was an admittedly odd scene: nearly 2 a.m., the tour bus surrounded
by autograph seekers, dope peddlers and various hangers-on, all
hoping to catch a glimpse of someone from the band. For most late
nights at Portland, Ore.’s hot and compact Hawthorne Theater, that
“band” would’ve meant someone of a punk or indie persuasion.
But tonight, the situation now included the Wu-Tang Clan’s famed
founder and producer Robert “the RZA” Diggs and the nine-piece
L.A. funk/soul act Stone Mecca, who’d provided musical backing for
him all evening.
issued the controversial Wu-Tang album 8 Diagrams last year
(“controversial” in that Wu members Ghostface Killah, Method Man
and Raekwon all dissed it, and the RZA’s production effort, quite
loudly in print following its release), the RZA has moved on to one
of his various alter egos, the pleasure-seeking Bobby Digital. His
third album in this guise, Digi-Snacks (KOCH), includes a much
more organic, live-band approach to his music, supplementing the
diabolical samples for which his work is typically known with Stone
Mecca’s subtle grooves and jazzcat-inflected singing (“Drama,”
in particular, is a revelation).
RZA also continues to keep his hand in the acting game (having made
an impression in last year’s Denzel Washington vehicle American
Gangster) and recently drove the launch of Wu-Chess, a paid
membership website focused on the RZA’s favorite game.
had the opportunity sit down with RZA in his tour bus,
post-gig—track suit, sunglasses and massive ‘fro still intact
from the evening’s activities—to talk with him about his current
solo tour and to try to get a bead on what’s next, if anything, for
the Wu-Tang Clan, given the drama surrounding how the group left
things last fall. From the looks of things, 8 Diagrams may
very well be the final group album we’ll get from the vaunted
Staten Island collective.
How did you hook up with the
Stone Mecca guys? Did you know them in some way before you recorded
I met them maybe seven years ago, and I got interested in having them
play samples “over” for me. I used them to do some stuff when I
was working with Raekwon on [the as-yet unreleased] Cuban Linx Pt.
II, using them to play my samples. I liked how they emulated the
music I made; they played the way that I wanted it to sound, know
what I mean?
I think a lot of people have operated under the assumption that you
sample more than you do. My perception is that there’s more “live”
music on the average Wu release or on your solo stuff…
…than they realize, yeah! I think for some of my fans it’ll be
new to them because they only expect a certain thing. But those who
take the risk and come out, they get the hook up, you know? (laughs)
That’s what I feel comfortable about; on this tour, I’m really
comfortable with what I’m doing on stage. Because I can change at
any moment: “You know what? This band shit’s not cool any more,
I’m gonna hit the reset button, go to instant replay.” (laughs)
But I’m havin’ a great time, the audience is havin’ a great
time. Nothin’ wrong with a good time, yo.
The cool thing about a live band is that you have the ability now to
reinterpret parts of your back catalog too, like you did tonight
going back to some of the old Wu stuff on the first album, which the
live band gives a completely different flavor.
We also played “1-800-Suicide,” which was a Gravediggaz song, and
it sounded good enough—maybe 80% to the record?—to do with the
band. To be in the club listening to that thing go off, you may be
onto something there, you know? (laughs)
Let’s talk about 8 Diagrams for a minute. There were things
in the press afterward that gave the impression that people like
Ghost, Meth and Raekwon were unhappy with how it came out. What are
the chances of you guys working together again any time soon? Because
you’re working on the sequel to Cuban Linx with Raekwon now,
No, I haven’t worked with the Clan since then. I’ve done shows
with them, but that’s mostly what I’m planning to do with them in
the future. Uphold that W, know what I mean? Our creative ideas are
going in different directions right now. I’m an MC, too, you know?
Some people [in the Wu] have stuck with what Rakim once said,
“Hip-hop don’t need a band, just a DJ and his two hands/as
hip-hop was and still stands.” I understand the point he was
making, but even Rakim is on tour with a band right now, you know?
(laughs) He’s the one who said it, too, yo! Sampling came from
bands, scratching came from the music made by bands. When all we HAD
was a sampler. But it made me become more of a musician; now I play a
guitar to express my feelings. I got a band, and it can be a little
sloppy ‘cause I’m new with it. But it’s how it’s supposed to
be, how I’m learning.
But isn’t that rawness you’re
talking about just the next extension of the whole “realness”
thing that hip-hop people have been talking about for decades? I
would think this is why people like Kanye West, the next generation
of young creative guys in hip-hop, have singled you out. He’s said
that you’re the reason he got into the game to begin with. So maybe
this approach to live music will have a similar impact.
That’s respect, yo. And I got respect going right back to him, to
see him take it to another level where he can feed people with his
shit, where people are still getting something good out of it, where
it’s still available. That’s a blessing. I’m proud of that, yo.
How is your Wu-chess venture
going? You just launched the new site, I’m just wondering how it’s
fared so far from a business perspective [given that membership is
nearly $50 a pop to join]?
I haven’t had time to check on it since I’ve been on the road,
but I’ve been going to different events while I’m out on tour. We
stopped in Tucson, Ariz., with the 9Queens Association. It was great
to see all these kids come out. Actually, mothers, husbands and
their kids! Couples there with their children, which is a beautiful
thing to see anyway! (laughs) They was all playin’ chess and
feelin’ good and that’s what Wu-chess is about. I’m proud of
what it’s doing. I got some flack from people who said, “Why does
it cost money to join Wu-chess?” But hey, everything I do
costs money, you know? (laughs) I gotta pay for this bus, yo, it’s
killin’ us! It all costs money! Bringin’ a band out increases the
costs of a tour like this, but if the fans have a good time, it’s
worth the risk. I’m willing to take it.
It’s possible that a whole generation of kids out there might be
introduced to a fairly complicated game—one they can develop,
follow, play for life as a pursuit—because someone they respected
took the time to introduce it to them, to teach them. Make chess
cool, fun, something they could relate to. Something accessible.
Respect. That’s what the lady from 9Queens said, too. I’m gonna
name some of my friends who play chess, I hope they don’t get mad
at me, but Forrest Whittaker and Jude Law both play chess. Two of the
elite. A lot of people play it and love the game. That’s the whole
Speaking of actors, I caught your turn in American Gangster,
as did a lot of people, and wondered if there’s more acting or film
work in your future. It seems to come pretty naturally to you. I
understand you’ve got a few projects in the works now (Gospel
Hill, Repossession Mambo);
how do you have time to fit that in?
Acting is definitely one of the most fun things you can do. To me,
it’s a new girl, you know? (laughs) But I gotta finish some work
over there [points at the stage] in this music thing. Acting, we got
something big in November…
Formula for the Cure has
become known as kind of the RZA’s “Black Album.” There’s even
a brief, confusing YouTube trailer about it, or related to it. Will
fans ever hear it? Is it done and sitting on a shelf somewhere, or
have you buried it? Are there plans for it to be released at some
That is sitting on the shelf. I never made the music for those
words. I know the words are powerful, they’re timeless, in the
sense that I hope it’s not too late before someone else hears me
say it. (laughs) I’ve thought about that a lot!
People have heard more about
it than they’ve heard of it, clearly. That’s where all the
curiosity comes from.
I know what you mean. I’m looking forward to the day when I can
record that and deliver that, yo. I think I’m close.
I’ve been living with Digi-Snacks for the past three weeks
in the car. It strikes me that what you’re doing with it live is to
stretch well beyond what’s represented on the record, which is the
essence of great live music, right? Not just replicating the record
live, which, aside from freestyling and battle-rapping is most of
what hip-hop has been throughout the years, but “interpreting”
it. Seems like there’s a long way left to go with this idea, not
just recording and playing with the band, but composing with them,
collaborating with different people. The same concept as the Wu in
some ways: each person brings ideas, and what emerges is in the
middle somewhere. The band’s almost like Santana in certain
Every night we’ve been coming with something. Look, James Brown is
the motherfucker, right? (laughs) We all saw what he did up to
the age of 70. So I got a long way to go, but I’m at least starting
somewhere different now! To get to that level. We havin’
Well, last time I checked, that
gig’s open now, right? (laughs)
Ol’ Dirty would have been the man for that one, right? (laughs)
Nothin’ but a party, yo.