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The RZA produced the entire Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album, introducing the world to what became his signature production style.
His productions are generally cinematic and stripped down: they force the listener to be attentive to the song the way they would to a movie. He's known for sampling organ and piano, gangster and kung fu films, and old soul music to create a claustrophobic, back-room-in-a-mobster-film kind of feel.
In the case of "C.R.E.A.M.," the memorable piano sample is actually pulled from a 1966 record by the Charmels, a girl group that recorded with Stax Records in the infant days of soul music. Like the clever use of slang by Raekwon, the RZA makes you work for it a little, using just enough of the song to create the sound he wants but not quite enough to make the source of the sample obvious to the uninitiated.
The Charmels' cheery soul sample becomes a thing of awesome darkness in the RZA's hands, backed by a simple, repetitive, laid-back beat that serves mostly to highlight the up-close-and-personal performances by Method Man, Raekwon, and Inspectah Deck. The mood is stark and the song gives off a sense of doom that skirts on a sense of humor, much like a trailer for a good action movie
The RZA's long production career is now a legendary one, with the likes of Kanye West citing him as an influence. (He's even worked on some of West's most lauded tracks.)
The RZA's list of production credits is impressive, and his work was far from limited to Wu-Tang Clan material.
"Naming is very important to the mythology that Wu-Tang Clan has built around itself" (source), one commentator wrote.
Or, according to the RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan is "famous for having lots of names, lots of pseudonyms and alter-egos" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 4).
From lifting the phrase "Wu-Tang" out of their favorite martial arts movies, to making C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) into common slang for money, to turning "Shaolin Land" into a nickname for "Staten Island," the Wu-Tang Clan definitely has a knack for naming.
And their names and titles are more than just nicknames. Each one generally has a pretty complex meaning, whether it's based on a spiritual belief, the Wu-Tang system of numerology, or a favorite movie.
Each Wu-Tang member has multiple names and alter egos, and each of those has a few layers of meaning. Let's just go over the RZA's many names.
(1) The RZA is also known as the Abbott, since he is the spiritual leader of the Wu-Tang Clan.
(2) and Bobby Steels, which combines the name of Black Panther Bobby Seals with the wheels of steel, which is slang for turntables.
(3) Bobby Digital, a superhero alter-ego.
(4) Rzarector, a horror flick alter-ego.
(5) RZA is short for the word razor, because RZA has razor-sharp rhymes.
(6) The RZA can also evoke the rizza-rizza sound used to stutter a vocal track on a turntable, as in rizza-rizza-Rakeem. It sounds more like wiki-wiki to us than rizza-rizza, but to each their own onomatopoeic term.
(7) And before he was RZA, he was Prince Rakeem.
(8) He was born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, named for Robert Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
And (9). Adding yet another level to the name, as a teen, he converted to Islam and became a part of the Five Percenters, a mystical street-based offshoot of the Nation of Islam. In Five Percent's system of "Divine Mathematics," the letter 'Z' stood for Zig-Zag-Zig, three strokes that in turn stood for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
"The last letter of the alphabet and the final step of consciousness," RZA explains in The Wu-Tang Manual (5). Hence the RZA was born. Taken altogether, his name stands for Ruler-Knowledge-Widsom-and-Understanding-Allah.
The naming game is seriously complicated.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me, that memorable hook featured in "C.R.E.A.M.," went a long way to make the word "cream" into commonly used slang for cash. It can also be slang for crack-cocaine, making it a classic instance of Wu-Tang double entendre. It's also a classic instance of Wu-Tang "backronym," or a phrase that's created out of a word to give it a reverse-engineered acronym.
"Witty Unpredictable Talent and Natural Game" is just one of several backronyms for the title Wu-Tang, and Cash Rules Everything Around Me is now one of the most well-known backronyms ever invented.
No, no weapon in hip-hop history can rival the chaotic cohesion of the Wu-Tang Clan. The Clan had so many characters, each with his own eccentricities. They were fearless in their approach. There's a good reason no group has been able to successfully recreate their sound. The crew spawned gazillions of loosely associated acts. Their classic albums spawned classic albums. (Source)
That quote from Henry Adaso pretty much sums it up.
The Wu-Tang Clan, against all odds, made themselves into just the icons they'd aspired to be. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is on dozens of best hip-hop album lists and is considered a classic, especially for its influence on production style but also for the Wu-Tang Clan's innovative approach to negotiating the record deal.
That deal, the RZA bragged, "changed the way hip-hop artists negotiate, the way deals are structured; it changed the whole rap game" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 76).
The album came in at #387 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. "C.R.E.A.M." went Gold in 2009, still selling after fifteen years. And despite some 2010 drama between Raekwon and the RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan continued doing their thing years after their '93 hit. But their thing will forever be associated with this classic track.
Raekwon, whose verse dominates the first half of "C.R.E.A.M.," is considered the Wu-Tang Clan's resident slang expert—the RZA wrote that Raekwon's first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, "had the most slang ever in hip-hop" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 21).
He integrates his renowned slang skills throughout his long verse in C.R.E.A.M. from the first line on. We'll give you a few lines of analysis, and let you mess around with the rest.
First line: According to the RZA, "crime side" in Raekwon's first line means "the side of black life you always see reported in the newspapers—crime, death, murder. The side Rae and all of us grew up on." (The Wu-Tang Manual, 150)
Second line: In the second line, he raps, "stayin' alive was no jive." A.k.a. surviving wasn't easy.
Third line: Line three brings out two slang phrases: "had second hands," meaning he wore hand-me-downs, and "moms bounced on old man," meaning his mom left his dad.
Fourth line: In the fourth line, Rae uses "Shaolin Land," Wu-Tang's name for Staten Island where many of them grew up. See the Lyrics tab for more on the tale of Shaolin Land.
Fifth line: In line five, Raekwon rocks a gold tooth—obvious enough—and "'Lo goose," a puffy down jacket made by Ralph Lauren. These items were a show of fashion and wealth in the ghetto in the early 1990s.
Sixth line: The sixth line brings out no less than three slang meanings for one phrase. Genius explains that "G off" can mean "get off" (as in, move up in the world), "become a gangsta" (a G), and "make Gs" (make that cash money). They also call this line "a triple entendre in 12 syllables." That's a feat many rappers aspire to but few achieve. (Source)
Raekwon's characteristic slang attack goes on and on. A couple of other key terms in his verses are "woolas" to mean marijuana joints mixed with cocaine, "running up in gates" to mean invading a drug-selling spot to steal the stash (a very, very dangerous form of robbery), "catchin' keys" to mean buying kilos of cocaine to sell at a profit, and "Tek-Nine" to refer to a dangerous type of handgun called the TEC-DC9 while simultaneously suggesting the dangerousness of the nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
There's really not a single line in Raekwon's part in C.R.E.A.M. that does not include slang.
It should be pretty obvious that using slang like this is a skill. Raekwon's use of it creates a series of inside jokes and lines that are likely to be more meaningful to people who come from the same places as the Wu-Tang Clan. But his slang vocabulary also means that Raekwon can work with the sounds of the words more easily and flexibly, often giving a word multiple meanings (as in the "G off" example). He uses slang to build up metaphor while also building up the idiosyncratic lore of the Wu-Tang Clan themselves.
The Wu-Tang Clan's been quite successful with spreading their family language around. The Wu-Tang Manual includes glossaries of Wu-Tang slang and Wu-Tang numerology that are several pages apiece, and hardcore Wu-Tang fans become intimately familiar with a world of characters, nicknames, and numbers imbued with complex meaning.
In the single phrase "36 chambers," for example, 36 is actually understood to mean nine Wu-Tang members times four chambers of the heart, while also referring to the 36 levels of learning required of Shaolin kung fu fighters. There are also, according to RZA, 36 fatal points on the body, and if you imagine these points in a circle at ten degrees of separation between each point, you get 360 degrees, a perfect circle, or a cipher—circles formed around free-styling rappers (The Wu-Tang Manual, 49).
Are you following?
It's okay if you're not. The Wu-Tang Clan has created a world, and invited us into it. But adjusting to its rules takes time.
This isn't a new technique in literature: way back when, the likes of John Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare came up with new terms or used slang in their writing in a way that helped dozens of new words enter the English language. Chaucer's comical, raunchy commentary on society was a center of Middle English slang. If you've ever read those guys' work, the issues of comprehension are actually pretty similar. You have to take a deep breath and submit yourself to their whole way of thinking, sometimes not stopping on individual words but taking in the broader feeling of the piece. With the Wu-Tang Clan, this definitely involves listening to the whole Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album.
Literary slang is a cultural skill, and involves a great sense of audience. After all, if no one can understand it, no one's going to like it. But if just enough people can understand it, an obscure street lexicon may just catch on. And hundreds of years later, it might be considered iconic, influential, and lasting work, even if—or maybe partially because—the meaning takes a while to fully comprehend.
Just like Mr. Shakespeare, Wu-Tang makes us work for it.