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The Last Word: RZA on Wu-Tang’s Legacy, Turning 50 and Why He Prays Daily

The rapper-producer also reveals what he learned from his attempted-murder trial and how Quincy Jones helped shape his worldview

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RZA reflects on the early days of the Wu-Tang Clan and what he learned from his 1993 trial in a revealing Last Word interview.

Illustration by Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

Even for RZA, one of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most thoughtful members, 2019 is shaping up to be a particularly reflective year. Of Mics and Men, a four-hour documentary on the group directed by longtime hip-hop journalist turned director Sacha Jenkins, will premiere on Showtime May 10th. Getting every member to talk alongside crucial, yet mostly unknown, behind-the-scenes figures seems like a Sisyphean task. Yet Jenkins’ portrait of the group — fractious but amiable; contradictory but cohesive — highlights the influence and legacy of a crew whose internal disagreements and infighting never overshadowed their musical mission.

“Wu-Tang still treat a lot of people like the FBI,” RZA tells Rolling Stone. “We kept it tight, yo, and now we’re opening up. There are things [in the documentary] we didn’t even know about each other.”

Later this year, Hulu will premiere Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a 10-part scripted series co-written by RZA detailing the clan’s history and formation. “I call the writers’ room the therapy room,” he says, only half-joking. In a Last Word interview, the 49-year-old talked life rules, Bible stories, the best advice he’s received and what he learned from beating an attempted murder charge.

What are the most important rules that you live by?
The most important rule is just keeping it 100 percent with myself, preparing myself for what’s in front of me and making sure that I complete my goals. First you set your goal, right? Identify what it is, envision it and then I prepare. If my goal was simply to climb a tree, I’m gonna study a tree-climbing book, understand the tools and equipment that I need to do it, understand that if I gotta go up, you know, that may be easy. But what about coming back down, right?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
The best advice I got was at 11 years old from GZA: to get knowledge of myself. Just by getting knowledge of myself, I got a reference to my culture, my ancestors and my theological ability. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are the first jewels, or riches, that a man should strive for and I think once he got that, it can propel him to gain any other riches in life.

Quincy Jones [also] said to ODB, “When it rains, get wet.” In my early days of success, it rained, and I wasn’t paying attention to everything that was going on. But in this round of life, I am looking to responsibly get wet. I just really let myself be encompassed by the moments that I was enjoying instead of introverting myself, like, go into a city, stay in my room, go to work, come back, start writing, start working more. Not understanding that there’s a certain joy to the situation that you gotta absorb, so that rain is that joy.

You’re turning 50 in July. Does that scare you, or do you embrace it?
The blessing [of aging] is that I’m artistically getting greater, and getting greater opportunities on my journey. I was writing 16 bars; now I’m writing 120-page screenplays and seeing them come to life.

Even when you were 24, you always seemed like the “old soul” of the group.
That’s a good observation because I was that guy that had that old soul and old study in me and was able to walk around with it at a young age. But the other thing is that I’m probably about 200 years old right now.

You mean how you feel?
No, just how I see, yo. It’s the weirdest thing, man. I’m doing movies and I got 400 people that I gotta explain something to that I see so clearly. It may take two hours to tell them something that I see in two seconds and when they see it, it’s like it becomes Einstein with E equals MC squared. It took him years to get to that equation, but that one equation changed the world, right? And even with that equation, it’s not 100 percent correct in total reality but it’s definitely good enough to get it.

“If my goal was simply to climb a tree, I’m gonna study a tree-climbing book.”

What advice do you wish you could have told yourself before Wu’s first album?
The true value of what I was creating and the long-term ideology of business versus the short-term money advantage. There’s a true value to what you’re creating, but you don’t know the value of it, yo. If he dies, that caterpillar never becomes a butterfly. He never flew. We made millions of dollars and got millions of dollars in advances and I’ve had companies grow and fold in the process.

But it was something where the end game is the game that most people are not prepared for. Most people don’t live to the end game. So 25 years later, you don’t think you will be more valuable than you were in the prime of your success. The prime of Wu-Tang was from 1993 to 1998, right?  But it’s like the Rolling Stones: They don’t gotta make a record.

Are you comfortable with Wu-Tang being called a “legacy rap group”?
That’s a sign of respect. A [sign] that people didn’t think hip-hop itself would be here at this phase. Me and Ghostface just saw Travis Scott and he gave us the biggest hug and was honored to see us. We was happy to see him and are proud of his success. But I said to Ghost, “You know what’s crazy about that, Ghost?” I said, “You remember the time when we first met Quincy Jones, when we was doing the ‘Triumph’ video [in 1997]?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Wow. We’re that guy.”

I actually had a conversation with the crew [in 1992] that it had the potential to last for 20 years, and I said maybe then it’d decline and something new would grow. People always said the Wu-Tang Clan “W” was a bat or bird. They don’t remember, early on, that I said, “No, it’s a phoenix.” It’s actually continuing its trajectory to be an art, from a group of people, that inspires. The Wu is actually [also] for the 13-year-olds to now have a different balance for their own trajectory and direction artistically and even socially and economically.

Who are your heroes?
My mother is my first hero because of how she persevered through struggle, hard times and heartbreaks, and she still had love, poise, dignity, pride and beauty, and she never stopped believing and praying that a better day will come. I think her children are an answer to her prayers.

My father is also a hero, even though he left when he was young. In his faults, he remained steadfast in his conviction; he cannot be deterred from the simple truth that he learned through life, which is keep a concept of independence and self-reliance. His confidence and surety of his own being is inspiring as I’m aging. My father is 75 and our relationship just started 15 years ago. He’ll still puff a joint or take a shot of Jack Daniel’s.

What’s the best and worst part of success?
[Long pause] The best part of success is to have self-achievement, complete the goal you set out for and to get artistic and cultural freedom that led to economic freedom. I could just go get on that plane and fly over to Italy tomorrow, and be knowing that I could land, eat, have a place to lay my head; if I wasn’t married, I’m sure I could get a girl. Success blesses you with that. You look at great artists like Tom Waits or even Elton John. Wherever they go, they’re good. I went to a restaurant the other day. I love ramen noodles. I was bugging out on my second bowl; we think I’m going too far. But hey, somebody already paid for it.

The worst part is the fear of not being able to rise above your last plateau. That’s something about success that’s trembling; it’s that it’s over. I don’t know if it’s from being black or culture, or whatever, but there’s also this miscommunication of others feeling directly entitled to your success with the notion that your results belong to them, personally. It’s confusing and intrusive. We love our fans and I’m the type who’s [happy to talk to them] 99 percent [of the time]. I’ve changed my stand on this in the last two years ’cause now I’m down to about 90 percent. Sometimes you are totally not in the mood to give [yourself]. It’s never just one picture.

“The worst part [of success] is the fear of not being able to rise above your last plateau.”

You were found not guilty of attempted murder in 1993. What did you learn from that experience?
Two-second mistake. I’ve learned that positivity is the natural way for my life. I can really look back and before that day, I could count all the times that I’ve been in so many different troubles [and] faced so many different calamities based on foolishness. If you go back and check my arrest record, it’s gonna hit the floor. But if you check it from after that day, you can’t even get a paragraph out.

Was there any one moment during the trial that acted as the wake-up call?
The most crushing moment in that whole thing was the eyes of disappointment that my mother looked at me with. It was trembling. To have her look at me as if I was worthless because she never saw her son as the perpetrator of violence. But when I won, she looked at me and told me, “This is your second chance.” I’ll never forget the day when I brought her to her new home, yo.

You’ve been a long-time Bible reader. Which story do you connect with the most?
Job. He was rich already. He had a wife, he had children. He was true in living, to his culture, to God, to his faith. And when things got taken away from him, he remained righteous, and everybody in his family, including his children, all went unrighteous. His wife, everybody, was like, “Oh, fuck it.” Job was steadfast, yo.

If you could be any superhero, who would you be?
Other than the RZA? [Laughs] I always thought I was the Silver Surfer — someone that’s created through something else and [knows] how to fight that based on his own convictions. He came to have Earth destroyed, but he chose to save it.

Fill in the blank: Every human being should do ____ for 10 minutes a day.
Pray. Prayer is a form of meditation. I just think that we don’t have enough gratitude. ‘Cause it’s so much on your own, you don’t realize it ain’t on your own. I never try to push religion and faith on people ’cause every man gotta find his own and realize that when it comes to his life, he’s God of his own life. I’m not pushing nothing on you, but there is not only a father of the universe, right? There is also just great people who lived in accord with that and left us the examples for us to have everything we have in front of us. Prayer is contemplation, reflective and giving thanks and you should do that. Just 10 minutes a day? That’s nothing.

 

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