Published in the May 2014 issue, part of our music extravaganza
In 1990, back on Staten Island, he called himself Prince—Prince Rakeem. That was the name he used then, making less-than-average novelty rap numbers, scratching his way toward a possible album, maybe a career of sorts. Prince Rakeem, Bobby Steels, Rzarector: He was all those things until he was just RZA, a name that felt earned by his stepping around the record deals and the management contracts. The stepping around resulted in his creating the Wu-Tang Clan when he was twenty-two. Nine disparate emcees picked up from the projects around Staten Island united behind RZA to release Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, the White Album of hip-hop rec-ords, a generous sampling featuring a Chinese kung-fu movie; studio and live performances; throbbing, marauding, simple bass beats pierced by subtle piano riffs; and, rarest of rare, those nine different emcees willing to stand aside to let the others work, having been convinced by RZA—using the fundamentals of the samurai code—to act as one. Loyalty, code, discipline. RZA preached that, and the men listened.
"When we started, our goal was to become the industry," RZA says. "We started in my apartment. I didn’t have no power, didn’t pay the light bill. No one cared. No one knew any different. Making demo after demo, people just rotating through. I’m the only thing that was always there. And that’s how 36 Chambers was formed—in the demos, in going into the studios as one. We recorded them again. Our own way. The whole industry. To take it [away] from people who had nothing to do with us. Record executives, managers, engineers. We took it. One army."
Here and now, RZA is a kind of prince. At forty-three, he is regal, elegant, contained—the embodiment of a prince. On this afternoon, there’s a robe twisted all the way around him, held at the collar. Him sitting high in a chair, back set rigid, upright. An attendant at his side, a lieutenant dozing along a low garden wall. A woman brings drinks. This on a terrazzo set beneath a trellis, all of that sitting at the top of a tiered garden. The past—how he got here—described as a kind of long spiritual pilgrimage, detailed in a long ramble. Like: "I was spiritual before I became a performer, know what I’m sayin’? And that was after Christianity let me down. The teachings of it didn’t work when I weighed it against the people who was teaching it to me. It was like saying, ‘You exercise the body enough and everything be fine, you thrive’—only you saying it and you don’t got no muscle. Anybody can see how weak you are, know what I’m sayin’? I’m a boy then. Ten, eleven, twelve. I’m like, ‘What the fuck you talking about? It doesn’t add up. It’s not being practiced.’ And it got to the point where I came to feel I was being persecuted by the people who were teaching me Christianity. There was no example for a young man to follow. Because I’m like, ‘Don’t tell me to turn the other cheek when you aren’t turning your own.’ " A lot of words, making for a dense patch of seconds. Like any poet or balladeer, like any prince who needs to be heard, the RZA punctuates his words with more words still. "Keep in mind now, I’m the guy who wrote, ‘Turn the cheek and I’ll break your fucking chin.’ " Then he lets fall his conversation hook, the five-syllable rhythmic coda of his every decree: "Know what I’m sayin’?"
Regarding the scene above: The robe around RZA is a barber’s smock. The throne, a kitchen stool. Around him—manager, driver, assistants, sure. But this is just a haircut for RZA, spiritual father of the ethereal and unending Wu-Tang Clan, in his own backyard. The Clan: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, GZA, U-God, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard— aliases all, still odd enough to come from the highly weird, weirdly unknowable future in which names are pure mask and metaphor.
"It flowed through me," he says. His barber slips the number one off the end of his clippers, and RZA assesses the rightness of the edge where hair meets forehead. "It was them, but it flowed through me. That’s why I’m on the line every time it does or doesn’t happen with us. It’s on me right now, on me. Always on me. It’s what I’m trying to do with this next album." The Wu-Tang are perennially working on a new album. This year, there are two. The first is a single-copy release—just one physical copy, which you can pay to hear in person, at a traveling display. Called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, it’s RZA’s reinvention of the album release as public event, which will, he hopes, circumvent the power of BitTorrent and bootleggers. The second is a much-anticipated album that RZA talks about now as if it’s hanging in the air right in front of him. To get it done, he’s slogging through the familiar process of bringing the Wu together again, one by one. It’s always tough.
He is asked what he will call the album.
"It’s called A Better Tomorrow."
Anyone who knows RZA knows he has a weakness for the spiritual—not religion so much as the spiritual life. But there’s a physical self here in the backyard, too. The man looks stouter than he should at forty-three. Standing, he gets broomed off by his barber and slips on a jacket held up by a lieutenant. He pulls at the lapels, releases his arms. He is a scene in and of himself, dressing for the rising of the sun: the black leather jacket, the boots, the dark glasses—even there in the garden. RZA straight up. Tall as hell. He’s always seemed a little slump-shouldered, but this is not true. He’s fluid when he moves, rigid when still, has biceps like cantaloupes. He looks damned ready to pull together an album, but it’s been a year and a half since he started it. "I went down to Memphis last year, was in the studio with Al Green’s original guitarist, his original band, and Isaac Hayes’s musicians. I went to Europe, to studios of high standing, you get me? I’ve accumulated 70 percent of this album, and now I gotta wait," he says.
When various members of the Clan alight in L. A., he coaxes them into the studio to finish the work they’ve promised. "Method’s been in, he did his work. Really tight work. And Killah’s been in. Done his thing. U-God. Cappadonna, he’s got to tighten his up, really tighten it up." There hasn’t been a good Wu-Tang album in almost ten years. RZA acknowledges that much. "I failed," he says when he speaks of Iron Flag and 8 Diagrams, the last two. "That’s on me, too. Because I wasn’t able to unite everybody, all right? We weren’t together. Yeah, I lost some faith in the whole and therefore they weren’t as commercially successful or spiritually successful."
In hip-hop, in which tracks are laid on top of samples and samples nudged between beats, manipulation is music. So he’s trying to unite them this time for real, because that’s where his music has always come from. Fans have been waiting for years, fighting off the forgetting that comes with time, evolution of form, sheer age. RZA, too. "You know, I hear GZA’s in L. A. Raekwon. I hear shit. But it goes to who you trust. I trust them. The work they are willing to do. So I’m waiting for others. But I can’t wait forever, know what I’m sayin’?"
Why not just move on? Why not release without one or two members?
"We aren’t members," RZA says. "We a clan. Absent one member, we ain’t one mind."
You never heard them on the radio. You heard them in the backseat of a car, or while smoking weed, or through an open window. This was the mid-1990s. The Wu, immediate legend, RZA, the maker, played concerts standing in front of a curtain, no separation; on street stages; without the requisite torquing spotlights and explosions; without any sad-ass choreography. Mostly it was a lot of waving to one another, tossing control around the stage like a baseball. Voices stripped of decoration, of everything save anger, shouting straight into the dangerous surge of the crowds. Wu hats, Wu shoes, Wu glasses—all of it branded, but mostly the Wu-Tang Clan looked like a bunch of guys who had run into one another in a vacant lot. The music started in with a rumbling down-low pulse but soon became a torrent. They came to resemble a circle of warriors, waving their mics like knives, using their tongues like swords, their words like gasoline. Everything about them was a shiv.
"After 36 Chambers, everybody had a career to manage. But we agreed to all get together, into the one mind again," RZA says. "So we got a bunch of houses close together in Oakwood. The only rule we had: Be there at 8:30 and stay till we finish. And then you free, right? Then okay, go out to clubs, go get some pussy. We worked because we still worked together. It worked because it produced Wu-Tang Forever," the group’s second album, in 1997. "And that was good." After that record, the Clan lived together in a ten-thousand-square-foot house while recording The W. "It was all right, too. One of the best times of my life, sitting around the kitchen, all of us arguing, eating cereal. Then we’d go to work. We never stopped. And that worked—that was the expensive studio productions, that was the million-dollar videos, know what I’m sayin’? That was more than right. It was called for."
At some point, the Clan started carping: Ghostface Killah and Raekwon disowned one album. U-God sued him. Ol’ Dirty Bastard completed his bizarre descent—fugitive, prisoner, dead man. Method Man got a TV show. New acolytes were added to the existing company. None of that in any particular order. Because by some point in 2007, the Wu-Tang Clan seemed a dismal soap opera controlled by no one.
People say he quit on it. Says he: "I did. I quit. It was my brother"—fellow denizen of the Wu world—"who picked me up. Put me back on the one-mind thing. You know, I just had to see the power of the whole again. When we started, we said, ‘When this thing is over, we want to be the industry.’ The whole thing. We believed."
The afternoon progresses, the sun descending. Tonight RZA will deejay a party in Chinatown, where he’ll stand under a spotlight at a hard-to-find venue with black walls, bars on two levels, can’t hear yourself talk. When he goes on, the night starts.
But before that, in his backyard, he rambles a bit about the ultimate fate of a half-eaten apple. It will feed you or it will feed many, depending on where you toss it. He turns to the fate of the Wu: "I started this thing as a dictatorship. The second album? That was the beginning of democracy, right? But, you know, it was like Russia. It ain’t working." RZA laughs then, squeaky, self-aware. "So I went back, tried the dictatorship again. But everybody’s a father now, everybody’s got their own companies, their own ambitions. Career. They run things, they own things. They still might need a dictator. I don’t know. For now, I’m erasing the political analogy. I’m just gonna become the spiritual leader. I don’t want to be a politician. I want to be more like the pope."
Not that RZA, once and future prince, is ever unoccupied. He leads the way down the stone steps to what turns out to be his music studio.
There, RZA has a piano and several guitars hang on the walls. He’s teaching himself to play both, using the occasional rock star as a teacher. It’s clear he’s as excited about his banged-up Alvarez acoustic guitar as he is about anything else in his world, save the chord progression he developed the week before while noodling around. He plunks the chords on his piano. He’s serious, but not dour. No glasses, no coat, just a plain umber T-shirt—he looks a little unmasked. "This is what I been working on," he says. As he plays, he narrates his choices: "See, then I go here for a while." He shifts chords, a new key. "Then here." He tilts his head just slightly, as if listening to find out where the sound is coming from. He stops, then switches to the guitar, smiling unself-consciously. Guitar is his new thing; he’s got the big mitts, the hand strength. He is slow, steady, and accurate when he plays. "Somebody in music challenged me. He said, ‘What’s a man who never played guitar until he was forty really gonna contribute to music?’ " He looks up then, brows arched, eyes wide. "Know what I’m sayin’?" He’s saying Ouch. But he’s also playing guitar in the studio he made for himself in his own house. So RZA quietly, happily, shifts from one well-set chord to another in a simple C scale. Then he barres a handsome B with his huge phalanges and smiles. "So this is what I do, know what I’m sayin’? I gotta go look for new progressions, string them together. That’s our work. I can make them. Don’t matter where it comes from."
You know what he’s sayin’.Tags: concert, movie, music, release, tv