by Jo Piazza
One of the most important singles in hip-hop history wasn’t great, or even particularly good. In fact, it was terrible. Even the most die-hard hip-hop fans probably haven’t heard “Ooh I Love You Rakeem,” the title track of Prince Rakeem’s 1991 debut EP, and there’s a reason for that.
Prince Rakeem, a cartoonish, vaguely international ladies’ man, was a character foisted on rapper Robert Diggs by his record label. The Prince had just one concern. Women loved him too much, and he rapped about it. When the EP flopped, Prince Rakeem effectively died. But it wasn’t in vain—his demise gave birth to hip-hop’s greatest supergroup: The Wu-Tang Clan.
Diggs’s failure as Prince Rakeem was actually a common career arc among his contemporaries. As Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’s website, Global Grind, tells it, in 1991 hip-hop was still confused about its identity.
“Rap was just starting to get commercial and the record industry was trying to sell that to Middle America,” Skolnik says. “They didn’t want to scare people.”
Looking back, the Prince Rakeem gimmick seems impossibly campy. It was a lesson for Diggs. In his attempt to sell records, he’d sanded away his edges until he resembled a bubblegum caricature—a slightly raunchier version of Will Smith. And none of that led to sales.
The record industry isn’t famous for handing out second chances. But instead of calling it quits, Diggs doubled down. For nearly two years, he meditated on how to break back into the business. Rather than cave to the record companies’ demands, Diggs dreamed of unleashing gritty, authentic hip-hop on Middle America.
Diggs’s main problem as Prince Rakeem was pretty basic. He was miscast as the suave, approachable Casanova. Far from a lothario, he was something much more interesting: a chess player from the projects who was obsessed with old kung fu movies. If he was going to resuscitate his flagging hip-hop career, he needed support. Diggs drew inspiration from one of his favorite kung fu films, Five Deadly Venoms—he wanted to stand with an army of warriors.
Back in Staten Island, Diggs decided to build a hip-hop supergroup from the ground up. He joined forces with his cousins Russell Jones (better known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and Gary Grice (otherwise known as the GZA) and six other friends to form the Wu-Tang Clan, a name poached from the kung fu flick Shaolin & Wu Tang. From that point forward, Diggs wasn’t Diggs anymore. He was reborn as RZA.
The Benevolent Dictator
There was only one rule in the Wu-Tang Clan: RZA was in charge. The rapper made a pact with his soldiers. He would become the de facto CEO of their musical tribe for its first five years, calling all the shots and producing all the albums. In return he promised that each member would become a famous MC in his own right. Instead of nine guys making grabs for the spotlight, the Clan would take their turns strategically, each raking in as much money as he could. RZA viewed the business plan as a high-stakes game of chess.
After getting the eight headstrong MCs to sign on to the plan, RZA started doing market research. He quickly realized the power of good branding. If he could sell a rap group the same way corporate America peddled Pepsi or Nike, he could build an empire. But how do you sell rap like soda or sneakers? The solution was simple. “From day one, Wu-Tang had a logo—its iconic W—that was pushed across as many platforms as possible and stamped on every release,” Billboard’s Benjamin Meadows-Ingram says. “Wu-Tang worked its brand in every arena, famously establishing a wide business portfolio that included everything from T-shirts to skateboards to 1-900 numbers.”
But even the world’s greatest marketing plan won’t work if the underlying product is weak. Luckily, the Wu-Tang Clan’s music was almost as revolutionary as its business model. RZA proved to be a genius as a producer. His sparse, repetitive loops sampled everything from old soul records to his beloved kung fu flicks, and the beautifully raw, eerie tracks provided the perfect canvas for the members’ rapping styles. The other eight MCs held up their end of the bargain, seamlessly slipping in and out of the beats, dropping hard-edged lyrics that managed to be aggressive and clever while tying in kung fu mythology. This wasn’t a manufactured sound—the words and music felt authentic, capturing all the harshness of the projects. Yet the tunes were catchy enough to win over suburban audiences.
The group released its first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” on its independent label in 1992, and the song became an instant hit. To keep the momentum rolling, the members plastered the W logo all over New York City and outside any venue where they performed. The single’s grassroots success had record labels salivating to sign the group.
But finding a company that would agree to rep Wu-Tang while still allowing the members to pursue solo projects was no small task. Amazingly, RZA convinced Loud/RCA to sign the act on his terms, and each rapper became a free agent.
Suddenly, there was no stopping the Wu-Tang Clan. And as promised, each MC got his moment in the sun. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and the GZA’s Liquid Swords dropped in 1995. Both went gold and are considered hip-hop classics. Ghostface Killah followed suit with the critically lauded Ironman the next year. With the core music business thriving, the Wu-Tang Clan did what any successful brand does: it started franchising. A slew of affiliates released records of their own, and the group launched its own clothing line, Wu-Wear, grossing more than $5 million by 1998.
And with each step, RZA seemed perfectly in control. He sat perched over the enterprise, carefully timing the release of solo records and crafting beats to complement the members’ wildly different styles, from Method Man’s throaty bravado to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s half-sung warbling. As his coauthor on The Wu-Tang Manual, Chris Norris, put it, RZA was the benevolent dictator who made the whole project work. RZA’s five-year stint as CEO culminated with 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. The double album entered the charts at number one and eventually sold just over 4 million copies.
When RZA and his Clan mates began their assault on the record industry, branding was a foreign concept in the hip-hop world. Two decades later, rappers like Jay-Z rule over giant empires of clothing lines and energy drinks. The Wu-Tang’s novel brand-first business model has become standard practice in the hip-hop world, and with good reason. You can’t improve on perfection.
This article appears in the July-August 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!