To answer this, RZA has given the hip-hop community a rare gift with his first book, The Wu-Tang Manual. This catchall 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 hard to ignore advice from someone who could persuade 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 its 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 number one.
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 a chapter dedicated entirely 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 qi are a refreshing contrast to '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 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, including 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 gives readers only 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 surely will get lost in the text, while hard-core fans will be forced to dig for the juiciest bits hidden within the informal, journal-like chapters.
RZA isn't totally cryptic, though, as he at least explains his minimalist production techniques. His layers of sampling and eerie piano lines changed the hip-hop world and were quickly copied to death by the competition, and chapters about production are treated with painstaking care. One detail in particular stands out: In the studio, each rapper was given a different, customized microphone to bring out his specific style, and RZA would place each MC in certain parts of songs like soloists in a jazz composition.
Thanks to the lack of an outside, non-Wu perspective, however, his explanations become narrow and redundant. Compliments for separate MCs sound too similar, and he offers a far too simplistic answer to the band's longevity: "I told [the guys] about my vision." Worse, he pays little tribute to the rap legends who came before the Wu-Tang Clan, speaking as if his band were the only rap group that ever existed. In a song, it makes sense for a rapper to talk like he's the best ever, but in book form, the approach falls flat.
Luckily, The Wu-Tang Manual closes with comments from members GZA and U-God on the art of crafting rhymes, and while the stuff isn't the rap equivalent of a creative-writing textbook, the advice is solid and direct -- work harder and study more than the best MC out there, and you'll last. That theme is the basis of the book, told in a streetwise manner, and for all the Manual's shortcomings, authenticity is its most redeeming quality. Professor RZA might be rough around the edges, but there's no denying that when he speaks, Ol' Dirty class is in session.