About a month ago, I dropped into Border's bookstore to seek out a couple of books for my purchasing pleasure. It is not a rarity these days that when I walk into a bookstore with a specific purpose in mind, I become totally sidetracked by an enticing alternative. In this case, I intended to buy the latest copy of Dissent magazine and find some yoga literature or flashcards in lieu of actually paying to join a yoga class. But immediately upon entering, my eye was caught by the unmistakable Wu-Tang Clan logo staring up at me from the cover of a book entitled, "The Wu-Tang Manual" by the Rza. I picked up the book and flipped through it, smirking to myself with irony at how much I used to love the Wu-Tang Clan and would probably have devoured and cherished the book about ten years ago, instead of scoffing at the very idea of it now. I read a few passages in the book and made a mental note to come back and purchase it for the purpose of coffee-table kitsch (assuming I will eventually own a coffee table).
Well, this weekend, I made good on my promise to myself and actually bought "The Wu-Tang Manual" and I have this to say of it: I really like it. Now let me explain a little about the book first. The fact that it is a manual presupposes an air of didactism on the part of its author, which is to say one expects the book to be about how one should act to be in accordance with the Wu-Tang way of life. However, the book provides more of a context in which to put the Wu-Tang philosophy, lifestyle and musical output and is a detailed account of the many cultural infulences - both ancient and pop - on the Wu-Tang ideology.
Let me say that I can't believe that I am actually discussing a Wu-Tang ideology to begin with. Nonetheless, the Rza has compiled on exhaustive ideological framework from which he and his cronies have drawn over the years. While not terribly credible in terms of his belief system as a whole, (at least not to a white person who finds the notion of the Nation of the Gods and Earth aka the Five-Percent Nation terribly insulting and rather frightening - not like the Rza could care less)I find the sincerity with which the material is presented rather refreshing. It's like a pop culture junkie's dream reading this book. Always a fan of Kung Fu and Eastern philosophy and mysticism, I relish the opportunity to actually have explained how what used to be my favorite rap collective infused their work with these influences.
The very idea of the Wu-Tang juggernaut is brilliant. What's even more staggering is the fact that they've managed to carry on this long and still be influential. I haven't bought a Wu album since their second official release came out around 1997. I was and still am, falling out of love with hip-hop and into love with rock and roll. I am becoming the much-decried "mountain climber who plays an electric guitar"-type that the Gza maligns in the seminal Wu anthem "Protect Ya Neck", but that doesn't mean I don't have a soft spot in my heart for something I used to hold dear.
The Rza is no doubt a charimsatic personality, and surprisingly deep at that. He's created a virtual empire that has somehow maintained its presence, influence and credibility in both the mainstream and on the street. The influences on the clan, which, it seems are mostly channeled through him, are no gimmick. He's very earnest about his respect for and desire to learn from a wide variety of ideological and philosophical sources, including, but not limited to: Gangster films, capitalism, rap history, Islam, the Bible, and the aforementioned Eastern triumvirate of mysticism, film and philosophy. Nowadays, it's passe for a rapper to be ensconsed so in such trite cliches. But it's also rare that a person is so impassioned about such things that his depth of knowledge and admiration for the material would allow him to speak so authoratively.
In all honsety, I was hoping to be able to read the Wu-Tang manual and provide some sort of parodying and ironic commentary, but try as I might, I couldn't help but feel touched by how sincere it is, disagreements over the Five Percent nation notwithstanding. I'm glad I made the decision to buy the book, but for completely different reasons that I thought I would be. It reminds me of how influential the Wu-Tang Clan were on my late teenage years and allows me to appreciate that one day, I may be referencing the Wu-Tang manual as one of my own varied and treasured influences.