The first time I ever remember seeing the Wu-Tang Clan was on the “Box”, a video channel in America run by the viewers. There was a live interview plugging the clan that I saw twice even though I never saw their clip…
The interview showed eight homeboys sitting on the steps of an apartment building with one member called “Ol’ Dirty b*stard” explaining through a mouthful of gold teeth that the clan was powerful because they all came together like the cartoon robot Voltron-that as a clan they put out a record without a contract, when it hit major labels came to them for deals. A lot of the interview is the Ol’ Dirty b*stard shouting at you, “Put the sh*t out yourself. We did it, you can do it. sh*t, it ain’t that much money, save it up and put the sh*t together. ” It ended with an announcer advising us “to get the Wu-Tang knowledge”, and then it busted into a Toni Braxton song.
I picked up their platinum-selling debut “Enter the 36 Chambers” in 1995. It was a collection of stripped down rap songs interlaced with the soundtracks of karate films, and short speeches from Ol’ Dirty b*stard and Method Man, who even treat us to their favorite methods of torture (ex. I’ll sew your asshole together and keep feeding you, feeding you, and feeding you). The style is closer to Run-DMC than Dr. Dre, truly minimalist, sounding more like it was recorded in a basement rather than a studio, but with eight band members shouting there was hardly an absence of texture.
Their music is truly New York, lying somewhere between the realist rap of Nas and the sing-song chants of Onyx. However, using piano loops, clock ticks, and abruptly chopped bass lines, the Wu-Tang clan comes with a street style all their own. One of the more prominent members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the GZA or Genius (he has two names like everyone in the Clan), was actually the first member to release an album, releasing a flop on Cold Chillin’ records. Through his experience the clan formulated their world domination plan that grows steadily to this day.
GZA’s album “Liquid Swords” was the 6th Wu-album to hit the American Top 40 charts. Lyrically, he tackles every opponent from rap labels to fake MC’s. His imagery on songs like “Cold, Cold World” and “Killah Hills 10304” are as rich as any modern poet, painting true pictures of the oppressed American inner-cities.
Think: Where does the name Wu-Tang come from?
It comes from karate flicks, they were the bad guys, the Shaolin were the badest guys in any film we ever saw, they just had the best style. Wu-TANG is the sword style of rhyming, because the tongue is symbolic of the sword. Therefore when I shoot lyrics, Whack, Whack, Whack my rhyme is sharp and it is likely to cut off the head of a challenger. So the flipside is that he better protect his f*ckin’ neck, because I’m comin’ with a sword. I ain’t comin’ with no weak ass sh*t. I’ll cut off a challengers head before he knows what he’s f*cking with, and the Shaolin is where we are coming from.
Think: Your album is divided into two parts the “Shaolin” side and the “Wu-Tang” side, what’s the difference?
Yo man, that sh*t is like yin and yang, two parts of the same thing, Shaolin is where we’re from and Wu-Tang is what we call ourselves. And that is how the music is represented as well.
Think: I know that a chess player never reveals his moves, but after watching the Wu-Tang drop “Enter the Wu-Tang”, “Gravediggaz”, “Method Man”, “Ol’ Dirty b*stard”, “Chef Raekwon”, and now your solo album, what’s coming next?
Well, the next thing we are planning are a few new acts on the Wu-Tang label. Now, we are going to go through SONY music instead of doin’ it ourselves. It is undecided who will be the next, but we got Sons of Man doing something right now, and we have a couple other artists that are working on tracks. don’t worry, we are gonna hit you with something pretty soon.
Think: I would like to ask you about your lyrical inspiration.
When I first heard the album, I loved RZA’s beats, and then after the second or third listen the lyrics started coming out, hitting me with visual realizations. Your lyrics are incredibly visual. I am glad to hear that. I really like to do interviews with journalists that really notice the lyrics, because a lot of them just focus on creating hype. It seems like you see stuff and just come home and pour it out on the table. It’s like when you write, but the stuff I see, it’s like pieces of a puzzle. It’s not like I see things in one day, go home and write about it. It’s all information that is gathered over a period of time. Each song ends up being its own piece. Each one is cinematic, like a short film.
Think: Getting back to lyrics, one of the problems outside of America is that people don’t really understand the lyrics. Why don’t you include lyric sheets outside of the states?
You know, the last journalist I spoke with asked me about a quote that I had said in an earlier interview. He said “You say this album is only made for a few people”, but he took it differently than I meant it. The album is made for anyone who will accept it, but only a small amount of people can understand what I’m saying lyrically.
He couldn’t grasp that, but I can see that you know where I’m coming from. Its’ not like I got to write a whole paragraph and these two lines are gonna be great. With me every line has to be something amazing from beginning to end. Just so I know it’s above average. Ol’ Dirty b*stard is your cousin.
Think: With all your hanging out growing up, how did you guys end up with completely different rhyme styles? Within Wu-Tang you guys couldn’t be more different.
I guess that it just lies in the innate ability to be creative. I mean the whole clan is like that. We all got different styles, but we all have similar energy or potential. Dirty is dirty… he likes to sing. It’s his personality. My style is more straight up lyrics, it could be seen as all styles combined into one. I just like to write and make it visual, whereas Dirty might want to say things in a different way, or yell it, or scream it, and that is actually how we differ.
Think: Is it true that you are the one with all the karate movies?
Nope, that’s RZA. Any karate movie ever made – he’s got it.
Think: I know, I keep hearing them. Are you really into karate films as well? I hear that you would all watch late night karate films, then the whole block would bust out on the streets and fight at 3am.
Well, that’s how it used to be, when we were younger. It’s not happening today. When I was 7 or 8 we used to go and watch karate movies, but back then it was Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and sometime Jim Kelly. Afterwards we would be outside on the way home trying out different moves, but now it is a different approach.
It’s not about kicks and flips, like since you understand the lyrics really well, you should sit down and watch some of these movies because it is hard for some people to grasp where we are coming from if they haven’t seen these movies. They are built around a bunch of different codes and rules – about trust, honor, loyalty and so on.
Not that Hollywood sh*t. People ask “Why are you into Bruce Lee and sh*t. ” Bruce Lee was the best and the rest were mediocre, and none of them even compare to the ones we watch today. They are on an entirely different level. The cinematography, the camera angles, the plot, the character development, it is so much more deep and meaningful.
Think: Yeah, that’s like someone saying they “Like reggae, like Bob Marley” but they don’t know the roots, just the commercial names. What is your personal favorite in the genre?
Yea, everyone thinks I like Jean-Claude Van Damme. We are into things that American filmmakers couldn’t even do on film.
They don’t have the know how. (long pause) I’d say “Atomic Butterfly and the Sword.” I don’t know there are so many of them, or the “The five Shaolin Masters” – that would probably be it because it describes the relationship between a man and his son. It’s about a boy growing up and witnessing allot of the things his father had done. His father fought a war when the boy was only a year old, an infant, and his father had him on his back. That movie was really deep, yeah probably that one.
Think: What makes a rap song weak?
Well, I don’t knock anyone in this business for doing what they gotta do. But it has to do with the words you choose and your style of speak. Take a Wu-Tang line like “I’m raw, I’m gonna give it to ya, with no trivia. I’m like cocaine straight from Bolivia” I can see where he’s coming from, I can picture that.
Think: How did you put the music out yourself?
Most A&R guys will try to make you into something that you’re not. They think, oh you look like a pretty boy, let’s make him a pretty boy, but that might not be your lifestyle, you might come from the streets. A&R’s only look at you to see what they can get out of you, not all, but most, they want you to be their creation, that’s why we ain’t f*ckin wit’ them.
Like my mother can’t make me into somethin’ I don’t want to be, but he thinks he has the power because the music industry in all run by money and politics. They can hold their power over you, like if you don’t come to a certain spot, they won’t push your record 100% and that sh*t ain’t fair. And that’s why we did it ourselves, we were just on the streets, doing our own little bullsh*t, selling drugs just to eat, not because we wanted to, but because we had to do it to survive – listen to the track C.R.E.A.M. (Cash rules everything around me), it really says it all.
We just pulled all our money together and the GZA and RZA used their business contacts. They used their connections and drove, and we like rode the bus. sh*t came out beautiful. Before the record the A&R’s treated us like sh*t and within two weeks of the records finishing we got like 15-20 calls. People gave us sh*t for going independent, but we were going to do this with the labels or without because we knew in our hearts what we wanted to do.
Originally published in Think Magazine