In our first beta test episode of the original podcast “Was That In Good Taste” starring Steven Beary and myself, we pose the question, “why, of all hip-hop artists and groups, does the Wu Tang Clan seem to appeal to a disproportionate amount of white suburban kids like myself?”
Though we managed to cover a lot of topics during our discussion ranging from cheesy morning radio host impersonations, Bernie Sanders, various Wu Tang projects and hip-hop movements, I felt like there was more to say on the subject. This is a reflection on our discussion about why white people like Wu Tang so much so I can provide a more comprehensive explanation of how I came to appreciate hip-hop and the Wu Tang Clan, and speculate why I think the Wu Tang Clan had such broad appeal.
First, because I’m only one kind of white people, I can only speak for myself when it comes to giving a “true” explanation for white white people like the things they do. I initially became interested in hip-hop as a musical genre when I heard samples used in rap songs that I recognized from my parents’ funk and rock music collections. Early Def Jam Records (LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Run DMC) heavily sampled guitar riffs and drum breaks from the classic rock catalogues of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, and more. Through that recognizability, the music resonated, and I felt the urge to investigate the genre more.
When starting to learn about a subject, the scholarly approach is to begin with studying the revered figures of the discipline. Study philosophy, start with ancient philosophers like Plato; study hip-hop, start with New York 80’s- 90’s rappers like Nas. As I investigated the founders of hip-hop, it’s impossible to ignore the massive impact Wu Tang had on the genre and the industry as a whole. Their beats were erie, grainy, and painted a picture; their dated kung fu movie samples added a strong narrative element through the music; and their rhyme schemes were completely unconventional, complex, and unique to their brand. Personally their music resonated due to their use of unique slang and maintenance of a sense of realness while creating a fictional Wu Tang “Cartoon” Universe, not to mention they’re referenced endlessly by popular comedians like Dave Chappelle.
To be honest, the Chappelle Show turned me onto a lot of hip-hop artists whose music I’ve come to revere. Regardless of their Chappelle sticker of approval, their use of slang and description of the adversity still facing communities of color provided me insight to a hypocritical system of inequity and inequality still perpetuated in America. But while they were depicting this harsh reality, the artists combined fantastical elements to show how they used their art to escape their situation. Ghost Face Killa constantly refers to himself as Tony Starks the Masked Avenger and poses himself as a superhero who has to live this hard street gangster life for the greater good. The combination of fantasy elements along with true street realness strengthened the Wu Tang brand as artists with something to say, and an entertaining way to say it.
However, I think other elements of their branding may have contributed to their wide ranging popularity such as their boy-band appeal, sense of inclusion and comradery, and a touch of orientalism. The outrageous number of members in the Wu Tang Clan provided an array of personalities for fans to be drawn to as well as each acting as a hype man for the others. Those who like a suave, smooth talker latched onto Method Man, while those who preferred more conscious rap gravitate to RZA and Inspectah Deck; Ghost Face Killa and Raekwon the Chef appealed to the gangsta rap efficianados while O.D.B was the wild card. All these larger than life personalities along with the Wu Tang affiliates foster a strong sense of comradery and inclusivity; anyone could be apart of the Wu Tang Clan because their “movement” was branded as Staten Island based, but ultimately world wide. The final nail in the coffin is the dash of fetishized orientalism; westerners, particularly white people, are dazzled by things are viewed as “foreign”. Sampling old dubbed kung fu movies, using references to their hometown as Shaolin, coming on stage with samurai swords, and talking about their lyrical and criminal competence as an ancient martial art, Wu Tang painted a musical picture of “the Orient” that lurers white people like a moth to a lamp.
Altogether, the Wu Tang brand had so many different avenues of gaining a fan base, suburban white kids like myself were bound to catch some of the hype, we just aren’t as immersed in hip-hop culture to have as many other reference points. Whether it’s the story telling, unique sampling, herculean personalities, hip-hop nobility status, or straight-up dope aesthetic, the Wu has something to appeal to everyone interested in the genre and even those completely new to it.