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The Wu-Tang Marketing Plan

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by Jo Piazza

One of the most important singles in hip-hop history wasn’t great, or even particularly good. In fact, it was terrible. Even the most die-hard hip-hop fans probably haven’t heard “Ooh I Love You Rakeem,” the title track of Prince Rakeem’s 1991 debut EP, and there’s a reason for that.

Prince Rakeem, a cartoonish, vaguely international ladies’ man, was a character foisted on rapper Robert Diggs by his record label. The Prince had just one concern. Women loved him too much, and he rapped about it. When the EP flopped, Prince Rakeem effectively died. But it wasn’t in vain—his demise gave birth to hip-hop’s greatest supergroup: The Wu-Tang Clan.

Diggs’s failure as Prince Rakeem was actually a common career arc among his contemporaries. As Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’s website, Global Grind, tells it, in 1991 hip-hop was still confused about its identity.

“Rap was just starting to get commercial and the record industry was trying to sell that to Middle America,” Skolnik says. “They didn’t want to scare people.”

See for yourself in Prince Rakeem's very NSFW video...

Looking back, the Prince Rakeem gimmick seems impossibly campy. It was a lesson for Diggs. In his attempt to sell records, he’d sanded away his edges until he resembled a bubblegum caricature—a slightly raunchier version of Will Smith. And none of that led to sales.

The record industry isn’t famous for handing out second chances. But instead of calling it quits, Diggs doubled down. For nearly two years, he meditated on how to break back into the business. Rather than cave to the record companies’ demands, Diggs dreamed of unleashing gritty, authentic hip-hop on Middle America.

Diggs’s main problem as Prince Rakeem was pretty basic. He was miscast as the suave, approachable Casanova. Far from a lothario, he was something much more interesting: a chess player from the projects who was obsessed with old kung fu movies. If he was going to resuscitate his flagging hip-hop career, he needed support. Diggs drew inspiration from one of his favorite kung fu films, Five Deadly Venoms—he wanted to stand with an army of warriors.

Back in Staten Island, Diggs decided to build a hip-hop supergroup from the ground up. He joined forces with his cousins Russell Jones (better known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and Gary Grice (otherwise known as the GZA) and six other friends to form the Wu-Tang Clan, a name poached from the kung fu flick Shaolin & Wu Tang. From that point forward, Diggs wasn’t Diggs anymore. He was reborn as RZA.

The Benevolent Dictator

There was only one rule in the Wu-Tang Clan: RZA was in charge. The rapper made a pact with his soldiers. He would become the de facto CEO of their musical tribe for its first five years, calling all the shots and producing all the albums. In return he promised that each member would become a famous MC in his own right. Instead of nine guys making grabs for the spotlight, the Clan would take their turns strategically, each raking in as much money as he could. RZA viewed the business plan as a high-stakes game of chess.

After getting the eight headstrong MCs to sign on to the plan, RZA started doing market research. He quickly realized the power of good branding. If he could sell a rap group the same way corporate America peddled Pepsi or Nike, he could build an empire. But how do you sell rap like soda or sneakers? The solution was simple. “From day one, Wu-Tang had a logo—its iconic W—that was pushed across as many platforms as possible and stamped on every release,” Billboard’s Benjamin Meadows-Ingram says. “Wu-Tang worked its brand in every arena, famously establishing a wide business portfolio that included everything from T-shirts to skateboards to 1-900 numbers.”

But even the world’s greatest marketing plan won’t work if the underlying product is weak. Luckily, the Wu-Tang Clan’s music was almost as revolutionary as its business model. RZA proved to be a genius as a producer. His sparse, repetitive loops sampled everything from old soul records to his beloved kung fu flicks, and the beautifully raw, eerie tracks provided the perfect canvas for the members’ rapping styles. The other eight MCs held up their end of the bargain, seamlessly slipping in and out of the beats, dropping hard-edged lyrics that managed to be aggressive and clever while tying in kung fu mythology. This wasn’t a manufactured sound—the words and music felt authentic, capturing all the harshness of the projects. Yet the tunes were catchy enough to win over suburban audiences.

The group released its first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” on its independent label in 1992, and the song became an instant hit. To keep the momentum rolling, the members plastered the W logo all over New York City and outside any venue where they performed. The single’s grassroots success had record labels salivating to sign the group.

But finding a company that would agree to rep Wu-Tang while still allowing the members to pursue solo projects was no small task. Amazingly, RZA convinced Loud/RCA to sign the act on his terms, and each rapper became a free agent.

If RZA was a chess master, the record industry was an overmatched opponent. The group’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), went platinum, and it kicked off a streak of incredible commercial and critical success. When the first Wu-Tang solo record, Method Man’s Tical, sold more than a million copies, the message was clear. These kung fu aficionados weren’t typical rappers, they were a force to be reckoned with.

Suddenly, there was no stopping the Wu-Tang Clan. And as promised, each MC got his moment in the sun. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and the GZA’s Liquid Swords dropped in 1995. Both went gold and are considered hip-hop classics. Ghostface Killah followed suit with the critically lauded Ironman the next year. With the core music business thriving, the Wu-Tang Clan did what any successful brand does: it started franchising. A slew of affiliates released records of their own, and the group launched its own clothing line, Wu-Wear, grossing more than $5 million by 1998.

And with each step, RZA seemed perfectly in control. He sat perched over the enterprise, carefully timing the release of solo records and crafting beats to complement the members’ wildly different styles, from Method Man’s throaty bravado to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s half-sung warbling. As his coauthor on The Wu-Tang Manual, Chris Norris, put it, RZA was the benevolent dictator who made the whole project work. RZA’s five-year stint as CEO culminated with 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. The double album entered the charts at number one and eventually sold just over 4 million copies.

When RZA and his Clan mates began their assault on the record industry, branding was a foreign concept in the hip-hop world. Two decades later, rappers like Jay-Z rule over giant empires of clothing lines and energy drinks. The Wu-Tang’s novel brand-first business model has become standard practice in the hip-hop world, and with good reason. You can’t improve on perfection.

This article appears in the July-August 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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