Alvin Blanco released his first novel, The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip through Hip Hop’s 36 Chambers (Hip Hop in America), earlier this year. I had a chance to interview him recently about his new book on the iconic group. We discussed Wu-Tang’s music catalog, business acumen, RZA’s influence as a producer, the martial arts component within their music, Method Man’s legacy in hip-hop and so much more.
Potholes In My Blog: With two Wu-Tang Clan books (Wu-Tang Manual & The Tao Of Wu) already available, what was the inspiration and direction behind this book? How long did it take you to research and write it?
Alvin Blanco: While the two aforementioned books do great jobs of capturing the philosophy of Wu-Tang Clan, I wanted to write a book that focused on the music, detailing the recording processes and impact that Wu-Tang Clan’s music had and its continued influence to this day.
PIMB: Were any members of Wu-Tang Clan involved in the research process and have they reached out to you since the book’s release?
Alvin Blanco: The book was strictly written off of extensive research (magazine articles, listening to the entire catalog, video interviews, etc.) but there was no direct involvement from anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan.
PIMB: Wu-Tang’s musical influence is obvious, but the business model they pioneered is just as significant when you consider that other artists have profited from that greatly after the fact. Dan Charnas’ book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, covers this in great detail. Does your book speak to this and do you think that component of their legacy gets lost in the shuffle?
Alvin Blanco: Wu-Tang Clan’s business acumen is definitely discussed in my book as well. I touch upon how RZA and Wu’s model (a modest at best group deal with the option to sign individually elsewhere) was basically given the side eye, until it proved to be so profitable. There is also how WTC was savvy at taking control of their brand (think: Wu-Wear). All of these things are still being employed by contemporary rap acts, some without even knowing that they should be thanking WTC.
PIMB: RZA’s basement studio was flooded back in 1995, which supposedly destroyed over hundred beats that were intended for future projects including an Inspectah Deck solo album. Does your book discuss how that affected the direction of the group’s music?
Alvin Blanco: Yes, read the book. Ha!
PIMB: Why do you think the group never seemed to duplicate the same level of critical and commercial success of the first three albums; specifically Iron Flag and 8 Diagrams even though RZA was at the helm for a consecutive run of Wu-tang solo-albums?
Alvin Blanco: Well personally I think many people are snoozing on Iron Flag. That album has joints! See, “In The Hood”, “Y’all Been Warned”, and “Uzi”. By the time of its release, Loud Records (distributed by Columbia at this point) folded, which nixed giving the album any real commercial push. It was received favorably by critics, though. As for 8 Diagrams, the album was kind of sabotaged when Raekwon and Ghostface adamantly and publicly expressed their dislike of the album’s beats. That’s not the best of looks when fans are already wary of what the Wu is bringing and their own members are saying the album could have been better. It’s a shame too, because 8 Diagrams definitely has plenty of highlights, if you keep your ears open and realize that RZA is not trying to retread the beats he made in ’92, ’93.
PIMB: The martial arts movies influence is integral not just sonically but thematically and stylistically to the Wu-Tang music and image. What are some of the notable movies that RZA draws influence from to create the sound-scapes we’ve grown to love? Does the book break that down in some capacity?
Alvin Blanco: I definitely make mention of films that were important to RZA and Wu when creating their initial albums. There are dozens of movies that WTC sampled in their music but a few of the particularly important Kung-Fu flicks they constantly refer to are 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin aka Master Killer and Shaolin and Wu-Tang.
PIMB: One of the most amazing things about the Wu-Tang Clan is having nine individual members with completely different styles, slang and personality yet they still make all of it cohesive musically. Even though they’re influenced by “the Juice Crew,” that collective never had the same level of output as a group outside of a few posse cuts. Is it fair to say Wu-Tang Clan is the Juice Crew fully realized in some respects?
Alvin Blanco: That’s a fair assessment. RZA has said that one of his early influences as far as production is definitely Marley Marl, along with Prince Paul and Large Professor. It’s like the WTC took the initial cues the Juice Crew set forth and took it to an exponential level. To compare, the Juice Crew would have had to have releases on labels other than Warner Bros (Cold Chillin’ Records’ home), sell their own Juice Crew clothing, and drop multiple group albums and individual projects with participation from everyone in the crew.
PIMB: What is Method Man’s legacy in hip-hop? On one hand he’s a dope emcee from an iconic group with some great guest appearances, a good debut and a very good album with Redman. But after that it’s sketchy. Many artists would be content having his career but for some reason it feels like he hasn’t maximized on his talent in some respects. What’s your take on that?
Alvin Blanco: I think Method Man is a victim of ridiculous expectations. Thanks to “Method Man” being the B-side to “Protect Ya Neck,” and a hit in its own right, Meth was Wu-Tang Clan’s first solo star. Then thanks to the “All I Need” remix, ironically courtesy of Puff Daddy, he became a platinum MC. But since then his music hasn’t live up to his talents for numerous reasons (lackluster beats and pandering to radio are some reasons). But when you listen to Meth’s rhymes, he’s a tremendously gifted MC. It’s just when compared to some of the praise his Wu brethren receive—Ghostface, and more recently Raekwon—he’s been a notch below.
PIMB: What do you make of Ghostface Killah being the most successful solo artist in the group outside of Raekwon and do you think anyone could’ve predicted that?
Alvin Blanco: Not many people could have predicted at all. Ghostface pretty much just another MC in a star pack of MCs before his guest starring turn on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… made heads realize that he was nice. Actually, a lot of people really started thinking Ghost could be a problem after hearing “Can It Be All So Simple”.
PIMB: Based on influence, output and outside production should RZA be considered hip-hop’s greatest producer and what would be the argument to support that claim versus going with DJ Premier or Dr. Dre?
Alvin Blanco: RZA is Hip-Hop’s greatest producer, period. No disrespect to DJ Premier or Dr. Dre, who are both incredible. But when you look at the list of album’s RZA has under his belt that are consider classics, Enter The Wu-Tang, Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, to start, his catalog is the best. You gotta remember, RZA started messing with composing his own beats, instead of sampling, because so many producers were jacking his style. All those beats with the sped-up soul samples Kanye gave Jay-Z for The Blueprint, thank RZA for the inspiration. And RZA is STILL putting in work (see: Kanye’s “Dark Fantasy” and “New Day” on Watch The Throne).
PIMB: Is there anything else you wanna tell the people about the book?
Alvin Blanco: If you’re an official Wu-Tang Clan fan or just curious to understand why these MCs from Staten Island are so revered, you’ll enjoy the book, trust.
You can purchase Alvin Blanco’s book, The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip through Hip Hop’s 36 Chambers, through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.