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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

Wu-Tang Clan’s All-Media Ambitions

From film to video games, the rappers have attempted every medium

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Wu-Tang Clan always wanted to take over the world. From the very beginning, the New York rap crew loaded their collective persona with a lot of tribal rhetoric and continually reiterated the idea of building an empire for themselves and not being fleeced by the entertainment industry. The most meaningful step in accomplishing their aspirations came with their landmark record deal which allowed its members unprecedented freedom to negotiate their own solo deals with other labels. With their foothold in the music business firmly established, the clan set their sights on conquering the rest of the cultural landscape.

Pop music’s attempt to push its products and personalities into other spheres of entertainment was obviously nothing new, but the Wu-Tang Clan pursued the idea with uncommon zeal. It seemed to be a matter of pride, mainly to RZA, Wu-Tang’s de-facto leader and spokesman, that the crew not merely be a group of recording artists, but something more akin to an artistic and financial dynasty inhabiting all areas of our culture, beginning with their popular fashion line, Wu Wear, in the mid ’90s. The clan member’s adventures in other mediums were not always successful—far from it, many were short lived or ill received—but they represent the boundless ambition of the group’s members.

The obvious route for pop stars looking to branch out is to go into the movies, and Wu-Tang dipped a toe in that pool when several members appeared as themselves in 1999’s Black and White, a largely forgotten film by James Tobak (Tyson) starring Jared Leto and Ben Stiller. Given the group’s Kung-Fu cinema inspirations and larger than life characters, it’s somewhat baffling that Hollywood never engineered an action blockbuster around the group, but instead settled for building the buddy/stoner comedy How High around Method Man and frequent collaborator Redman. RZA, meanwhile, had parlayed his soundtrack work for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog into a small (and hilariously unnecessary) walk-on role in that film, and memorably reappeared alongside GZA and Bill Murray in the director’s Coffee and Cigarettes, before going on to more substantial roles in films like American Gangster and Funny People.

On the small screen, the popularity of Method Man and Redman as a comic duo in How High led to the stilted 2004 Fox sitcom “Method and Red.” The show featured the MCs as thinly fictionalized versions of themselves and ran for only nine episodes before being canceled. Both Meth and Red felt the show had been bungled by the network and expressed their displeasure publicly. Ironically, at the time the show was on, Method Man could be seen doing superb work on HBO’s “The Wire.” Redman was not so lucky.

But while every successful musician seems eventually to have a TV show or movie under their belt, the Wu has also infiltrated areas that pop stars have rarely crossed into. Take for example their comic book series The Nine Rings of the Wu-Tang, a martial arts saga set in the distant past, co-created by RZA and published by Image comics in 2000. There had been various failed attempts at inserting performers (New Kids on the Block, KISS and, weirdest of all, Prince) into comic storylines before, and while the Wu-Tang, with its already established mythology, must have seemed a natural fit, Image dumped the series after only five issues.

In the year 2000, video games, like the comics, had an unspectacular track record when it came to crossover potential with music. Most efforts at creating game-worlds around popular artists such as Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, Aerosmith’s Revolution X, or Frankie Goes to Hollywood: The Video Game (!) were either derided or met with complete indifference. Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, a Mortal Kombat-style fighting game, saw generally positive reviews and led a brief fad for rap-themed fighting games, including three entries from Def Jam, which featured members Ghostface Killah and Method Man wailing on other stars. These games may well turn out to be the last of a dying breed considering that simulator games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have provided the long desired synergy between pop and gaming in a way that no longer requires performers to be plopped into hackneyed game modes.

The most recent frontier for the group brand has been books, with RZA authoring two tomes of Wu wisdom and Ghostface Killah releasing his guide The World According to Pretty Toney. The proliferation of the crew’s members into all of these media platforms (music, fashion, films, television, comics, video games and books) is a feat that few other artists can claim, and is only somewhat diminished the fact that many of these projects quickly disappeared from the public consciousness soon after they were released. There’s no shame in not being great at things nobody else even tries to do.

Wu-Tang Clan play the Rave on Friday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m.

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