By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
To answer this, RZA has given the hip-hop community a rare gift with his first book, The Wu-Tang Manual. This catch-all collection of member histories, lyrical influences and spiritual discoveries attempts to be the ultimate checklist for emulating the Wu's success. Granted, RZA's lessons are as multitiered, out-there and conflicted as the group's output, but in spite of every jump in logic and incomplete statement in the Manual, it's still hard to ignore advice from someone who could convince even Ol' Dirty Bastard to concentrate on occasion.
For the Wu clueless, a quick primer: Cousins RZA and GZA each released solo rap albums in 1991 under different monikers, and both bombed. The two, along with cousin ODB, bounced back to form the rap collective of their dreams and enlisted childhood friends to join in. The common bonds, of course, were kung-fu movies like Shaolin and Wu-Tang that had grown popular in various Staten Island slums, and the group took those philosophies and sword-slinging battles to heart on their debut masterpiece, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
The album didn't explode immediately, but as RZA explains, the nine-member collective concocted a long-term plan never before seen in the hip-hop world: Wu-Tang's first record deal sacrificed money for the right to record solo albums on different labels. That meant members had to hold off on filming their Cribs episodes, but the risk paid off as successful solo albums by Method Man, ODB and Raekwon the Chef were cross-promoted by competing labels, ultimately boosting the entire collective by the time sophomore album Wu-Tang Forever debuted at No. 1.
In later years, the group's signature W logo could be found on 50 bajillion products and lesser side groups. RZA prattles about the band's subsequent merchandising, including minutiae about Wu-Wear sleeve lengths and Wu-Tang cologne scents, but the business chapter is only peripheral to the original albums that made Wu merch worth buying. Hot rap merch requires hot rap rhymes, after all, so what, according to RZA, is the secret to the Wu-Tang's popularity and aggressive style? Drug use, of course!
"The best thing for making music has really been some good weed," RZA writes in an entire chapter dedicated to chemicals. "Cocaine influenced a lot of the best rapping on 36 Chambers," he continues, and "[Ecstasy] makes you feel real nice, just kissing all over your girl." But the chapter opens with the most half-assed, "please-don't-sue-us" statement ever put to print. "I don't advocate the use of illegal drugs," RZA claims. Right. RZA, were you high when you wrote this?
But the real secret ingredient in the Wu-Tang is a large well of (legal) influences, and the Manual tries its damnedest to touch on the group's many rhyme inspirations. From mafia stories to numerology, from kung-fu movies to superheroes, RZA rattles off as many cool-sounding ideologies as possible but fails to connect the various schools of thought. In particular, while discussing Eastern religions, RZA offers little more than brief summaries of each sect followed by thoughts like "that sparked me" and "the lessons opened my mind up."
The Manual doesn't sell itself as a comprehensive history of religion, cinema or numerology, but RZA misses a chance to explain how an obsession with peaceful beliefs translated into violent behavior and ego-hungry lyrics from the group's heyday. Instead, the stuff reads like a high school kid's journal -- "dude, Taoism is sweet, and I just saw the coolest movie!" That said, Wu-Tang stories about humility, balance and chi are a refreshing contrast from '90s gangsta-obsessed peers and recent bling-crazy chart-toppers, and for a group that grew up in violence and slums, it's nice to see at least a hint of a noble worldview beneath the angry lyrics.
That contrast may be the most compelling element in the Wu-Tang's formula, so it's a treat to see RZA break down eight different hits lyric by lyric. Easily the Manual's most interesting section, these reprinted songs come complete with footnotes explaining double entendres, hometown secrets and Wu history, and it's the kind of analysis that will one day make this book required reading for college courses about hip-hop. Some of the footnotes are obvious enough to insult readers, like a needless description of boxer Joe Frazier, while slang-filled definitions like "a local ho with a big mouth" and "some old playa shit" will get a laugh, but most comments are revealing enough to be worthwhile. Who knew the Wu-Tang ever name-dropped Laurel and Hardy, for starters?
In other chapters, RZA only gives readers a peek at the true grit of the Wu-Tang: a crazy concert gunfight here, an argument with ODB there and a very incomplete biography that stretches thinly across the book's entirety. This is far from a definitive Wu-Tang story, and highlights like ODB's death are completely ignored. Strangers to the Clan will surely get lost in the text, while hardcore fans are still forced to dig for the juiciest bits hidden within the informal, journal-like chapters.