The mastermind responsible for the mighty Wu-Tang has finally reunited with the original crew to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a new album and a new approach. The RZA has been more focused on the film world in recent years, but it seemed like the perfect time to talk about his founding days and what lead up to him creating the infamous Wu-Tang sound, which reminded the rap world of it’s humble beginnings in the basement during a time when everything was getting a little too polished.
What sparked you off to want to start making music?
My cousin, the GZA, had took me to a block party. I probably was 8 years-old and the DJ was deejaying and somebody had grabbed the microphone and was saying some lyrics like, ‘Dip, dip, dive. so-socialize/Clean out your ears and you open your eyes.’ I started repeatin’ that, and a year later the GZA – he’s three or four years older than me – he started making his little rhymes, him and his homeboys were trying to make their little DJ set, and I would watch them. At the age of nine, the first rap record comes on the radio – Sugarhill Gang. When that happened I knew that’s what I was gonna do, I knew that I’m gonna have my voice on the radio, because they proved to me that it was possible.
What was the next step?
Before I heard the Sugarhill Gang, I already wrote about fifty rhymes of my own. [laughs] I would write them every day at school. I realised when I was young I had a great memory of nursery rhymes and things like that. In those days of New York you grow up fast. At the age of nine I already had my first drink – not proud of that, just wanted to let you know that’s the kind of shit you go through in New York in those days. By the time we was eleven, we was already making demo tapes – me, ODB, his older brother. That’s when they had the portable tape recorders and we would just bang on comic books for drums and say all these different rap stories we had about fantasies we had about, ‘Meet a young girl who got the big breast/hope she could give you some, she could fresh/you could put your hand all up her dress.’ All these type of fascinations were part of our repertoire. Then we started writing lyrics about going to space and sticking to walls and things like that. We kept making these demos, until the age of fourteen we was good enough to do what they would call ‘rec room’ parties. In the projects they had these little rec rooms and you go to the building manager and ask can you rent it out for Friday and you maybe give him $30 and you charge all the kids $2 to come in and you get a rec room party going! We used to DJ and rap there, that was some of the foundation starts for us.
Where were you living during this period?
My early stage of development was in Brooklyn, until the age of fourteen. The first time I heard hip-hop was on Staten Island at my grandmother’s house. I lived in Brooklyn with my moms, but we’d come to grandma’s for the summer. When I was fourteen my mom finally got herself a rented apartment out there and we all moved.
“I started off as Baby D, cos my last name is Diggs. Another time I became Prince Dynamite, because I thought I was dynamite cos I watched Good Times too much!”
Were you Prince Rakeem back then?
Nah, I had so many names, man. [laughs] I started off as Baby D, cos my last name is Diggs. Another time I became Prince Dynamite, because I thought I was dynamite cos I watched Good Times too much! Around fourteen, fifteen, we were studying the Mathematics, I had a great memory – I would remember most of the Bible – anything from science, the periodical tables, and they started calling me The Scientist. That was my name before I chose the name of Prince Rakeem as my hip-hop name. Ol’ Dirty Bastard had two names, he was The Beatbox Specialist and The Rap Professor. I was known as The Rap Scientist and GZA was known as The Genius.
Didn’t Ol’ Dirty used to beatbox for Freshco?
Dirty was one of the best beat boxers in Brooklyn.
How long did it take until you started shopping your demo tapes to labels?
It took years. Keep in mind that GZA is the oldest, Dirty was the second and I was the youngest. There was a guy named Dr. Rock and the Force MD’s, we made demos with him, we would travel to different guys and make demos for years. I was fourteen when I first tried and I got my first deal at eighteen with Tommy Boy so that was about four years of trying. We used to join these rap battles, rap contests, whatever it took. We would make demo tapes, neighborhood albums, enter battles, just keep trying. I met Melquan, who the GZA met first – he became the GZA’s manager, and then he met me and he thought that I had the talent as well. He took me to get a record deal at Tommy Boy. By this time, I’d already been playing with drum machines for three or four years, but Melquan didn’t have faith in me as a producer.
Because you were too young?
He just didn’t know there was a developing producer coming out of me. I think my production style was not danceable, but it was rappable! I wasn’t trying to make people dance, I was trying to make you wanna rhyme.
“That’s my crew! Lookin’ at the chicks and lookin’ for a fight or a rap battle or something. We were those guys.”
That was during that whole period of dances, right? Shit like ‘Do The Wop’!
[laughs] Exactly. I don’t mind dancing, but my crew go to the party and we stand against the wall with 40 oz’s in our hand! That’s my crew! Lookin’ at the chicks and lookin’ for a fight or a rap battle or something. We were those guys. We were not there to dance!
What was it like making the ‘Ooh, We Love You Rakeem’ single? Clearly the b-side, ‘Deadly Venoms’ was more reflective of your sound.
The ‘Deadly Venoms’ demo was already done before ‘Ooh, We Love You Rakeem,’ and so was ‘Sexcapades.’ At the time it was more of a poppy sound of rap that was making more success in sales – Black Sheep had a hit, Young MC, Hammer – all these guys had more poppy, quirky type songs. They wanted me to write a song like that, and I tried! My result was ‘Ooh, We Love You Rakeem,’ and I only sold 10,000 copies.
Did Tommy Boy try to shelve you after that?
No. Tom Silverman and Monica [Lynch] had a lot of respect for me and they did see me as an artists who could grow to be somebody, I will give them that. I wasn’t finished being stupid, and I got myself in a little bit of trouble. That was more of the issue. I’m the type of artist that would conform and try to give the label what they wanted, as well as trying to do what I want. I tried to keep that balance. I was always that type of personality when it came to this music. They could have moulded me into what they wanted to and I would have kept going, because I love performing, but I still had a lot of growing to do as a man. I still was doing negative shit and I got locked-up. What hurt me is they wouldn’t bail me out! [laughs] So I felt like they’re just a corporation, a company, they’re not my friends. It wasn’t their duty to bail me out – Melquan ain’t bail me out either! My sister had to go in [with] her life savings and bail me out. It was during that year that I decided the best thing to do is what I wanna do and don’t conform to nobody. Just do my shit, do my feelings, act on my mind, act on my heart. I went back to my neighborhood with that philosophy to the rest of the guys. Like, ‘I see it. I know what to do, I’m gonna do it. Trust me.’ That’s very similar to the Wu-Tang [symbol]. We used to call it The Phoenix. In the early days people used to say, ‘It looks like an eagle or a bat.’ No, it’s a phoenix.
That must have been an exciting period as your production developed and you started to gather-up the team?
During that period of time, the best beat-making machine was the SP-1200. The other machine that was becoming sorta popular, but not as popular as the SP-1200, was the Ensoniq EPS-16+. Then there was Roland who made a W-30, if you notice a lot of the EPMD/Erick Sermon sound is made with the W-30, which has more bottom bass in it. It’s a keyboard. But the EPS had more sample time and was – to my knowledge – the only one you could actually change the sample rate on. By lowering the sample bit – instead of being at 44 khz or 24 – I put my down to 17.29. The SP-12 12-bit only gave you 2.5 seconds per pad. The EPS, you could put it at 17 or even at 12, but you could spread that out. You could use all 30-45 seconds on one sample, and thus that got rid of the one bar loop and pushed me to the four bar loop.
Plus you could speed up records and then slow the pitch down to fit more in.
Exactly, across the keyboard. I got that by accident. There was another producer named RNS, who did Shyheim’s first album, he had the EPS but he wanted the SP-1200. So he traded with me for like a month. When he traded with me, that was the biggest thing to happen to hip-hop. [laughs] I learned, ‘Wait a minute! I’m more of a piano sampler.’ The drum machine – I program the drums, but when I’m playing music I like to have four or five different sounds across one palette, cos I’m a DJ. Then I went and got enough money to buy my own.
“It’s just part of a culture of collecting vinyl. Losing it, of course, and then regaining it.”
Where were you sourcing your records to sample? From your parents collection or were you looking for stuff yourself?
I was getting very obscure, I became a crate digger and also a consumer of records. I’ve been buying records since I was eleven years old, since I got my first pair of straight-arm turntables. I had a lotta records as a DJ, cos we used to DJ every day and make our own demos. People that be in New York City, they’d be selling you a whole bunch of records for a dollar a piece, I just started buying everything. When I figured out that sampling was what I’m gonna do, I went to my grandmother house and said, ‘Grandmother, can I buy all these records? I’ll give you fifty bucks.’ I went everywhere I can to get records. Even Inspectah Deck’s mom’s had a closet of records that she wanted to get rid of. I said, ‘I’ll take ‘em!’ Then I would go to the stores that I heard Q-Tip would shop at, I heard Q-Tip would go to this store on 4th and Broadway. I wanted to get that record Black Caeser – James Brown – they were selling that for $50 or a hundred bucks! I remember waiting almost three years to be able to buy that record. [laughs] That’s how dedicated I was to just trying to get more. Once Wu-Tang blew-up and I was able to get money? Everywhere I went I would spend five to ten grand on records. I’ve been to places all over the world, I’ve records in boxes that I still haven’t opened that I got from Italy on a trip. I just came back from Edmonton, Canada this summer and I dropped six grand on them, and I don’t even sample that much! It’s just part of a culture of collecting vinyl. Losing it, of course, and then regaining it.
One of the things that you really brought back to hip-hop was that ‘one producer’ style. Do you feel that’s an important part of your legacy?
Look at a classic album like Illmatic and you see that Nas had all the top producers in hip-hop at that time, and yet you look at a similar album – 36 Chambers or Cuban Linx, which are considered classics as well – even outsold those guys all coming together. I think a focused producer on a project? There’s something powerful about that, and I felt powerful to do that. You don’t get five directors on a movie, you don’t get five authors on a book. It indicates a focused mind. Even if you look at a producer like Quincy Jones, who I try to idol myself as, Isaac Hayes – it was him and David Porter but he was even more successful when he went out on his own. You look at these single producers – James Brown – you see that they actually make a significant change in the dynamic of the music itself, whereas some of the records that’s produced by multiple producers? They became classics, but they don’t push the envelope further because it’s the sound of that time. It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got the five guys who have today’s sound.’
With the new album, A Better Tomorrow, with the majority of my production, you get the chance to have one synergetic experience, and if that experience affects you, it will produce another synergetic experience from the person who’s inspired by it.
Was ‘Protect Ya Neck’ a reaction to rap becoming over-produced at the time or more a reflection of the equipment you had?
More than anything, it was a record made for the MC’s. It was made for those individuals to bust their lyrics over. I’m different now, but I used to hate the New-Jack Swing and everybody trying to have the number one club shit. We came to drop lyrics, man. To bust your brain! We the guys who end the party! Girls weren’t even allowed in the studio for Wu-Tang for almost three or fours years. We were ‘those guys’ – the true lyricists who waited for the breakbeat. When hip-hop was forming, it formed from the breakbeats of other records. You’d put on a record, it’d be playing, playing and then the break part would come. Boom, boom, bap! ‘Funky Drummer,’ whatever. Then the DJ spins that back, over and over, then the rapper raps over that. Every beat I made was considered to be a breakbeat. That’s what I would do. I was coming straight for the ‘BARP! BARP! DE-DAH!’ Fuck all that other shit that’s happening. That’s where my heart was at then. Now I’m more musical and I build up to that break. But at that time? It’s like, ‘Cut all the bullshit.’ Like a kung-fu movie – I don’t want any of the story, I want to to see the fight. It’s like a prono – I don’t want to see the movie, I want to get right to the sex. That was the mentality.
“This album means more than the music itself.”
What are you trying to give the fans with the new album?
This album means more than the music itself. The title of the album, A Better Tomorrow, when you get to towards the end of it and you hear where I’m ending off at, it’s my optimism, my hope, my wish, my desire that we can have a better tomorrow. In my lifetime I wouldn’t mind seeing things get better, I wanna live in a day where it can happen. The record is a reflection and hopefully it will inspire. I took samples from Dr. Martin Luther King, the song ‘A Better Tomorrow’ is really a remake of an old Harold Melvin Blue Note song called ‘Wake Up,’ where he’s saying, ‘The world won’t get no better if we let it by/We’ve gotta change it, you and me.’ After going through my hell, then getting a taste of heaven and then seeing hell creep back around again, I think it’s unnecessary of what we suffer. It’s a part of life but it’s not a necessity of life. When life is procreated, 99.9% of the time it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s a joy to bring life together, that’s why we can’t resist that pretty girl with the sexy body. Yet we allow our world become poisonous gases in our atmosphere, police shooting down men in the streets when we pay for them to have their jobs! But they come and just harass you and take your car and put your shit in the impound and charge you to get it back! Every part of the world, everybody is comfortable with death! Even the death of the animals. Why are we so comfortable with death, when life is really made to be enjoyed and eternal? On the record it’s not really touched upon like that, but the concept of the title itself, A Better Tomorrow, that’s something I’m striving for. A better car, a better family, a better light bulb! Just make it better, yo! Let’s make this world a better place, man. That’s what it’s about.