Wu-Tang Clan gained wide-spread notoriety for their unique sound and lyrical skills when their self-produced single “Protect ya Neck” was released in 1992. Shortly after, the group signed with Loud/RCA Records and released the album “Enter the Wu (36 Chambers)” in 1993. The album’s signature style was designed as a complete artistic package inspired by themes from Kung-Fu movies of the ‘70s and 80’s, like the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and Shaolin and Wu Tang, among others. The album had a mix of samples from these films and their lyricism was humorous, vivid and spoke of some of the hardships faced in Staten Island, NY, which the group nicknamed Shaolin.
But the profundity of their artistry, impact, and influence is not relegated to their music, rather it is in their business approach. Unlike other individual and group rappers that preceded them, Wu-Tang pushed back against the exploitation of young rap artists by being unwavering in their contract negotiation and their understanding of the value of their art. They were confident in their artistic ability and wanted their individual members to have the freedom to pursue individual careers as well as come together with the group.
In the subsequent 20 years, Wu-Tang members collectively released over 50 albums under various recording labels. Many of these albums were certified Gold or Platinum (500,000 or 1,000,000 copies sold) by the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition, individual members became Grammy Award Nominees and Grammy Award Winners, such as Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The RZA and Method Man also continued on to achieve success in acting careers featuring in film and television programs.
Several spin-off labels were founded by RZA: Wu-Tang Records, Razor Sharp Records, and Wu-Tang International and Raekwon’s IceH20, among others. This infrastructure further expanded the Wu-Tang family and allowed for further opportunities for emerging individuals and group artists to make music.
Personally, I feel that Wu-Tang is responsible for inspiring a generation of rap artists to push creative boundaries, while also being strategic about managing their businesses and brands. The Wu-Tang Clan broke through a barrier that limited rap artists until the 90s and were at the forefront of bringing rap music into the limelight, ultimately making an art form accepted by popular culture.
by Andrés E. Villalon, Organizational Change Management degree candidate at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy