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Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA Moves On to Bigger Things

What do you do when you’re one of hip-hop’s most creative producers?

Wu-Tang Clan

American rap group Wu-Tang Clan (L - R) Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, RZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard GZA, U-God and Method Man pose for a portrait in New York City, April 1997.

Bob Berg/Getty

It is no small feat that nine of Wu-Tang Clan are all seated in the same room at the same time. A traveling ball of chaos, Wu-Tang was designed as an unstable compound, with nine clashing but complementary personalities who during the course of six years have become rap’s dream team. The occasion is a living-room screening of the group’s lavish new video for “Triumph,” with visuals that mix Batman noir, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers action and Hong Kong pulp. So far, the clip has been rewound and replayed nine times. And no one has begun to tire of it.

When RZA (pronounced rizza), Wu-Tang’s main producer and de facto leader, appears on the screen with giant bee wings on his back, another member of the band, U-God, turns to him. “Kids love you, man,” U-God says with a tinge of jealousy. “They always go for you.”

RZA just smiles and extends a bejeweled hand to take a look at the book that U-God is reading, The Mind. RZA spends the next 20 minutes reading it. Soft-spoken and authoritative, he is the calm in the center of the Wu-Tang storm. The lanky producer, rapper and strategist has seen the Clan through two group albums and four solo albums (all of which reached Billboard‘s Top 10), and is currently masterminding some 13 records by members of the extended Wu family in the coming year. Though he loves pontificating on all subjects high and low, from principles of the universe to Hong Kong action films, ask about his production skills and RZA will tell you flat-out: Not only is he the best, but being the best is a cinch.

“He can just sit there and create out of his own head,” marvels group member Inspectah Deck. “He’s in the frame of mind of artists like Wilson Pickett to me.”

Now, Wu-Tang Clan — which also includes the Genius (GZA), Method Man, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah and Masta Killa — has established itself as the pre-eminent hip-hop collective working today. And the group’s next step is to expand its grip and reach more white teenagers and college students, making it the pre-eminent collective — period. Thus Wu-Tang’s tour with Rage Against the Machine — the personification of white, intellectual, middle-class empathy, guilt and activism. It’s not just because Rage incorporate rap and name Malcolm X among their heroes that the band is comparable to Wu-Tang Clan; it’s that Rage’s music, like that of the Wu crew, is so acutely aggressive and their lyrics so dense and coded, completely decipherable only to the most loyal fans. But where Rage Against the Machine have media smarts, Wu-Tang Clan’s collective mind is in the streets.

Whose idea was it to tour with Rage Against the Machine?
I remember talking about it last year among those who talk. But I can’t remember how it got started. They came to us and asked, and we agreed. They got talent right there; I know how they affect people, and they got hip-hop influences. Basically, Zack de la Rocha raps.

Are you into all of the political stuff they’re into?
That’s why my vote was to do the concert — because of what they talk about. They talk about a lot of what we talk about. It’s like [de la Rocha] thinks Revelation or some shit is coming. See, I [had] read their lyrics before I listened to the album. Once I saw the lyrics, it was like, “Damn, we’re going in the same direction.”

So you’re into stuff like the Zapatistas cause?
Say that again?

They’re the rebel farmers in southern Mexico that the band sings about.
OK, right. I’ve never heard of that.

Maybe it’s unfair to ask you about Rage’s lyrics. I’m sure they wouldn’t understand a lot of yours.
Yeah.

So let’s talk about your lyrics. On “Wu-Tang Forever,” there’s a line that goes: “Fabulous establishment metabolism, Blackfoot Indian/Cherokee started out smaller than RZA amphibian/Then grew to a physical body with five meridians.” What does that mean?
When I say “fabulous establishment,” I’m saying that what I built is a fabulous establishment. “Metabolism” means that shit is fast. “Blackfoot Indian, Cherokee” — that’s me, that’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Those are the two tribes our families come from. The “five meridians” are the main five gates of your body [taps his hands, feet and head] — you can be killed with those.

How about the words, “I stand close to walls, like No. 4 the lizard”?
That’s only for the hardcore fan, right there. There’s a movie called Five Deadly Venoms. You ever heard of it?

Is Woody Allen in it?
No.

Then I haven’t heard of it.
It’s phat. You should see it. So there’s five deadly venoms in it, and No. 4 is the lizard. And they talk about how he climbs walls. That’s my style — staying “close to walls.”

Here’s another: “Grow like a fetus with no hands and feet to complete us/And we return like Jesus, when the whole world need us.”
Yeah, as a group, we grew like a fetus to a whole body, and now we’re coming back through when the whole world needs us. The way hip-hop is going, the shit is fucked up. People need to hear a voice, a breath of reality that you can identify with.

How about this one: “Bigger dick sex enigma, pistol fertilize your stigma/Stink box, order from Pink Dot”?
That’s all slang. “Bigger dick sex enigma” — that’s bragging about my shit. “Fertilize your stigma” — the pistol is going to fertilize your stigma, your pussy. Your stink box is your pussy. I say “Pink Dot” ’cause I’m in L.A. I’ve got some pussy, I’m going to order up some food from Pink Dot [a Los Angeles convenience store]. I’m just chilling, making beats; my whole crew is reunited out in L.A. The words sound good, but to know what I’m fucking talking about is a bitch sometimes. That’s why I say I talk strange, like Björk.

In “Bells of War,” you say, “Illegible, every egg ain’t edible,” and then later, “Got to catch this paper to buy Shaquasia a glacier/Throw chairs to deck a skyscraper.”
You can take “every egg ain’t edible” in a lot of different ways: from the female, from the biblical, from the idea that everything that you see ain’t good for you. That’s like universal knowledge. The other lyrics are about my children. See, I got to make this money to buy her a whole glacier. I want to buy my son a whole skyscraper. I gotta make a buck.

You have two kids?
I don’t even know how many babies I got.

You must know. Wouldn’t all their mothers be hitting you up for money?
That’s what the money I make is for anyway. I don’t like to talk about babies. Say if I’ve got five babies with five women — I’m working for them. I’m not working for me. My mother never had a bank account until I gave her one.

And she raised 11 kids?
It was always hell. We were all in two-bedroom apartments. I could tell you about some sad stories. That shit is deep. I lived in 20 different motherfucking apartments, and that’s before I was 20 years old, moving from one city to another. There were fires and floods, and getting evicted. Damn, we were poor, too — and you’re getting shot at, and you’re getting robbed for 35 cents going to the corner store. That’s why I ain’t motivated by the same things that motivate other people. I’m not going to be a negative example. I learned that positive thinking is the key. But not just thinking, because you can think about anything, but knowing. And not just knowing, but doing. Mathematics is the key. People be thinking that it’s always about black and white shit; there ain’t no black and white shit. Everything is composed according to mathematics.

That’s why we’re doing this tour with Rage. We’re bringing what we know to people who may not be familiar with it. A lot of people want to hear some new things that can take their mind to other places. They want something that can be true, not a cartoon. I say in one of my lyrics [slowly and didactically]: “I fuck hundreds of bitches and spent millions of dollars/And built with thousands of scholars, my life saga/From the hill to horror, legal came brown like Nicaragua/Gave birth to MCs, thieves and bank robbers/We drove expensive whips and took worldwide trips/And my dick’s been sucked by the finest lips/Fancy delicatessens and the world’s best refreshments/But none of the above compare to the one-20 lessons/Or my queen and my seed, in the home that I rest in.”

Did you make any money by adding America Online software to the interactive CD that comes with Wu-Tang Forever?
I didn’t make no money from that. I don’t know who did, but I didn’t.

So what is —
Hold on — do you think there’s money to be made from that?

I think if America Online is going to be making money by getting new subscribers from people who bought the Wu-Tang CD, then you should get something.
I didn’t go that deep into it. That’s good information. I’ll investigate that.

So what is your ultimate plan? Where are you trying to get to with your music now?
I might be backing out of it. My little brother’s making tracks now. And there’s about 21 mothers trying to make my beats, so I don’t got to make beats no more. Every beat they make, I could have made it. Any record they use, I’ve got. My brother’s becoming a master, so all I’ve gotta do is step back.

What would you do?
When I complete this, I’m going to be a doctor. That’s my love right there, my lifetime goal. I’ve got a few stumbling blocks I’ve got to overcome. But I’m going to make something special for the planet. It’s going to be something that’s going to remain. There are 109 elements — everything you see is composed of them. I’m going to put some of that shit together. I’m studying it all — mental, physical, chemical. I’m studying the body circulation, tai chi, all that.

What’s your specialty going to be?
My specialty’s going to be peace. I’m going to do it, man.

Do you think that you can ever really complete music, like you said?
I mean complete it to the level that I would take it. Once I get to a level where I can’t add on, it’s time for me to go back to being more of an observer of the music and a listener. That’s when I get the fuck out. You ain’t gotta tell me when my shit is no good no more. I know when it ain’t no good.

I’m starting to see from other people telling me that what I did for music is, I simplified it, but in a way that’s really different. A lot of things are acceptable to your ear now based on the noise you had to sit through from me. The formula of making beats is there in my music, and now you have to have no musical talent whatsoever to be a hit producer or a hit songwriter. I added that to this shit, man. Hip-hop is so easy to do. I can go make a dozen beats right now. Other niggas can make it. So I don’t need to do it no more. At least I helped get it back, ’cause it was gone.

Do you have any interest in doing film?
That’s my next move.

What are you going to do?
I can do any of it. I don’t know if I can act, though. My style is to be behind the scenes. I’d rather be a director and send somebody else out to be a star. I told Method [Man] he could be in the first movie, Meth’s going to be a star, anyway. It ain’t no big thing. All a movie try to do is capture reality and make it more dramatic. I’ll show you how to capture reality — you’re going to see some serious shit.

How did you first get into making music?
When I was 8 years old, I went to a block party. GZA took me there; he was like three or four years older than me. There was break dancing, but it was called freestyle. This was 1976, and there were, like, eight different rhymes in the whole world, and everybody was doing the same ones. GZA was writing rhymes already. Then when I got to 9 years old, I wrote a rhyme in school one day. A sex rhyme. It was about “needing a girl with the biggest breasts.” As I got older, it got more and more advanced.

I got my first turntables when I was 14 or 13. My cousin Ishmael, Dirty’s first cousin — Dirty’s my second cousin — taught me how to DJ. Dirty and I would be scratching and writing rhymes. We went to MC battles in the Bronx and all over the city. We used to get on the train looking for niggas to battle with. I had hundreds of battles. Genius was a master, No. 1. I really lived this hip-hop shit out.

Then I started learning about drum machines, beat machines. In 1987 I got a four track. That’s when I started to produce. At the same time, the drug gang came into it. As a teenager, I was at that age where you start selling weed, trying to get your 40-ouncers, wearing gold chains.

How did you keep from getting bogged down in that stuff?
Fortunately for me, GZA spoke knowledge to me when I was 11 years old. So I grew to puberty with that. I did the other shit that niggas did, but knowledge was that extra step that got me through.

You were never worried that you’d fuck everything up, like if you got shot or arrested?
I was never worried. Put it this way: Worry don’t last that long on me — maybe two to four hours. Even when I was on trial [for attempted murder, in 1992], the most worrying moment was when they were ready to give me my announcement. If the man said guilty, that would have been eight years of my life in the other direction. When it came back good, my mother told me, “Boy, listen: That’s your second chance.” I listened to her; she was right.

What are some of your earliest memories of your family?
What kind — good ones or bad ones?

How about one of each?
I’ll tell you what — I can remember my grandfather’s birthday. That must have been 1971 or ’72. A lot of poor people were there. And one motherfucking cake. I liked the cake. There were, like, flowers on it.

I guess that would be a good memory.
Heck yeah. When you’re young, everything is good. I’ll give you a bad one: when your father leaves your mother. That shit is bad. You still love everything, but the tear you feel is a real tear. That really made me lose everything right there. That’s a fucked-up feeling that you will not want to feel. For real, for real, for real. You can stress that when you write about me. That’s some shit. And I was, like, 3½. And it leads to everything. It leads to your mother abandoning you and leaving you with your uncle for four years. A psychologist can look at that for you. You’re not a psychologist, are you? Your questions are intimate like that.

Let me ask you: Most of these questions you ask me, is it because you want to know or do the people want to know?

Both. Why do you think people read biographies?
It’s just that these kind of questions sound like police questions to me. There’s one part of me that says I don’t want to expose this stuff. But I got a habit of telling the truth. We’re talking about my pain and shit as a child, and it’s like, “Why would fans want to read that?” At the same time, I’m so-called successful. I made it to a level that a lot of brothers want to make it to. I don’t mind manifesting this stuff, because they can think, “I was fucked up in the same way he was fucked up.” But one day, we’ll probably get past the level of [having to do] articles, man.

So what did you do this one for? You didn’t have to.
I did it for my team. If my team is there, I’m there. And I’ve been reading that motherfucker [Rolling Stone] since I was 8 years old. I had that shit in my motherfucking house; my motherfucking cousin had it in his motherfucking house. I have a chance to be in that motherfucker on the cover. My cousin’s going to see that shit. That’s the MC in me talking right there, wanting to be the best. You gotta control that side of you; it’s a bad motherfucker.

Here’s something that might be helpful to people: When you look at all the different records you’ve produced or performed on, you’ve worked for almost every major label now. Which one treats their artists the best?
Oh, shit, they all got their own special qualities.

You’re copping out.
No, I’m on a truth level. Probably, I only have a problem with one of them, and it’s my own problem. I want to mention, though, that I’ve got a new Gravediggaz album coming out on Gee Street. People have been telling me they like it a lot and shit. I think, personally, on a scale of one to 10, you got to give it a seven.

What would you give Wu-Tang Forever?
We voted on it, and I gave it an eight, though you may be able to squeeze an eight-and-one-half out of it.

What’s missing to make it a 10?
All the shit that we thought the motherfuckers wouldn’t understand. Not just the lyrics, but the music and the vibe. So it was like, “Fuck it, don’t put that on the album, because they ain’t going to understand it.”

So what are you going to do with that stuff now?
[Grins] Put it on my solo album.

In This Article: Coverwall, RZA, Wu-Tang Clan

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