Above: RZA, photographed in Malibu by Luci Lux. Wardrobe and styling by Niko Solorio.
The chief musical mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan known as RZA recently challenged editor-in-chief Max Dax to a game of chess. Needless to say, it wasn’t even close. During the match, the Staten Island native was keen on discussing his various other battles—including a directorial debut, creative control of the Wu and issues of copyright ownership. While fighting on various fronts, the fate of the new, unreleased Wu-Tang album has remained a looming question mark. Here’s why.
RZA, the US is currently witnessing a real boom in terms of electronic music. You are best known for your work with the Wu-Tang Clan, but recently you’ve also ventured into the world of crossover and more experimental hip-hop with your collaboration, Achozen, together with Killarmy and Shavo Odadjian from System of a Down.
I think electronic music has revitalized itself as a world music again. And for America, electronic music is not just about the drum programming and the synths but also the sampler—so you think of hip-hop.
That’s an interesting take. In our last issue, Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra mentioned that Sun Ra was actually one of the first in jazz to use a synthesizer. He actually helped create sounds for some of Bob Moog’s first productions.
Did he become a spokesperson for Moog?
No. I suppose it wasn’t quite pre-endorsement days, but I think they wanted him just to help push the gear to the limits of sonic outer space.
Sun Ra is incredible. Where did you meet Marshall Allen?
We actually went to the Sun Ra commune in Philadelphia and took a tour of the whole eccentrically decorated house.
That was very enlightening probably.
Indeed. Today we’re in Malibu, but you’re originally from New York City. What were your thoughts on California before you moved here?
I was actually really naive about California. In the early days of Wu-Tang we came to San Francisco and had a chance to stay there for about three weeks. Our label thought Northern California was an important market. And so they gave us a corporate apartment, already furnished. Me and ODB shared one apartment and Raekwon and Ghostface another. There we were: a bunch of guys from the hood now in a whole other state and living. I mean, we had to get our own groceries! We were early twenties, just getting this life—and San Francisco was that city. I was impressed because it had an almost N.Y. feeling, you know, with all the restaurants. It had a culture, it had chess players on the streets, and the best thing was the police wasn’t harassing us! We hung around in Oakland and the Bay Area with the tough gangster guys and the weed and the drugs and the chicks. That was my first taste of Northern California. It felt good. Actually it was a time that helped Wu-Tang become tight because of what we went through there. It felt like a new life together. But when I came to Southern California, to Hollywood, that was really mind blowing. I had a preconception that it might be too glamorous for me but it turned out to be very satisfying, not least temperature-wise. It is a blessing to wake up in November or December and the temperature is seventy-five degrees. So I just fell in love with Los Angeles. Call it a change of polarity. I felt freer, a different kind of vibe. Maybe it was the sun. Basically the whole New York aggression was gone. For the first time in my life I wouldn’t wake up with it.
Are you referring to your upbringing in the projects?
Yeah, the projects of New York—all the fast paced hustle and bustle. I lived that for so many years of my life. Suddenly I wake up in a place that’s more calm, smoother. Not ten meetings a day, two should be enough. You don’t walk out the house and there’s a million people; it’s walk down from the hotel and there’s only very few people on the street because everybody is driving a car.
I actually find these six-lane Los Angeles freeways oddly inspiring. They have a kind of cinematic feel. I can imagine musicians programming beats and matching harmonies to the motion of the highway.
I do that! I program beats in the car and I program beats on the plane. And since I always fly first class I can plug in my drum machine.
You’re not a fan of batteries, huh?
Not at all. I’m inspired by what you feel 20,000 feet above the ground, baby.
I read your book The Tao of Wu and I was fascinated by your description of growing up in Staten Island. You mention your home was robbed on Christmas when you were eight years old. It’s a horrible idea to think that anybody would steal children’s Christmas toys. But you actually became friends with the guy who did it!
Yeah, Chili-Wop. You have to know that my mother got lucky with the lottery and hit the number. Betting on numbers is a really popular illegal lottery in the projects. The history goes back to prohibition. So my mother was happy and buys all these wonderful presents and moves us into a new apartment. And the next thing you know, our toys, my sister’s bike, the little pinball machine: all gone. We was heartbroken and there was nothing we could do about it. All we could do was cry. Anyhow, the next door neighbor was Chili-Wop and his brother was Tony Mac. They was real cool, real tough guys. They were like the gangstas, they had Richard Pryor albums. We would come over there to play the album, hear records like That Nigger’s Crazy, all that cursing shit. And if you messed with them, they would kick your ass. Even guys on the next block knew about them. When I was nine, their youngest brother Lazar was around twelve, and I got into a fight with him. He was a big dude! I was beating up on one of the other neighbors that was my age and Lazar came to help the guy. He tried to break it up and I immediately went at him. He was like twice my size and got me down and had me, but I kept fighting and fighting. We ended up becoming friends, which lead to me becoming friends with his older brother, Chili-Wop, who was about sixteen going on seventeen.
Which is a huge difference at that age.
Yeah, it’s a big difference. I admired him. And as our friendship increased he ends up telling me that he was the guy who robbed us. But we still stayed friends. I am telling you this because not everybody who comes into your life as an enemy remains an enemy. And not everybody that comes as a friend remains a friend. Chili-Wop became my friend, a protector. He was there to help me out, and I learned a lot from him. [A hummingbird flies by and stops, hovering about a foot from RZA] As a hummingbird flies by . . .
I’ve never seen a hummingbird so close. I guess this kind of thing only happens in the center of the Wu-Niverse?
Yeah, this is how we do in Malibu. [RZA moves his queen into position] Check-mate, brother!
At least I lost against a real player. I read you’re also the champion of the Hip-hop Chess Federation.
True. I started playing chess at the age of eleven, which, by the way, is not so good. But I got more serious later on. Bobby Fisher learned chess when he was six years old, and usually the people that learn the game at the age are the ones who become great. I started late but I’ve been playing long enough to have won more than just a few tournaments. I like chess because it’s a war game. It’s mathematical and it’s analytical. And unlike in life, if you lose in chess it doesn’t mean you’re dead. It’s a game that definitely teaches the strategies of life, where you can learn from loss. It’s also very meditative for me. A lot of people can’t learn from loss. They lose and they can’t come back, they can’t recuperate themselves, and I think that’s a curse for them.
Do you listen to jazz?
I love jazz. When I was making 36 Chambers I was listening to a lot of Thelonius Monk. I remember when we got signed to the label I had bought his and Bill Evans’ box sets from the advance—both being great pianists and both very different, yet similar. Plus, they’re both on the Riverside label. I remember asking the executives at RCA to get me a copy of Straight, No Chaser, Monk’s story. I actively tried to learn from him, watching this guy playing the piano.
I ask because I think many older jazz musicians not only brought music forward but sought to redefine social consciousness in their own way. I think hip-hop was highly influenced by certain jazz ideas.
I agree. Actually for me personally it wasn’t jazz or people like Iceberg Slim or Gil Scott-Heron that pushed me as far as hip-hop goes. But as years went on and as time passed it was these forms of music that became more influential to me. And then as I became a hip-hop celebrity I started to study other music, so now especially I listen more intensely to jazz. When I listened to Monk in the nineties I would automatically scan it for samples that I could use for a beat. This has fortunately changed. Now I listen just for the music itself.
What about free jazz?
Free jazz, they say, is like a sentence without a repetition, and when I started composing I was going on for thirty-six, forty-eight, sixty-four bars before a repetition could be heard. We always had to re-edit it, because that’s not how popular music works! Quincy Jones actually told me that once—that in order for music to become popular, to become a phrase, it has to have repetition. I had to adapt to that, of course, but you see, if I just smoke a joint and go, it’s never gonna be a straight hip-hop beat.
Hip-hop is one of those genres that appeared pretty suddenly.
Let’s say it wasn’t around in a mainstream way because some hip-hop historians say it started as early as 1970 with the release of Gil Scott-Heron’s Small Talk at 125th & Lenox. Some say it started as early as the sixties with James Brown and Isaac Hayes. And some others say that it goes back to DJs like Doug “Jocko” Henderson from Philadelphia, who would always rap a few words over instrumental music on his radio show. I even once heard someone call Muhammad Ali the first rapper. You know it’s hard to really trace the root of it. But let’s just say it flourished more throughout the eighties to gain world recognition in the nineties and to become a global pop sensation since the Millennium that continues to this day. Many aspects come to mind when you try to find out about the origins of hip-hop because so much is geniunely based on manipulating existing music. The first guy who scratched they say is DJ Kool Herc. He brought with him a Jamaican soundsystem background. Or if you look at Rakim who some consider one of the best rap lyricists of all time—his father was a jazz musician and his flows were basically jazz-inspired. And if you look at the big sound of the West Coast—I am talking about Dr. Dre and Ice Cube here—you’ll notice its funk roots. Now, if you take a conclusive look at 36 Chambers, even though I did sample from various sources, the only thing I was trying to make was hip-hop. For me, hip-hop was the inspiration before anything.
At the core of much hip-hop, every track echoes someone else’s track by using samples that inherit all the dignity and power of the original artist.
I agree. Take a song like Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”: It was sampled by Run-DMC on a track called “Here We Go.” Think about “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap track to ever be big around the whole world: Sugarhill Gang just copied Nile Rodgers and Chic, and A Tribe Called Quest copied and pasted from jazz. Hip-hop has always been an infusion of all music imaginable. I would go so far and label it the other big American music that was invented in the twentieth century—after jazz. I disagree with the people who say that hip-hop goes way back to Africa. C’mon, let’s give it to America first. It was those streets in the projects and them kids without instruments.
What do you mean when you say these kids didn’t have instruments?
Until the late seventies public schools in the US always offered music lessons—that’s why in the Motown days, everybody was seeing music as a proper way out of poverty. When the government shut down the music programs, all the kids went through their school careers without instruments. The guitar and the bass were replaced by the drum machine and the sampler and the turntable and the microphone, because these kids did not get introduced to an instrument that has to be mastered. The equipment that could be self-taught became our creative tools. One of the big differences of hip-hop to any other music is that it was made by a generation of non-instrumentalists. Eventually those guys would go on to learn instruments like me, like Q-Tip, Dr. Dre or DJ Premier.
Would you agree that, on the other hand, all those great genre-defining hip-hop records that made the whole thing explode—you couldn’t make them nowadays because clearing the samples would be impossible. How do you see that issue?
The sample issue is part of the destruction of hip-hop to me, and I never agreed with the sample laws. I think it should be totally legal to sample because according to copyright law you can take any form of music and make a new derivative. According to that, hip-hop should be able to flourish. Nobody has set a precedence case yet. Somebody needs to go all the way through with it and set the case record cause there’s no case file on it.
Yeah, but this could ruin that person right?
Regardless, it’s worth the sacrifice, because what is a sampler? It’s an instrument. And what does it do? It samples. If sampling is supposed to be illegal, doesn’t that mean that the sampler itself should be banned, or sued, or lawsuits against the people who make the samplers should be filed? And wouldn’t that also mean that Apple is the biggest lawbreaker in sampling history? An Apple computer comes with Apple loops. Now for a guy like me with a trained ear, I listen to some of the Apple Loops and I can tell which record it came from, I can tell what breakbeat it is. I can prove in court that that breakbeat is a sample but yet it’s on every modern Apple computer. All music is literally a derivative from music that is already in the world. Even the American anthem is a derivative of an old bar song. The lyrics were changed to make the anthem but the person who wrote the bar song didn’t get a nickel for that. I could look at The Rolling Stones and all of the blues, and look at all of the songs of The Beatles, even though The Beatles are my favorite songwriters, I could find songs predating them that use the same chord progressions. Why can you “borrow” a tune and not sample a bar? Why is hip-hop being taken apart when our genuine instrument is a sampler? Our instrument isn’t the guitar and a pair of drums, but we are creating, we are taking phrases and sounds to make something new out of them and it should be considered an original composition. The good thing is that it pushed guys like me to become a real musician.
Will we hear any of that progression on the announced new Wu-Tang album?
Guess what? On the new Wu-Tang album there will be no samples. But here’s the thing: it still sounds like we’ve used samples. Why? Because we sampled our own recorded music. I’ve figured out what notes I like. That’s my sound. On the new album you hear all these rhythms and all this new music that has been written by me. I asked myself: How can I make this music sound authentic just like the old records that I used to sample in the past. So I went down to Memphis and gathered all the musicians to play my favorite notes.
And they were able to deal with your ego?
Yep, and they told me they haven’t felt this musically refreshed in a long time. They been playing music for thirty, forty years on autopilot and now they say: “Yo, you have refreshened us.”
Four essential albums in a RZA-centric Wu-Niverse (top to bottom): 1. Year zero for the Wu: Enter the Wu-Tang / 36 Chambers from 1993; 2. Gravediggaz’ brilliant horrorcore debut 6 Feet Deep (originally Niggamortis) from 1994, featuring production and MCing by both RZA and Prince Paul; 3. RZA’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s modern samurai epic Ghostdog from 1999; 4. RZA returns as Bobby Digital in 2008 with Digi Snacks.
I would have thought they’d be playing funk and blues and boogie every day.
Right, but now they’re playing it with my idea of progression. So now instead of how Al Green would go from A7 to E7, but I’m going into a diminished chord instead because of the notes and chords I hear in my head. I need the hip-hop just like that. Remember we always pitched everything down and slowed it to fit the spirit of it really.
Are we touching on Duke Ellington here? I mention this because Ellington also became famous for unexpected chord changes, right?
Exactly. With my music it has always been all about the unexpected chord changes and the different fucking rhythms that I put together that made them tracks go. The only difference is that now I’m playing all this shit with real musicians and converting everything to digital. And then I start manipulating it. But I’m not manipulating somebody else’s music, I’m manipulating my own. The flipside of the coin is that it took me fucking ten, twelve years of study.
But wouldn’t you agree that years of study are never lost years?
True that. Let me take a look at my career as a songwriter during these years of study. What did I achieve? I did work with Kanye whose album became platinum; I did work on the Jay-Z album that went through the roof as well; I’ve been involved with million-selling soundtracks for Tarantino and stuff like that, but I didn’t find the time to carefully record an album of my own with me as the central artist.
But you finally did on the new Bobby Digital album, right?
Yeah, and I’d also count in the new Wu-Tang album. There’s no outside producers so far. It’s just me, and I think I’ve figured out a way to make another classic hip-hop album that will inspire everybody.
You repeatedly mentioned in interviews that you would produce a new Wu-Tang album only under one condition: if Raekwon, Ghostface and all the other members accept that, like with the 36 Chambers, you are the musical dictator.
Yeah! The dictator! Yeah!
And yet to me it looked like you were basically dependent on them to agree to these terms and conditions. I mean, you’re known as a bunch of guys who are supposed to have big egos.
You’re totally right. I’ve been having difficulty, to be completely honest with you. There are some members of Wu-Tang who have not come and agreed yet, but some of the important guys have. You know, Method Man and Inspectah Deck have come and cooperated even when they may have disagreed. You know, the thing that bothers me about Wu-Tang and anybody not accepting the terms I’m offering is that I’m not proposing anything with the idea of hurting or diminishing us. I’m saying that clearly because my focus and my L.A. movie experience is that I am a couple of years ahead of them all. I was given the chance to direct a real movie with a twenty million dollar budget. Compared to that, even a high album budget of, say, five million dollars is small compared to a movie budget. And I tell you, being responsible for such a huge amount of money completely rearranges your ideas of producing an album! I’ve grown as an entrepreneur and I’ve grown as a business man.
Did you ever have a five million dollar budget for an album?
I had it for the first Bobby Digital album and I had a close to five million dollar budget for Wu-Tang Forever, which was a double album. Of course we were many guys needing to get paid and we had to pay everybody else involved in the production, so that album cost a lot of money. Thanks to the movie experience and to the fact that I had to direct some four hundred people on the set and behind the scenes, my brainpower has grown. I’ve traveled a lot and seen different parts of the world. I’ve even been to the Shaolin monastery in China. I’ve had a taste of what the electronic music is doing in the template of hip-hop and I have a taste of what classical music does from composing. I have a taste of what soul music is. I just want to bring all that knowledge to the table, like Captain Kirk. Kirk is the captain of the ship, baby. He has Mr. Spock and Mr. Sulu around him and they all help, but he’s the fucking captain and if he says warp speed ahead, it’s warp speed ahead.
You’re basically saying that in art there’s no space for democratic decision making?
All I’m saying is that it has worked before like that, and it will work again. You just have to trust my vision. Actually, the Wu-Tang album will be more to their benefit than to mine because I have a much bigger success with my second career. The films are more lucrative than anything I could achieve in music. That’s why I’m saying now is the time to take heed to me again, because this time I’m not doing it for the money. I once went through a phase in my life where I wouldn’t do nothing without the money and that was bad. I think that happens to everybody who’s successful. You have to overcome this and once you reached that next level things start to really get interesting. 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan and nobody has given me five dollars on it yet. In fact, the production has already cost thousands of dollars out of my own pocket, and yet I can’t get the cooperation of the crew. The first album only cost 50,000 dollars to make, and I already have tripled that by now. And I ask them why don’t you come work with me? I’m just asking them to come in and to participate because we all will benefit more because now is the first time where we are not signed to a label meaning we don’t have to suffer from a point system. Instead of getting eighteen points we could actually get fifty points. Everybody will get a bit of the pie and we’ll all enjoy the success. And if it’s not successful only I lose my investment.
You once called Quentin Tarantino your godfather when it comes to film directing and the business. Would you say that he’s mainly responsible for your career path?
Yeah! You could call him my mentor. I met him years ago in New York at a press junket for a martial arts movie called Iron Monkey that had been bought by his company, and they hired me to help promote the movie. At that time Wu-Tang was the biggest band in the country. Plus we were affiliated with martial arts. So they wanted the RZA to help bring awareness to this film and they offered to pay me money to do it and I declined the money because I love the movie. I was a fan of the movie since I saw it ten years earlier. By the way, this is a good example of how much time it sometimes takes until a great movie gets distributed in America. I told them to donate the money to the charity of my martial arts school, so it was all a beneficial thing. Bottom line is that I met Mr. Tarantino and we became immediate friends.
Why did it click?
We both realized in a split second that we liked the same music and movies. It was basically a boy buddy thang, and we wound up calling each other to watch movies or listen to records together. That really became our thing. So if he was in town we’d watch a kung-fu movie at the Miramax screening room and that became the foundation of our friendship. By the time he had finished the script for Kill Bill he’d let me read it first—and I was completely blown away. I told him I wanted to be a film director someday, and I asked him if I could be his student. He said yes and one day he asked me to teach him about music production. So I bought him a guitar and I taught him a few things when I was working in the studio. A couple of times he’d even come and travel with the Wu-Tang on our tour bus. But I still have to really sit down with him and give him the proper workout that I feel I somehow owe him.
You only have to sync your itineraries.
Yeah, we’ll find time. So far he only mentored me, really. He let me come to his movie sets and allowed me to watch him work. I went all the way to China with him. I paid for the trip with my own money and just watched and took notes. That’s the best schooling.
Watch and learn—that’s not too far from the sort of school of the streets, in a way.
Yeah, I went to street college—again. It took me about five years going through Kill Bill 1 and 2 as well as Death Proof. Quentin’s place became my college campus of sorts and he’d let me come up to his house and spend the night there whenever I wanted, even if he wasn’t there. It is a very good friendship and I’d even say that I love him as a brother. Anyway, after five years under his tutelage I asked him whether he thought that I was ready.
He said I wasn’t ready just yet. My final test was missing: I hadn’t written a script yet. You know, at the beginning there was the word. So I wrote The Man with the Iron Fists. Eventually Quentin thought I was ready and that’s how I was allowed to direct The Man with the Iron Fists.
Did Tarantino also leave an impression on you in terms of attitude?
I learned how to walk the tightropes of Hollywood by asking Quentin how to behave in the biz. Like: Should I accept that offer? Should I go there? What do I do? He was very gracious with his knowledge like he actually is to many people. The thing I like about Quentin the most is actually a mutual characteristic: We never questioned who we are. One day we talked about that and he said he grew up with people always telling him he was too loud.
I grew up with people telling me that I am a know-it-all and that I’m too conceited. But this is the way I am. We have these personalities and people shouldn’t be trying to stop us. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 38 (2, 2014). You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.
Published July 16, 2014. Words by Max Dax.