that "this was before the Internet and the whole direct-to-buyer explosion."

Wu-Tang quickly became an underground phenomenon. By 1993, the RZA was signing a contract with Loud/RCA that would allow the Wu-Tang members to make solo deals with other labels, so that by 1995, Geffen, Loud, Def Jam, and Elektra were all marketing Wu-Tang albums. Insane to think about now. Wu-Tang built an industry that spun off clothing lines, fragrances, comic books, action figures, anything and everything they could sell to the masses who adored them. But it all started with Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers. "Dolla-dolla bill y’all?" "CREAM: Cash Rules Everything Around Me?" The raps were ferocious, an endless string of new voices, new beat constructions, and new lingo assaulting you with each new song.

And the quasi-religion that was instrumental in the founding of the Wu-Tang Clan? As you’ll learn in the Manual, Wu-Tang members are sort of Muslim with heavy doses of Taoism, Confucianism, Zen, and self-preservation. The RZA outlines "The Way of the Wu: The Grand Spiritual Megamix," and it’s intoxicating, grabbing as it does from Homer, Mohammed, Sun Tzu, Paulo Coelho, the Bible, Greek mythology, and Grandmaster Flash. Allah, we’re told, "is the rightful name of Man" and stands for "arm-leg-leg-arm-head." "Islam means I-Self-Lord-And-Master." There is a Supreme Alphabet and a Supreme Science, and a Wu-Tang Numerology: "You have the thirty-six chambers, and there’s nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Each member of Wu-Tang has four chambers of the heart. And what’s nine times four? Thirty-six. There are thirty-six fatal points on the body, and that times ten degrees of separation between each point equals 360 degrees. Therefore, the Wu-Tang Clan is a perfect circle." You followed that, right?

Between offering explanations of the Wu philosophies, dissertations on the Wu connection with film, fashion, and comic books, and annotated lyrics to some of their most popular songs, the Manual provides insight into a collective that became denser and denser as the solo projects spiraled out and it became ever more difficult to track who was doing what with whom. It makes so much of what they released make so much more sense — even if what they’re referring to takes a leap of faith in the first place. When Method Man says, "Enough respect due to the one-six-ooh" in "Protect Ya Neck," I now know he’s referring to building 160 in the Park Hill Projects, where many of the Wu members lived. And when the GZA puts together the couplet "It’s no the Russian, it’s the Wu-Tang crushin’/Roulette, slip up and get fucked like Suzette," the RZA explains, "For a long time, everyone assumed that he’s just using the term ‘Suzette’ generically, just to mean any old ho. But I actually do remember a girl named Suzette from Shaolin [their name for Staten Island]. And I do think she got fucked a lot."

There’s also great stuff about how they got their nicknames — just reading the 15 that the late Old Dirty Bastard collected along the way is a riot — and useful tips about producing, putting on a live show, and writing lyrics for the recording process. Plenty of holes are left unfilled, and it’s far from an autobiography, but as the RZA says, the Manual is "a path, not the destination," and it’s still well worth walking down.

Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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