The Wu Tang Clan Gambles They Can Bring Back 90’s Hip-hop

The Wu-Tang Clan. / Photo from WuTangCorp.com
The Wu-Tang Clan. / Photo from WuTangCorp.com

HOST 1: The early 1990’s were a pivotal time for East Coast hip-hop. Artists like Nas, the Notorious B. I. G. and the Wu-Tang Clan reigned supreme.

HOST 2: And lyrics aside, the Wu-Tang Clan were also savvy businessmen. Today the Wu are still finding ways to bring innovation to hip-hop. Felice León reports.

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Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx in 1973, and through the decades, it’s transformed. In the late 1970’s the MC, or master of ceremony was the guy who rhymed over music. He was ascendant, and was also referred to as a rapper.

Dan Charnas, is the author of The Big Payback: the History of the Business of Hip-Hop. Charnas was 12 in 1979, when the first rap record came out. Hip-hop became even more important for him in college. The music became politicized and so did he. This is Public Enemy’s, Fight the Power.

AMBI: Fight the Power

Hip-hop artists like Public Enemy wrote songs that protested racism and spoke to the importance of freedom of speech.

BRING UP AMBI: Fight the Power

Charnas says that political hip-hop didn’t last. [fade out music]

CHARNAS: Political hip-hop really fell by the wayside for lack of attention from mainstream outlets, like radio.

Charnas says in the 1980’s, only two radio stations in New York, KISS FM and WBLS were playing hip-hop, and they only played it at night. Yo! MTV Raps, a cable hip-hop show went live in 1988, and played hip-hop nationally.

AMBI: Can’t Touch This, by MC Hammer

Can’t Touch This, by MC Hammer was like bubble gum – sweet, chewy and lacking density. This song was more palatable to a mainstream audience and aired on Yo! MTV Raps.

AMBI: Can’t Touch This, by MC Hammer

On the east coast some hip-hop of the 1990’s remained socially conscious.

McDANIELS: There’s two sides to the early ‘90s.

Ralph McDaniels, is a pioneer of hip-hop culture. The 1990’s was McDaniels’ favorite era of hip-hop

McDANIELS: There’s that, medallion wearing, dashiki – it was more power to the people.

What he means is that some rappers were seen as revolutionary, like KRS-One. This is Sound of the Police.

AMBI: Sound of Da Police, by KRS-One

McDaniels is the founder and host of public television show, Video Music Box. Founded in the early 1980s, the show was the first of its kind, exclusively playing hip-hop videos.

McDANIELS: Then, there’s the other side of it.

AMBI: The World is Yours, by Nas

The “other side” of east coast hip-hop during the early 1990s is associated with names like Nas, or Nasir Jones. He released his first solo album, Illmatic, in 1994.

AMBI: The World is Yours, by Nas

AMBI: Juicy, by The Notorious BIG

… The Notorious BIG, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Biggie, aka Frank White. His proper name is Christopher Wallace. This song, Juicy was released in 1994 on his first album, Ready to Die.

AMBI: Juicy, by The Notorious BIG

AMBI: METHOD Man, by the Wu-Tang Clan

… and the Wu-Tang Clan

AMBI: METHOD Man, by the Wu-Tang Clan

A group of nine young men – led by the RZA, or Robert Diggs. They represented Staten Island, or Shaolin.

CHARNAS: Between Nas, and Biggie, and The Wu-Tang Clan, you had a real trifecta of an east coast renaissance.

These hip-hop artists were different than their predecessors. The music was more rugged, grimy, and raw. This music represented the reality of living in the ‘hood,’ as they understood it. McDaniels was born in New York and lived in Queens and Brooklyn for most of his life.

McDANIELS: Stuff was real, because crack was taking over our community. Back then, they would talk about rest in peace such and such, on 155th, and they would be like, “Are they talking about such-and-such? Oh, word, they are talking about son – when son got killed. Everything you said was real.

The “realness” attracted hip-hop label, Loud Records. The record company signed The Wu, under unprecedented conditions – individual members were allowed to enter solo deals with competing record labels. Dan Charnas:

CHARNAS: The significance of The Wu-Tang Clan in hip-hop history is they were hip-hop’s first super empowered artist- entrepreneurs.

They dropped their first album, 36 Chambers of WU, in 1993. Ralph McDaniels directed the music video to this song, this song, C.R.E.A.M. – that stands for cash rules everything around me.

AMBI: CREAM, by The Wu-Tang Clan

In the 1990’s, artists would sign a record deal, receive a budget, make an album, and make money from the sales.

McDANIELS: The music business was fruitful then; you made an album for $2 or $3, and you sold it for $15. That time is long gone.

Today, file sharing and new technologies have cut deeply into record sales. But, the Wu Tang Clan has come with another idea to make money. It’s called the Shaolin museum tour. The clan has created a one-of-a-kind album called, “The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” It has 31-tracks and it is said to be as raw as The Wu circa 1993. The group has put out that word that Cher –hardly a gritty figure– will also make an appearance. The album will travel from museum to museum in an ornate box, with the Wu-Tang emblem on front. Harry Allen, hip-hop activist, and former publicist of hip-hop group, Public Enemy, says that the album is…

ALLEN: Something that you hear ephemerally, and you never hear it again.

What he means is the curious will have to visit the featured museums and pay for a single listen. Allen says that the album will be treated like a piece of fine art.

ALLEN: Hip-hop music is art, so is art the way that most artists make their money? Yes, but not art objects – not fine art. Hip- hop is popular art.

After the tour, the album will be sold to the highest bidder – the RZA has already received a $5 million bid, and he’s still taking offers. Allen says that if the RZA receives $5 million for a single record, the plan may have worked. But, will this unique experiment catch on?

ALLEN: I do not think so, but I can remember when I didn’t think that white people would be interested in hip-hop, either. So, I’ve been super wrong, many times.

Author Dan Charnas says that many in the music industry are trying to find the magic bullet – a prototype for success.

CHARNAS: Everyone in the industry is trying to find out what that model is, and I’m not sure if it’s the one, but I think that the Wu Tang Clan is one of the only entities in the business that can pull it off –- if they can pull it off.

Hip-hop is changing — from the lyrical content to the way that the music is consumed. Singing rappers replaced the authentic- grimy sounds of east coast artists: The Wu, Biggie and Nas. So long as the industry changes, we may find that hip-hop innovators, like The Wu Tang Clan will find ways to change, too. Felice León, Columbia Radio News.

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