It comes as no surprise that we’re prone to hyperbole as a culture. But it’s safe to say that few people have played as integral a role in rap’s rise into mainstream dominance as RZA, the founder, principal producer, and de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan – often considered the greatest hip-hop group of all time.
Exploding onto the underground scene almost twenty five years ago with their first single “Protect Ya Neck”, the Wu-Tang Clan were a lightning rod and a global phenomenon, pushing the boundaries of rap as an art form. Their music was somehow simultaneously more playful and more menacing than anything else out there at the time, combining street cypher styles with eerie, gritty chords, repurposed soul samples, and sound clips from martial arts movies that the collective grew up watching and adoring. RZA himself has achieved almost mythical status in American culture, as the man with the plan and the vision who assembled the greatest collective of emcees like Voltron: RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa (eventually joined by longtime collaborator Cappadonna).
Their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is considered one of the most influential hip hop records of all times, serving to sharpen focus and attention on the scene in New York and launch the careers of all eight members of the Wu-Tang to varying degrees. And behind it all was RZA, the producer splicing and taping together sonic clips to create some of the most iconic and enduring tracks the genre has ever heard.
“I look for something that somebody else would have overlooked,” he says, in his iconic gravelly tone, his voice rich with a New Yorker’s inflection. “That’s the solution to some of the equations – the overlooked elements.”
When I reach him on the phone late last week, RZA is putting the finishing touches on his latest directorial project, the movie Cut Throat City. It’s the last day of post-production, and he’s preparing to switch his focus to the next thing: a short string of tour dates live-scoring the 1978 Shaw Brothers film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – widely considered a classic, and one of the movies that most heavily influenced him.
He’s calm and relaxed as he works from his home in Calabasas, California, the residential neighborhood in the hills just northwest of Los Angeles where he spends most of his time. The area has a reputation for being home to quite a few rap superstars – besides RZA, Drake and Kanye also have compounds there. And although the younger two men have stepped into global superstardom, it’s clear that RZA remains the Grand Master.
RZA: Live From The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is at The Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. April 18. Tickets are available here.
Brightest Young Things: This is the second time you’re doing the live-scoring of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Why revive this concept show now? What inspired you to take this back on the road at this time?
RZA: Well, it really wasn’t my original idea to go back. We had fun doing it the first round – Celestial Pictures, and the Shaw Brothers, and the Alamo Drafthouse – we all thought it was something really cool and special. Then what happened was that other cities and other theaters, they wanted it, you know what I mean? So CAA and my management they was getting requests, and they was like “Look, people want to see this and they think this is something cool and unique and artistic. We should carve some time in April and do another run.” And I told them “April could work for me.”
I’ll be finishing up my director’s cut of my film – actually I finish up this week; tomorrow’s my last day. And I’m the kind of person that when I finish a project I like to move – like do something to detach from it. And they knew that about me, so they planned this so that I finish the film, hit the road and go see some fans and some friends, and go spread some artistic expression to a few more cities. And I felt like I could do that, so that’s what we’re doing.
BYT: You’re truly a multimedia artist – a Renaissance man, really – and at this point you touch so many things beyond just music: acting, filmmaking, video games, scoring films. Are there any art forms you haven’t approached yet, but want to? What’s next? What catches your attention about a project or opportunity?
RZA: I guess multimedia – you basically named all the multimedia arts. I guess there are a couple of things I’ve been incapable of doing, and one of them is painting. I haven’t took the time or studied to paint. Me and my wife talked about using one of our rooms and bringing through some canvases and start painting. But she was also saying we should maybe do the ceramics-sculpture-pottery thing, you know? Those types of things are good because it’s a different kind of creation. But if I was to say what desire that I feel that I need to tap into that I truly didn’t tap into? I don’t know if you would consider it art, but I think science is something that I’ve always been fascinated with. I always try to keep my brain into it. I think that if I could have any other impact in the world, it would come in that field.
BYT: Do you ever watch any science shows? Did you watch Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson?
RZA: Yeah, I watched that. Neil and I got into a little debate about some of that. [Laughs] I didn’t agree with all the teachings of that. I mean, it’s a theory, you know? And the whole thing about a theory is that it reigns until somebody disproves it. He was talking to me saying that Pluto is not a planet because of its orbit. But at the same time they thought it was a planet because of its orbit. So what makes you think that the randomness of something that far out cannot be changed just from the gravitational pull over time? Maybe it was going circular and then it went more elliptical, and then as it went more elliptical, it could even turn to like the slit of an eye. That still causes a curve! Anyways – we could get into that but we won’t. [Chuckles]
BYT: As the story goes, you and the rest of the Wu-Tang were initially drawn to kung-fu movies because of the parallels between the struggles of Chinese villagers and those you experienced growing up as a minority in the US – as well as the great fight scenes. Does that message still resonate with you? Are we in a better place as a country today?
RZA: Yeah, I think that I’m in a better place. But there are kids out there walking in my footsteps waiting for their opportunity. You might be in a better place yourself relative to your family, through your education and becoming a journalist, me becoming an artist. I get to travel the world, as do the rest of the Wu guys. We get to have a better piece of the “American Dream”, and having food, clothing, and shelter, but there’s still a multitude of people sitting right there waiting for theirs. For freedom.
And when I say “freedom” I don’t just mean physical freedom, but economical freedom, spiritual freedom. All these freedoms matter. So I would say it still resonates. But I do think that things have gotten better, and especially for myself. And even at the end of the day, right, all things have to evolve. And I think our country has evolved. I was so optimistic when Barack Obama became president, it felt like something profound – my grandmother actually lived to see that, and then she passed during his presidency. But she saw that and I think for her, that wasn’t something she ever thought would be a potential reality in our country. Maybe next I felt – maybe Hillary Clinton wasn’t the right woman, but my family voted for her – but I’d like to see women get the same equality as well. One thing I will say – let me give you a political statement real quick – but we say we’re American. That means we gotta be more than black, white, Asian, all the different things. It’s America, and that means we pool together and everybody should have the same equal opportunity of growth and success if they put in that work. And when you go to some of these communities and you see that their growth and their success is being stunted and blocked based on their race, based on the weird immigration situation that’s happening and all these different factors holding back people, that’s improper. You look at a martial arts movie and it’s not just about the fighting. It’s the nature of one man fighting for righteousness. Those films are filled with that kind of energy and therefore they still remain relevant.
BYT: The stories of being willing to stand up against oppression and injustice really resonate and hold true.
RZA: I think one cool thing that’s happening is that we are seeing that in our superhero movies. I mean, that’s what Captain America is doing. That’s what Thor is doing for Asgard. That’s what Ant-Man is about: he’s a guy who came out of jail and gets a chance to be a hero, so I’m really happy that American movies, especially through the Marvel Universe, have found a way to incorporate these themes into their product so that kids are still getting it one way or another. So we don’t have to see a bunch of 42nd Street Kung Fu movies no more, but we get to watch our Marvels and our Star Wars, and we get a taste of it. And martial arts have been really infused into those films.
BYT: What are your thoughts on the modern superhero movies and TV shows? I know you’ve been a long-time comic book fan, and that you love Galactus and the Silver Surfer from Marvel, but what do you think of this revival? Any current favorites from DC Comics or Marvel?
RZA: I think it’s fantastic. The technology has caught up with the imagination of writers – instead of going to the comic book store and having your imagination take you away, you can actually go watch a movie, sit there and watch all these heroes come to life. I’ve been enjoying it, man. I mean, look – I even liked Pacific Rim. Of course the story could have been whatever, but to think that now we don’t need puppets and men in costumes to give us monsters. Think about Kong: Skull Island. Technology has really caught up to the imagination of the creators of those worlds and I’m enjoying it. And I also appreciate that even in that Kong movie, they had the Japanese Samurai and they incorporated that energy into it. I think that was positive.
We have a generation of people in Hollywood who have that energy. And somebody told me that there’s a lot of Wu fans that have jobs [in the entertainment industry] now, and they are actually able to create worlds with influences that they acquired as a youth. [Laughs] There’s this one great producer who told me that after listening to Liquid Swords his whole creative energy just opened up. And it’s why he makes great movies – and he makes some great movies.
BYT: It’s interesting to see one culture influencing you and the Wu-Tang Clan, and then your work influencing the culture. It’s a whole thread of influences, and it’s really amazing.
RZA: And that’s important, bro. That’s what’s special about culture itself, and that’s what’s really special. And I say this without trying to sound cliché, but that’s what’s special about America. It is a place where so many cultures fuse. As you said, your family is up in Queens in the Dominican part, and then you go a few blocks down and go to Astoria and you got all our Asian brothers there. You go to the projects and you got all the Black brothers over there, and the Haitian brothers. It’s just nonstop culture: you can drive down the block and hit you a Jamaican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Latin or Mexican restaurant, soul food restaurant and Mickey D’s. That’s America. We’re that pot and hip hop is also a big equation of it because it was able to take all the music from so many different things.
People listen to Run DMC “Here We Go” and they sampled Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” – that’s a rock song! Or you hear Rakim, who sampled James Brown and the Jaybees and Bobby Byrd’s “I Got Soul” and “Funky President”. That’s soul music. Or you know, Wu-Tang come with a song called “Tearz” which is a ballad by Wendy Rene out of Memphis. You hear Tribe Called Quest bringing you Cannonball Adderley and all the jazz players. You listen to a song like “Gravel Pit” and that came from a sample from a French TV show. [Laughs] And a couple of top forty songs. So this is the power of culture, and culture is meant to do that: to inspire, enthuse, and keep evolving. It causes the evolution.
Black Panther as a movie has made its way into China, where most people thought that the Asian market do not like Black movies. But Django also did very well in China! So the cultures have merged, and a good story is a good story, no matter who makes it. [Chuckles] Bruh, I don’t care if it was a green man who made the story; a good story is a good story, and that’s what it is, yo.
BYT: Now that you’re talking about samples, I had a curious experience this past weekend at a friend’s birthday party: in the span of an hour I heard both Cardi B’s “Be Careful” and Drake’s “Nice For What”. Both songs sample Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”, which itself samples Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be All So Simple”. That’s crazy! Both songs released the same weekend, and going all the way back to the Wu Tang Clan. How do you feel when you hear your music reinterpreted or filtered this way? Are you proud? Do you feel a sense of ownership?
RZA: It’s an honor. It keeps that saying we said alive: “Wu-Tang forever.” It validates it. And to me it keeps the idea of what I believed in when I was young, and finding old break beats and soul samples – that’s what it’s for. Music is made to inspire and it continues to keep inspiring. No matter how the DNA of it enters the song – it could be the snare, it could be the kick drum – you don’t know how it’s going to enter the new zeitgeist of the art form. It’s very gratifying to see that it’s possible, you know what I mean? It’s an ingredient inside the food. You gotta put some seasoning salt that Wu may provide on that mawfucka, you know what I mean? [Laughs] Maybe they didn’t even know that it rolled back to us, but I feel very proud of that and I know the rest of my crew does as well.
BYT: You’ve talked about finding beauty in unexpected places, and that made me think of your approach to pulling out samples. What draws you to a soundbite or melody when you’re thinking about sampling it? How has that evolved in your career?
RZA: I think obscurity is something that I look for. How can I turn a noise into music, right? I was recently listening to this South American artist – I’ve had this record for eighteen years, and I’ve always wanted to sample it but never did. I was recently playing it and I heard a loop in it. And basically he’s this South American artist who is a natural musician, and he records his album with nature and water and birds and bees and all that, and there was a certain loop that happened when the birds and the water and his flute all kind of conjuncted, and I was like “man, that would be beautiful.” I don’t know what to call it, but I’ve been thinking about sampling that and putting drums on it, and of course I’ve got to find an artist to rap on it. But to answer your question, I look for obscurity.
BYT: What are your thoughts on people getting heated at young rappers – to name a few Lil Yachty, Lil ‘Xan, Chief Keef – for not really knowing Tupac or Biggie’s music? Do you think this will ever happen to the Wu-Tang’s music? Does that even concern you?
RZA: Well, look – I can speak on it. I don’t think they should be chastised for what they don’t know. But also if they love the culture, they should take some time to go back and learn. We didn’t know what we didn’t know! We thought that some of the oldie break beats were made by the artists. Think about a song like “Can I Kick It?” [Begins to rap] “Can I kick it? Yes you can.” “Check the rhyme, check the rhyme, yo!” That beat came on – it was the shit when that came on, but you didn’t know that was Minnie Riperton! So then you have go back later on and figure out it was Minnie Riperton and buying the old records to appreciate her. So, you can’t chastise them for it, but they should definitely pay homage or respect.
The bible says “Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father.” And that basically means recognize your foundations and where you came from, whether you know that or not. And that goes back to those young brothers – they should definitely honor the foundation of brothers who made the way for them to be successful and have a route to eat and clothe their family and buy all their jewelry, so they should respect that. But we shouldn’t be jumping down their backs for what they don’t know, or chastising their music! When we were coming up doing hip hop, they didn’t let us inside the clubs! They didn’t play us on the radio! They thought it was a passing fad. And we had to keep doing what we was doing.
I remember some older artists complaining about Wu-Tang. They were like “what the fuck is this shit?” [Laughs] So, no – music evolves with each generation. Let’s go back to talking about Cardi B: eventually the foundation finds its way back in. The same way as James Brown found his way back in. Soul music died out, Isaac Hayes’ music died out, but it finds its way back in. Look at Beyoncé’s last album, Lemonade, with the Isaac Hayes sample (on “6 Inch Heels), where the track comes back to life. So basically, all of those kids are going to have the right blunt, the right vibe, and they’re going to listen to a ‘Pac or a Biggie joint and they gonna be inspired. [Laughs] Look at all the reemergence of the Three Six Mafia, with all their music being sampled now. You should give these guys time to evolve.
BYT: I love what A$AP Ferg did on “Plain Jane”, sampling and flipping “Slob on my Knob” – that’s been getting a ton of attention from Genius and other sites.
RZA: He’s a smart dude anyways. He’s a guy who took the time – him and Vic Mensa – they studied.
BYT: A theme that keeps emerging in interviews you’ve done over the years is the importance of working and staying hungry. You’ve talked about the first generation working blue collar jobs so their kids can become professionals, and they in turn work so their children can become artists. And you’ve clearly defined yourself as an artist.
What comes after the artist? What is the next generation striving to achieve, and what comes next in the progression of growth? Are they artists as well?
RZA: I think the next generation becomes spiritually enlightened. Now they have the time, and that’s what’s going to take us to infinity – when the spiritual awakening of every man, woman, and child is embedded in them. They have the time. See, the craziest thing is out of all the things we do, one of the most important things we’re supposed to do – and this is according to all the major scriptures of all religions – the most important thing is to find the true meaning of life and to live it.
Once all those other things are explored, there’s a saying in the Holy Quran – a saying is called a hadith – and one of the first hadiths says that a man can pursue a wife and he will get it. A man can pursue money and he will get it. He can pursue big homes and kingdoms, and he can get it. But it’s best that he pursue Allah. When we get to that point that everybody is at universal peace and pursuing that oneness with the Father of the Universe – whatever they call it; I come from saying Allah because in Allah I get “all”. That to me is the total evolution because you’ve returned to the source while you are alive. Not thinking you’ve got to die to do that. And it’s hard to do that when you’re struggling and you’re oppressed; it’s hard to do that when you’re studying to become a doctor and help; it’s hard to do that when you’re an artist and trying to discover your self-expression. Once all those chambers have been revealed by us, then the generations to come will be righteous and so spiritually inclined. So, that’s my opinion, Brother.