The Wu-Tang Clan: The Stealth Startup of Shaolin

November 27, 2013

1:00 pm

When I’m not running my startup Speek where we’re busy providing the best conference calls possible, I love following music. And one thing I love is marveling at how much these two worlds have in common: the many parallels between the music industry and the startup community mean that the convergence of startups and music acts at conferences like SXSW and Tech Cocktail Celebrate is anything but coincidental.

Just a small sampling of the similarities between making it as a musician and making it as a startup founder:

  • In order to really reach a large audience, you have to get signed (aka funded) by a label, either independent (angels) or corporate (VC)
  • You need to surround yourself with a talented group/band/team (company)
  • You directly perpetuate your brand in everything that you do and that your product/music becomes
  • At the end of the day you are taking a huge risk and only the tiniest percentage of musicians/startups are going to make it big
  • The more disruptive you are to the status quo, the better. In startups as in rock and hip hop, the best way to know you’re making something great is that you’re pissing people off.

Speaking of hip hop: unless you lived in a cave during the 90s (possibly Iowa) you’ve heard of the Wu-Tang Clan. The group took the music scene by storm with their raw beats and gritty lyrics about life in Staten Island and Brooklyn, which they melded with kung-fu movie clips and martial arts innuendo.

The group has introduced and launched the careers of affiliated artists and groups, and in 2008, ranked them the No. 1 greatest hip hop group of all time, stating that “no weapon in hip-hop history can rival the chaotic cohesion of the Wu-Tang Clan…They were fearless in their approach. There’s a good reason no group has been able to successfully recreate their sound.” Rolling Stone called Wu-Tang Clan “the best rap group ever.” They are also, for my money, the clearest bridge between startup culture and the music biz.

The Wu-Tang Clan was formed by Robert Diggs aka RZA in the early 90s following some modest previous success. He teamed up with other solo stars from the New York boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn to form a new kind of super group—RZA, GZA, Method ManRaekwonGhostface KillahInspectah DeckU-GodMasta Killa, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

In other words, RZA gathered a bunch of creative, some possibly insane—I’m looking at you Dirty, rest in peace!—people with disparate but overlapping talents and combined them into a powerful, cohesive instrument that disrupted an entire industry. In the world of hip hop, there is a clear before and after when it comes to the Wu. This is as true on the business side as it is to the music. Wu-Tang Clan’s elaborate narratives and underlying mythology (positing Staten Island as the mystical “Shaolin”) changed what people assumed hip hop could do or say, and the way they approached the business of being the Wu-Tang Clan was no less transformative. Having been burnt previously by shady record company dealings, RZA knew that if he accepted the status quo, Wu-Tang would be nothing but glorified employees spitting genius to fill the coffers of their corporate overlords. Instead, Wu-Tang broke the mold: the deal RZA negotiated meant that the group would record as a group for RCA but that outside the group each member had complete independence and could work with other labels. This was unprecedented and opened the doors for the high degree of autonomy that many rappers and producers now take for granted. Sayeth the RZA:

We reinvented the way hip hop was structured, and what I mean is, you have a group signed to a label, yet the infrastructure of our deal was like anyone else’s […] We still could negotiate with any label we wanted, like Meth went with Def JamRae stayed with LoudGhost went with SonyGZA went with Geffen Records, feel me? […] And all these labels still put “Razor Sharp Records” on the credits […] Wu-Tang was a financial movement. So what do you wanna diversify…? […] Your assets?”

Don’t cry for RCA: having already gained some underground steam with the indie success of single “Protect Ya Neck,” Wu-Tang’s full-length debut went platinum and climbed far higher on the charts than it had a right to given RZA’s heavy production and esoteric touches, which set it apart from anything else you could find in mainstream hip hop and was hugely influential to the artists who followed.

Leaving artistry aside, Wu Tang’s collective financial achievements are astoundingly impressive. Besides selling many millions of records, the monks of Shaolin have also been some of the most reliably popular live acts in hip hop, and their careers have spilled over into film and television (Cheese!), to say nothing of the hundreds of millions made in merchandising.

By bringing together a group of insanely talented, committed people; by making something that had never existed but that there was clearly a hunger for; by using the corporate world to further their own mission while simultaneously subverting it—RZA and Wu-Tang changed the parameters of hip hop. What had previously been taken for granted was now completely up for grabs.

Not too bad for a startup from Staten Island.

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Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.

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