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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day.

Unidentified Man #1: Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang soft style.

BRAND: The Wu-Tang Clan became hip-hop's first true empire in the mid-1990s. The Clan's hardcore mix of Staten Island slang and kung fu film imagery drove music fans wild.

(Soundbite of song by Wu-Tang Clan)

BRAND: "Wu, the story of the Wu-Tang Clan" is a new documentary that traces the group's rise and disintegration. NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: On the Wu-Tang Clan's first album, "Enter the 36 Chambers," Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, and Ghostface Killah told us exactly how they plan to hit the hip-hop world.

Unidentified Man #2: What's your, like, ultimate goal, I guess, in this industry?

Unidentified Man #3: Can I say this one. Can I say this one.

Unidentified Man #4: Domination baby...

Unidentified Man #5: We ain't trying to hop in and hop out like (unintelligible), you know what I'm saying? We're out for the gusto, man. We gonna keep it raw.

JOHNSON: But in the documentary, veteran rap critic Bonz Malone remembers the RZA being more opaque about his new group.

(Soundbite from documentary)

RZA: I got to be totally honest. As much as I love them dudes, I did not understand what the hell they were trying to do at all. That's word up.

JOHNSON: It was the early '90s, and Bonz Malone was A & R for Island Records. RZA had stopped by Malone's office to play him the Wu-Tang's brand new first single - a spare, ruffian track called, "Protect Ya Neck."

(Soundbite of song, "Protect Ya Neck")

Wu-Tang Clan: (Singing) Wu-Tang Clan coming at ya. Protect ya neck, kid, so set it off, de Inspector Deck. Watch ya step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. I smoke on the mike like smokin Joe Frazier. The hell raiser, raisin hell with the flavor. Terrorize the jam...

Mr. BONZ MALONE (Rap Critic): I thought it was incredible, but I remember laughing like hell, and he was telling me about, like, Staten Island with Shaolin, and the name of the group is called Wu-Tang Clan, and I was like, who the hell is going to follow that?

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: RZA lifted his idea from the kung fu film myth of a warrior clan that shared the kick ass Wu-Tang sword. RZA's nine-man crew would wield their collective rap skills just like that mighty saber.

(Soundbite of song, "M.E.T.H.O.D. Man" by Wu-Tang Clan)

Wu-Tang Clan: (Singing) The RZA, the GZA, Ol Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghost Faced Killah and the Method Man. M.E.T.H.O.D. Man. M.E.T.H.O.D. Man. M.E.T.H.O.D. Man. Hey, you, get off my cloud. You don't know me and you don't know my style.

RZA: Our metaphors was new. Our slang was original. You couldn't hear it nowhere else.

JOHNSON: That's the RZA, self-described president of the Wu and also a client.

RZA: It came from being on Staten Island and being kind of secluded from the other five boroughs and developing our own slang.

JOHNSON: Staten Island, a.k.a. Shaolin. It's where RZA dreamed up the clan idea after a brief stint as a solo artist left him bitter at the music industry.

RZA: I kind of had an epiphany. Like, yo, - I'm gonna go start my own record company. I'm going back to my homeboys and crew and take us out of the ghetto.

(Soundbite of song, "The Mystery of Chessboxin'")

Unidentified Man #6: The game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first, before you move.

JOHNSON: En garde, record biz. RZA rallied eight of the tightest young MCs around him, including his cousins, the GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard. And the Wu-Tang Clan's war for hip-hop supremacy was on.

(Soundbite of song, "They Mystery of Chessboxin'")

WU-TAN CLAN: (Singing) My peoples, are you with me? Where you at? In the front, in the back, killer bees on attack. My peoples are you with me? Where you at? Smoking meth hitting cats on the block with the gat. Here I go. Deep tight flow. Jacques Cousteau could never get this low. I'm cherry bombing... BOOM. Just warming up a little bit. VROOM, VROOM.

RZA: After doing more songs with everybody and having more good times together, I told everybody in the crew, I tell you, I been in the industry for a few years, and I don't think nobody could f- with us, you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of song, "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing To Fuck Wit")

WU-TAN CLAN: (Singing) Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to f- wit. Straight from the motherf- slum that's busted. Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to f- wit.

Mr. RAEKWON THE CHEF: We wasn't thinking about, yo, we gonna come and take over the world, you know what I mean? It wasn't even that.

JOHNSON: Wu-Tang's Raekwon the Chef representing Staten Island.

Mr. RAEKWON THE CHEF: We just wanted respect in the city.

(Soundbite of song, "Shame on a Nigga")

WU-TAN CLAN: (Singing) Hut one, hut two, hut three, Hut! Ol Dirt Bastard live and uncut. Styles unbreakable, shatterproof. To the young youth, ya want to get gun. Shoot! BLAOW! How ya like me now. Don't f- the style. Ruthless wow.

JOHNSON: The Wu-Tang Clan bum-rushed microphones and the cameras, going platinum thanks to the sheer volume of its hip-hop thug theater. Behind the scenes, RZA negotiated unprecedented deals for the Clan. He secured contracts that protected the group and deals that freed up each member to go solo with another company.

Mr. MALONE: Nobody changed the game the way the Wu-Tang Clan did.

JOHNSON: Rap critic Bonz Malone.

Mr. MALONE: They changed it for a whole industry. They changed it for their crew, to get several record deals and hold publishing and still to produce for others. That's straight-up control, man they murphed the industry, man. They murphed it.

JOHNSON: The Wu also set industry trends by turning the massive-rap-posse concept into a hugely lucrative act. Plus, the group was one of the first in rap to diversify its brand. The crew burned its famous W-shaped bird insignia on everything from video games to Wu-Tang nail polish. They even had their own Wu Wear clothing line.

(Soundbite of song, "The Garment Renaissance")

WU-TAN CLAN: (Singing) Yo diamond crystal ring sharp like icicles, nickel plated pistols, official wu-wear covers my physical. Insulated thermal while others drain they co four butt solos. Photographic photos type static great motivated soldier or...

JOHNSON: Just five years after the Clan took flight, it seemed the Wu bird was soaring dangerously close to the hot klieg lights. As members saw their solo brands explode, they wrestled with RZA over which way to divide the spoils. Ol' Dirty Bastard's death plus rampant internal beef slashed creativity, and the Wu-Tang sword went dull.

(Soundbite of song by Wu-Tang Clan)

WU-TAN CLAN: (Singing) At the height of their fame and glory, they turned on one another. Each struggling in vain for ultimate supremacy.

Mr. MARGEAUX WATSON (Staff Writer, Entertainment Weekly): It is a typical behind the music story.

JOHNSON: In the Wu documentary, Entertainment Weekly staff writer Margeaux Watson sums up the Clan's downfall.

Ms. WATSON: Childhood friends come together. They form this rap super group. Money, drugs, egos threatens to break it all apart. And by the time that you guys pull it together, everyone's moved on.

JOHNSON: Most of the Wu-Tang members have moved on, too. Method Man is in the movies and so is RZA, starring alongside Denzel Washington. The Wu-Tang Clan is on tour right now, still collecting enough props for reinventing rap. RZA and his clan continue to remind the world that hip-hop has always been about much more than just beats and rhymes.

RZA: Wu-Tang, through our music, and through our hip-hop culture, and through our touring around the world, we could be credited with bringing in multiple cultures to hip-hop to where everybody is involved.

(Soundbite of song by Wu-Tang Clan)

WU-TANG CLAN: (Singing) Machine gun rap for all my sins in the back seat...

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

BRAND: To see part of "Wu: The Story Of The Wu-Tang Clan" and hear songs from their first album, go to nprmusic.org.

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