Wu-Tang’s RZA Talks 15th Anniversary and Working With Beatles’ Son

wuweb   Can you believe this month will mark the 15th anniversary of the release of Wu-Tang Clan’s landmark album, 36 Chambers of Death? Damn, we remember going to the record release party at Webster Hall, which was one hell of a night. The album presented sound architect RZA’s gritty urban soundscape comprised of raw beats and kung-fu samples and unstoppable tag-team rhymes of GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa and U-God.

After six years of solo careers and side projects, New York’s Wu-Tang Clan (who’ve sold 25 million copies worldwide) got back together earlier this year, embarked on the Rock the Bells tour with Rage Against the Machine and received rave reviews. Now the group will release a new album on December 4th and the buzz is deafening. We recently had an exclusive listen to tracks from the forthcoming album and got to talk to RZA about 8 Diagrams.

You’ve done a lot of projects outside of Wu-Tang Clan, including acting, scoring soundtracks and writing a book. What’s the last six years been like for you and how do you feel about the 15th anniversary of the release of 36 Chambers?

RZA: It’s been good, but something has been missing. The chance to come again with the Wu and do what we’re made to do is like a fulfillment to me. Yeah, it’s crazy, yo. It doesn’t feel like [15 years] because I always feel like I never accomplish anything. I’m not sure what kind of disease that is but I feel like I haven’t done what I’m supposed to do yet in this world.

It must be difficult to gather all of the members into one place to work on tracks. How did you approach the album from a production perspective?

I took the movie approach: pre-production, then principle photography and then postproduction, which was editing and all that. We took April to get back in synch with each other and vibe. The second 30 days took place in June when we got more detailed into the recording. 

What’s the significance of the album’s title, 8 Diagrams?

We’re always about mathematics and the name has a couple of different concepts to it. The first and primary thing that inspired the name is a film called The Invincible Pole Fighters. When they dubbed it into English, they changed the title to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter because there’s a scene where a guy in a fighting sequence forms the sign of the I-Ching, the 8 diagrams. That movie had a great sense of loyalty and brotherhood, dedication and commitment, and it’s a good movie. It inspired me when I first formed Wu-Tang Clan in the 1990’s—eight brothers who battled and had to keep the tradition alive. I always talked about paying homage to that movie over the years, and I finally got a chance to do it.

I liked “Take It Back” a lot. I understand [hip-hop production icon] Easy Mo Bee worked on it with you.

Before I became good at making beats, I had a few machines at my house, like a Casio RD1, 909 drum machine and a four-track recorder. I didn’t have a good sampler like an SP1200; besides, I didn’t really know what they were or how to use them. I went to Easy Mo Bee’s house back in the day when he was working on the GZA’s first album and he had two SP1200s, and he was making all of these great beats. I couldn’t believe that machine sounded so incredible and it inspired me to get one. I made Bring the Pain on my SP1200, so I have to thank him. He produced the GZA and my first single, “Oh We Love You Rakeem” and the B-side “Sexcapades”—he’s like the first producer for Wu-Tang. So I got the chance to hook up with him on this new album and got to kick it with him. For me to go and collaborate with him was an honor and a privilege. He came down to the studio, played a lot of beats and this one was up our alley with that real New York feel. We took a shot at it; he put the beat together but I added a few things and gave him some direction and there it is. It’s the second collaboration.

I’m sure it was difficult to address ODB’s death on “Life Changes.” Was that a hard song to put down?

We dedicated that song to ODB and it took me a long time—about eight months—to make that song. It was an emotional thing to get every member to get their take on it. It was one of the first songs I recorded for the new album. When we decided to do a new Wu-Tang album, this song was on top of the stack.

It’s been six years since the Clan released an album. Do you worry how fitting in with all of the young bucks?

Hey, they need to figure out how they fit in. Wu-Tang is like a cornerstone of hip-hop. One difference between us and new artists is that a lot of them have learned him-hop from watching TV and videos. Wu-tang lived hip-hop, and we’re the ones who helped pioneer it; we’re not the bottled water—we’re the source they get the water from.

The first single is “My People Gently Weep,” which features George Harrison’s son, Dahni. How did that track come about?

That’s a take on “My Guitar Gently Weeps” and it’s a metaphor. I’ve been studying about rock ‘n’ roll lately. I’ve been hanging around my buddy Shavo [Odadjian] from System of A Down, and he’s turned me onto a lot of classic rock and metal. I’ve learned that a lot of guitar players were stuck on heroin and a lot of needles were involved in the music. To me, the vein is like a guitar string, and I wanted to say how the pain of drugs causes so much pain inside: the user, the family and the dealer because of the sins he’s making and the lives he’s destroying. I wanted to capture that idea and went to the Clan and said I wanted to write a song about dope.

How did you meet Dhani?

A mutual friend is a great music executive, Mo Austin. His son, Mike, is the president of Dreamworks. I’ve been friends with Mike for about ten years. I was at his house one day talking about that song [“My Guitar Gently Weeps “] and how I wanted to record it and make it a song. He said it was one of his favorite Beatles songs and George Harrison actually wrote it. He told me the back story about the song and how Eric Clapton played lead guitar…now I was fascinated by the history of the song!

Mike is a friend of the Harrison family and it turned out he was a fan of mine. I was like, “Get outta here!” He put us on the phone together and hit it off. We wound up having a few dinners in California, and I asked him to play on the record. I got a 1961 Gretsch and that was the weapon on that song. I think a piece of history was captured.

I heard 9 snippets from 8 Diagrams. What else is on the album?

“The Gun Will Go” has a unique vibe that has a haunting guitar vibe with Raekown and Method Man with some of their most menacing voices. “No Matter How Hard the Time May Seem” is a flashback to the classic Raekwon/Ghostface collaborations and has a great sample from Michael Jackson featuring Inspectach Deck tearing it up. It almost sounds like it could be a Cuban Linx track. There’s “Campfire” where Method Man and Ghostface goes back-to-back with Cappadonna with an old Persuassions vocal sample.

Do you get to Staten Island much these days?

Not much. I have good friends and family there. I don’t go back often—maybe five or five times a year. It’s a crazy place.

What’s your greatest hope for the album?

I have hope that Wu-Tang will help bring back some kind of balance to hip-hop. I know there’s a lot of cookie-cutter music out there and lots of angles, but we’re the difference between brown weed and green weed. Our job is to add some balance to hip-hop and continue our legacy.

Darren Ressler