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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!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]