The saga of Wu-Tang Clan runs deep. Twenty-five years ago, the world was hip to an elevated level of hip hop knowledge when the Staten Island supergroup delivered their collective debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a work that stands the test of time in both sound and teachings.
The event is just another example of the reach of a group that started “in the slums of Shaolin” and continues to set the tone for generations to come. In this candid interview with Playboy, RZA shares some never before heard stories of the 36 Chambers, along with his own life lessons that he’s learned in his three-decade tenure in music. He’s also preparing a long-awaited follow-up to his Tao of Wu book, rounding out his philosophical trilogy. The saga continues.
Congratulations on next month! I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Yeah, it’s incredible! It’s beautiful, it’s scary, it’s exciting. I feel very much like a father watching his son grow to adulthood and being accepted, you know?
I know you were kind of the glue of that project in terms of how it all came together, but did you anticipate it standing the test of time? The fact that it’s still here and still something that people continue to discover and rediscover says a lot.
Not being egotistical about it, but yes I knew it was special. I knew what were doing was special, I knew that that accumulation of talent that existed within the Wu-Tang—you know, all the different voices: Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the GZA—I knew that this collection of energy along with the dedication and so many hours of time of production that I put into it and also having a chance that most people didn’t have to actually play with technology.
One thing about the album that a lot of people don’t know is that Pro Tools was new. We were able to take that album after all the songs was recorded, and I was able to stitch it together like a movie. And it was only because I was able to go to a Pro Tools studio—I think it was called Magic Studio or something like that down in SoHo/Chinatown border. Because I was able to do that, I was able to take any sound, stitch any Kung-Fu sample to the song, and put the sword slices over the words. I was able to do that in a poignant time where maybe a lot of producers wasn’t thinking like a movie editor would think. Pro Tools gave me that ability.
So I was just saying, that alone shows that it’s an ushering album. It’s ushering in all-new technology, but sonically and creatively capturing the stories of the youth like unspoken rules at 16, or Inspectah Deck talking about being handcuffed on the back of a bus and going through the struggles of life and Ghostface talking about thinking about the glorious days and how people were passing away. These things that you go through as a young adult trying to find yourself—whether it’s depressing, sometimes it’s energetic, sometimes it’s sex, sometimes it’s just aggression—all these different energies are in that album. And I think that’s one reason why it does continue to resonate.
I wanted to show young people, if you have an artistic wavelength, you don’t have to express it the same way he’s doing it.
One thing I gotta say about that track is that when we first recorded that track… The goal, right? I remember telling Ghost, “Yo, I wish I could sing!” [Laughs] I said, “Because if I could sing, I could really get the emotion.” Like, you know how Stevie Wonder be? Like when he sings, you feel that bit of emotion that rappers weren’t really giving you because the rap voice wouldn’t go to that octave or they ain’t getting it.
So that was the first attempt to show, like, the emotional flow of an emcee and then take it to the backdrop of the Wendy Rene sample, “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” I think that it married that energy. Because that song has a total gut-gripping sound to it and to me, the lyrics we’re talking about like, “Ah man, how do I say goodbye?” and, “He was down with O.P.P. but he got caught with HIV.” That energy, it actually led to various other Wu-Tang songs that you find emotions like, “All That I Got Is You,” by Ghostface or “I Can’t Go To Sleep.” To me, “Tearz” was the foundation that an emcee can use their voice or a style to make you hopefully tear up from his verse.
When I spoke with Masta Killa a while back, I mentioned that one of my favorite verses is his clean up on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” and he explained the talent that surrounded him—that it was almost like a battle in the studio. Is that how that went down, just kind of jumping in and going back and forth on verses?
Yeah, definitely. And a verse could be taken off! Through that period of time, your verse could be taken off, chopped, turned shorter…And then I think one thing that the audience should understand is that when you’re talking about certain emcees like the GZA, right? By the time the public meets him, he’s been emceeing… I mean if he was 24, he’s been emceeing since the age of 10 probably.
You’re looking at 10 years of emceeing. So you’re looking at a master. You’re not meeting the average rapper! Now Ghost[face], maybe Ghost he’s got about 7 years of rapping in his life. Masta Killa probably had the less years of writing rhymes. Even though he’s been in hip hop his whole life—as all of us have—but sitting down and putting your thoughts to paper, that was less, you know?
Since the GZA’s my older cousin, when he started, I started. That’s when I first started saying his lyrics, but then by the time I was nine years old, I wrote my first lyrics in class one day, and I started writing one every day. So I have hundreds of pages in books and the same thing with Ol’ Dirty. He didn’t start rhyming until he was like 14 when he started writing. But by the time you meet us, you’re meeting guys with 7 to 10 years or more of lyricism. And the GZA, 14 years of lyricism. So what he says on “Clan In Da Front”:
How ya sound be? You're better off a quitter
I'm on the mound G,and it's a no-hitter
And my DJ the catcher, he's my man
Anyway he's the one who devised the plan
He throws the signs I hook up the beats with clout
I throw the rhymes to the mic and I strike ‘em out
He basically put us in the middle of a baseball game through his lyrics! That was his power. That takes years to put together a flow like that. You’re not talking his cars, his money, his girl. He’s using the metaphor of baseball to describe his lyrical ability. And that’s crazy.
Yes! So the story goes, I needed a logo for my company, right? And I knew a couple of guys that did graffiti—one of them being Mike McDonald, who did help us later on in Wu-Tang Management. Another guy being Gano Grills, who actually painted the “Can It Be That It Was All So Simple” mural that’s famous in all our videos and many other things, and Mathematics. I asked all of them to come up with a logo for me, and I was going to pay! I paid about $400; half my rent money, right?
So first I describe how I want it, because I wanted it to feel dangerous. And when Mathematics first drew it, I was like, “You know what? I can’t sell that. That won’t match my company!” So I said to try another one. Then he just tried one and it said “Wu-Tan” and it was written in the clouds and it had a sword and some break-dancers and when I looked at it, I was like, “Let’s take the W and the sword. In fact, let’s put the W on the book and put the sword underneath.” So the first time you see the Wu logo on the “Protect Ya Neck” cover, you see that it’s just a sword and a book with the W imprinted.
The idea was that we could bring you the book or we could bring you the sword, but either way, we’re coming for you. Eventually, it evolved. We took it off the book and just left it with the W and the sword. And then eventually, we were like, all we really need is that W. It’s that symbol; it’s that stamp. It became that stamp of approval when you see it. So yeah, Mathematics—it’s his hand that went back there and drew it.
Any time it had to evolve, he was willing to go back in and tighten it up. And so, I think of a lot of things—and again, I’m not saying that to be egotistical—but when we got to Method Man, I was like, “Yo, let’s turn it upside down.” And when we got to GZA, I was like, “Make the G derive from the W.” And then even up to the recent U-God “U,” it’s still half of the W. So it’s something to keep the DNA of the originating hand there, but at the same time, it keeps showing different renditions of the brand. So what started off as a logo for a company ended up to be an iconic logo for hip-hop in general. And Mathematics’ talent definitely elevated that for us. It’s funny what $400 can get you in 1991, right? [Laughs]
Yeah, a legendary logo that people still try to duplicate!
You know what I heard? I heard that the Nike logo only cost $250. That’s what I heard. I don’t know if it’s an actual fact, but I heard that they paid $250 to the artist for that logo.
Next year it will be 10 years since your second book Tao of Wu (sequel to the Wu-Tang Manual), and I was wondering if you were planning a third book?
I actually am planning a third book. I kind of have a lot of ideas of it scattered around. I just gotta compile it. But yeah, I felt definitely the need that it was time to add on again. So that’s like my greatest… I mean, 36 Chambers of course, how could I ever not put that as the foundation to our entry into this world of art?
But as far as accomplishments, I feel even more accomplished when somebody walks up to me and says, “I read your book and it helped me.” That’s a different type of feeling because it was so hard for me to expose myself writing that book. It took a lot of people to keep pushing me and telling me, “You should, you should!” Then to see such a great response to what it meant to other people that I realized that since I have that in me, if I got it, I should get it out. Water is useless stuck in a bottle. It needs to be drunk. So yeah, there will be another one.
What I could say about that… of course there’s the blessings on me so I’ll say that. All praises to the Most High; that’s definitely God’s blessings on me. What I also did was I looked at my childhood to define my adulthood, and the things that I loved as a child at the stages of youth, I reversed it. So I was actually an emcee before I was a DJ. So when I was an emcee, I didn’t make the beats or anything. I was just walking around emceeing…with the urge to tell my manager that I want to be a producer. He didn’t believe me! I was like, “I got all these ideas, and I’m a DJ!”
Then I took that second step of being the DJ/producer. In each step of it—now as a producer—I go back to my childhood of loving classic movies, classical music, and now I want to write to a classic movie, I want to score. I remember watching a movie, but hearing the music. For some people it just plays with the movie. They can’t separate the sonic of it, right? So each chamber of my youth, I strive to express in my adulthood.
But let me tell you the most important reason why… I realized that we, speaking as a Black man in America, were all becoming crabs in a barrel. We were all trying to crawl over each other for the same exact thing. I wanted to show young people, if you have an artistic wavelength, you don’t have to express it the same way he’s doing it. It’s just like a trumpet is a trumpet, but you can play jazz, rock, pop. You know, Michael Jackson took a trumpet and made pop songs when the horns came in. So you have to realize that the instrument is your talent, and you don’t have to be stuck as a crab in a barrel.
That’s what happened—even right now—in hip-hop. Everybody wants to sound the same. You don’t have to do that, yo! In fact, you don’t even have to rap! You can take all that talent you got with rapping and whatever, and take that wavelength and put it somewhere else because there’s other places that actually need it. So I strive to show people that yo, we don’t have to stay still. We could compose movies, we could write movies, we could act in movies, we could direct movies, we could do everything, but we have to be brave enough to step into it.
I think I realized that in 1997, and hopefully that goal worked enough that other people are looking at it like, “Yo, you know what? I don’t even gotta make an album; I’m just gonna be a movie composer.” I saw this interview with Logic and this is the reason why when he called me to do the song [“Wu-Tang Forever”], it was an honor. In the interview, he said he was watching Kill Bill and he was loving the music and the vibe. He saw that the music was done by RZA and that made him go and research RZA, which led him to the Wu-Tang Clan, which became his teachers in hip-hop! Now he’s one of the icons in hip-hop in today’s generation.
So if I wouldn’t have taken that bravery to step into that field, it wouldn’t have produced a kid like that. So other artists should definitely be conscious of that. Don’t crab yourselves in a barrel. Create your own path, your own lane so that others could follow that as well.