Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Sept. 1997 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Written By: Mimi Valdés
Photographs By: Daniel Hastings
At an organic-food store next to his Razor Sharp headquarters in Manhattan, RZA picks up some hand soap, natural shampoo & conditioner, and a five-pound jar of something called Batherapy that promises to “change ordinary tub water into a refreshing, beneficial spa-like bath.” He hops into a white Range Rover, readying for a one-and-a-half-hour drive to his home, affectionately named the Wu Mansion, although no one but he and his brother Divine actually lives there. It’s situated in a remote area of central New Jersey on five lush acres of land, complete with cornfields and roads with rustic names like Deer Trail. The rest of Wu-Tang use the home as a clubhouse, sleeping over whenever they have to get work done in the tiny basement studio.
“Keeping it real four years ago and today is different,” says RZA, the abbot and architect of Wu-Tang Clan, the most powerful force in hip hop today. “I’m not inspired by all that other shit from before — boosting Polo and Hilfiger all day. My life is different now.”
Indeed, since his debut as Prince Rakeem in 1991, with a bevy of seductresses cooing in “We Love You Rakeem,” his first video, you could say things have changed in RZA’s life. Six years later, he’s a major player on both entrepreneurial and artistic levels in the music biz, touted not just as a sonic visionary but also as one of the industry's best negotiators. RZA studied the game and rewrote the rules. Now, instead of being pimped, he’s the Mack, having set up deals with almost every label — a feat not accomplished since the mighty George Clinton did it in his heyday.
Under his shrewd, painstaking auspices, the nine grimy nuhs of Wu-Tang Clan have created an unprecedented business pyramid, built on a unique, impregnable foundation. All of the Wu’s individual projects — specifically deals for Method Man (Def Jam), Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Elektra), Raekwon (Loud/RCA), GZA (Geffen), and Ghostfae Killah (Razor Sharp/Epic) — are 50 percent partnerships with Wu-Tang Productions. The Wu-Tang Clan familia, separately and collectively, have sold more than four-and-a-half million records, and debut albums from Inspectah Deck, U-God, CappaDonna, and Shaolin chanteuse Tekeitha are in the chamber, awaiting release. Furthermore, each Wu member with a solo deal contributes 20 percent of his earnings to Wu-Tang Productions. This way, everyone profits. It’s pure, communal capitalism at its finest.
What kind of power Wu got? Sales power. In the June 1997 issue of Icon magazine, RZA broke down their earnings like so: “Let’s say Raekwon has a fourteen-percent deal, he gets fourteen points. A point is usually worth about seven cents. Estimate seven cents, multiply by fourteen if he’s getting fourteen points, and that’s ninety-eight cents. Maybe one dollar to $1.03.” That translates to about a dollar per record. “So, say Raekwon sells eight hundred thousand records, that’s eight hundred thousand dollars.” And that percentage varies between Clan solo members and the group as a whole. “Like, Meth might have a fifteen-point deal. Wu-Tang Clan might have a seventeen-point deal. And it escalates. If you go gold, you get another point. You go platinum, you get another point. I got a deal right now with Gee Street. My shit is eighteen points. That’s A-artist status.”
“RZA is a master of planning. He bases all his decisions on the long term, never short term,” says Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, another self-made mogul. “His decisions represent a development for a real audience. He takes risks. It shows the foundation audience you are serious about them, reminds them that they’re the ones who count, who you make the music for. Creatively, he’s the most important figure in hip hop because he reaffirms what the culture is all about.”
RZA’s juice card is completely full — and he’s not running out of credit anytime soon. In fact, since Wu-Tang Forever, the booming sophomore double album from the gods known as the Wu-Tang Clan, exceeded all expectations after its June release on Loud Records (selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week out), it’s safe to say that the Wu World Order has been firmly established.
Wu-Tang Forever is exactly what Wu-Tang devotees, both Stateside and worldwide, expected and craved: rugged, symphonic, compelling hip hop. Two hours of beautiful noise for a populace so hungry for real music sustenance, it would eat CD covers. “Wu-Revolution” sets it off, a rambling rant that serves as an appetizer for the feast that follows on “Reunited.” “For Heavens Sake” is pure, unadulterated WU, complete with dramatic violin solos, sped-up sonic snippets, and, naturally, rhymes that don’t quit.
RZA’s pensive tracks take the Wu to other frontiers stylistically: Check “Bells of War,” with its warm organ melody and easy thump, or the seductive guitar pluckings of “Black Shampoo,” for proof positive. “Impossible” soars with its plaintive piano and Ghostface’s haunting eyewitness account of the cold-blooded shooting of a friend: “He pointed to the charm on his neck/ With his last bit of energy left/ Told me ‘Rock it with respect.’” Tekeitha’s raw, uneven declarations (“You will never defeat the gods...impossible!”) will have you believing like untainted scripture. And speaking of scripture, Forever’s packed with Wu’s trademark coded verses extolling Five Percent Nation idioms. They beckon you to “have your third eye open.” And you certainly should: You don’t want to miss a thing.
As the Rover pulls into the driveway, I can see Ghostface doing dishes through the kitchen window. He’s just finished cooking up a turkey-sausage and pasta dinner, which several Wu members and friends gobbled up with a quickness. The house itself doesn’t have much furniture, but it does boast an elaborate chess set and table with two chairs, and a strange-looking palm tree.
Inside, there’s a game room with two plush chairs, a small couch and a high-tech projection television with no screen that casts a huge, flawless image of Sony Playstation visuals onto the wall. Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa are playing VR Golf ‘97. “Fuck Tiger Woods,” says Meth jokingly as he sinks a putt.
Clubhouse mode is always in effect around here. Time spent at the Wu Mansion is all about work and relaxation, which is increasingly hard to find these days. Needless to say, this spacious home represents a far different scenario from their project days at Staten Island’s Park Hill and Stapleton.
“I feel like dealing with the business slowed me down more,” Meth says, lounging luxuriantly on the sofa. “But there ain’t nothing better than waking up in the motning and knowing you ain’t doing anything illegal, that cops have no reason to fuck with you, and your rent is paid.”
But handling fame can sometimes be just as daunting. “The hardest thing is no privacy. When you’re used to being somebody that could just blend in, making that adjustment is not easy,” continues Meth, who’s known to don a mask and gloves — as he did for our cover — to shield himself from the public’s ever-probing eye. “I’d rather just rhyme and make loot without anyone knowing me. I don’t really mind the autographs, but I could do without feeling like I’m on display every time I go somewhere.” With a dead-serious mug, he says he’s gonna disappear in five years, like Michael Paré’s brooding Eddie in Eddie and the Cruisers.
“But then there are those situations when you’re just a regular nigga again. Like every time we get on them airplanes,” Meth says. “Even if we sitting in first class, they still treat us like shit. The lady just kept walking by my dirty tray, like, seven times, but took everyone else’s.” It’s during these times that an autograph request from a fan actually comes in handy.
“Going on the road is the best part,” says U-God, looking away from the game’s incessant twinkle. He came home from Bear Hill Penitentiary just in time to rhyme on two cuts of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Clan’s million-plus-selling debut.
During two years on lockdown, U-God was shuttled between four different prisons in New York’s state system. “Things, things, things,” he says when asked what put him there. “No murder. No rape. No child molestation or anything weird like that.”
Adjusting to the whirlwind of acclaim and activity was difficult at first, he claims, but now he looks forward to it. “From being a one-spot-all-your-life motherfucker to smoking the world’s greatest shit in Amsterdam and having them roll out the red carpet in Japan is an awakening experience.” At the mention of Japan, Meth starts rattling off some useful phrases in Japanese. “You hear that?” continues U-God. “He can do that because he traveled. Hearing that nigga talk Japanese, that makes me happy.”
“This Wu thing came out of nowhere. It was a vision, but I don’t know if all of us saw it going this far,” says Inspectah Deck, who is arguably the one MC in the Clan who people sleep on the most. Bet on that to change when his solo debut gets released on Loud next year. “In the beginning I was just rhyming. I didn’t know nothing about the business. I was just laying low in the cut trying to learn — royalties, points, everything.
“Nine sets of eyes and nine brains make a big difference in this motherfucker,” Deck adds. “I’m in heaven right now. Why would I ever leave this shit?”
Ah yes, that magic number — nine. In the beginning of the Wu-Tang saga, much ado was made about the group’s size — how they’d never make any money with so many members, or how they were bound to break up once success infiltrated the Wu cipher. But as they’ve shown,they had it all figured out from the get-go. “We made history sticking together,” says Deck. “They talking about how we gonna split the money, not thinking we gonna it in the pot and just build together.”
Just like any successful conglomerate, the Wu-Tang Clan constantly strive to elevate their overall organization in every division: product development, production, performance. “We like NFL niggas,” explains Deck. “We look at the video tapes of our shows to find out what went wrong. We always study how we look, what we could do better, whether it’s less talking between songs, changing the song order — anything to take this further we with it.”
One thing’s for sure, I offer: Those Wu shows got way too many gods onstage. Heads nod in agreement. “It got to the point where you didn’t know who was performing,” says Meth. Are they maintaining that tradition this time around when they tour in September with Rage Against the Machine, though? “Oh no, no, no,” Meth says, laughing. “We had millions of meetings about that shit, even right there before the show, like, ‘Niggas, do not get on the stage. We ain’t playin’ that shit tonight.’ But then a few would make their way, and the whole ruckus would start.” Adds U-God: “Doing that kind of messed us up a little bit with the promoters.”
Masta Killa, the latest official Wu member, knows a little something about ruckus. He invited some in late 1993 when he punched a writer whose favorable article in RapPages was accompanied by illustrations the Clan weren’t thrilled with. “I had to sit back and learn from individuals who had knowledge in the game,” says the new lyric swordsman. “I’m just happy to have a chance to shine in the light they gave me.”
The hours have passed quickly, already it’s nearly 4 a.m. Bodies stretch, the Playstation gets turned off, and Deck turns the TV channel to a late-night martial-arts flick. The others simply look around for pillows and blankets to scoop up, seeking spots on the floor to sleep on since the bedrooms upstairs are already taken. In the morning, boxed toothbrushes and little tubes of toothpaste are dug out for distribution among the overnighters.
About two weeks later, Genius, a.k.a. The GZA, walks into my house accompanied by a friend, and they’re both amazed at the size of my cat, Loochie. After I assure the pair that Loo won’t bite, GZA sits down at the dining room table to discuss his Clan kin and the upcoming record, which, at this point, the group hadn’t begun recording. Even he, the man deemed as spiritual leader of the group, can’t explain the Wu’s significance in simple terms.
“Our songs, the slang — everything is mathematically put together like a puzzle,” GZA says. “There’s a significant science behind everything.”
And it’s this “significant science” that may explain their sometimes-contradictory stances. Like when RZA complains about R&B in hip hop then has girls singing (or something like singing) his hooks, or when he says hip hop ain’t about fashion, even as new Wu Wear retail shops are opening. And what about their prounity, unified-black man talk, followed up by the blackened eye of a black male journalist? Whatever. Maybe it’s some typical do-as-I-say-not-as-I do business. Maybe it’s some god science we aren’t supposed to understand until the new millennium. Guess as long as the tracks are banging and passionate, the skillful rhymes are there, no one cares if mere mortals can’t comprehend their logic.
“We didn’t know anything at first, but you learn more and more,” GZA offers, stopping occasionally to make sure Loochie isn’t lurking nearby. “We learned from trials and tribulations. We’re still dealing with the same things, but we’re making more moves. Everything else is still the same.”
Genius is also the Wu warrior who has delved into the visual side of their music joyride. The 10 videos he’s directed include his own for “Liquid Swords,” Case’s “I Gotcha,” and DJ Muggs’ “Third World.” “Videos are transporting energy,” he says. “You can say something, and you’ll hear it, but then you’re drawing your own picture.” He makes it sound so easy. “It starts with a treatment, a vision, and then getting production to pull it off.”
The recipe for this universally influential music ain’t that complex either, according to GZA. “It’s not organized with a structure. RZA will have a beat, and each individual decides whether they feel it or not,” says GZA. “We work best under pressure. That’s how we get the music done. But it’s not pressure from the label. It comes from each other, telling the next man to come through to get on a track.”
“We keep it tight, though,” Genius guarantees. “The nine represent one.”
Why is it impossible to get nine mofos in one spot at one time for one damn picture? It takes us nearly an hour, deep into the wee morning hours, to assemble the group on their own front lawn — and, mind you, everyone was present at the Wu Mansion, with the exception of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Ghostface Killah seems to be the only one, besides the photographer and me, who sees a problem with this helter-skelter photo-shoot scenario. “We try to keep each other on point, like, ‘Why you late for this shit, man?’ We was starving,” he explains, in part to justify his brethren’s nonchalance, “and when you start paying bills with no problem, it makes a nigga get lazy fast.”
Can’t say that for Ghost, though, whose tag-team lyric assaults with his Wonder Twin, Chef Raekwon, make for Wu-Tang Clan’s most compelling verbal vistas. “The one thing about this whole thing is that it’s a chance to be somebody,” says Ghost with brutal candor. “To be recognized for something I do? That shit is peace right there.”
As spiritual brothers and creative partners, Wu-Tang may operate with one mind, with one goal — but nine dudes moving in nine different directions is just that. Chaotic, maddening, and endlessly frustrating — for the label, the press, and, at times, for each other — when trying to complete an album as heavily anticipated as Wu-Tang Forever. To escape distractions, the Clan had to break for L.A. to ban it out in marathon studio sessions.
“The hardest thing is all this moving around,” Raekwon says thoughtfully. “We have so many deals, the Wu album is a family reunion. It’s like not seeing your brother like you used to when you were hungry.” Like anything else, the master plan does take its toll.
Ask Rae and he’ll tell you that the Clan are comprised of “slang doctors,” practitioners of street poetry who “take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride through chambers that touch parts of your mentality and make you think in certain ways. It’s the way of the gods.” And they do move in unearthly, mysterious ways. Rae and Ghost, for instance, come with that do-or-die, Mafioso steelo, laced with humor, mysticism, and mind-blowing detail.
“No one can compare to Wu. Ain’t another team gonna come around like this for about another twenty years,” says Ghost, his handsome face wrinkled in seriousness. “We doing things like sending our people to college , looking for the loyal motherfuckers to go learn that trade and come home to work with the family. See, it’s all about advancing.”
Easily the wildest, most unpredictable member of the Wu family, Ol’ Dirty Bastard — or Osirus, his most recent manifestation — is all about drama. Even the announcement of his name change during last September’s “Day of Atonement” in the wake of Tupac Shakur’s death came in an unexpected fashion: via a lean somber ODB, his head shaven and his face awash with earnestness. Far cry from the bloodshot-eyed frantic fool who fell on his butt in his “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” clip.
After pursuing him for at least a month, I finally hook up with ODB outside Elektra’s Midtown Manhattan offices. He’d just finished a meeting with CEO Sylvia Rhone, so we sit on some stone benches that are usually filled with lunching businesspeople. The night is cold and breezy. Dirty laughs each time a gust sweeps by, willfully defying the elements with wicked glee.
The perennial question that surfaces in any conversation about Ol’ Dirty Bastard is whether the out-of-control MC is still in Wu-Tang, since he always seems to be missing from major Wu events. “I can never be out of Wu-Tang,” he says. “We blood. I would’ve never been anything if it wasn't for Wu-Tang. I just be going off on my shit. Dirty just be missing in action, but it’s all good. I just don’t like doing the publicity stuff too much. All that extra shit is difficult for me. I’m the wrong motherfucker to be asking questions, because I don’t give a fuck about all that shit.”
As we know, life is sometimes problematic for Dirty. He did a stint last year on Rikers Island for violating probation on a charge of beating up a club bouncer. And, of course, episodes of his snatching whole stages from Doug E. Fresh and the Roots are legendary. “I don’t like to see wack-ass niggas doin’ a show. If they not doin’it right, I’m gonna show ‘em how it’s done,” he says matter-of-factly. “I apologize for being like that, but that’s me. IT’s something I’m trying to control.” He blames his erratic behavior on alcohol. “I got Indian in me, and you can’t give an Indian alcohol. Once Dirty get that shit in his system — that firewater — he get crazy.”
Dirty’s newfound concern for making life better can also explain his name change to Osirus, an Egyptian deity. “Chinese, white, black, blue, the alien kids in the sky, they all belong to me,” he says, attributing the change to his desire to reflect a more positive attitude toward children. “I go to the schools in my area to talk, and when the kids call me Ol’ Dirty, it makes me feel bad. I always tell them righteous things, but the mothers be looking at me funny ‘cause of my name.” True to form he’s even decided to divide his next solo album between the raunchy ODB and the wise, humble Osirus.
“I slack up a little bit, but you know what?” Dirty queries with a diabolical grin. “Now it’s time to terrorize the world. If it wasn’t for me, the world wouldn’t be as fun.”