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When the Wu-Tang Clan dropped “Protect Ya Neck” on May 3, 1993, the underground buzz for the record was crazy and, sure enough, the record labels came knocking.

But for RZA, the Clan’s de-facto leader, getting a standard record deal wasn’t good enough. He didn’t just want a record label to sign the Wu-Tang Clan as a group, but also one that would allow the individual members to be free agents and sign separate solo deals. It was unheard of at the time, and there wasn’t any label who was willing to give them this option.

Until Loud Records came along. Founded in 1991 by childhood friends, Steve Rifkind and Rich Isaacson, Loud’s first signed rap acts were Twista and Tha Alkaholiks, but it was the Wu who really put the label on the map. Convinced that the Shaolin group was going to transform into a movement, Rifkind agreed to RZA’s terms and signed the Clan with a $60,000 record deal.

“What made [the Wu] different from everyone else was that they had RZA, and he was so much smarter than everybody else,” Rifkind said in a Complex interview. “RZA would come every night at 6 o’clock with a yellow legal pad with 27 lines, with 27 things to do. If it was 85 lines, I would say yes to 80 of them. Then one day he was like, ‘Why are you saying yes to all of them? Are you scared?’ I’m looking at him like, ‘Why would I be scared? Everything that you’re saying makes sense.’”

With the buzzing success of their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), released at the end of ’93, the Wu members would go on to sign solo deals with different record labels, just as RZA had planned. Method Man, the group’s biggest star signed with the premier hip hop label at the time, Def Jam; GZA went with Geffen; Ghost with Epic; Ol’ Dirty with Elektra; while Raekwon stayed with Loud.

RZA: That was my original strategy — to have artists placed in different locations, then get those different labels to work together for my brand. Of course I learned that’s not easy to do because the labels are in competition with one another. There was only one year [1995] that they all listened to me, and that turned out to be a great year for everybody. Geffen, Loud, Def Jam and Elektra got together and bought this thing called the Wu Family Tree, which is a bin they put in record stores. It had the GZA record, the Wu-Tang record, the Method Man record and so forth. Everybody in the bin’s sales doubled the month it was introduced.

Interview: Robert Diggs, a.k.a. the RZA | Time
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