MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Finally this hour, we're going to hear about one of the most successful collaborations in the history of hip-hop. The Wu-Tang Clan featured nine different rappers when it debuted in 1993, and they are the focus today in our series on creative partnerships.
Joel Rose has their story.
JOEL ROSE: Theres a moment on the Wu-Tang Clans classic first album when the members are talking to an interviewer. And they compare themselves to the after-school cartoon "Voltron," in which five robot lions combine to form one invincible warrior.
Unidentified Man #1: It says (Unintelligible). Hes the backbone...
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) He's the head, let's put it that way. We form like Voltron, and GZA happens to be the head, you know what Im saying?
ROSE: Like Voltron, the voices of the Wu-Tang Clan seem to fit together seamlessly.
(Soundbite of music)
WU-TANG CLAN (Music Group): (Rapping) (Unintelligible).
Mr. SACHA JENKINS (Writer, Producer): There were so many different, diverse voices sort of coming at you at once, very aggressively. But at the same time, it was one voice.
ROSE: Sacha Jenkins is a writer and producer. In the early-1990s, he was the editor of a hip-hop fanzine called Ego Trip when a friend played him a tape of a tape of the first Wu-Tang single.
Mr. JENKINS: It didnt feel like a lot of guys. That sort of sensibility and that energy just spoke to the chemistry that these guys had and I believe the hunger that they had to sort of change their environment and change their situation.
(Soundbite of music)
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) The Wu is too slammin' for these cult killer labels, (unintelligible). Now they money's gettin' stuck to the gum under the table. That's what you get when you (unintelligible).
ROSE: Most of the Wu-Tang Clans members grew up in Staten Island. Taking inspiration from martial arts movies, they named themselves after a fictional sect of Chinese swordsmen. And they adopted an ethic of loyalty to one another that was born out of necessity and experience.
Mitchell Diggs is the CEO of Wu-Tang Corporation. Hes also the brother Robert Diggs, better known as RZA, the clans producer.
Mr. MITCHELL DIGGS (Chief Executive Officer, Wu-Tang Corporation): Me and RZA, we came from a large family, 11 siblings. We was pretty much familiar and used to how to balance out that many people at one time.
ROSE: Both Diggs and his brother had been signed as rappers to major labels before assembling the Wu-Tang Clan, and both had put out solo records that flopped.
For the Wu-Tang to succeed, Diggs and RZA had to persuade the other rappers to put the group first, at least for a while. Mitchell Diggs says it wasnt easy.
Mr. DIGGS: The biggest thing was, how the hell do you feed nine people off of one deal? You know, we laughed about it. But it was something that we thought about. You know, we knew that we had to create solo careers.
ROSE: The Wu-Tang Clan signed with one record company but their contract made sure each member had the freedom to make his own solo records. That was good for morale and for business. When the Wu-Tang Clans first album sold a million copies, all of its MCs were able to cash in, including Lamont Hawkins, who performs as U-God. Hawkins says the Wu-Tang Clan did something together that none of its members could have done alone.
U-GOD (Rapper): We come from nothing. And we make something out of nothing. We was trying to create our own industry, our own brand, our own situation, know what Im saying? So its like an industry was being built inside an industry.
(Soundbite of music)
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) (Unintelligible).
ROSE: The Wu-Tang Clan made millions of dollars selling clothing and video games. But success wasnt always sweet. Founding member Ol Dirty Bastard died of a drug overdose. The other rappers built careers as solo artists or branched out into acting and film scoring.
When the Wu-Tang Clan came back together to record, the arguments were inevitable. But Mitchell Diggs says the group found a way to resolve them.
Mr. DIGGS: When theres tension, and dudes are beefing, and there's whining, you know, we have sit-downs. We go through 50 songs and say, what you dont like? And then we tweak them. And if you still dont like it, then guess what? You're not on that (BEEP) song no more. Excuse my French for cursing, but get out the way. We like the way the song is, and leave it alone.
ROSE: Occasionally the Wu-Tangs internal disagreements have gone public, as they did during the making of the clans 2007 album, "8 Diagrams."
(Soundbite of music)
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapper): (Unintelligible).
ROSE: Rapper Raekwon complained about RZAs atmospheric production style to an online journalist.
Mr. RAEKWON (Rapper): RZA is trying to create too much of a orchestra, piano. This is not the vibe I want. But its his vibe. Its his vibe. Its like, hes like, hes like a hip-hop hippie right now, you know what I mean?
ROSE: Raekwon is using other producers on a solo album thats due out later this year. RZA is not appearing on the Wu-Tang Clans current tour because hes in Asia directing a martial arts movie.
But his brother Mitchell Diggs says the Wu-Tang members generally do get along. And to make their partnership work, he insists they all share a single dressing room on the road.
Mr. DIGGS: If you cant get in the room, youre going to come on that stage unfocused. Youre not going to have the chemistry. Keep the friends and family out and give them the dressing room so they can meditate, stare at each other. Even if they got to argue for 10 minutes, get it off their chest. And when you hit that stage, you're one body.
ROSE: A partnership more like the Chinese swordsmen who inspired them than most people expected.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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