Quincy Jones' advice, mother's eyes, and the importance of the Bible and prayer. Meeting with the Clan's most reflective rapper.
Even for RZA, one of the Wu-Tang Clan's most reflective members, 2019 is shaping up to be a particularly busy year. Of Mics and Men, a four-hour documentary about the group directed by hip hop journalism veteran turned filmmaker Sacha Jenkins, premiered May 10 on Showtime. Getting all the members of the Clan to talk along with crucial but mostly unknown figures working behind the scenes seems like a Sisyphean effort. Yet Jenkins' portrait of the group – fragile but lovable; contradictory but somehow cohesive – highlights the influence and legacy of a collective that has never stopped focusing on its musical mission.
"Wu-Tang still treats a lot of people like they're FBI," RZA tells Rolling Stone. "We've always been very secretive, and now we're opening up. There are some things we didn't even know ourselves."
Later this year, Hulu will premiere Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a 10-part series written by RZA that details the history and formation of the Clan. "My 'writer room' is actually a therapy room," he says, only half-joking. In an interview, the 53-year-old talked about his rules of life, Bible stories, the best advice he received, and what he learned from an attempted murder charge.
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What are the most important rules in your life?
The most important rule is just thinking about myself 100 percent, preparing myself for what I will face and making sure that I always achieve my goals. You set your goal first, right? Figure out what it is, imagine it, and then prepare yourself. If my goal is simply to climb a tree, I'll study a tree-climbing book, figure out what tools and equipment I'll need to get. I will have to figure out that going up might be easy. But what will the descent be like?
What is the best advice you have ever received?
The best advice I received was when I was 11 years old, from GZA: to know myself. Only by knowing myself could I have a point of reference about my culture, my ancestors and my theological knowledge. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are the first jewels, the first riches, that a man should seek to obtain. They can propel him to obtain any other wealth in life.
Even Quincy Jones told ODB, "When it rains, get wet." In the early days when I was successful it was raining, but I was not paying attention to everything that was going on. But at this time in my life I am trying to get wet responsibly. I'm letting myself get caught up in the moments I'm enjoying instead of looking inside myself, staying in my room, going to work, writing, working harder. I didn't realize that there was a certain joy to be absorbed in the situation I was experiencing. Here, the rain is that joy.
In July you will turn 54 years old. Does that scare you encourage you?
The blessing (brought by getting older, ed) is that I am becoming better artistically and getting more opportunities. I used to write 16 bars, now I make 120-page scripts and see them come to life.
Even when you were 24, you always seemed to be the "old soul" of the group.
That's a good point because I was someone who could live with the "old soul" in me, I was able to carry it around, even when I was young. But the downside is that I'm probably about 200 years old now.
Do you mean you feel that way?
No, it's just how I see it. It's a really weird thing, man. I'm making movies and I have 400 people to whom I have to explain something that I see so clearly. It might take me two hours to make them understand something that I see in two seconds. But when they get there, it's like Einstein discovering the forumela of relativity. It took years to get to that equation, but that equation changed the world, right?
What advice would you have liked to have given yourself before the first Clan album?
I wish I had understood the true value of what I was creating, and I wish I had understood the advantage of long-term business over short-term. What you create has value, but you don't recognize it right away. If it dies right away, it will be a caterpillar that will not be able to become a butterfly. It will never fly. We have made millions of dollars and gotten millions of dollars in advances, growing entire companies. But the real end goal is something that most people are not prepared for and may not make it to the end. So 25 years later, many people don't think they are any more valuable than they were at the highest point of their success. Wu-Tang's peak was from 1993 to 1998, right? But it's like the Rolling Stones: we don't have to make another record.
Are you comfortable with the definition being given of the Wu-Tang, "legacy rap group"?
That is a sign of respect. People didn't think hip hop wouldn't get to this stage. Ghostface and I just saw Travis Scott who gave us a huge hug and was honored to see us. We were happy to see him and we are proud of his success. But I said to Ghost, "You know what's funny, Ghost? I said, "Do you remember the first time we met Quincy Jones, when we were doing the Triumph video (in 1997, ed.)? He said, "Yes." I said, "Wow. We are the same for him."
Actually, I had a conversation with the crew in 1992, saying that we had the potential to last 20 years, and I also said that maybe we would downsize and something new, something different would come out. People always said that the Wu-Tang Clan logo, the "W," was a bat or a bird. They don't remember, at first, me saying, "No, it's a phoenix." It is actually continuing its trajectory to be something, created by a group of people, that inspires others. The Wu is also something for 13-year-olds who now have a totally different balance, in the artistic, social and economic fields.
Who are your heroes?
My mother is my first hero because of how she kept fighting, through the hard times and the sorrows, and she always had love, balance, dignity, pride and beauty to give, and she never stopped believing and praying that a better day could come. I think his children are an answer to his prayers.
My father is also a hero, even though he left when he was young. His greatest fault is that he remained firm in his belief. He cannot be moved by the simple truth he has learned in his life, which is to maintain independence and self-confidence. His confidence and self-assurance inspire me every day. My father is 75 years old and our relationship started just 15 years ago. He will forever continue to have a joint or a shot of Jack Daniel's.
What is the best and worst part of success?
The best part of success is being successful, achieving the goal you set for yourself and getting the artistic and cultural freedom that can lead to economic freedom. I could get on a plane and fly to Italy tomorrow and know that I could land, eat, have a place to sleep; if I wasn't married, I'm sure I could have a girlfriend too. Success is a blessing for that reason. Look at great artists like Tom Waits or even Elton John. Wherever they go, they are doing well.
The worst part is the fear of not being able to get over the last step. There is something about being successful that is always in the balance, when you feel it's coming to an end. I don't know if it's due to being black, culture, or whatever, but there's also this miscommunication from others who feel directly entitled to be a part of your success, to take a part of it, thinking that your achievements belong to them as well. It's very intrusive. We love our fans, and I am the type who is with them 99 percent of the time. I've changed my perspective on this in the last couple of years, now down to about 90%. Sometimes you're not completely in the mood to give something. It's never "just a picture."
You were found not guilty of attempted murder in 1993. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned that positivity is my natural way to live my life. I can really look back now and count how many times before that day I got into so many different problems and faced so many messes just because of my stupidity. Go look at my criminal record. But from that day on, not even half a misstep.
Was there a moment in the process that was a wake-up call for you? A watershed moment?
The most crushing moment of that whole thing was my mother's eyes filled with disappointment. It was a shock. To have her gaze fixed on me as if I were useless. She had never seen her son as violent. But when I won, she looked at me and said, "This is your second chance." I will never forget the day I took her to her new home.