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RZA's The Wu-Tang Manual

By Clayton Purdom | 25 August 2005

There’s this one beat, four tracks into Liquid Swords, that simply shouldn’t exist within this time-space continuum. Over a down-and-up-again fire-breathing guitar riff and marching-into-war bass drums, an ear-piercing synthline meanders menacingly, a host of horns and chants seemingly stretched to infinity in the distant background. Bassline, drums, synthline, spookiness: these are central elements to a lot of '90s beatmaking, but here the RZA has twisted and fucked the elements far beyond the point of recognition. It’s a wonder that the RZA’s head didn’t explode shortly after making it.

It’s one of the innumerable “what the fuck?!!” moments that the RZA has contributed to music over the past decade and a half, along with the Bobby Digital persona, that track he and Method Man did with Shaq, and the video for “Gravel Pit," which takes place in a Flintstones colosseum, and Method Man delivers his verse with a cartoon-sized club over his shoulder, and pterodactyls and brontosauruses occasionally traverse the screen, and then a group of fucking ninjas attacks the Wu and they have to defend themselves. I believe the song is about sex.

Still, all of these wildly disparate ideas hold to a certain indefinable logic. Somewhere between kung fu flicks, chess, numerology, Buddhism and hip hop, the RZA obviously found something, and all of his artistic output—however off-kilter—seems to flow from this point. Most are immediately likable in an aesthetic sense (the beat for “Gravel Pit” a boomeranging ass-shaker), but the real obsession comes from mining this strand of logic, from trying to decipher all of the clues and finding just what the fuck the RZA was getting at.

Enter The Wu-Tang Manual. Fans have been frothing over the idea of this book for years: the RZA, in his own words, explaining the Wu, the influences that lead to it, the personalities that comprised it, the production methods that made it. For those that have spent way too much time analyzing the anagrams and allusions of the Wu albums, this book holds a promise almost too glorious too fathom.

The Manual is split into four books of nine chambers (chapters) each, totaling—well, lookit that—36 chambers. Impressively, the Manual is written in the RZA’s distinct voice, and any ghostwriting is purely editorial (the byline is amended, “with Chris Norris”). As a brief example of the tone, here’s an excerpt wherein the RZA elucidates the experience of watching The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, a kung fu flick that he points to as singularly influential to the Wu:

“So this one day, about eight or nine of us—me, Ghost, and a bunch of Stapleton niggas—are getting high and I put on the movie. Not too long into it, something deep happened. People start feeling it. Some niggas even started crying.”

So that’s the tone—purely conversational, but occasionally, jarringly emotional. It’s an effective, simple way to convey some pretty enormous ideas.

Book One offers bios of each member and a surface-skimming overview of their fixations and styles. This is all pretty useless; reducing Raekwon’s lyrical complexities to a single sentence—nay, a sentence fragment (“Known for the freshest slang in the entire Wu-Tang family”)—is more than a little ridiculous. This Book is noteworthy mainly for its full-page shots of the members, each of which is impressively able to capture the emcee’s personality. Ghostface, for example, is pictured with a towel, a Tasmanian Devil sweater, and “fuck you, I’m fresh” scowl. Enough said.

Book Two is the most important, and its failure is striking. This is where the RZA had an opportunity to dig deep into the influences of the Wu with each neatly delineated chapter: spirituality, martial arts, capitalism, comics, chess, organized crime, cinema, chemistry (i.e., drugs) and slang. The failure here is that RZA writes as a fan, an amateur. Some supplemental research would have given him the scope to write authoritatively on what it was about these that influenced him; as it is, he ends up gushing over his favorite movies and comics and, while occasionally illuminating, it’s mostly just boring. Admittedly, the drugs section is pretty funny, and the Wu-Slang Lexicon is helpful (“Winter Warz” = the Cold War, duh!), especially for those without the required peremptory knowledge of the Five Percent Nation of Islam. Still, I’m, uh, pretty sure we all know what a “dick rider” is. But thanks, Rahkeem.

Another incomplete, interesting missed opportunity is Book Three, which features annotated lyrics to nine Wu classics. Seeing some of these lyrics in print provides proof of the staggering artistry of these emcees, particularly Ghostface, whose verses in “Bring Da Ruckus” and, particularly, “Impossible,” present themselves as chill-inducing early indicators of the unimpeachable sickness he would exhibit in his solo albums. The GZA’s straight-forward flow was always an ear-grabbing, brain-throbbing thrill, but Inspectah Deck—too often overlooked —posits himself here as one of the most clever in the group. And, of course, seeing Raekwon’s lyrical complexities on paper renders them . . . actually, just as obtuse. The RZA’s annotations could’ve been at least somewhat helpful on this front. The “annotations” are, in theory, one of the Manual’s greatest drawing points. In reality, they’re haphazard, randomly chosen and, more often than not, useless.

These shortcomings, though, are made up for by Book Four, which is where the RZA explains the history and philosophies behind his career as a producer and musical mentor. This Book is an essential, fascinating look into the RZA’s area of genius; the authority lacking from his rants in Book Two is here in spades, and his insights into the process of making a hip hop track work are absolutely riveting. A scant three-page chapter called “Voices As Instruments” puts the entire Wu canon in a new perspective, and a page by the GZA on “the weapons of metaphor” is an illuminating glimpse into the imagination of the thinking man’s Wu member.

This final Book reveals the long-sought blueprint for the Wu-Tang’s endless listenability. Even in its revealed form, it’d be impossible to duplicate. Non-fans could find themselves drawn into the complex, fully-formed production philosophies the RZA uncovers here; they touch not just on hip hop but on all music and, eventually, on art in general. The rest of the Manual is take-it-or-leave-it fandom trivia, but Book Four provides the infinitely rewarding experience of having suspicions confirmed and secrets uncovered. The Wu-Tang Clan’s true glory days may be over, but, as the RZA notes in the final paragraphs, the depth of artistry in the music has the potential to be a font of inspiration for the generations to come. Here’s hoping he’s right; long may the motherfucking ruckus be brought.