C.R.E.A.M. is about cash, and how it rules things, but also how maybe it doesn’t rule anything that’s really important. It helped wrench loose G-Funk’s tentacles from the throat of rap, and offered a new dark and dirty alley for the sound of rap to wander down.
The density and complexity of the universe Wu-Tang Clan built for itself was, remains today, and will forever remain exhilarating, exhausting, and exhaustive. Here is an example, and I’m just going to wholesale paraphrase the beginning of a brilliant Wu-Tang article by Brandon Perkins from a 2007 issue of URB magazine called “Widdling Down Infinity”:
There were 9 members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The number 9, “according to Supreme Mathematics—a Five Percent philosophy and belief of the Wu, used to describe the Earth’s mechanics,” means “to bring into existence.”
Each of those 9 members has a heart and that heart has 4 chambers, and 9 × 4 = 36, which represents the number of levels of mastery and also the title of their album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but also 3 + 6 = 9, and we’re right back to where we started. There are 108 pressure points on the human body, and 1 + 0 + 8 = 9, but, also, of those 108, exactly 36 of them are deadly, and the 9 members + the 36 deadly pressure points = 45, and 4 + 5 = 9, and we’re right back to where we started again.
The article goes on like that for a couple thousand words, and it only ever really examines the mathematical segment of Wu-Tang’s spectrum. There are more cosmological layers, as well as superhero fantasies, chess metaphors, crime boss aliases, a clothing brand, and more, and more, and more. You could fill a book—lots of books—with information about them. And they have. But that’s not this, of course. So here is a mostly linear Wu-Tang primer:
There are nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Sometimes when people talk about them there are more members. And sometimes when people talk about them there are fewer members. They are most often linked to Staten Island, a New York City borough, though not all of the members are/were from there. (Staten Island = Shaolin, FYI.)
Though not the singular founder, RZA is the leader of the group, and, in addition to establishing their creative arc, he also set in place a five-year business plan that guided their professional dealings.
Their first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” was an underground hit, and probably the first truly transcendent song to exist beneath the top layer of rap, which, by 1992/3, had firmed itself as a legitimate (very profitable) genre. Their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is an unmitigated classic, and a handful of equally impressive projects followed.6 They are now regularly cited as the greatest, most influential rap group of all time. And now you know about one percent of the history of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Where “Protect Ya Neck,” recorded for a few hundred dollars and sold out the backs of vans, sought to introduce Wu-Tang Clan into the rap conversation—any rap conversation, really—“C.R.E.A.M.,” the standout song from Enter the Wu-Tang, (36 Chambers), announced them as torchbearers.
“C.R.E.A.M.” was dusty and intimidating and raw and unflinching, just as the album was, and it framed a very bleak economic realism in a handmade collage of bizarro tinks and thumps. It was the inverse to what had been happening in rap on the West Coast for the two years prior, both sonically (Dr. Dre’s G-Funk creation was unhurried and loping and a reflection of its own coolness; Wu-Tang’s lo-fi bombast was frenetic and intricate and introspective) and ideologically (the whole first verse of “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” is about how Dr. Dre is unfadeable so please don’t try to fade him; the whole first verse of “C.R.E.A.M.” is about all the small-scale crime Raekwon had committed, only to realize he’d not advanced his station in life). It was a change matched in measure only by what Public Enemy had done five years prior with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and it was invigorating.
G-Funk certainly didn’t disappear (Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle was released the same month as Enter the Wu-Tang) but the next direction of rap’s evolution had been made obvious.
There are three eventualities that spiral back toward “C.R.E.A.M.,” which also means they lead back to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which really means they lead back to Wu-Tang as an entity:
#1. New York: I would argue that the strongest year in all of rap was 1994 (and, in fact, that’s exactly what happens in the next chapter). There were groundbreaking tapes from UGK (Port Arthur, Texas); Common (Chicago, Illinois); Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Cleveland, Ohio); Outkast (Atlanta, Georgia); Master P (New Orleans, Louisiana); and on and on. But 1994, expansive as it was, belonged 100 percent to New York. Rap leaned all the way toward the right side that year. You have to attribute that to Biggie’s “Juicy” and Nas’s Illmatic, for sure. But you also have to attribute it to what the Wu-Tang Clan accomplished in 1993.
#2. The Inspiration for Moguldom: Puff, Jay, Master P, 50, any other rap mogul you care to name—that level of entrepreneurship was created by RZA.9 Here’s a quote from his book, The Wu-Tang Manual: “I told them, ‘If y’all give me five years of your life, I promise you in five years I’m gonna take us to the top.’ And so we gave each other our word. The Wu-Tang Clan was born.” RZA’s plan was actually super-involved. In those five years, along with the albums, he’d push to build the Wu-Tang “W” into broadband recognition status, including a proper Wu-Tang video game and clothing line in their portfolio. His most ingenious move, though: He arranged for the group to sign with an independent record label (Steve Rifkind’s newly formed Loud Records) that offered a unique clause in the contract: While the group as a whole was exclusive to Loud Records, each member was allowed to secure a solo deal with a competing label. GZA signed with Geffen Records. Ghostface went with Sony. Method Man went with Def Jam. It was the first time anything like that had ever been pulled off. RZA viewed the Wu-Tang Clan as a wide-based corporation, and so he positioned them as such.
(Note: Wu-Tang released their second album, Wu-Tang Forever, right at the end of RZA’s proposed five-year plan. It shipped more than four million copies in its first six months.)
#3. Cheese Wagstaff: That’s the name of the character Method Man played on HBO’s The Wire, which I’m assuming you knew already because you paid money for this book and so that’s probably the sort of thing you’d know. I still can’t believe Cheese set up Prop Joe to be killed like that. I just really can’t. I almost threw away all my Method Man CDs after watching that scene. Top seven deaths on The Wire, ranked by emotional distress caused: 7. Prop Joe; 6. Snoop; 5. Bodie; 4. D’Angelo; 3. Stringer; 2. Omar; 1. Wallace. Oh great, now I’m crying again.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard does not have a verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” He represents the duality of it as well as any of the members of the Clan do, though, and he probably does so more than most, really.
During the State of the Union address in 1994, President Bill Clinton talked about a lot of things, as presidents tend to do during State of the Union addresses. Here’s a thing he said about government assistance: “We have to end welfare as a way of life and make it a path to independence and dignity.” He said more, but that’s a fine enough summation of his premise.
During 1995, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the most erratic and unpredictable member of the group, did a lot of crazy things, as bastards who are old and dirty tend to do. Here’s a thing he said about government assistance: “The people that wanna cut off the welfare, man, I think that’s terrible. You know how hard it is for people to live without nothin’?” He said it during an interview with MTV. Everyone thought it was funny because it came after he’d ridden in a limousine with MTV to pick up the food stamps he’d been allotted that month by New York.
ODB had of course earned more than enough money to disqualify himself from aid—Enter the Wu-Tang sold more than a million copies, plus he’d been given a $45,000 advance from his record label, Elektra, for his own solo album. But he’d not filed his taxes for the year yet, so the state was using his previous year’s income reporting, so, in that particular moment, he was eligible. “I’m glad to get the food stamps. Why wouldn’t you want to get free money? . . . You owe me forty acres and a mule, anyway.”