[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
There's no musical comparison to interviewing RZA. Having a conversation with the Wu-Tang abbot is closer to interviewing the Dalai Lama, if the Dalai Lama peppered his speech with “bong bong” or had a car custom-built for his superhero alter ego, Bobby Digital.
Even then, the Dalai Lama might be a poor comparison. Sure, the Tibetan guru has advocated for freedom for his countrymen for half a century and coined maxims to enlighten dedicated Buddhists and Burning Man veterans alike. But he has never offered an acronym as catchy and pervasive as C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). And while the Dalai Lama was part of a long lineage, Wu-Tang created its own religion out of comic books, kung fu flicks and crazy visions.
Next month marks the anniversary of the Clan's debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang. Yet the current of contemporary hip-hop suggests that second album Wu-Tang Forever was the one with the prophetic title — down to Drake recently naming a song after the group's 1997 opus.
RZA can go from directing his own kung fu saga (Man With the Iron Fists) to popping up on an Earl Sweatshirt or Kanye West record. Prior to his performance Saturday at L.A. Weekly's inaugural Bedrocktoberfest concert and magic show, we chopped it up.
How did you end up appearing on the Earl Sweatshirt record?
I was just with [producer Christian Rich] in the studio zoning out…dropping rhymes. It wasn't like a focused attempt to make a song. That's real hip-hop, when you'd go to someone's house to make a tape and just rhyme. I wasn't even aware they were going to release it. We was just twisting 'em, sipping, making music, and eating chicken wings. That's how hip-hop started, just MC's coming up rapping over beats.
Was it like that in the early days of Wu-Tang?
Yeah. All the illest hip-hop from the 90s came from us hanging together and making songs with no money involved. I think that hip-hop, especially Wu-Tang hip-hop is missing that. It's about coming through and dropping a verse with no price on it or real reason to do it other than making music. That's how a song like “C.R.E.A.M.” got made.
The day that was made, Method Man came to my studio to do a song–he only had lyrics and I had a beat. He kicked a verse acapella, I dubbed it and played around with loops on an ASR keyboard while he rhymed. It was more like a freestyle session–with me as the DJ and beat maker breaking it down. That raw element of hip-hop is missing.
Are you going to be releasing any unheard Enter the Wu-Tang rarities for the 20th anniversary or were they lost when your studio flooded in the '90s?
Most things was lost, but I did find the original tape of “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'.”
These were the first sessions before it was even a song–when it was just MCs coming to my crib and doing demos.
How has living in L.A. affected your creativity?
It's improved me more as an actor and writer. The music is in me regardless. I could make beats in a tour bus or hotel room. Music is a habit. But being in LA, I got to hone in on the acting craft. I don't know if I was a natural with it. Harvey Weinstein said I was, but being among the great people makes you humble.
When I was in New York, I'd been going to the block parties since I was nine. I did that and that's why hip-hop is in me. With film, I wanted to score movies and learn about the craft of moviemaking.
Why do you think Wu-Tang has continued to sustain such relevancy among younger generations?
I feel that Wu-Tang was a lamppost or bridge in hip-hop. We were the last of the street breed or depending on how you look at it, it ended with 50 Cent. But definitely we were of that breed of living it and bringing to the world for those to experience as an art form. People are now enjoying the culture as it has been exploited and exposed. They didn't have to run from the cops and write graffiti, or have their break dance and rap ciphers broken up by the cops. They didn't build the mathematics.
Anyone can do hip-hop now, but it started with us living it. Back then, you couldn't wear Pumas or Adidas unless you wanted to fight to stop someone from stealing them. It was a super-culture.
What did you think of Drake's “Wu Tang Forever” song?
He's a great artist and like any soul singer or groove singer they always respect where the craft comes. I haven't spent time with him, but I imagine that we gave him ideas on how to make his lyrics sharp enough to where he feels good at his craft.
I like the vibe that he's bringing. I was talking to Masta Killa the other day about how many Wu Babies there are. You can hear it in A$AP Rocky or Big Sean. Wu-Tang is a great reference and we left a large footprint within the 23-35 year olds coming through the world.
So you disagree with Inspectah Deck saying that the song shouldn't carry the title, “Wu-Tang forever?”
The thing is, Deck is a straight up staircase MC. He lived it and when you lived something you feel differently. What would Bruce Lee say to all the fighters now? Deck is a grandmaster and is only gonna' see it from a grandmasters point of view.
I see it as: he heard us and let the world know where his inspiration came from. Other things inspired us too. We saw kung fu movies and now I'm directing them. What would the old Chinese directors say about Man With the Iron Fists? I'm paying homage.
I look at it as a blessing. Something always comes along and puts a twist. I mean, who fucking thought of Grape Kool-Aid? Wu-Tang is the foundation that sparked a lot of energy to the musical world. It's also an American product. The American product is always changing. You're probably talking to me on your cell phone. Before that, you had to be locked into a phone plugged into a wall. Before that, we would have had to speak in person.
How do you feel you've progressed as an actor?
I'm still learning…a work in progress. I'm getting better though. Take someone like Denzel Washington: he studied this craft. He's been doing it since he was young. It's a real unique technique and a talent that takes years to develop. I'm only 10 years deep in it, but I'm smart enough as an artist that 10 years is worth 20.
Are you writing another script?
I'm writing one right now. I really want my next film to be something different and gritty.
Have you had troubles finding people willing to finance gritty independent films?
When it comes to art, there are days when you want to see Star Wars…where you want to go to a land beyond. And then there are days when want to watch a movie like Do the Right Thing and feel the culture and rights of a man. It goes back and forth from season to season, year-to-year. You don't eat the same thing every day kid. You may be from the hood and say you'll never eat sushi, but you may you might find yourself eating flying fish.
What do you think of the state of hip-hop in 2013?
The culture is growing. Once we get over these little conflicts in the world, it will grow even faster. It can help us get to a place where life is good, peace is abundant and good entertainment, art, and fashion are in abundance. There are there are places where art is accepted and there are others where the water isn't so clean. But I think the world itself has the power to make it all bong bong for everyone.
RZA performs Saturday, Oct. 5, as part of L.A. Weekly's Bedrocktoberfest at Bedrock.la, 1623 Allesandro St., Echo Park. More info here.
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