Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Wu-Tang Clan, Outliers and How You and Your Friends Can Change the World Together, Too

I have been a fan of The Wu-Tang Clan for over 15 years now, and whatever you may think of them, they are truly unique in the music world. The first thing that comes to mind about them is just the sheer size of the group. Nine people is big for any kind of musical act, except an orchestra and choir, and it’s not like the Wu all play different instruments or anything either. All nine members pretty much all fill the same role as emcees. To say this kind of group dynamic is untraditional is an understatement. Success from such an arrangement of talent has not been repeated before or since.
Another strange thing about them is that they’re still around. In a crowded music world full of one hit wonders and flameouts, The Wu-Tang Clan is still touring and putting out albums almost twenty years since their debut album “Enter the 36 Chambers” dropped. Very few artists enjoy this kind of longevity and the ones that do are usually considered among the greats. How could nine huge personalities all competing with each other for the spotlight not be tired of each other by this point?
The Clan has survived two decades personal differences, disagreements, semi-breakups and the passing of maybe their most beloved member, the late Russell Jones, aliases Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dirt Dog, Dirt McGirt, O.D.B., Ason Unique, Osirus, Big Baby Jesus, Joe Bananas, BZA, Ol' Dirty BZA, Peanut the Kidnapper, may his soul rest in peace. Through it all they have maintained their niche in the market, and respect amongst critics and peers while wildly succeeding not just as a group but as individuals as well.  
You non-Wu enthusiasts out there might ask, what kind of success are we really talking about though? The Wu-Tang have sold over 40 million records worldwide if you combine the sales of all the individual members’ solo albums with the collective efforts. Three of these group albums went platinum and the solo albums include three more platinum as well as nine more gold albums. Six of the nine members produced solo efforts that achieved at least gold status. Method Man is a celebrity and movie star in his own right and the RZA has branched out into other genres as well as fields, authoring two books and getting into acting and directing too.
Considering the rise of Wu, the question for me becomes how did they do it? How did they make their seemingly counterproductive group lineup work? How did they develop a style that stood out in the hyper competitive hyper crowded hip hop game? How did they establish an empire still around today as scores of other rappers have fallen by the wayside of time? When they met, were they all just that good and would have probably made it on their own anyway? Doesn’t it seem statistically unlikely that a group of boys nine deep all connected to each other in some way through friendship or family just happen to also all be lyrical geniuses? We are all familiar of the self made man story where someone of extraordinary ability lifts himself out of his humble beginnings, but nine of them?
Obviously, I know every member of The Wu-Tang Clan is very talented. I also know that many other factors played a part in their ultimate triumph.  I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers which is particularly insightful into the case study of the Wu. The basic thesis of the book is “no one succeeds alone.” He makes the case that opportunity and time invested are just as important as natural ability. All that is required for one to excel is meeting a basic threshold of required intelligence or ability, being given opportunities and environments in which to thrive, and reaching the magic 10,000 hours of practice mark. The book cites examples across psychics, computer science, sports and art that all reiterate the importance of investing 10,000 hours into your field. It seems anything can be mastered if someone’s willing to spend that much time at it. 
Gladwell cites the example of a disproportionate percentage of elite hockey players from Canada being born in the first few months of the year. He cites rosters from the elite junior league, from which most NHL players come from, that show that most of the players are born in January, February or March. Gladwell states that if you look at a group of elite hockey players from any level, about 40% will be born the first three months of the years and just 10% will have birthday in the last quarter of the year.  
The reason he gives for this is that the cutoff date for junior hockey in Canada is the first day of the year. The kids born in the early part of the year will always hold a development edge on their younger teammates and opponents. This gap will be largest the younger the children are. Because of this, it is usually the older kids that stand out, become all-stars, receive more attention and coaching, and commit to play in higher level leagues which require much more practice time. So, the boys born earlier in the year are more likely to have the opportunities needed to become an elite hockey player.
Another interesting example from Outliers is the study of 1,470 young geniuses done by American psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman identified is gifted subjects, later known as the ‘Termites,’ at a very young age through newly available I.Q. tests. They were selected to be the brightest of the bright, the 99th percentile of the 99th percentile. Terman was sure that the extraordinary intellect of these students would win out over all other circumstances and that the future Nobel Prize winners, leaders of the world and titans of industry would emerge from his group.
The results of this study were far more mixed than expected. The group on average was more educated and more successful than average, but the nationally known figures, the Nobel laureates, and the prominent statesmen were all lacking. Furthermore, if you break the subjects of the study into three groups according to the education and socio-economic status of their parents, then it becomes obvious that there are factors involved much more important than I.Q. scores. 90% of the students in the A group that came from upper or middle class families, with mostly college educated parents, graduated from college themselves. The C group of child geniuses from the wrong side of the tracks had only about 25% graduate from high school and a third of their number dropped out of college.
This study shows us that no matter how amazing an individual’s innate talent is, they will not succeed if not put in the right environment and given the necessary opportunities. So, back to Wu-Tang.  Even if they were just an anomalous collection of super talented people, that would still not be the reason, or any guarantee for their success. Also, it’s safe to say that the members of the Wu did not benefit from any of the advantages in their upbringings that Terman’s Group A enjoyed. Again, I have to ask, what allowed the Wu-Tang Clan to succeed the way they did? What special opportunities and advantages did they have that other talented rappers in New York at the time didn’t?
I think the size of the group and the characters it consisted of is one of the main reasons for their success. I already talked about before that this should have been a disadvantage, but they made it into their biggest strength. The unique group dynamic bred inspired competition in a very personal and direct manner. They were constantly vying with each other for limited mic time on each song. Rap battles were the common method for deciding who would get a certain slot, a practice that not only allowed each of the Wu to constantly hone their craft, but also gave us the classic “Meth vs. Chef.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIAgbvLINqQ)
They each had to work constantly just to keep up with their friends. The fear of being exposed in a very public way for slacking was constant. Each member also had to develop their own separate identities apart from the group. If they wanted to stand out on a crowded song, they had to be a magnetic persona in their limited air time. If one wasn’t special and ear catching and fierce then they didn’t get on the record. The development of all the members in skills and character would have been impossible with each on their own, apart from this group environment.
The sheer time the Wu spent together engineering their sound cannot be undervalued either. From reading the RZA’s The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu, I think it’s possible the members of the group approached Gladwell’s magic 10,000 hour mark of mastery rapping, watching kung fu flicks and smoking blunts together. It seems to me that the value of this time invested accelerates when around like minded, similarly invested people that also constantly challenge you to be a your best. There is also the endless conversations you have with these people that force you to incorporate other ideas and perspectives into your own world view. This fosters an overall group philosophy that is powerful collectively, but still allows individual members to preserve their own distinct personalities as well.
This is not a phenomenon unique just to Wu-Tang. There are many examples of a solitary group of friends giving birth to new movement or genre in art and all succeeding on their own as well as a part of the original group. Some of these are the English Romantics (Wordsworth and Coleridge first, then Percy and Mary Shelley, Bryon and Keats), the American Transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau), the Beat Generation of literature (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassidy, Burroughs) and the founders of Microsoft (Bill Gates and Paul Allen).
 What all of these groups share with The Wu-Tang Clan is that they all were groups of people that spent an inordinate amount of time with each other, working together on their shared craft, spent hundreds of hours talking to each other (and getting fucked up together too for most of the examples above) and went on to found movements together, with each member of the groups being memorable in history for their individual accomplishments as well.
I’m not saying that The Wu-Tang Clan is as great or has accomplished as much as those other groups cited above, but it is the same process going on. Minds working together toward a common vision can do things a single mind cannot no matter how brilliant. Would Wordsworth and Coleridge have written the exact same poems that comprised their jointly published Lyrical Ballads if they had never met? Would Gates and Allen have gone on to separately be computer pioneers and found empires if they had not started playing around with computer together in middle school? Would Mary Shelley have ever written Frankenstein if she had not been challenged to do so in a ghost story competition during a rainy day while on vacation with her husband and Lord Byron?
The fact that the Wu-Tang stayed loyal to this shared vision is another big key to their success. In his books, the RZA talks about his “five year plan” that he had each of the Wu commit to at the group’s inception. The plan involved dropping the first group album, then having each member go out on their own and sign solo deals with other labels. The songs were always still produced by the RZA and other Wu members frequently did guest spots, but this branching out of the Wu brand allowed them to reach new audiences and geographic areas. Their influence would grow the whole time even without a new Wu-Tang group album. Then when they came back together, every member would be stronger and more powerful of a force than they were before. When “Wu-Tang Forever” hit number one in 1997 the five year plan was complete, and RZA had fulfilled his promise of conquering the rap industry that he made to his group members when getting them to buy in to his crazy scheme.
The lesson of The Wu-Tang is an important one.  They looked at the system they were in and determined it was basically slavery for them and their families. They devised a plan to get out of the system, worked together like madmen at it, fully developed their potential and became the masters of their own destinies as well as setting up generations of their seeds for better lives than they were given.
If you are not happy with the world around you all it takes to change it is meeting a basic threshold of ability and commitment to endless hours of practice. Also, having a group of colleagues and like minded friends around all the time to constantly inspire and challenge you helps a lot too. We should never think that we are not able to do great things because of our natural restrictions or because of the difficulties in our lives. We should instead acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations and work on making them our strengths, developing our potential to its fullest through tireless work and dedication; just like The Wu-Tang Clan did.

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