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Mon April 8, 2013
The Record

The Wu-Tang Clan's 20-Year Plan

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 2:26 pm

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable year in music. Over the 12 months of 1993, 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 — it was a business concept, too. The Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut was the opening shot of an audacious plan to open the music industry to hip-hop made way outside the mainstream.

Back in the early '90s, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs looked around and saw the music industry betting on rap-lite — think Will Smith and Young MC, both of whom had won Grammys in the late '80s. Songs like "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Bust a Move" just weren't for him, or his friends.

"We were street kids," he says, "guys that was more like felons, or high-school dropouts. Not saying this is a positive thing, I'm just saying this is the difference of our character."

He saw an opportunity. "If you keep eating McDonald's, you gonna get sick. You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that's what Wu-Tang was: It was a home-cooked meal of hip-hop. Of the real people."

Diggs also saw that he was going to have to prove to the industry that the style of hip-hop he wanted to make would sell. "Because if you look at hip-hop at that time," he says, "it wasn't a lot of artists selling gold or platinum albums. There was a lot of hip-hop artists, but they wasn't going gold, they wasn't going platinum."

He 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 were his cousins, one was his roommate, 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, grimy-sounding, no chorus, vinyl-only single: "Protect Ya Neck."

Diggs set up a company called Wu-Tang Productions, named after the bad guys in a 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, 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."

"I played it again and again and again."

Listeners called in. And Stretch and Bobbito 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.

"The hook itself is the individual styles," says Schott Free, a friend of the RZA's who promoted "Protect Ya Neck" to radio stations. "Every four to eight bars or so, you're presented with a whole different style and sound on how to ride one particular wave, you know what I mean? That's the thrill and the shock of it all — it's just going on those rides."

One of the first record execs to come sniffing 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.

"When Def Jam wanted to sign Method Man, they wanted to sign Method Man and Old Dirty," says the RZA. "And Old Dirty wanted to be on Def Jam — everybody, that was like the dream label. But if I had Old Dirty and Method Man on Def Jam, that's two key pieces going in the same direction, whereas there's other labels that needed to be infiltrated."

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. Sales from those albums enriched each label — which meant they saw more potential in hip-hop made by street kids.

At Loud, the group's home base, Rifkind was happily taking a chance on a group that had been turned away from his competitors. But the RZA wasn't one for chances. Both he and DJ Stretch Armstrong recommended Schott Free for a job at Loud. "[RZA] said, 'Look man, you one of the only educated dudes in the Clan. We need somebody up in the office, overseeing what these guys are doing with our records!' "

And that's not all. 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 the opposite of laid-back.

The 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."

Five years after the group signed on to an idea, its 1997 followup, Wu-Tang Forever, debuted at No. 1. It shipped 4 million copies in less than six months. I asked the RZA if he actually had a 20-year plan.

"This may sound unbelievable to you," he 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 is an understatement. The improbable success of the Wu-Tang Clan — their platinum plaques and world tours, alone and together — kicked open the door for other rap groups that wanted to make home-cooked music, for the real people.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable 12 months in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE OF RAP SONGS)

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Black Reign, 1993...

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Well, it started in the year of '78. But it's '93 or should I say '94...

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) So I tried rap. Now in 1993, I'm living that phat. Check my attitude, it comes with the territory, baby...

SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Follow me, follow me, follow me but don't lose your grip. Nine-trizzay is the yizzear for me to ...

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) So, my man, watch your back. Ninety-three means skills are a must, so never lack.

WU-TANG CLAN: Nineteen-ninety-three exoticness...

GREENE: Over the span of 1993, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, and dozens of other rappers released albums that helped to change the sound of America. And one of those albums was not just a collection of songs. It was a business concept as well. NPR's Frannie Kelley reports that the Wu-Tang Clan's debut was the opening shot in an audacious plan to elevate hip-hop made outside of the mainstream.

FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Back in the early '90s, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs looked around and saw the music industry was betting on rap-lite. Think Will Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

WILL SMITH: (Rapping) So to you other kids all across the land, there's no need to argue. Parents just don't understand.

KELLY: Songs like "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Bust a Move" just weren't for him, or his friends.

ROBERT FITZGERALD DIGGS: We were street kids, you know? Guys that - was more like felons or high school dropouts. I'm not saying that's a positive thing. I'm just saying, this is a difference of our character. We were like the guys in the projects. You know what I mean?

KELLY: He saw an opportunity.

DIGGS: I knew that the industry needed real hip-hop. It's like right now, if you keep eating McDonald's, you going to get sick. You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that's what Wu-Tang was. It was a home-cooked meal of hip-hop - of the real people.

KELLY: Diggs also saw that he was going to have to prove to the industry that the style of hip-hop he wanted to make would sell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M, which failed. I went to jail at the age of 15. A young punk selling drugs and such who never had much, trying to get a clutch at what I could not...

KELLY: 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 Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Two were his cousins, one was his roommate; 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, grimy-sounding, no chorus, vinyl-only single.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

DIGGS: (Rapping) Check this rap. Me and my boys getting hip. (unintelligible) 40 dogs to my left and a...

KELLY: Diggs set up a company called Wu-Tang Productions, named after the bad guys in a movie. 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.

DIGGS: I used the bus as an analogy. I said I want all of y'all to get on this bus. And I'm the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I'm taking us to number one. Give me five years and I promise that I'll get us there.

KELLY: Us was the RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon and Masta Killah. They all signed on to the plan. And 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.

BOBBITO GARCIA: They weren't being nice.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Definitely like, Yo man, play this record - it's dope. Put that on right now, son. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So what's up, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cooling, man...

GARCIA: I gave the record to Stretch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know what I want to hear, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What you want to hear?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I want to hear that Wu-Tang joint.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wu-Tang again?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ah, yeah, again and again.

GARCIA: Stretch can tell you what happened from there.

DJ STRETCH ARMSTRONG: I played it again.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: And again?

ARMSTRONG: And again.

GARCIA: And again?

ARMSTRONG: And again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping) I smoke on the mike like smoking Joe Frazier, the Hell Raiser, raising hell with the flavor. Terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan. Swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spiderman...

KELLY: Listeners called in. Club DJs, promotions people and music writers all thought it was the hottest thing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping) So when y'all make the crowd go wild, sit back, relax, won't smile...

KELLY: One of the first record execs to come sniffing 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.

DIGGS: When Def Jam wanted to sign Method Man, they wanted to sign Method Man and Old Dirty. But if I had Old Dirty and Method Man on Def Jam, that's two key pieces going in the same direction. Whereas there's the other labels that needed to be infiltrated.

KELLY: The goal was to spread the 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. But that's not all, getting to number one depended on each solo album growing the Clan's fan base.

DIGGS: I recall telling GZA, you'll get the college crowd.

KELLY: Because he's the intellectual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAN IN DA FRONT")

GZA: (Rapping) I'm sort of like a miracle on 34th Street. In the Square of Herald, I gamed Ella. The (bleep) got a Fitz like Gerald-ine-Ferraro...

DIGGS: Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas.

KELLY: Their metaphors read like a police blotter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAN IN DA FRONT")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Hazardous, 'cause I wreck this dangerous. I blow sparks like Waco, Texas. I watch my back like I'm locked down, hardcore, hitting sound, watch me act bugged and tear it down...

DIGGS: Meth will get the women and children.

KELLY: Method Man is playful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME GROWN")

METHOD MAN: (Rapping) Patty cake patty cake. Hey, the Method Man. Don't eat Skippy, Jiff or Peter Pan...

DIGGS: Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock and roll.

KELLY: In your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOTHING TA F'WIT")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I slam, jam, now scream like Tarzan. I be tossing and flossing my style is awesome. I'm causing more family feuds than Richard Dawson.

KELLY: The 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.

DIGGS: It took me like a whole week or two to keep doing it. And the rest of the band didn't know it. They didn't hear it until it was done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The game of chess is like a sword fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABERS)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You must think first before you move.

KELLY: Five years after the group signed on to an idea, its follow-up, "Wu-Tang Forever," debuted at number one. I asked the RZA if he actually had a 20-year plan.

DIGGS: This may sound unbelievable to you. But I told the crew in the basement meeting that, from my calculations 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.

KELLY: Safe is an understatement. The improbable success of the Wu-Tang Clan - their platinum plaques and world tours - alone and together - kicked open a door for other rap groups that wanted to make home-cooked music for the real people.

Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Rapping is what's happening. Keep the pockets stacked and then hands clapping. And then at the party...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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