For all you hip-hop lovers, here are 10 things the legendary rap group Wu-Tang Clan taught me about working in a creative agency.
You don’t have to be 100% original to be 100% original
Wu-Tang Clan is known for its unique sound, especially for using snippets of dialogue from old martial arts movies; the name of their debut album being the most obvious reference to their pop culture influences. But I bet you didn’t know they sampled everyone from American jazz pianist Thelonius Monk to Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, too. Even originals are inspired by others.
Create a growth plan
Starting out, the group had the business acumen to look ahead and negotiate an exceptional record deal that also allowed members to sign solo contracts with other labels. Too many brands claim to be disruptive, but Wu-Tang’s strategy certainly earns that description.
The payoff for Wu-Tang fans: classic rap albums like Ghostface Killah‘s Supreme Clientele and Raekwon‘s Only Build 4 Cuban Linx. The lesson for agencies: plan beyond that one pitch or deadline and build on the team’s strengths, and you’ll surely find the momentum to expand.
The importance of working together
Shame on a colleague who tried to run game on a colleague.
Stand out with your writing
Take a closer look at Wu-Tang rappers’ lyrics and you’ll discover layers upon layers of references to everything from contemporary pop culture to ancient history. The Wu were anything but a bunch of thugs throwing insults and braggadocio – their verses travel through time and space with an effortless flow that still goes unmatched today.
Team members can (and should) have voices of their own
Each member of the group had their distinct tonal, rhythmic, and lyrical signatures, but it’s all 100% Wu-Tang. Let everyone’s unique talent shine through.
Coming into your voice takes time
Choosing tone of voice descriptors for your brand platform is as easy as rhyming trivia with Bolivia, but it takes time for your voice to mature and come to life. Just listen to Masta Killa whose aggressive bite on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) mellows out on later albums. Copywriters, keep writing and you’ll find new nuances to your TOV.
Look into audio branding
Sure, Wu-Tang Clan’s music has a distinct sound – but the movie clips and minimalist beats are only one part of their audio experience. Even their name is a sound effect.
That is, at least if you believe GZA. To paraphrase what he told the audience during his 2019 gig in Helsinki, “Wu is the sound of the sword cutting through the air. Tang is the sound of the sword’s impact on your opponent’s thick skull.” This obviously refers to the power of Wu-Tang’s lyrics. To them, words are weapons.
Just make your audio signature street credible and short enough. If we listen to other artists, grunting “G-Unit” is great, but shouting your name as if you’re orgasming is not (looking at you, Jason Derulo).
For more hip-hop education, read Timbaland’s tips for finding your style
Adversity can be a source of inspiration
Endless deadlines and rounds of feedback will get to you, especially if you suffer from imposter syndrome (it’s an agency, everyone does). But eventually, the challenges become a source of strength and wisdom.
The Wu-Tang members’ childhoods in poor and crime-ridden projects could’ve turned them into promoters of violence, but they were able to rise above.
Even the Kung Fu movie references speak more to control and peace than chaos. Just listen to the intro of one of my all-time favorite Wu tracks, Campfire.
A signature skill leads to new opportunities
There will be times when you think you’re stagnating or limited by your role. While being pigeonholed is frustrating, mastering your craft will eventually lead to new opportunities.
From merchandising to motivational speaking to scoring films, the Wu have certainly expanded far beyond music. Even acting – RZA & GZA have made memorable acting appearances on film & TV (Chappelle’s Show was my true introduction to the band’s brilliance).
Don’t just promote a product, promote a mindset
Even though individual members are formidable talents on their own, together the supergroup of MCs has gone much further than just a musical act. Their sound, look and charisma combine into an entire mindset, a guiding philosophy that shines through and continues to influence creatives generation after generation.
When your agency pitches any branding project to a client, remember that a brand isn’t only a visual identity and a product can be much more than its physical form. Capture a mindset, a discipline, a way of life – and your brand will entice and endure.
(Caveat: no brand will ever outlive Wu-Tang Clan, though. Because Wu-Tang is forever.)
Ready to enter the 36th Chamber
I want to thank RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Cappadonna for these lessons on creativity.
For more pop culture lessons, read what The Empire Strikes Back teaches about work in a creative agency.