In the 21 years since the Wu-Tang Clan released their monumental debut album, the group has spread itself far and wide. There have been more than 50 Wu-Tang solo albums. The nine living members reside all over the country, from L.A. to New Jersey to Arizona. All are in their forties, with families as well as solo careers to attend to (Cappadonna even has a grandchild). Method Man recently shot a movie with Adam Sandler. GZA spends his spare time lecturing at high schools and colleges about the cosmos and the importance of science education. U-God is working on a memoir that proudly delves into his rap sheet.
On the increasingly rare occasion Wu-Tang makes a new album, getting everyone together falls primarily on the shoulders of the man who has led the group (and served as chief producer) since the beginning: RZA, who, by the way, has his own successful acting career. The Wu's new album, A Better Tomorrow, had a particularly difficult birth: For a time, RZA was locked in a public feud with Raekwon, another in a long series of intra-Wu beefs.
A Better Tomorrow came together largely because, through it all, RZA has remained perhaps the world’s biggest Wu-Tang fan. On a gray day in early November, immediately after getting off a long, somewhat contentious conference call with the rest of the Wu, RZA sat down to explain how he and Raekwon made peace, what life was like at Wu Mansion in the Nineties, and what's up with the other new Wu-Tang album.
How's it going?
How you doin'? That was the whole Clan right there.
Except for Ghost.
What were you guys talking about?
Trying to figure out videos, singles. Getting positive and negative feedback on what's the course of action to take. And of course I got my ideas.
What were the other ideas?
The main idea is having a voice in the idea, you know? I try to look at myself in the mirror and say, "Am I doing something wrong?" I strive for a democracy, and then nobody [bothers to] vote — it's like Congress not showing up to pass a law. Something's gotta happen, so you initiate a fucking executive order and now everybody's pissed off at you. I'm going through that in a micro way and it's confusing and frustrating because at the end of the day, I was just striving to make it better.
If you look at all the great bands throughout history, basically none of them were democracies.
With the Wu-Tang Clan, we're at a mature age in hip-hop. How do we move beyond that? By focusing energy onto one idea. It's like you have to say, "I'm gonna stop fighting and I'm just gonna start riding." I have some of the greatest hip-hop talent on the planet. The talent has not decreased or evaporated. I hear Method Man and I'm like, "This fucker is writing like he's fucking 16 years old." You hear Raekwon and his voice, his delivery. Ghost is still finding a way to take me back to the old neighborhood through his lyrics. Then you're hearing someone like U-God sounding better – like, "Wow, he's developing like a late bloomer."
Lyrically, the biggest inspiration on this album was Masta Killa. He's the one that inspired everyone to get ahead. Cappadonna has that Staten Island shit, that certain slang, that New York shit. People say they know of Method Man, Raekwon, maybe RZA and GZA, and don't know the other guys. But Wu-Tang's second tier has been very prominent and inspiring in getting this record done.
Was this the most difficult Wu-Tang record to make?
Yeah, it was the most difficult one. The last one [2007's 8 Diagrams] was difficult and this is knocking it out the box.
There was a minute when Raekwon wasn't on this record. He had some demands that you took to the group. What did he want?
He wanted a stronger economic position.
More money up front? Is there money up front? I mean, it's 2014. The industry is not what it used to be, right?
Can somebody please explain that to the rest of the fucking world? Or, not to the rest of the world — to the rest of my band? Raekwon's demand was strong, actually, for money up front. I basically just came out of pocket with that.
You paid him yourself?
Yeah. I gotta hold that weight. I said, "It can't happen. A budget can't sustain that. There's no budget that can sustain what you want." But then I went to the band and asked, "If one of us had the power to make this happen without it hurting the rest of us, would you do it?" And about 60 percent said "yes." I went with the 60 percent.
For this album, you had to e-mail tracks around - is that how it worked?
That's not how it worked — that's how it got. In the last five months finishing this record, I broke my own rule. I don't play sendin' songs to people. The music is made in an environment. Our first album sounded so beautiful because, even though I wasn't on "C.R.E.A.M." and Ghost wasn't on "C.R.E.A.M.," we was there when "C.R.E.A.M." was made. It's the capture of time and space; it's the capture of energy.
For this record, the more people that came, the more powerful it got. And then everybody came in normally, except for Raekwon and Ghost. And then when Ghost finally came, even my engineer's personality changed. He started being more clean. . .he musta been a Ghost fan! So this energy that each one brings to the table is a layer of magic. I didn't get that totally on this record. Take a song like "Never Let Go," which is one of my favorites. You feel Wu cohesiveness, you feel it. If Rae and Ghost woulda had been there, it would have been complete!
Where was everyone getting together — the Wu mansion in Jersey?
Yeah. It was a mansion when we was younger. Now it's seen too much shit.
Is it the same place you made Wu-Tang Forever?
Yeah. It's been refurbished and updated. I had the strongest investment in it and so I bought it back from the band and rebuilt it. I lived there for a few years, maybe 2000-2003. Then I moved out and it went to shits. Then, about 2012 or 2011, I started refurbishing it.
Was there a time in the Nineties when everyone in Wu-Tang lived there?
That sounds like a movie. I cannot even imagine that.
You never knew who's gonna pop over what time of the night. [Say] I flew in from somewhere on the weekend. I get to the house and only five guys is there. Maybe they got some action. I don't want to talk too much, 'cuz they always got girls there. The shit is popping off and then the next thing you know, Dirty pulls up with three more. A few days later, our kung-fu teacher would come down.
Everybody had a unique style all their own. Like in one room, a guy would have mirrors all over his shit, then this other guy's room was kinda comic-booky. Inspectah Deck didn't really have his own room. He had a spot, but it wasn't as permanent as Meth, Dirty, Ghost and Rae's. They had more of a permanent grip on it. I guess ‘cuz they was more prominent earners at that time.
Who had the comic book room?
Meth's room kinda had that feel. Meth is a big comics guy.
In 1994, there was a flood and a bunch of Wu-Tang tapes got destroyed. Fans have always wondered if there was a great lost Wu record that was ruined.
That happened on Staten Island, at the studio I built there. This is where [GZA's] Liquid Swords and [Raekwon's] Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was made. The first Wu-Tang album was already done. The next album and everybody's [solo] albums — I pre-made it. I picked the music. Back then it was all floppy discs. Everybody had their section of beats for their record.
These were beats with no rhymes yet?
Some rhymes. But not a lot of lyrics. Just concepts and ideas of songs that we would do. "Run Your Garments" — that was a song we did that's gone. "Run Your Garments" was the shit. That was crazy. But that's lost. But then you got songs like Method Man, "I Get My Thang In Action," from his Tical album. The reason Tical wasn't as critically acclaimed as other albums was because the flood happened while making it.
There were other songs, like "6 Man Symphony," "I Get Down For My Crown," "You're On," "Not Your Average Flow." These beats and songs were demos we did before we got famous. Then I had the music for it — and that's gone.
But there are some tapes floating around. Neighborhood guys have the original, original demos from when I only had a four-track. "C.R.E.A.M." was first called "Lifestyle of the Mega Rich." On the original, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck had two verses apiece. But when we signed to Loud Records, we truncated it. It became just two verses and Meth with the hook. We made a song out of it. Before, it was more of a six-minute saga. That happened with various songs.
A lot of the album features live-band grooves that you recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, using the same session guys who played on Al Green's classic albums. How did those songs come together?
I'm able to write the music. Oftentimes, I would play it on a guitar and arrange the song. I'd sit down and I'd play it first. I say, "OK, when the change comes it goes here." We wrote it out though, so I got all the charts for the songs. [RZA grabs a guitar and plays the chord progressions to "Ron O'Neal."]
Are the other guys in the Wu down with this production style? It's not classic Wu.
They're not 100 percent down with it. Because, it felt light. But they trusted me, you know what I mean? Masta Killa felt like, "Yo this shit is incredible, this shit is big." He said it sounds like a New Birth album.
That's a compliment.
A fucking compliment. But New Birth is not Wu-Tang. Listen, I've been sampling these progressions forever, OK? But now, I can get there myself. My band goes right to it. So let me just do it my way. And at the end of the day, this sound is going to grow on you. It may not sound totally like Wu-Tang, but it sounds like Wu-Tang, you know?
I don't want to say this album is a kinder, gentler Wu, but you guys are in your forties now. It can't all be bare-knuckled shit anymore. How do you change as lyricists?
Well that is something I think every lyricist has to do. All the great ones, whether it's Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, as they see more experience, they grow and they express these experiences.
I'll tell you this. I take full responsibility for 80 percent of this record, good or bad. If people say 20 percent of this record is good, and the other 80 percent is bad, that's because of me. Inspectah Deck said something that was very true. He said, "I got a gripe with the process of how this record came together. RZA was telling us what to rhyme about, how to rhyme. He was changing our lyrics. When did that ever happen?" Actually, that's happened in the past [laughs]. . .but not as blatantly as it has on this record. Not as intentionally.
What did you tell them to rhyme about?
For "Mistaken Identity," I said, "This song is a song about mistaken identity. Guy didn't do it, but he's locked up. This is happening every day in our communities. Don't brag about being locked up, just be the guy who is fucked up to be locked up."
Did they listen?
Meth kind of swayed away on that one — it wasn't his chamber. On "Never Let Go" I said, "Make [each verse] start with, ‘Never let go.' Tell these people what we're not going to let go of." I love that song. GZA who's a fucking genius, didn't wanna make no simple shit like that [laughs]. I said, "Look, all I need is four bars. I know you can't stand in that one subject for long. Just give me four bars." And Deck, to me, killed it.
Then, take "A Better Tomorrow." Listen to how Meth goes in and talks about politics. It sounds light, it sounds warm. And then Masta Killa comes and it sounds like, woah, militant! Then Cappa comes in the middle. But Rae, who we don't hear rhyme like this, comes in with today's politics, today's problems. And when he did that, I said, "Yo, I know we had a hard time doing this record, but just by you having this verse right there, it was all worth it for me."
How much of the record was done before Raekwon joined?
When I went to see him, I had 23 pieces of music that I played for him. Of the potential of where we was at and he pointed out eight that he felt was in his world. It was him and Ghost at the same time.
Everyone else had done their rhymes?
I had 70 percent of everybody's lyrics. I decided to go to see Rae. I came, sat there, and I played it him the songs. He said, "I see your vision. This shit is different than Wu, but it's not bad." He said, "I see a cinematic mind here, I see your composure and shit, I see where you go."
Where was this?
I went to his studio. Ghost was there as well. They met me and we played the music. I explained things I liked. [Raekwon] pointed out what he liked and said, "I want to get on that one and that one." Like, he heard "Necklace" and it was just Cappa's verse on it. And he said, "We want in on that." When he heard "Ruckus in B Minor," he said, "Yo, I want in on that." But I think he didn't put enough energy on that one, personally. "Crushed Egos" — he said, "Yeah that sounds tough right there."
Is Wu-Tang going to go on forever? Do you see a point where it ends?
In all reality, Wu-Tang is before us and will be after us. But the band. . .there's a limitation to it. I'll make a confession to you. In 2007, after 8 Diagrams was done, Raekwon voiced strong disapproval. I didn't understand why he would publicly speak out against me, especially when he was on eight songs. Eight songs. I know he was bitter with me about some other issues, because we put Cuban Linx Part 2 on hold.
I respect him so much as an artist and as a person. But he voiced it and then his voice echoed and echoed. I mean, it came down on me like a ton of bricks, man. And of course you're supposed to take it when the Congress comes on you, right? But it was actually heartbreaking. It felt like my girl had left me and cheated on me.
What made it so bad for me was that this happened the same week that American Gangster [in which RZA has a key role] premiered. So my joy was up. I thought everybody would be joyous. I invited the whole Clan to come to the premiere, and they didn't come to the premiere.
Nobody showed up?
Inspectah Deck [and Method Man] showed up. But I felt bad. I felt weird.
Did you think the Wu was over?
Yeah. And then we had a meeting where there was another strong verbal attack on me, and not just creatively. But on who I am and who I think I am and what I am and things about me that I thought I'd conquered. I don't think I'm conceited. I don't think I'm stubborn or a dictator. I don't think I'm a know-it-all. But maybe I am. If that many people say it, maybe I am! [laughs] So I swallowed that pill.
But I said this to them that day, "You know what, I hear you. I love all y'all. You're my brothers forever, but I will never do business with you again. And not because of what you're doing to me but because we went and got Universal [Records] to put up millions of dollars to represent us and we're not fucking showing up for it and I would never do that again." And that's how I walked out and I never did it again. Ya know what I mean?
But then, the 20th anniversary [of Enter the Wu-tang: 36 Chambers] started coming up. My brother— who was also part of our family — thought we should make a stand. We should represent that. This stuff is important. He said, "The Wu is your legacy! I don't care what you're doing, I don't care what nobody's doing. This is the foundation. Celebrate it, feel proud of it." He said, "You probably helped fucking get Obama the presidency because your music attracted multi-cultures at a phase where multicultural was not so big for us."
See, on Staten Island, you couldn't even walk over to some neighborhoods without your gun. Now those same kids and their childrens are our friends! They work with us! Mike the Italian, John the Italian, they with us. Giorgio Pellegrino and shit. You know, they're part of us. It's a difference.
There's a [Wu-Tang] tattoo right here [pats left shoulder]. Where I grew up, they said, "Don't put no tattoos on your body." It was all strict, strict shit. But if I get to heaven and God says, "You have a tattoo," I'll say "My left arm was Wu-Tang's. Take my arm — I'll go without it."
The 20th anniversary of 36 Chambers was November 9th of last year. Were you sad there was no new Wu record? What did you end up doing on that day?
I have my wife and my family. We had some Dom Perignon. I had a 1993 bottle, actually.
Next week is the tenth anniversary of Ol' Dirty's death.
This whole part of the year right now is crazy for me. So much joy and pain all at once.
In a few years, Wu-Tang is gonna be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That'd be a blessing. I do know one thing. I put a lot of my life and time into music, into entertaining the world. That's what I explain to the guys. Like, "Yo, if you haven't reaped what you sewed in the past, maybe you can reap it now."
One thing we can't get back is our time. But you still have some time to spend. Why not just spend that shit in the best possible way? Embrace your opportunities, embrace the love. I know how stubborn and aggressive I was in the Nineties. I disrespected some of the industry's biggest people because I thought I knew more than them. But now we're here and we got a chance to inspire a better tomorrow.
Hip-hop has not – look, there are some good lyricists out there. But you're not getting this kind of content of constant ideas that you get [with the Wu-Tang Clan.]
Do you ever talk to Tarantino? I know he's a fan of your work.
Yeah, I talk with him.
What do you guys talk about?
Kung-fu movies. He invited me to his theatre — the New Beverly Theatre — about two weeks ago. He has the only American print of The Big Boss Part 2. He had a double feature. The Big Boss, which is a Bruce Lee film, and then the Big Boss Part 2, with Bruce Le. [laughs] I was shooting a movie in New Orleans with Sam Rockwell, so I didn't make it. But when I get back to California next week I'm definitely gonna go by the New Beverly and see if I can get [Tarantino] to play it for me.
What else do you have going on, film-wise?
We did Mr. Right with Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Tim Roth and myself. And Man with the Iron Fists 2 – that's done. I don't know what they're gonna do with it, but it's done. I haven't seen the final edit. I didn't direct it; I just wrote it and acted in it. I think that's my lifelong New York character - that kid who was going to 42nd St. watching those kung-fu movies, this is that kid getting a chance to live all those dreams out.
You guys also made a second Wu-Tang Clan album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which you're only planning to sell in one copy and one copy only. What's going on with that?
I can't speak to nobody about this — I got an N.D.A. It's been handed over to an auction house. And they plan on doing something. Art Basel is coming up. They're planning on something. That's all I can say. But it exists. And it's some very interesting people involved with it.
Are you guys gonna tour soon?
The Wu tour is being planned right now. I think they looking at February, but it most likely will jump big in the summer. I'm gonna to continue rocking this until the wheels fall off, you know what I mean?