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"Cash rules everything around me," says Method Man. And that's "C.R.E.A.M.," in a nutshell.
But is the song just a simple justification for ruthless capitalism? Hardly.
Before the message even has a chance to sink in, Raekwon the Chef comes in with a story about the extreme risks he took as a young drug dealer who couldn't get ahead. Inspectah Deck, the Wu-Tang Clan's secret weapon, follows that up with his own tales of street life, prison time, and narrow escapes, showing more sorrow than bravado about what he's been through:
But as the world turns I learned life is Hell
Living in the world, no different from a cell
Like Charles Dickens in Hard Times, these Wu-Tang guys are more interested in telling the story of society's failures than in painting some sort of optimistic picture of them "bettering themselves." And, like Charles Dickens, the Wu-Tang Clan are powerful, innovative, and edgy storytellers. Economic realism is just a gateway: Raekwon and Inspectah Deck have plenty of reasons to take a realistic, gritty outlook on the whole world.
The Wu-Tang Clan came together out of family ties and high school friendships in Staten Island—referred to as Shaolin Land in this song—and Brooklyn in the 1980s. Of the nine original members, three were cousins: RZA (Robert Diggs), GZA (Gary Grice), and Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones). The remaining six were friends they made in school or around Staten Island's Park Hill and Stapleton housing projects.
RZA, GZA, and Ol' Dirty Bastard originally came together as a group called Force of the Imperial Master, which had one popular underground single before the RZA decided to push a new idea. He wanted to form a huge crew, inspired by the discipline and organization of kung fu and the strategy and smarts of chess, and call it the Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan, according to RZA's vision, would take the hip-hop world by storm, and eventually claim a massive percentage of the market through careful planning and in-your-face skills. In 1992, RZA got together with GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Raekwon. A few of them fronted money for the group to lay down some tracks in a studio and the Wu-Tang Clan was born.
At first glance, they seemed like a lot of young rappers from the projects, aspiring to break out of a life-threatening spiral of poverty and drugs. But the Wu-Tang Clan had a fresh, strange set of ideas on numerous levels: economic, musical, and even spiritual.
As Rolling Stone explains, RZA, the group's producer and mastermind, had all the ingredients in mind for the Wu-Tang mixture:
RZA is the keeper of Wu-Tang's mystical knowledge—a highly idiosyncratic blend of kung-fu discipline, the numerological speculations of the Five Percent Nation (a split-off sect from the Nation of Islam), chess lore, street smarts, the Bible, mafia mythology, black capitalism, millenarian anxiety, extraterrestrial visions and superhero fantasies. (Source)
RZA remembers getting turned on to kung fu movies at a young age. He was particularly drawn to the strategy, discipline, and numerologies of kung fu.
In The Wu-Tang Manual, he describes the experience of seeing a preview for a movie called The Thirty-Sixth Chamber, set to be released on June 6th, 1979. "It was like a magic moment," he writes. "I remember that ad to this day. It was June 6: 36. Six-six-thirty-six" (58).
The film itself was a life-changing experience: "You had the government oppressing all the people, but the young didn't even know that they were oppressed. So this schoolteacher was teaching his students about sacrifice and righteousness [...] They didn't know they were oppressed, they figured that's how it's always been. I could relate to that on a lot of levels." The master in The Thirty-Sixth Chamber eventually moves through 35 chambers of kung fu discipline. The 36th chamber requires the disciple "to teach the knowledge of Shaolin to the rest of the world." RZA recalls that this movie "opened my mind. The idea of self-discipline, of re-creating yourself. I was around fourteen years old. And it changed me, for real." (The Wu-Tang Manual, 59)
The inspiration of The Thirty-Sixth Chamber and the idea of teaching "the knowledge of Shaolin" to the world stuck with the RZA, whose creative mind was buzzing as he grew up in the middle of intense violence. In the late 1980s, almost ten years later, he and his cousin Ol' Dirty saw 1981's Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.
The power, swordsmanship and all around badness of the Wu fighting the Shaolin in those movies became the thing to emulate, and RZA says that "Wu" or "Wu-Tang" spread around as slang: "'Wu-Tang' was just something that was fly as far as the street level of it" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 61).
These young men from the world of gangs and drug deals, "the crime side," felt they could identify with martial arts movies. In the RZA's mind, the Wu-Tang Clan would be fly, strategic, and based on the martial arts principle of brotherhood that had parallels in the streets and project life.
RZA describes the Wu-Tang Clan's view on the brotherhood principle:
Listen, we're oppressed. It does feel like we as a people were betrayed a long time ago. I can't really describe it any other way. It's real because the issues are alive with us. You're living in the hood and you've got knowledge and dreams and you got wars between neighborhood and neighborhood and neighborhood. Everybody's backstabbing everybody. And when you know someone who's got your back, that's a life-or-death thing. That's a real bond, a real brotherhood. (The Wu-Tang Manual, 63)
Thanks to RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan did actually become a brotherhood. And they were a brotherhood with a five-year plan.
As the group pulled together their first few recordings, RZA developed a strategy for the Wu-Tang Clan to take over the hip-hop world. The group would get a record deal that allowed individual artists to pursue their own side projects with other labels, but still tied to the Wu-Tang logo. The Wu-Tang logo would include all the artists on the bill, but it would also become a clothing line, a video game, and a known brand name.
"Turning the standard concept of a hip-hop crew inside out, the Wu-Tang Clan were assembled as a loose congregation of nine MCs, almost as a support group," says the Wu-Tang Clan website. "Our goal was to divide ourselves and conquer the record industry" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 76), writes RZA. "Wu-Tang is going to be like the Mickey Mouse ears" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 82).
After the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, the RZA's vision began to take shape. Driven by the popular singles "Method Man," "C.R.E.A.M.," and "Can It All Be So Simple," the RZA-produced concept album took off.
The Wu-Tang Clan hit the ground running, winning the Source Award for best new artist in 1994. RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Method Man all followed up with solo record deals, and the clothing line was launched in 1995 with the funds from the first album and the pooled funds from the solo albums. As a part of the RZA's unique collective vision, every Wu-Tang member gives a cut back to the whole group.
By 1997, the Wu-Tang empire had actually been created, and the double album Wu-Tang Forever made TV news by selling 600,000 copies in the first week without any radio play. In the days before the internet, this meant that people were buying the album en masse often without even hearing it.
After 1997, the five-year plan ended, but the impact was huge. Before the Wu-Tang Clan, no rap group had successfully negotiated a contract that allowed them to sign with other labels for solo albums and retain the rights to their logo and branding. RZA's business model was a huge success, and the Wu-Tang Clan became legendary.
It may not be quite at the level of Mickey Mouse ears, but the Wu-Tang logo definitely has broad brand recognition.
In addition to kung fu movies, RZA based much of his business philosophy from the game of chess, which he and other Wu-Tang members became skilled at. He believed that different players in the game had different roles, different skills and different powers, and, at least during the five-year plan, he saw his own role as advising the best moves for the whole team.
But the plan ended in 1997, the group split, and various members paired off to work with each other or with other members of Wu-Tang's huge group of affiliated solo acts. "All this was brand diversifying," write the RZA. "So instead of just Nestle Quik you've got Nestle Quik, Nestle Strawberry Quik, Diet Nestle Quik." (The Wu-Tang Manual, 83)
Despite RZA's keen business sense and talk about diversifying, the collective spirit and fantastical inspirations behind the Wu-Tang Clan were hardly typical ruthless capitalist stuff. After all, no Wu-Tang member made an album that didn't also benefit the whole group. Every solo album included other members of Wu-Tang or the RZA's production skills, at least on some tracks. The success of the individual was the success of the group, and the group remained closely tied to their own mythologies even as they became world famous. The Wu-Tang Clan eventually bought a house together in New Jersey, a collective crash pad for them and their friends.
A lot of people were disappointed with the development of rap music in the 1990s into something that was mainly concerned with money and image, and it would be easy to associate the Wu-Tang Clan with that shift. But looking at the whole Wu-Tang story, it's clear that the credo of "Cash Rules Everything Around Me" is not an excuse for cruelty, but a reckoning with reality. That's how the RZA and other Wu-Tang members see their brotherhood. They came from the deepest poverty and oppression and they came out of it together through honing in on the rules of the game and trying to beat it with their own Wu-Tang style.
As in martial arts, any ruthlessness was to be carried out under a strict code of ethics. "The Wu-Tang were the bad guys in a lot of these movies…they were survivalists" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 61).
The art of survival in the Wu-Tang world is more like chess than Monopoly. It's a dog-eat-dog game, but your ties are to the clan and not the individual alone. It's a game that's played by the group, driven by spiritual principles and the power of the mind. The survivalism in "C.R.E.A.M." shows the beginnings of a complex and highly successful Wu-Tang philosophy. The RZA got his empire, and the brotherhood of the Wu-Tang remained.
Divide and conquer, admits the RZA, is a tool of the oppressor that Wu-Tang's business philosophy does sometimes lean on. But, "What happens if we unite different people to conquer another?" he asks. "In a way, that's what happened." (The Wu-Tang Manual, 83)