It’s 10:30 p.m. when Mustafa Shaikh’s phone rings. It’s RZA. It’s not every night that the founding leader of the Wu Tang Clan calls his cell, so he picks up. Shaikh, the VP of marketing at portable speaker company Boombotix, is in for an earful. “I got some ideas,” RZA says.
The timing isn’t always so odd, but these types of calls are routine now that RZA has joined Boombotix. Earlier this month, RZA officially signed on with the San Francisco-based startup, giving him an equity stake in the company and a hand in developing its line of rugged wireless speakers. As “chief abbott”–a corporate title that borrows from one of his many Wu-Tang nicknames and mashes it up with the cavalier semantics of Silicon Valley org charts–RZA is involved in product development and content strategy, among other things.
“I discovered their speaker through some mutual friends,” says RZA. “It was a loud box. It had a great sound to it. Having an innovative mind myself, I thought it could be more pragmatic not just as a speaker to play other music, but maybe there’s a way to put your music inside the speaker.”
After originally reaching out to RZA to license the group’s iconic “W” logo for a speaker, Shaikh and Boombotix CEO Lief Storer were surprised to learn that RZA had much bigger ideas. “I put the phone on mute and said, ‘Holy shit. Can we do that?'” Shaikh says. “After a couple of weeks, we figured out that we could do it and still release the product in Q4.”
The result was the Wu Tang Boombot REX, a Wu-branded Bluetooth speaker released by Boombotix last November. In addition to serving as a wireless, wearable speaker that connects with smart devices, this limited-edition speaker would come preloaded with tracks from the Wu-Tang Clan’s newest album, A Better Tomorrow, a few weeks before its official release date.
With physical album sales tanking and the uncertain economics of the all-you-can-stream music services, some artists feel compelled to experiment with new distribution models. Last year, Wu-Tang famously announced that its final album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, would only be available in one copy, which would be auctioned off for millions of dollars. With the old channels obliterated, why not experiment? Why not release an album embedded directly into a speaker? “I think that’s a great way to release music nowadays,” says RZA.
The team at Boombotix agreed. After their Wu-Tang speaker started flying off the shelves of skate shops, T-shirt stores, and other retailers not traditionally associated with selling music, the one-off partnership with RZA started to morph into something more formal.
“We had this synergy,” RZA says. “After a few meetings and hangings and a few drinkings, it was like, yo, let’s get involved. Let me join your team so that I could join my ideas with it. We agreed and found that balance.”
With that, the Boombotix team worked out a deal with RZA, giving him a title and equity in the company. After months of negotiations, the deal was officially signed in early 2015 and sent to the company’s board for eventual approval. By then, the late-night brainstorming phone calls from RZA were already underway.
“I’m glad we got that communication,” says RZA. “It’s like, shit, I gotta get this to you right now. He always takes my call.”
Celebrity partnerships with consumer audio electronics companies have been all the rage since Beats teamed up with Dr. Dre almost 10 years ago. And since Beats cashed out with Apple for $3 billion in 2014, the phone calls from artist reps to companies like Boombotix have only increased. But most of these offers come in the form of deals that slap an artist’s name onto a product, perhaps going as far as to hire them them as “brand ambassadors” whose chief responsibility is simply using the product publicly.
As chief abbott of Boombotix, RZA’s role is a bit more hands-on than partnerships like Bang & Olufsen’s headphones cobranding deal with DJ Khaled or Ludacris’s now-defunct branding partnership with Soul Electronics (Ludacris’s reps reportedly reached out to Boombotix about striking a similar deal).
As the creative mastermind and producer behind one of the most successful groups in hip-hop history, RZA is no stranger to gadgets, which he says have a way of piling up in his house. “When it comes down to it, he’s a pretty big tech geek,” says Shaikh.
“Being a guy that’s into electronics, I felt like I found a group of people that I could feel free to express my ideas,” says RZA. “Electronic innovations. Making one thing do other things. Adding functionality. I’m happy to be with a company that lets me spitball ideas. Sometimes they go, ‘Well that’s kinda crazy, but we could try it.'”
The success of the Wu Tang speaker has led RZA and the Boombotix team to explore other exclusive, speaker-embedded music releases. A Grateful Dead-branded speaker loaded with unreleased music will go on sale in mid-June. In the fall, Boombotix will release a speaker bearing the likeness and sounds of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the late Wu Tang Clan member who was also RZA’s cousin. Another upcoming product, about which the Boombotix team is tight-lipped, involves a long-rumored musical collaboration between RZA and another artist.
“For true fans, this is exclusive,” RZA says. “It’s something you can hold, feel, touch, and put in your pocket.”
The focus on exclusive music content isn’t unique to Boombotix. This is increasingly how music-focused companies are competing with one another, especially in the streaming space. After Taylor Swift threw down the gauntlet by removing her catalog from Spotify, we’ve seen Jay Z try to lure listeners to his new streaming service, Tidal, using exclusive tracks from popular artists as bait. Apple is reportedly angling for a similar strategy as it prepares to relaunch Beats Music under the venerable iTunes brand.
While Boombotix doesn’t see its model as being as transformative as streaming, the company does want to offer artists supplementary ways to release, market, and profit from their music. These partnerships, which Shaikh tells me are negotiated on a per-artist basis, are just one additional revenue source an artist can tack onto its balance sheet in the era of streaming and its tricky economics.
In addition to helping forge artist partnerships–something RZA’s industry connections leave him well-positioned to do–he is also involved in product development, a role that lets his gadget geek side shine. In their weekly calls, RZA often proposes ideas that would bring new functionality to the company’s products. (Some are better received than others.)
At one point, RZA proposed having a speaker double as a tape measure, giving it a dual utility for construction workers. “It’s like MacGyver,” says RZA. “Now imagine, all of the sudden, the people who work in that industry have something that’s cool, usable, and multifunctional. I don’t think they’re gonna do that, but maybe, yo! Put an 8-footer in there!”
With ideas like this, RZA is aiming to extend the personalization of Boombotix with which it’s already experimenting. On the company’s Build-a-Bot site, users can custom-design their own speakers with unique color schemes, and even print their own imagery on the front grille.
More than slapping a celebrity’s name on a product, the Boombotix partnership with RZA is a long-term, hands-on deal. For RZA, it’s an additional creative outlet, and one that lets him tap into the entrepreneurial instinct he’s had his whole life. As a kid, RZA tells me, he sold newspapers on the Verrazano Bridge and bought socks in bulk to sell them at a profit in Harlem. At the age of 13, RZA teamed up with Ol’ Dirty Bastard to operate a fruit stand in downtown Brooklyn.
“I’m from New York, and in tough times, you gotta go out there and work,” RZA says. “We was in downtown Brooklyn at Jay Street. We would get up at six in the morning and set up the fruit stand. I think I made profit of about $80 a week. That allowed me to get a pair of sneakers that my mom couldn’t afford, or get a pair of Lee jeans.”
Since forming the 10-piece Wu Tang Clan in 1992, RZA and his associates have turned one of the most successful hip-hop groups in history into a small business empire, syndicating its music and members’ likenesses into video games and making millions from the sale of its Wu Wear line of clothing.
“I’m not afraid to try a business,” RZA says. “You want Wu Donuts? How much? All right, let’s try it. But let’s change the glaze on that shit.”