This originally appeared on I Hate JJ Redick on February 3, 2012
“What RZA put together let no man tear asunder.”
I would argue the Wu-Tang Clan the most influential hip-hop collective outside of possibly Run-DMC. It’s more than just music, chess, and karate flicks. It’s a way of life and almost a religion. For proof, look no further than the fact that the makeup, philosophy and history of the Wu-Tang Clan has its own manual and even its own bible.
All of that came later. In the beginning, it was a group of rappers that did things differently than everyone else in the game. Of all of the groundbreaking moves that the Clan brought to the music industry, the most important may have been RZA’s ability to negotiate a contract with Loud Records for the entire group that also allowed individual members to sign with other labels for their solo projects.
It was unprecedented. But was it beneficial?
One of the most well-known Clansmen, Raekwon, told VladTV that he believed the solo projects hurt the group:
“I feel like in a way, us doing solo things hurt us…When we had something so pure and so solid together, it could’ve been structured more togetherly [sic]. It could’ve been more stronger if we knew it had to stay like that. But when we allowed each other to do us, some did better than others, it caused a certain kind of reaction in the whole movement.”
With all due respect to Rae, I completely disagree and I think he is engaging in revisionist history (although I’m going to start using the word “togetherly” in my everday conversations).
“We form like Voltron.”
There are three reasons why I don’t subscribe to Raekwon’s view:
1. Wu-Tang was the first and still only supergroup with unknown artists. They were a collective of independent emcees in much the same vein as Westside Connection or Slaughterhouse but, unlike those two groups, they were not already established as individuals. Even one of the group’s first big songs was a solo song by a member that everyone knew was the star of the group. Method Man signed his solo contract with Def Jam while the group was still recording Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), so the idea of the group without solo ambitions was never a consideration.
In The Tao of Wu, RZA admits that he always saw the members as individual artists: “In fact, that became my primary objective: to systematically launch each member as a solo star by giving them exposure through the Wu-Tang Clan – a crucial part of my five-year plan.” From the beginning, it was a group comprised of solo artists and RZA knew that, that’s why he required that the contract the group signed with Loud to allow for that. He knew that trying to keep all nine members together would ultimately fracture the group entirely.
“Break through like the Wu, unexpectedly.”
2. Speaking of RZA, he was the glue, the linchpin that held it all together and guided the group. He was also the boss. Again in The Tao of Wu, he explains how he was able to get eight other dudes from the streets to agree to join this experiment with his five-year plan: “I called all the brothers together. I said that we were going to go out as Wu-Tang Clan. I had the contracts ready. I said give me five years and I will take us to number one. It was a long conversation, eye-to-eye, man-to-man. I said that no one could question my authority. It had to be a dictatorship.” That was the start of the five-year plan. Everyone – all eight members plus RZA himself – entered into a commitment of five years and no more. Raekwon now says that he thinks his group could have released 30 albums by now, but without the structure and vision of RZA’s plan, would they have even released one? I’m skeptical.
By the end of the five years, RZA needed a break from running the biggest act in hip-hop. He had produced, mixed, arranged, oversaw, and basically executive produced seven full albums in five years, in addition to having final say on everything else Wu-related. He couldn’t have kept up that pace. He took a step back from both the music and the business aspects, allowing members more autonomy and creative freedom. The result was a flood of new music, most of which lacked the cohesive vision that had been present on previous efforts.
The group was also no longer listening to RZA: “It [Wu-Tang Forever] went to number one in the first week. We were the biggest music group in the world. And that was it; the five years were over. The plan was completed. On some level, right when that happened, I could feel my power was gone. Even when we were recording the album, I realized the Clan was no longer a dictatorship with me telling who to get on what song and what to do. It had become more free, a democracy.”
Success also breeds complacency and it’s hard to have the same hunger when things are no longer difficult. Method Man, the first member of the Clan to go solo, won a Grammy Award and was a bona fide star when it came time to reunite for Wu-Tang Forever. As he told Complex, he wasn’t as engaged as he had been before: “My focus was lost by the middle of the album and my heart just wasn’t in it like it used to be. I don’t regret anything that I did, but I wish I would’ve been a little more focused on the shit that really mattered at that point in time.”
That quote proves that Method Man would have been unhappy if he weren’t allowed to pursue solo projects outside of the group. It’s natural. After a few years, some of the lesser-known members such as Masta Killa and U-God may have had a conflict with the group’s bigger stars like Meth, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (the three of whom released an album without the others anyway). Trying to keep that together would be virtually impossible.
“Wu roll together as one.”
3. Most importantly, there is the Wu-Tang Paradox. The individual members were famous for being part of a group that became far more popular thanks to the success of the members’ solo albums. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) peaked at 41 on the Billboard 200 chart and struggled to sell a million units. Four years later, Wu-Tang Forever debuted at number one, sold over 600,000 copies in its first week and went quadruple platinum. It was the soundtrack of the summer of 1997.
How did that happen?
Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx…, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman added depth and substance to the Wu-Tang story that was introduced on the group’s debut album. Each member’s album featured some iteration of the Clan logo and many group members were on each album. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) also featured so many different voices that came flying off the record so fast that it was hard to keep track of what voice belonged to what member. The solo discs helped to bring clarity to that subject and actually made that first album even better in retrospect. The solo projects also gave members an opportunity to show more of themselves and their personalities – Method Man was chill, ODB was silly, Raekwon was a storyteller, GZA was introspective, Ghostface was emotional – creating an album that best fit each of their artistic visions. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a genius like RZA making such diverse backdrops that played to each artist’s strength.
As a collective group, the group has released five albums. The group’s members (excluding Cappadonna) have released a total of forty-five solo albums. It would be a lie to claim that none of those 45 ever increased the anticipation for one of the five group efforts.
“The Wu-Tang saga continues…”
The Wu-Tang Clan is a group comprised of nine individual artists. Without the promise of solo endeavors, the group would have fractured a long time ago. To not have solo albums would be to not have a Clan at all and hip-hop would have been changed (and worse) forever.
Christopher Pierznik’s is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.