In an interview for The Inlander, I once asked rapper Ludacris what he thought of when he thought of the Northwest. He said he thought of the Dakotas. I choked back laughter, wondering if all rappers could possibly be this daft.
I stand corrected after reading The Wu-Tang Manual, the RZA's manifesto and biography of his rap posse, the Wu-Tang Clan, known for their endless jabbering about kung fu and killer bees at the mic. The Manual clears up all confusion about why nine men over the age of 35 would devote their lives and music to such oddities.
The RZA clarifies the way of the Wu, known as something of a novelty among rap posses for their eccentricities. Once you've finished the book, all its talk about kung fu and killer bees, strangely, makes sense.
The Manual kicks off with Book One, a series of short, prolific biographic sketches of the RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard (rest in peace), Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa. Each bio describes when each member "dropped" (i.e., their birthdates), an encyclopedia of nicknames and how they contribute to the Clan.
Book Two highlights the influence of Islam on the Clan's music and lifestyles. While Cristal champagne is fueling rappers like P. Diddy and Ludacris, the Nine Basic Tenets of the Nations of Gods and Earths power the members of Wu-Tang. While Dr. Dre is adding hydraulics to his low-rider, Wu-Tang is trying to achieve balance in the universe. And while most rappers are drawing their lyrics from gang life and growing up in the ghetto, Wu-Tang considers the influence of martial arts and "chi-gong" on their lives.
But the way of the Wu is not all religious hoopla and new age revelations. In fact, the RZA goes into great detail over the passions of Wu-Tang - and they turn out to be not much different from the obsessions of a joint-happy teenager or prep-school rebel. Martial arts movies are studied, comic books are deified, chess is a lifestyle. Yet all are essential to each Wu-Tang member.
Yet while popular substances from sugary candy to marijuana have influenced the Clan, RZA ultimately emphasizes the teachings of Allah as his posse's chief inspiration -- appropriate enough, given that their name stands for Wisdom of the Universe and the Truth of Allah for the Nation of Gods. Take that, Ludacris.