Catching Up With… RZA
By Corey DuBrowa
Originally posted from Paste Magazine
It was an admittedly odd scene: nearly 2 a.m., the tour bus surrounded by autograph seekers, dope peddlers and various hangers-on, all hoping to catch a glimpse of someone from the band. For most late nights at Portland, Ore.’s hot and compact Hawthorne Theater, that “band” would’ve meant someone of a punk or indie persuasion. But tonight, the situation now included the Wu-Tang Clan’s famed founder and producer Robert “the RZA” Diggs and the nine-piece L.A. funk/soul act Stone Mecca, who’d provided musical backing for him all evening.
Having issued the controversial Wu-Tang album 8 Diagrams last year (“controversial” in that Wu members Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Raekwon all dissed it, and the RZA’s production effort, quite loudly in print following its release), the RZA has moved on to one of his various alter egos, the pleasure-seeking Bobby Digital. His third album in this guise, Digi-Snacks(KOCH), includes a much more organic, live-band approach to his music, supplementing the diabolical samples for which his work is typically known with Stone Mecca’s subtle grooves and jazzcat-inflected singing (“Drama,” in particular, is a revelation).
The RZA also continues to keep his hand in the acting game (having made an impression in last year’s Denzel Washington vehicle American Gangster) and recently drove the launch of Wu-Chess, a paid membership website focused on the RZA’s favorite game.
Paste had the opportunity sit down with RZA in his tour bus, post-gig—track suit, sunglasses and massive ‘fro still intact from the evening’s activities—to talk with him about his current solo tour and to try to get a bead on what’s next, if anything, for the Wu-Tang Clan, given the drama surrounding how the group left things last fall. From the looks of things, 8 Diagrams may very well be the final group album we’ll get from the vaunted Staten Island collective.
Paste: How did you hook up with the Stone Mecca guys? Did you know them in some way before you recorded Digi-Snacks?
RZA: I met them maybe seven years ago, and I got interested in having them play samples “over” for me. I used them to do some stuff when I was working with Raekwon on [the as-yet unreleased] Cuban Linx Pt. II, using them to play my samples. I liked how they emulated the music I made; they played the way that I wanted it to sound, know what I mean?
Paste: I think a lot of people have operated under the assumption that you sample more than you do. My perception is that there’s more “live” music on the average Wu release or on your solo stuff…
RZA: …than they realize, yeah! I think for some of my fans it’ll be new to them because they only expect a certain thing. But those who take the risk and come out, they get the hook up, you know? (laughs) That’s what I feel comfortable about; on this tour, I’m really comfortable with what I’m doing on stage. Because I can change at any moment: “You know what? This band shit’s not cool any more, I’m gonna hit the reset button, go to instant replay.” (laughs) But I’m havin’ a great time, the audience is havin’ a great time. Nothin’ wrong with a good time, yo.
Paste: The cool thing about a live band is that you have the ability now to reinterpret parts of your back catalog too, like you did tonight going back to some of the old Wu stuff on the first album, which the live band gives a completely different flavor.
RZA: We also played “1-800-Suicide,” which was a Gravediggaz song, and it sounded good enough—maybe 80% to the record?—to do with the band. To be in the club listening to that thing go off, you may be onto something there, you know? (laughs)
Paste: Let’s talk about 8 Diagrams for a minute. There were things in the press afterward that gave the impression that people like Ghost, Meth and Raekwon were unhappy with how it came out. What are the chances of you guys working together again any time soon? Because you’re working on the sequel to Cuban Linx with Raekwon now, right?
RZA: No, I haven’t worked with the Clan since then. I’ve done shows with them, but that’s mostly what I’m planning to do with them in the future. Uphold that W, know what I mean? Our creative ideas are going in different directions right now. I’m an MC, too, you know? Some people [in the Wu] have stuck with what Rakim once said, “Hip-hop don’t need a band, just a DJ and his two hands/as hip-hop was and still stands.” I understand the point he was making, but even Rakim is on tour with a band right now, you know? (laughs) He’s the one who said it, too, yo! Sampling came from bands, scratching came from the music made by bands. When all we HAD was a sampler. But it made me become more of a musician; now I play a guitar to express my feelings. I got a band, and it can be a little sloppy ‘cause I’m new with it. But it’s how it’s supposed to be, how I’m learning.
Paste: But isn’t that rawness you’re talking about just the next extension of the whole “realness” thing that hip-hop people have been talking about for decades? I would think this is why people like Kanye West, the next generation of young creative guys in hip-hop, have singled you out. He’s said that you’re the reason he got into the game to begin with. So maybe this approach to live music will have a similar impact.
RZA: That’s respect, yo. And I got respect going right back to him, to see him take it to another level where he can feed people with his shit, where people are still getting something good out of it, where it’s still available. That’s a blessing. I’m proud of that, yo.
Paste: How is your Wu-chess venture going? You just launched the new site, I’m just wondering how it’s fared so far from a business perspective [given that membership is nearly $50 a pop to join]?
RZA: I haven’t had time to check on it since I’ve been on the road, but I’ve been going to different events while I’m out on tour. We stopped in Tucson, Ariz., with the 9Queens Association. It was great to see all these kids come out. Actually, mothers, husbands andtheir kids! Couples there with their children, which is a beautiful thing to see anyway! (laughs) They was all playin’ chess and feelin’ good and that’s what Wu-chess is about. I’m proud of what it’s doing. I got some flack from people who said, “Why does it cost money to join Wu-chess?” But hey, everything I do costs money, you know? (laughs) I gotta pay for this bus, yo, it’s killin’ us! It all costs money! Bringin’ a band out increases the costs of a tour like this, but if the fans have a good time, it’s worth the risk. I’m willing to take it.
Paste: It’s possible that a whole generation of kids out there might be introduced to a fairly complicated game—one they can develop, follow, play for life as a pursuit—because someone they respected took the time to introduce it to them, to teach them. Make chess cool, fun, something they could relate to. Something accessible.
RZA: Respect. That’s what the lady from 9Queens said, too. I’m gonna name some of my friends who play chess, I hope they don’t get mad at me, but Forrest Whittaker and Jude Law both play chess. Two of the elite. A lot of people play it and love the game. That’s the whole point.
Paste: Speaking of actors, I caught your turn in American Gangster, as did a lot of people, and wondered if there’s more acting or film work in your future. It seems to come pretty naturally to you. I understand you’ve got a few projects in the works now (Gospel Hill, Repossession Mambo); how do you have time to fit that in?
RZA: Acting is definitely one of the most fun things you can do. To me, it’s a new girl, you know? (laughs) But I gotta finish some work over there [points at the stage] in this music thing. Acting, we got something big in November…
Paste: Formula for the Cure has become known as kind of the RZA’s “Black Album.” There’s even a brief, confusing YouTube trailer about it, or related to it. Will fans ever hear it? Is it done and sitting on a shelf somewhere, or have you buried it? Are there plans for it to be released at some point?
RZA: That is sitting on the shelf. I never made the music for those words. I know the words are powerful, they’re timeless, in the sense that I hope it’s not too late before someone else hears me say it. (laughs) I’ve thought about that a lot!
Paste: People have heard more about it than they’ve heard of it, clearly. That’s where all the curiosity comes from.
RZA: I know what you mean. I’m looking forward to the day when I can record that and deliver that, yo. I think I’m close.
Paste: I’ve been living with Digi-Snacks for the past three weeks in the car. It strikes me that what you’re doing with it live is to stretch well beyond what’s represented on the record, which is the essence of great live music, right? Not just replicating the record live, which, aside from freestyling and battle-rapping is most of what hip-hop has been throughout the years, but “interpreting” it. Seems like there’s a long way left to go with this idea, not just recording and playing with the band, but composing with them, collaborating with different people. The same concept as the Wu in some ways: each person brings ideas, and what emerges is in the middle somewhere. The band’s almost like Santana in certain moments!
RZA: Every night we’ve been coming with something. Look, James Brown is themotherfucker, right? (laughs) We all saw what he did up to the age of 70. So I got a long way to go, but I’m at least starting somewhere different now! To get to that level. We havin’ fun, man.
<Paste: Well, last time I checked, that gig’s open now, right? (laughs)
RZA: Ol’ Dirty would have been the man for that one, right? (laughs) Nothin’ but a party, yo.