Wu-Tang 25: Quarter Century of Shaolin is a year-long series celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
November 9th officially makes 36 Chambers 25 years-old. So it’s only right that we talk about what, exactly, is the legacy of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Well, it doesn’t hurt to start off with the Clan itself talking about it.
U-God mentions that they changed the game because “they made street rap popular.” Put aside the street rap part, let’s explore how they changed the game. I’m gonna share a video I previously linked before, about RZA’ Five-Year Plan.
When I think about Wu’s legacy, I think of the plan first. In RZA’s words from page 76 of the Wu-Tang Manual:
My idea was to keep the family together, sign the Wu-Tang as a crew to one label, but have the contract allow the individual members to sign solo deals on whatever labels they chose. You bargain for less money up front, more freedom in the longer run, and higher earning total.
The goal was to divide ourselves and conquer the record industry. Most rap niggas weren’t thinking like that back then, looking multiple moves ahead. The contract we signed with Loud [Records] in 1993 changed the way hip-hop artists negotiate, the way deals are structured; it changed the whole rap game.
He continues to write:
In the music business, in reality, it’s usually best to keep all your artists under one umbrella because you get a bigger payday. But I wanted my artists under many umbrellas because I wanted the industry to work for me. I wanted the industry to have friendly competition with my product, without even knowing they were competing with each other. And then I’d bring them together for the final moneymaker.
There was only one year, 1995, that they all listened to me. and that turned out to be a great year for everybody. I came with the “Winter Campaign” — I said, “Let’s do a Christmas Wu-Tang family tree, put them all at one location.” So we did. Geffen, Loud, Def Jam, and Elektra got together and put a bin in record stores with the GZA record, the Wu-Tang record, the Method Man record, and so on. Everybody sells double that month. It was the first time that three different labels made a triple deal together. That’s how my logo, my brand, became the strongest brand in the industry.
The idea of having a family tree of music in stores is quaint these days, it’s the freedom that is important. It’s an example of musicians finding creative ways to maximize their opportunity, money, and art. I see that spirit is strong during this era. Tech N9ne, Chance The Rapper, and Nipsey Hussle are some of the big examples of current-day rappers who understood their how powerful their fanbase is, examined how the music industry operates, then was able to capitalize on both. I especially see that in Nipsey. He goes from the Proud To Pay campaign for his 2013 release of Crenshaw, then moving to a specific distribution deal with Atlantic Records feels how RZA worked out the 5 year plan for the Wu. Although Nipsey may not draw a direct line from Wu-Tang to how he is navigated his career, it’s hard to believe that Nipsey would be able to control his career as much as he had without the Wu breaking down that barrier, and then other artists like T.I., Jay-Z, and Ludacris doing similar deals that he does reference when talking about his deal.
Business is only one part of of the legacy, though.
What about the music?
Commercially, Wu-Tang put up huge numbers. The group alone between 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Forever, and The W went 8 times platinum, with Iron Flag going Gold, and that’s only in the United States. Not to mention the individual members having platinum and gold record sales as well.
How about the fact that there are nine members, each with their own unique styles? Styles with such an influence that it’s still felt today? It’s no accident that Pusha T cites Raekwon’s Cuban Linx as a major influence on his music, for example.
What about how they, along with Black Moon, established the gritty, grimy, dirty 90’s New-York style of rap?
Hell, their impact and legacy is so vast that it inspired me to spend a whole year writing about them.
I’ll leave on this thought. On Can It Be So Simple/Intermission when Method Man breaks down each member, and he has one of the most quotable lines on the album when he says:
We form like Voltron, and GZA happen to be the head
As great as one person can be, a collective is infinitely more powerful. There’s no way the 5 year plan can work without the whole group buying in. Could the members have had as much success with their solo careers if they never were a part of Wu-Tang? Anything’s possible, but the Wu-Tang platform gave them something to build off of, instead of starting from scratch. Also, because of the group dynamic, it’s easy for a fan to stick with certain members just like in idol music. You can like whoever you want to, but it all feeds back to the group. Without question, they are one of (I’d argue the best) rap group/crew ever. Also, they are the one of the biggest music bands, period. Wu-Tang has always been at its strongest when they are working in unison. It’s a lesson that the world should remind itself of.