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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable 12 months in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE OF RAP SONGS)

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Black Reign, 1993...

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Well, it started in the year of '78. But it's '93 or should I say '94...

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) So I tried rap. Now in 1993, I'm living that phat. Check my attitude, it comes with the territory, baby...

SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Follow me, follow me, follow me but don't lose your grip. Nine-trizzay is the yizzear for me to ...

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) So, my man, watch your back. Ninety-three means skills are a must, so never lack.

WU-TANG CLAN: Nineteen-ninety-three exoticness...

GREENE: Over the span of 1993, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, and dozens of other rappers released albums that helped to change the sound of America. And one of those albums was not just a collection of songs. It was a business concept as well. NPR's Frannie Kelley reports that the Wu-Tang Clan's debut was the opening shot in an audacious plan to elevate hip-hop made outside of the mainstream.

FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Back in the early '90s, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs looked around and saw the music industry was betting on rap-lite. Think Will Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

WILL SMITH: (Rapping) So to you other kids all across the land, there's no need to argue. Parents just don't understand.

KELLY: Songs like "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Bust a Move" just weren't for him, or his friends.

ROBERT FITZGERALD DIGGS: We were street kids, you know? Guys that - was more like felons or high school dropouts. I'm not saying that's a positive thing. I'm just saying, this is a difference of our character. We were like the guys in the projects. You know what I mean?

KELLY: He saw an opportunity.

DIGGS: I knew that the industry needed real hip-hop. It's like right now, if you keep eating McDonald's, you going to get sick. You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that's what Wu-Tang was. It was a home-cooked meal of hip-hop - of the real people.

KELLY: Diggs also saw that he was going to have to prove to the industry that the style of hip-hop he wanted to make would sell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M, which failed. I went to jail at the age of 15. A young punk selling drugs and such who never had much, trying to get a clutch at what I could not...

KELLY: Diggs knew the best rappers on Staten Island. They came to his house to watch kung fu movies and battle rap, and study the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Two were his cousins, one was his roommate; a couple were technically his rivals. So he had to do some convincing. But he recorded a verse by each of them, added one of his own, and pressed up an eight-verse, grimy-sounding, no chorus, vinyl-only single.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

DIGGS: (Rapping) Check this rap. Me and my boys getting hip. (unintelligible) 40 dogs to my left and a...

KELLY: Diggs set up a company called Wu-Tang Productions, named after the bad guys in a movie. Changed his name to the RZA, an acronym that refers to his theological studies, asked his roommate's DJ to make a logo and he called a meeting.

DIGGS: I used the bus as an analogy. I said I want all of y'all to get on this bus. And I'm the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I'm taking us to number one. Give me five years and I promise that I'll get us there.

KELLY: Us was the RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon and Masta Killah. They all signed on to the plan. And in the winter of 1992, some of them snuck into one of the few radio stations in New York City that was playing hip-hop - Columbia University's WKCR - and tried to convince DJ Stretch Armstrong and host Bobbito Garcia to play it.

BOBBITO GARCIA: They weren't being nice.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Definitely like, Yo man, play this record - it's dope. Put that on right now, son. I listened to it, I previewed it about 15, 20 minutes later and I was like, oh, wow. This record is incredible. So I played it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So what's up, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cooling, man...

GARCIA: I gave the record to Stretch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know what I want to hear, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What you want to hear?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I want to hear that Wu-Tang joint.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wu-Tang again?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ah, yeah, again and again.

GARCIA: Stretch can tell you what happened from there.

DJ STRETCH ARMSTRONG: I played it again.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: And again?

ARMSTRONG: And again.

GARCIA: And again?

ARMSTRONG: And again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping) I smoke on the mike like smoking Joe Frazier, the Hell Raiser, raising hell with the flavor. Terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan. Swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spiderman...

KELLY: Listeners called in. Club DJs, promotions people and music writers all thought it was the hottest thing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping) So when y'all make the crowd go wild, sit back, relax, won't smile...

KELLY: One of the first record execs to come sniffing around was Steve Rifkind, who had a new label called Loud. The RZA got him to sign an unprecedented deal. For only $60,000, Rifkind got the Clan as a whole. But the RZA also convinced him to allow each individual in the group to become, in essence, a free agent. They could sign a solo deal with any other company and take the Wu-Tang name with them.

DIGGS: When Def Jam wanted to sign Method Man, they wanted to sign Method Man and Old Dirty. But if I had Old Dirty and Method Man on Def Jam, that's two key pieces going in the same direction. Whereas there's the other labels that needed to be infiltrated.

KELLY: The goal was to spread the sound as widely as possible. And just a few years later, members of the Wu-Tang Clan were recording for five of the six major labels - back when there were six major labels. But that's not all, getting to number one depended on each solo album growing the Clan's fan base.

DIGGS: I recall telling GZA, you'll get the college crowd.

KELLY: Because he's the intellectual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAN IN DA FRONT")

GZA: (Rapping) I'm sort of like a miracle on 34th Street. In the Square of Herald, I gamed Ella. The (bleep) got a Fitz like Gerald-ine-Ferraro...

DIGGS: Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas.

KELLY: Their metaphors read like a police blotter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAN IN DA FRONT")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Hazardous, 'cause I wreck this dangerous. I blow sparks like Waco, Texas. I watch my back like I'm locked down, hardcore, hitting sound, watch me act bugged and tear it down...

DIGGS: Meth will get the women and children.

KELLY: Method Man is playful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME GROWN")

METHOD MAN: (Rapping) Patty cake patty cake. Hey, the Method Man. Don't eat Skippy, Jiff or Peter Pan...

DIGGS: Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock and roll.

KELLY: In your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOTHING TA F'WIT")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I slam, jam, now scream like Tarzan. I be tossing and flossing my style is awesome. I'm causing more family feuds than Richard Dawson.

KELLY: The album was called "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers," and it wasn't obvious that it would work. Everything the band had released so far was raw. Members contributed ideas and even some of their own money, but nobody knew how the RZA was going to pull it all together. He rented time in a Manhattan studio with the then-new editing technology Pro Tools, and packed movie clips and old interviews into the music.

DIGGS: It took me like a whole week or two to keep doing it. And the rest of the band didn't know it. They didn't hear it until it was done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The game of chess is like a sword fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABERS)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You must think first before you move.

KELLY: Five years after the group signed on to an idea, its follow-up, "Wu-Tang Forever," debuted at number one. I asked the RZA if he actually had a 20-year plan.

DIGGS: This may sound unbelievable to you. But I told the crew in the basement meeting that, from my calculations from what I'm feeling, that this will last 20 years. I said if we smart, we can plunge at that moment, or we could gracefully make a safe landing to 20 years.

KELLY: Safe is an understatement. The improbable success of the Wu-Tang Clan - their platinum plaques and world tours - alone and together - kicked open a door for other rap groups that wanted to make home-cooked music for the real people.

Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Rapping is what's happening. Keep the pockets stacked and then hands clapping. And then at the party...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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