The name of the game in pop culture longevity is branding. The cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan shows that it’s possibly the most iconic hip-hop brand.
There is no doubt that you’ve seen the Wu-Tang Clan logo somewhere on the street recently. The logo, a stylized “W,” might look to the uninitiated like a crazy bird doodle or an off-brand Batman symbol. But to fans of the Wu-Tang Clan, that logo is a sign that you are all part of a very special club. You can find the symbol everywhere. Spy it on CNBC or NBC news programs, at least those featuring political reporter Jon Heilmann who has the sticker covering the Apple logo on his iPad. See it on judges’ T-shirts on competitive performance reality shows, like when Pharrell Williams wore it on The Voice. The Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to mess with it. The impact of the Wu-Tang Clan on American culture still resonates today.
Now, this is normally a family-friendly site you can let your kids browse if they love luxury vacation ideas or the hottest new luxury tech. Yet, you can’t talk about the Wu-Tang Clan in a way that’s “safe for work,” at least how we define it today. The music of the Wu-Tang Clan is vulgar and deliberately so. Part of the commentary found in their art is that its delivered with language unconcerned with offending the sensibilities of the fans. That’s part of what gives their music that outlaw flare. Even though society isn’t as shocked at art as it once was, the Wu-Tang Clan still maintains that edge. The idea that if you have any one of them on the stage, anything can happen.
The State of Hip Hop
To understand the cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan, you first need to understand the culture at the time they appeared on the scene. Hip-hop was still a relatively new genre that, like punk rock before it, had some crossover appeal but would need to be softened for lasting commercial success.
At the time, there were two kinds of hip-hop groups. There were more intellectual and poetic rappers like A Tribe Called Quest. And then there were raw, street-driven rappers, first by acts like Schoolly D and later by N.W.A. The former was primed for pop success, while the latter style had a difficult time breaking into the mainstream. When it did, the music was seen as vulgar and dangerous, much like the panic about heavy metal acts in the early part of the decade.
From 1990 to 1993, the members of the Wu-Tang Clan started their careers, eventually finding each other. In 1993, 25 years ago, they released their blockbuster first album. But the Wu-Tang Clan was a group unlike any that came before it. First, they had nine members, more than thought possible for a group of lyricists. Second, their lyrical style was harder to pin down. They blended talk of street life with myriad other influences and even created their own slang.
Finally, the Wu-Tang Clan had a unique sound, that almost seemed design to eschew the commercial trends of the day. For example, N.W.A.’s stars Easy E and Ice Cube rapped with predictable rhythms and on-beat. The songs had simple choruses designed to get stuck in people’s heads. The cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan was to blow up everything that came before.
Enter the Wu-Tang Clan…
The Wu-Tang Clan comprised of nine founding members: RZA, GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man. The leader of the group is and always has been RZA, who first started rapping as “Prince Rakeem.” He then joined with his cousins GZA and ODB to form a group. They were never signed, but their demo tape was very popular in the underground hip-hop scene.
RZA gathered the rest of the group from obscure MCs he knew, each filling a certain niche in hip-hop at the time. GZA appealed to the “college” crowd with his tight and complex rhymes, as did Inspectah Deck and U-God. Raekwon and Ghostface appealed the street crowd, who liked to see their rough surroundings reflected in the music. Masta Killa wasn’t very prominent on the first records, but worked extensively with Wu-Tang Clan affiliated rappers. But Method Man? He was the star.
The purpose behind assembling such a large group was part of RZA’s master plan to make the Wu-Tang Clan the biggest thing in hip-hop in just a few years. He negotiated a landmark record contract with Loud Records, which allowed the individual members of the group to pursue solo deals elsewhere.
Impact of the Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
As mentioned above, at the time the first record hit, there were very specific rules about what made hip-hop successful in the growing mainstream market. The cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan is significant because despite almost doing the opposite of all those things, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a huge hit.
The lead single, “Protect Ya Neck” was a giant posse cut with no chorus, no hook, and features rhymes from all Wu-Tang members but Masta Killa. They rhyme off-beat, the lyrics are complex, and they reference everything from kung-fu movies to Spider-Man to Eastern philosophy to committing armed robbery.
The record was a hit, and RZA’s plan was in motion. Method Man, ODB, GZA, Raekwon, U-God, Method Man, Ghostface, and RZA himself were all able to land solo deals. Method Man was always going to be the first breakout star, given his own eponymous track on the first record. Still, every single solo release was both critically acclaimed and successful.
The projects all came out intermittently over the next four years, with some albums on rival record labels actually competing with each other. However, it didn’t feel like that because of RZA’s branding genius. They were “Wu-Tang” albums, not new releases from Def Jam or Rawkus Records. RZA oversaw the production of most of the albums, and he evolved the sounds of each artist and the group as a whole.
For example, Raekwon adopted a Mafia theme for his solo record, and that went on to influence gangsta rap on both coasts for a decade. In 1995, they launched the Wu Wear clothing line simply to offer fans buying bootleg Wu-Tang Clan shirts a legitimate option. It ended up become an influential force in both fashion and the business model for hip-hop superstardom.
Impact of the Wu-Tang Clan: Wu Tang Forever
When it came time for the Wu-Tang Clan’s second album, many wondered if they would face a sophomore slump. They didn’t. Wu-Tang Forever was a double-album that debuted at number one on the Billboard Charts when it was released in 1997. It also marked a significant artistic progression, not just from the first album but also the last three solo projects.
The lyrics were different, too. They featured a kind of loose structure drawing heavily from their previous influences but also Five Percent Nation teachings. A regional off-shoot of the Nation of Islam, the Wu-Tang Clan liked the idea of black men as “gods” and black women as “Earths.” This also helped spread this slang into the vernacular of the day, along with other Wu-created terms like “biscuit” for gun or “swords” for song lyrics.
The direction of the Wu-Tang Clan business expanded, too. RZA stepped back from his position as the lead on all of the Wu-Tang solo projects. He focused on his own creative work, including breaking into film and television. They also started to promote their own protégés as producers and rappers. Over the next few years, more than a dozen Wu-Tang Clan projects would be released, and many didn’t perform well. Coupled with changes in the music industry, the Wu-Tang empire began to crumble.
Impact of the Wu-Tang Clan: The W & Onward
Since 2000, the Wu-Tang Clan has released four albums, the best of which is The W and Iron Flag. While the main members of the Wu-Tang Clan remain hip-hop royalty, the cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan became not innovation but oversaturation. When the group re-formed in 1997 to put out their second record, everything the Wu-Tang Clan did excited the entertainment industry.
From 2000 onward, they sometimes faded into relative obscurity until the next record. The loss of music revenue also increased tensions among the group. With nine members, it’s tough for everyone to get a cut they feel is fair, especially for the members who aren’t marquee names. In fact, the Wu-Tang Clan may have recorded their final album, and no one may hear it.
Impact of the Wu-Tang Clan: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
In 2015, as a commentary on the devaluing of music, RZA announced that the next Wu-Tang Clan album would only be pressed on a single copy. The original plan was for it to tour museums, but eventually it was auctioned off to a single owner. That person was not allowed to sell the album but could play it or even distribute it for free.
Eventually it was sold for around $2 million. The man who purchased it, Martin Shkreli, seemingly bought it so he could gloat that he had it. He even started a “beef” with the Wu-Tang Clan members that almost got him seriously hurt. In fact, Shkreli ended up behind bars and the album is now in the custody of the state of New York.
Impact of the Wu-Tang Clan: Wu-Tang Goes Hollywood
A love of movies is baked into the Wu-Tang Clan’s personae, so it was only naturally that the members of the group found their way to Hollywood. While all of the members have been in some movie or another, only Method Man and RZA have achieved any real success in this arena. RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan met director Jim Jarmusch when scoring his film Ghost Dog. RZA and GZA later appeared in the Jarmusch film Coffee and Cigarettes in an iconic scene with Bill Murray in which they decry both coffee and cigarettes as poison.
RZA acted in other projects, including a season-long stint on the David Duchovny vehicle, Californication. He then wrote and directed a kung-fun movie called the Man with the Iron Fists and its sequel. Method Man received acclaim for his roles in David Simon’s The Wire and then went on to star in his own stoner comedy with frequent collaborator Redman. While RZA is still active, Method Man has stepped back from acting in recent years.
Celebrity Wu-Tang Fans
The cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan extends beyond general society and to the entertainment industry itself. A lot of famous folks count themselves as part of the clan. Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino are both longtime fans of the group.
During his legendary run on Comedy Central, comedian Dave Chappelle made his love of the Wu-Tang Clan a part of his show. He’d often shout “Wu-Tang!” in his sketches. He even brought RZA and GZA on the show for two sketches, Wu-Tang Financial and the Racial Draft, where the Wu-Tang Clan is “drafted” by the Asian community.
Even Disney loves Wu-Tang, kind of. On the Marvel Cinematic Universe series the group’s music is featured in a number of fight scenes. Method Man even appears in Luke Cage as himself to help the hero shake the cops.
We will never get another complete Wu-Tang Clan album, because Old Dirty Bastard lost his battle with addiction in 2004. In the nearly decade and a half since then, members of the group have had a number of public falling outs. Whether arguing over the direction of the more recent albums or legal battles over royalties, there seems to be bad blood amongst the members of this iconic group.
But, as the album said, Wu-Tang is forever. Even if they never gather in the same room again, everyone recognizes how important the cultural impact of the Wu-Tang Clan has been in both music and culture-at-large. And they are still making music. Method Man just released a new single, showing off that in the 25 years since they burst on the scene he’s lost none of his lyrical deftness.
The Wu-Tang Clan represented a shift in hip-hop that was both stylistic and substantive. Despite some missteps, they remain as culturally relevant as ever.
One of the great things about so-called “gangsta” rap as a work of art was how raw and real its themes and some of the subject matter was. The Wu-Tang Clan had that in their music, but they imbued those stories with an epic scale. It’s music that’s infectious and sticks with you, but also isn’t afraid to challenge its listeners.
In fact, their willingness to take risks pays off as they try to evolve with modern hip-hop. They practically invented a sub-genre, embracing new techniques and legitimizing them. It’s a blessing from icons of hip-hop rather than an aging artist desperately chasing relevance. Wu-Tang is forever.
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