We re-join rap legends Wu-Tang Clan as they discuss how the 10 laws of Shaolin apply to their daily lives and on-going career, 20 years on from their seminal debut LP, ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’…
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“Required to be filial to parents, respectful to the elderly, and protective of the young,” from which Clash asks: just what was your support network like, starting out? Did you have parents, or elders, that you respected who were willing to help you?
RZA: Now GZA is a few years older than me, and I’m a couple of years older than some of these guys. So our elders are within our group. So when (Inspectah) Deck is 17 and GZA is 21, he’s his elder. But at the same time, we’re all someone’s elder. As far as someone in the world, though, that we can identify as someone who tried to push us, I don’t think we can find it outside of ourselves again. And I know that sounds like ego.
There was a guy who was my first manager, and GZA’s manager, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s manager. And he was a few years older than us, but he didn’t fully believe. I told him over and over to buy me a beat machine, because I thought I could make the beats. So I had to rent a beat machine, and then not return it. I paid five dollars to rent it, and I just kept it. Well, I wound up giving it back maybe seven years later. But the point is that I needed that sword, and I got it, and I started making beats, and it led on. ‘Bring The Pain’ was one of those beats. Those beats led on to be part of our career.
So in terms of elder influence, we had each other. But what we also had is an urge to defeat the elders, to defeat the greats to be the greats ourselves. Now we came in with ‘Bring Da Ruckus’, which is the first song on our album, ‘36 Chambers’. I love Run-D.M.C., and I’d borrow their records and cut them up all day as a DJ. But when Wu-Tang came? Naw man. It’s us, kid. Tonight Wu-Tang is in the building, and we’re terrorising the whole rap scene. That was the energy we had. Sometimes it’s like that.
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Method Man, ‘Bring The Pain’ (produced by RZA), from the solo album ‘Tical’
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“Required to uphold righteousness, and be both wise and courageous,” from which Clash asks: how hard was it to maintain your own style, in 1993, when so much commercially successful rap sounded so very different?
Cappadonna: Well, we just stick to our guns because that’s what we do. We’re from that concrete jungle, and you’ve always got to be on point. And not only are we from that jungle – because you know hip-hop started in the Bronx, anyway – but we’ve always been energetic in the sense of being able to stay alert and focused, and keep with the streets and the times – with anything to do with the culture of hip-hop.
So it’s like, yeah, we’ve always had something on standby, and a close ear to the streets, because that’s where this music comes from anyway, from the streets. It then goes through the industry – and that’s why I’m not in the industry, I’m in the streets. It’s one and the same.
RZA: When you think about what was happening at that time, with music that was selling before Wu-Tang, like MC Hammer selling 10 million records, that’s all west coast. On the east coast, rappers are selling in thousands, and nobody’s hitting that gold and platinum status. Well, maybe one or two, but on the west coast you’re seeing Tone Lōc come out with ‘Wild Thing’, and selling millions.
When we come, we’re not doing what they’re doing. And do what we do. And then we sell a million. I remember people asking back then: “What do you think about gangsta rap, and pop rap?” I said, listen, if MC Hammer sells 10 million records, right, that’s 10 million people who are asleep. No offence to MC Hammer. But if a million people bought a Wu-Tang record? That’s a million people who have woken up, that we’ve awakened. And that is more powerful.
The ancient biblical brother Jesus, they say that in his lifetime he woke up 12 people. And now there’s a billion people talking about him. So this is the power of when something is pure, and has spirituality and originality: it grows, and continues to grow. And that’s why when you see someone like Kanye West, coming through after Wu-Tang, saying that Wu-Tang has inspired him, and what does he become? The biggest artist. You see Jay Z, who’s part of our generation, but he’ll say that we helped give him the blueprint.
So we see these effects continue to grow. And we’re fortunate enough to be healthy, still with our ears to the street, and when you see Wu-Tang you’re gonna see the street. It’s like driving a cab – when you drive a cab, you know how much information you need to drive a cab? You really in the streets, then. They test the London cab drivers to measure brainpower, and all that shit. We’re satisfied being different, and we were always satisfied, to be what they weren’t selling. And that goes with the confidence, also, that we have in our talent.
One MC said something to me, one of my favourite MCs. I met him when he was 15. And that’s Nas. I said to GZA at that time: at 15, Nas is the illest guy to have reached that level of mastery, at his age. Maybe I mastered it at 21. Nas mastered it at 15. And I knew what he was destined to do. And many people say he’s one of the best MCs, if not the best.
But we were in Chicago one day, and Nas was playing with us, and he went out to the front of the stage to address 50,000 people, and said: “Yo, listen, the best nine MCs are right here. These are the best.” Because with us, you see the whole neighbourhood – actually, you can see the whole world within us. From the streets to the highest level of our expression, our crew is involved in it. But to hear Nas say that... I look upon Nas as one of the illest, y’know, who reached that level at 15. In the books of chess they say that Bobby Fischer was the youngest grand master, and that’s how I measure hip-hop, too.
Like, Ghostface (Killah) is one of the illest MCs in the world, ever, and when people first heard him on ‘36 Chambers’, they didn’t hear where he was heading. Deck too, back then, he was a few levels ahead of Ghost. But they didn’t see what was bubbling beneath him. And then, WHOOPAWW, the grand master level hits. All of us have achieved grand master level, all of us in Wu-Tang. And that’s in one crew.
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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Triumph’, from ‘Wu-Tang Forever’
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“Forbidden to abuse power (…),” from which Clash asks: when you came to record the double-disc ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ in 1997, which was arguably an over-long collection, do you think you got carried away with your status, and indulged yourselves too much?
RZA: If you look at that album, we said that you won’t get it until the year 2000 or whatever, because the lyrical content on that album, and the meaning of a lot of what’s being said, you’re living it now. It’s happening to the world now. The consciousness that ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ brings is a threat to the bureaucratic society that’s trying to keep us in a state of mental deafness, making everybody sheep, having people believe that what they see on their TV screen is real.
I was on a plane with a guy from Norway, a wealthy guy. He was in the oil business, and a multi-millionaire. And he was telling me that Kuwait City is one of the most beautiful places in the world. But I think, or I thought, Kuwait is a sandpit of people throwing bombs at each other – and that’s because of my TV image. But someone who’s been there, he knows what’s real. So what ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ did was reveal what’s real.
I think the length of it was important, because it took a long time for us to put out another record, a long time to hear us speak like that. And of course it could have been edited down, to 11 songs and all that. But nah.
It changed the perception of things. They told us, when we were young, that eggs was bad for you – but now eggs is good for you? They tell you that pork is the new white meat – but we know that pork was forbidden for thousands of years. But now the pork industry needs a boost, and they have advertising: eat pork. They always change it up on you. Three meals a day? Naw, now you’re supposed to eat one meal. Something that’s real and good is always going to be good. Water is always gonna be water.
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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘It’s Yourz’, from ‘Wu-Tang Forever’
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Part three is over here.
Find Wu-Tang Clan online here. The group is expected to release a new album, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, in the near future.
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Stream tracks by Wu-Tang Clan via Deezer, below…