Product Lessons from the Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the 6 Chambers
If, like me, you were raised in the 90s there is a good chance that you know the Wu-Tang Clan (throw your W’s in the air if you do!)
If you haven’t, the Wu-Tang Clan is a hip-hop collective who took the scene by storm in the 90s, consisting of RZA, GZA, Ol’Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa.
I still remember the first time hearing Protect Ya Neck, it blew my mind. The sound, the lyrics, the flow, a collective who, one after another spitted fire, that was just ill!
Not much later, the members started releasing their own albums and the Wu-Tang Clan became even more hype. With all the affiliates and Wu-tang Killabees joining over the years, it were crazy times, and it was all done so well.
As a young adolescent, all there was to do was to echo RZA’s — Tragedy lyrics
A few decades later, it still makes me wonder if we will ever witness something like the Wu-Tang Clan again, or as Raekwon put it.
Now the questions I ask myself is; can it be that it was all so simple then?
The answer is NO, there was so much to this and brought so much more. To this day, I am still using lessons learned from the Wu-Tang Clan (and quite honestly learning new things about the Wu).
So what did I learn from the Wu-Tang Clan, and how do I use it working in Product, delivering Products that move the crowd and make them come back to me?
Let’s go! Tiger-Style!
Working in Product, there is a lot to learn from the Wu-Tang Clan. These are the 6 Chambers to Product Success, as learned from the Wu-Tang Clan.
Chamber 1: Discovery — Learn by doing. Try, fail, learn check and adjust.
Before the Wu-Tang Clan was formed there was the group “All in Together Now” (aka Force of the Imperial Master), consisting of Prince Rakeem (aka RZA), The Genius (aka Allah Justice aka GZA) and Ason Unique (aka The Specialist aka Ol’Dirty Bastard).
Though the group never had an official release, there were a few demo songs that were on heavy rotation across New York City in the mid-80s and the individual members had some moderate success, with the Genius signing a contract with Cold Chillin, Prince Rakeem signing with Tommy Boy and Ason Unique probably doing his own “thing” aside from music.
The group ended up dissolving in 1991. Meanwhile, RZA had formed the D.M.D Posse, consisting of himself, Method Man, U-God, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, which unfortunately wasn’t a great success either.
A lot of learnings were derived from those times, yet it was back to the drawing board.
- Experimentation and Discovery are key and support you to identify the optimal solution
- Release early and learn from what you do
- It is okay to abandon a what initially was though to be a great idea. It is better to realize and change direction than to keep investing
- Don’t overthink, quick action can provide you relevant insights, to check and adjust towards reaching your North Star
Chamber 2: Values — Create Values people can identify with and really behind
RZA began collaborating with Ghostface Killah. They decided to create a hip-hop group whose ethos would be taken from Shaolin Kung Fu.
The group in essence was a merger of All in together Now and the D.M.D. Posse, covered with a sprinkle of Ghostface Killah.
Though the Wu-Tang chronicle is one of street lives shaped by poverty, violence and drug dealing, it is also a story of family value, members coming from a rough upbringing and being either related or close friends growing up. Wu-Tang Clan is about family and clan emphasizes that, it meaning family, brotherhood.
Sharing family values, the group’s leader RZA wanted to ensure that they operated as a strong collective.
This however didn’t mean the Wu-Tang Clan could only operate as a group. Independence was another key value of the Wu-Tang. All members of the Wu had their own independence, allowing them to release their solo albums.
Solo albums should though contribute to the overall success and longevity of the Wu-Tang. Therefor, a special clause was included in individual record deals.
In addition, Solo Albums were to have features of other Wu members and productions from RZA, giving recognition to Wu Tang Clan family.
- Have a set of clear, meaningful values. They help take more (calculated) risks, grow, develop and create a greater sense of belonging.
Chamber 3: Vision — Create an inspiring idealistic statement of the future that inspires
When Wu-Tang clean was established, it was clear from the start that RZA was more than a master producer, with an unconventional and genius approach. RZA was the driver of the Wu Tang Clan bus.
He was a visionary who saw that the sum of something could be larger than its parts. He wanted for the Wu-Tang to become larger than life. He wanted Wu-Tang to be a once in a lifetime experience, and he wanted Wu-Tang worldwide domination beyond music.
- You need an inspirational vision that motivates and inspires not only those involved but also your stakeholders and customers
- You need a visionary who is a passionate leader, strong on Vision and flexible on details
Chamber 4: Mission — Make sure all understand why you exist and that matters
Now for Wu-Tang to become a dominating force, beyond music, Worldwide, one needs to have a little more insight into what the reason for Wu-Tang’s existence is.
I was initially thinking of writing some more about this chamber, and then remembered Ol’Dirty Bastard explained this one simple and clear during the 1998 Grammy’s.
I always admired how the Wu-Tang Clan, engaged with their target group and understood that those who can sway the children, will get the parents and next generations inspired.
Method Man took this one even further on his track Perfect World
- Create clarity to your reason of existence
Chamber 5: Strategy — Have a plan to make it happen.
RZA, the visionary and architect of the Wu-Tang Clan, had a clear 5-year plan that would give launch to the group’s rising stardom.
The first steps of the plan was to debut with a group album, serving as a vehicle to ignite each of the members their solo careers.
RZA ensured the solo careers by signing with Loud records, with adding a clause to the contract stating that “each member is a free agent”. This enabled the Wu-Tang to grow its empire, each now allowed to sign solo deals, spreading the Wu-Tang brand.
The five-year endgame was to re-group and make a second album that would exceed any of the sales made thus far and establish the Wu-Tang Clan as the top Hip-hop Collective #Wu-Tang Forever.
(un)Intentionally, a side effect of the plan was the Wu-Tang Clan started seeing the potential to grow beyond Wu-Tang Clan, having their first affiliates.
RZA took on Gravediggaz, Shyheim released two albums, and the 4th disciple (one of the founding members of Killarmy) dropped an album.
Having affiliates was a golden concept and after releasing the Wu Tang Forever Album started its own chain of events with Wu Fam and Killabeez initiatives
The Strategy paid off. Individually and collectively, Wu-Tang Clan changed hip-hop from a production, lyrics, and aesthetics point of view. The blueprint to hip-hop world domination was a success.
- Beyond having a vision and a reason for existing, one needs a plan, that serves as a blueprint, towards reaching the North Star.
- Find a way how to execute on the plan.
- Look for further opportunity while executing the plan
Chamber 6: Tactics — Keep on building, experiment and innovating, keep challenging the product
Already during the 5-year plan, Wu-Tang Clan explored and experimented with concepts, even beyond their core business, being music.
They went into apparel, established Wu-Wear and opened four Wu Wear stores.
The Epic song introducing Wu-Wear is still one of the best advertisement songs (and I mean, I remember quite a few of the 90s Levis commercial that were quite epic. Wu just did it better in my view)
After completing their 5-year plan successfully, spread their branches into the gaming industry with Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, released for Sony PlayStation.
Then there were the Wu-Tang Comics, cosmetics, beverages, movies, TV series and plenty more throughout the years.
Wu-Tang Clan also came with innovation in music, releasing a single-album concept Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in 2015. The album stunned the music world, became the most valuable album in the world and stirred up some controversy (even within the Clan, the album coming with a 88-year commercial ban) keeping people once more talking about the Wu-Tang Clan.
Though not all efforts were a huge success, the branching out in new activities did result in some individual members becoming well known actors and setting up, or investing in, profitable businesses.
The Wu-Tang Clan brand to this day is a force to be reckoned with.
- Success can be found outside what you believe is your core business
- You need to keep innovating, experimenting and try new things to stay relevant
- Always keep in mind that not everything you will do is a success, and that is okay
Recap — Enter the 6 Chamber of Product Success
I’ll leave you with, a quote and the short documentary For The Children: 25 Years of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
“If you live through defeat, you are not defeated. If you are beaten but acquire wisdom, you have won. Lose yourself to improve yourself. Only when we shed all self-definition do we find who we really are.” — RZA
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