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Q&A: THE RZA

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

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Friday, October 27, 2006

OUR MAN IN SHAOLIN: THE RZA
(EXCERPT)

The full Stop Smiling Interview with the RZA is in Issue 28: 20 Interviews


By Michael A. Gonzales

When wild-styled rappers the Wu-Tang Clan first crashed the scene in 1993 with their stunning debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the musical metropolis known as hip-hop changed overnight. Coming out of the crumbling housing projects of Staten Island sounding sarcastic, grimy and mean at a time when the once prevalent New York City sound was buried beneath the deep cover rumble of laid-back Snoop Dogg and self-righteous Arrested Development, the musings of these sonic warriors were a welcome distraction. Like a band of brutish gypsies maundering through the dystopias imagined in the bugged-out texts of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, the Wu’s gritty debut introduced the world to the next wave of rhyme slingers. With outlaw monikers that resembled comic-book characters — Method Man, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (RIP), Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa — the group kicked in the door of rap culture with the hostility of boom-box terrorists and refused to retreat.

Lacing their criminal-minded rhetoric with conspiracy theories, kung-fu film critiques, comic book references and chess lessons, Wu-Tang created a singular group voice that entertained the masses with hyper-logic and ultra-bullshit. While they had no problem setting plans for hip-hop domination, it was the Wu’s concept-crazed producer, RZA (Robert Diggs), who was chief of the rhythmic tribe. A musical visionary whom Village Voice critic Greg Tate once compared to funk’s big poppa, George Clinton, the lanky machine-man created stellar beats that were as scary as they were cinematic. His haunting and hallucinatory soundscapes used blaxploitation dialogue, turntable symphonics, gutbucket blues, kung-fu furor, frantic piano loops, sped-up soul samples and myriad other sonic sources. Enthralled by an audience that behaved more like cultists than fans, memorizing the group’s various theories of life in a world where men were gods, crime was passion and anything was possible, Enter the Wu was only the beginning.

Like George Gershwin and Duke Ellington before him, the chaos of RZA’s music simultaneously celebrated both the light and dark sides of New York City’s psyche. Listening closely to hardcore compositions “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” “Bring the Pain,” “Shadowboxin’” and “Brooklyn Zoo,” one felt the master-mixing of urban angst and sinister joy.

Years later, RZA’s music still sounds scary and innovative. Embracing the future while never forgetting the past, RZA has proved himself a supreme cyberfunk maestro. But his story doesn’t end there. In addition to working musical magic behind the studio mixing board, RZA also proved to be a wiz in the boardroom by making the Wu-brand a cultural force and profitable commodity.

In the 13 years since the Wu-Tanging of America, the group’s haunting logo (a creepy W that looks like horror movie typography) has appeared on four official group releases, countless classic solo projects (and more than a few bombs), comic books and a clothing line. In addition, various Wu members have co-starred in Hollywood films, appeared in skits on Chappelle’s Show, had their likeness appear in video games and, in the case of RZA, started scoring films for directors Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Riding to RZA’s midtown Manhattan studio one summer evening in 2006, I sat next to an old black woman reading a book about chess while a square, stockbroker-looking dude (who had hopped on the train at Wall Street) glanced at The Wu-Tang Manual in my lap. Slightly intoxicated, he asked, “Is that an entire book about the Wu-Tang?” I eyeballed him suspiciously. “Yes, it’s a Wu book.” Without missing a beat, he blurted, “RZA is the best producer in the entire world.” Since a drunken mind sometimes speaks sober thoughts, I couldn’t agree more.

The rainy summer night of our interview, RZA was in his studio working on a track for the latest Method Man album. Leaning over the mixing board, the infamous rapper was also in the room. Like a hip-hop version of Sun Ra, some of RZA’s answers sounded as though he had just come from Saturn; as with some of his productions and lyrics, if it isn’t opaque, it just ain’t right.

Stop Smiling: I wanted to talk about old school New York. I know you grew up here, but the city has changed drastically over the last few years. What are your memories of New York City and old Times Square?

RZA: Shit, old school New York, especially Times Square, is definitely not the same. It’s Disney now. Growing up, I’d go to the Deuce on 42nd Street back in the days when both sides of the street had kung-fu flicks. About five theaters showed martial arts movies. So if you wanted to see some kung-fu flicks, within a two-week period you could’ve seen 15 hot flicks. The scene back then, when I was a kid, was very different. I was born in ’69, so I was going to the flicks at the age of nine. At that time, sniffing glue was in. I would be watching a kung-fu flick and a dude sitting beside me would be sniffing glue, because that was his high.

I think the violence in New York has switched. In our time, you had people being pushed from subway platforms, and if you was 12 years old you was already a grown man. In my day, you know, 11-year-old niggas had a gun, was getting pussy and smoking weed — I’m saying that ’cause it’s me. I ain’t proud of it.

SS: Do you think the violent vibe of the city when you were a kid contributed to the grittiness of your work?

RZA: Heck, yeah. I think I reflected that anger, man. I think when Wu-Tang came out, my entire production style and music was my way of releasing that brutality. All of the Wu were street niggas from the hood. Living in the projects, every day you go through that male aggression. If you don’t have an outlet for it, you can wind up taking it out on the world — you may end up in jail. I found music as an outlet, and I think my experiences growing up in New York contributed to my sound.

I’m a New Yorker for real. I live in Cali now, but I’m a New York nigga. I lived in the city for 20 straight years, in over 20 different neighborhoods. I moved almost every year. My family got kicked out because we couldn’t pay the rent. For like 14 years that happened, and then we finally got to Staten Island. But that culture of New York radiates through my music. I traveled through the Bronx, Queens, Shaolin [Staten Island] and Long Island. I was all over the city riding on the trains, cutting school, going to MC battles — all that shit.

SS: Are the positive changes in New York reflected in the hip-hop music that’s coming out of the city today?

RZA: Giuliani is the man that changed New York, because he made it into a safe-ass city. New York has been infused by so many other cultures. People once came to the city to pick up the New York vibe and take it back with them. Now they’re coming and leaving their vibe, and we’re picking their shit up and utilizing it. Harlem looks like fucking Vegas.

SS: I know that chess is a big part of your life. When did you start playing, and when did it become more than a game for you?

RZA: I started playing chess early, probably at the age of 11. The girl who took my virginity taught me how to play chess, so it was a good hook up. I was always fascinated by it because we considered chess like the game of life. You’re always protecting yourself, the king. But as I got older I realized I’m not the king. Maybe, really, it’s God moving the pieces. That’s when you kind of take it to another level. In the last year, though, I can say I really just learned chess.

When I go to the park, them dudes beat me like I don’t know how to play. I was kind of disturbed by that, because I beat all of my friends most of the time. Eighty percent of the time I’m winning. But then I go to the park, and this one guy gave me five minutes, he took two minutes, and beat me five times in a row. Chess is a thinking game; it’s not really for speed. If you’re playing for speed you might as well be playing Othello or checkers. But at the same time, though, he understood some principles that I didn’t understand. I never studied chess, I just started studying it after that ass whooping. I had never understood you must develop your senses first. I just played it freehand. But I think I’m becoming a better player.

SS: Have you ever done any reading about Bobby Fischer?

RZA: One of my favorite chess players is Bobby Fischer. I was supposed to meet him in Iceland but I had to leave.

Method Man: Isn’t he supposed to be crazy now?

RZA: He’s not crazy. I like Bobby Fischer. I read his book and his story. I like him because his life is like a hip-hop life: a person who comes out, finds himself, gotta rock the world, and then the government is against him. And you know the government took all his shit from him, right? Exiled his ass. This nigga ain’t crazy, son. This nigga’s a genius.

I also like [former Fischer opponent Mikhail] Tal, because Tal was a young champion as well. He defeated Bobby Fischer in the younger days. Fischer was about 15, 16. Tal was about 21, 22. So he still was a young dude, but Fischer was a baby. The games they played, though … I mean, Tal was basically winning every single time. I felt a kind of admiration for Tal because of his positional understanding. It was a combination of understandings.

SS: So, why was America targeting Bobby Fischer? What did he supposedly do?

RZA: Well, he was such a great prodigy at chess, had such a certain computer-type brain that the Russians wanted him. Fischer spoke freely about America being fucked up. He alleged that communism had been used to take down many people.

SS: Even people that weren’t communists?

RZA: Listen, there’s no such thing as communism, in all reality, because the country doesn’t even exist no more. All them nuclear bombs we built to protect ourselves from Russia, and those motherfuckers never even shot one missile at us.

SS: Then there’s the whole thing that’s going down with North Korea right now. Russia is their biggest ally.

RZA: Yeah.

SS: It sounds like a Cold War could start up again at anytime.

RZA: I ain’t going to talk to you about politics, but look at Oliver North. Delivering drugs and guns and guerilla warfare material to other countries, right? Comes back, steals the money — him and Reagan split the cheese — and he gets busted for this shit. Oliver North got busted, caught, gotcha. Now this nigga’s on TV every day. War Stories with Oliver North [on Fox News]. He’s a fucking criminal.

SS: Look at the Nixon administration. When Nixon died, you would’ve thought he was a celebrated hero.

RZA: Motherfucking right he was celebrated. This is a criminal country, homey. When Europeans first came here, they got off the boat and said, “Yo, we housing this shit.” You know what I’m saying? Fuck, this is a criminal country. You see the people they sent over? They emptied the jails and sent people over here. Niggas that would steal a cow and eat it raw.

 

The full Stop Smiling Interview with the RZA is in Issue 28: 20 Interviews

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