The first thing you need to do is examine this painting very carefully. It was based on the famous George Washington Crossing the Potomac painting, created by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851.

Except that that ain't George. That's the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, flanked by fellow Wu-Men GZA and Old Dirty Bastard (aka Dirt McGirt). RZA was commissioned by a company called Art Imitates Life to pose and attach his name to a remake of the painting, which he dubbed “Victory or Death.”

West Coast Sound recently had the opportunity to submit questions to the RZA about the process of working on the piece, and he kindly answered them for us.

After the jump: a little video on the painting, followed by a fascinating Q&A with the Staten Island native, who now lives in Los Angeles.

West Coast Sound: Explain the process of creating Victory or Death. Did you paint the faces on, or did you commission someone else to do that? Red hand prints are yours, though?

RZA: I'm a pretty busy man, I have a pretty tight schedule. So WAIL [When Art Imitates Life] decided that to make it easier to get it done, they decided that instead of going to some photo studio downtown or in Hollywood, let‚s bring the photo studio to RZA's house. I got six thousand square feet to play with. So we brought the canvases here, the crew and staff, the photographers, the painters. They brought everything to me, which made it much easier. We were very conscious of time. We said we would take six hours to get the foundation of this thing done, and we did it. No holds barred. We just went in and we did it.

It took me like an hour to put this suit on, first of all. I didn't know George Washington wore tights so tight. I actually couldn't put the tights on how I was supposed to because they were so tight. I was kind of embarrassed with the tights on because they really hug your nuts. So instead of the tights that we bought from the prop house, I had a pair of tights [thermals] also. I'm from New York. So I put on my own tights. I didn't wear the costume tights that they bought. More baggy, more space for my nuts. We tried some shots with the wig, without the wig, with the hat, without the hat, some with me holding my beat machine. It was real fun.

The real painting

The real painting

Painters who toil and sweat over their craft the way you do with your music production might look at “Victory or Death” and think you're taking the easy way out. What's your response to that?

Nah, because I'm not expressing to be a master of their craft. I'm just expressing some I've been through. It's like when I sample a beat. I would sample usually because I couldn't play the piano. So I'm not taking the easy way out or making a mockery of a piano player. It's not easy to sample beats and dig for breaks and put sounds together. It's easier now, but back when I was doing it with the machines we had back in the day, it wasn't easy to do what we do. Wasn't no easy time-stretchers, Fruity Loops, none of that shit. Wasn't no pre-boxed sets of sounds. You had to put your own sound library together. So there's no easy way out of nothing. I don't think nothing I do takes the easy way out. But I will take the artistic way out.

Did you do research on the riders on the boat? Who's face is GZA on? What about ODB? Is it metaphorical, their representation?

At first I thought George Washington was crossing the Delaware River for some reason, but actually it was the Potomac. So we had to do some research to make sure we had some accuracy in our history. Two reasons [we only used GZA and ODB]. One: the pioneers of the Wu-Tang sound is RZA, GZA and Old Dirty. We started as teenagers, and we were the first foundation of the group, and everyone else was, in one way or another, students of ours. So we brought the three masters, the three elders together for the piece. Ask the other Wu-Tang members and they'll tell you that RZA, GZA and Old Dirty are the teachers. Ghost said “I learned from the best.” That means RZA, GZA and Old Dirty. Everybody will tell you that we are the ones who inspired them. So that's the main reason why we said “let's use them, that'll be enough.” We did talk about using the whole Clan at one point because we thought it would make a great album cover, but Wu-Tang is so scattered in ideas and scattered in business right now, we didn't wanna get a business jamboree going on. Even though I do have the rights to do it, I didn't want to go through the headache of arguing over my own rights.

Do you really believe in the philosophy of “victory or death”? It seems like losing every once in a while and remaining alive might be a better way to do things.

Listen. Death don't have to be physical. There's spiritual, emotional, psychological — many ways. When we‚re playing chess and you lose, you lose that game, you die, that game is over. But there is a lot to be learned in defeat, of course. Victory is to achieve one's goal. If a man can't achieve the goal of gaining knowledge of himself, he might as well be dead. I'm the RZArector. I resurrect the mental dead. People are already dead, but I'm bringing them back to life. You shouldn't have to lose your life for something that's trivial. But if a man won't die for something, he'll stand for anything. Masta Killa said in “Assassination Day,” “You'd rather pursue death than admit defeat. And sometimes I think that lyric is about me in a way, because I'm the type of person that keeps going before I give up.

There is a lot to be learned in defeat, but not when it comes to defeat of your manhood, defeat of your true value of your life. This is why you see samurais and shoguns, they kill themselves if they lose a fight, because they can't live with themselves after such a loss. So that‚s something that each man, when you come to that point in your life, you'll make that decision for yourself. Can you live with that defeat? If you can live with that defeat, live on! Become stronger, and you'll win. They say, lose a battle, but win the war. But if you lose the war, what you gonna do? That's why you see great men commit suicide. They lost that reality they had in their minds, and there was no other reason for them to live.

Were there other famous paintings that you considered for this project? What were they?

We thought about doing the Bodhi Dhama painting, we thought about doing some Buddhist paintings. We had a few different ideas, but we ended up with George Washington because I think it was unique. And at the same time, being an actor nowadays, it kind of fell into my artistic expression. Here I am, putting on a costume. Dressed up. It looked like we were doing some kind of movie shoot. So I liked it because it's unique, and it's me expressing myself in this new artform I'm in. Because I look at myself now as an artist, not just a hip-hop rapper, and not even just a hip-hop artist — an artist in particular.


UPDATE: This isn't the first time Wu has taken on the American revolution. Our friend Josh Glazer at Urb points us to this great Wu-Tang cover and feature from a few years back.

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