A Portrait of the Artists as the Wu-Tang Clan

"I am directing," says RZA. "It’s the same, actually. It’s a wavelength.... But when you got a vision, it has to be lived out. And in order to live it out, sometimes it takes a script. And of course, there’s resistance.”

By Shawn Setaro

Robert “RZA” Diggs has always been the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan. In 1993, he was the one who came up with the now famous “five-year plan,” where, in return for complete loyalty to his vision, he promised to make nine loosely related rappers from Staten Island and Brooklyn into stars. At a time when duos and groups were being replaced by solo artists, by 1997 he managed to make massive successes not only of the collective, but of at least five of its individual members as well.

The group is still going strong, despite some fracturing in the intervening years and the death of founding member Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones a decade ago. But through all the changes, RZA’s leadership stays constant.

Ahead of the release of their album A Better Tomorrow (out Dec. 2), RZA was a blur of activity among the more sedentary members of the Clan (or rather, the five members) who had actually showed up to the video shoot/press day at the High Line studio in Chelsea, Manhattan. In a whirlwind day of videos, photos, and press, he was the calm force holding it all together. He was usually on the video set for “Ruckus in B Minor” or “Miracle” or “40th Street Black (We Will Fight)” (they were filming all three), behind the monitors conferring with the director or giving pointers to the other rappers for their next take.

When not manning the helm, he banged out thoughtful interviews or stayed holed-up in wardrobe preparing for his own scenes. In the ultimate example of his attention to detail, he even brought his own barber to the set, and got a trim right before shooting his video scenes to make sure his haircut was on point when he was on camera. Where other Wu members would mime their verses during the video shoot (if they knew the words at all, which many did not), RZA shouted his lyrics at the camera, bringing everyone’s energy up several notches at the end of a grueling day.

rza wu tang(RZA at the helm)

The rest of the Wu members’ temperaments varied wildly; moving between friendly and helpful to angry and out-of-sorts as they waited for their moments to shine. One initially light-hearted bit of teasing between U-God and Cappadonna quickly turned hostile, and left Cap muttering about being “attacked by the devil.”

“I’m just trying to do music and go home,” Cappadonna says. “I don’t even talk to people like that.”

There were very few nods to the fact that four of the Clan’s best-known members (Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and GZA) were absent. Cappadonna mentioned in passing the feeling that there was an “upper tier and lower tier” now amongst the group (something he elaborated on in other interviews later that week), and longtime Wu confidant Oliver “Power” Grant made oblique reference to “other people and entities that need to be in the building.”

At times, though, the group made it seem that “Wu-Tang Reunion” actually wasn’t just a commercially calculated song title. Whether it was joking around about the alleged dangers of eating soy on the video set (longtime vegetarian RZA’s response to complaints that tofu contains estrogen and damages mens’ sex drive: “I’ve been eating it for 20 years and no woman’s ever complained”) or the sight of all five of them crowded together on a couch for a TV interview, friendly and positive, there were moments during the day that really made it feel like Wu-Tang is forever.

(Photo by Jonathan Weiner)(The Wu-Tang Clan in 2014)

A Better Tomorrow came across as RZA’s baby. It marks a return to the group’s celebrated stripped-down and soulful sound after 2007’s more experimental 8 Diagrams. Furthering this RZA-centric impression was the fact that in a full day’s worth of photo, video, and interviews, the five group members were only occasionally all together.

The reasons for that separation weren’t hard to figure out. Cappadonna talked about “negative energy surrounding the project.” U-God had trouble remembering which songs he appeared on, and Inspectah Deck was “kind of unfamiliar with the titles” of the songs. RZA, on the other hand, talked effusively about the musicians he got to work with, often the very same people who had played on the soul records he sampled in the early years of the Clan. He discussed treating the album as if he were a movie director, realizing his vision using the talents of his groupmates. He explained that working with the Wu-Tang Clan had prepared him to be a film director, a role he took on with 2012’s The Man With the Iron Fists. In turn, he says, “working with some of the top actors in the business prepared me to direct my brothers for this album.”

This director’s mindset, he acknowledged, didn’t always go over well. “I’m in the studio with my brothers, who are all lyrical geniuses, and they make many albums, solo albums, by themselves,” he remembered. “And I come in with a concept—like, yo, I need you to do this and do that. And Deck says, ‘You’re trying to direct us. This is not a movie.’ But I’m like, yo, I am directing. It’s the same, actually. It’s a wavelength. And he was right in his point of view, because music is different. But when you got a vision, it has to be lived out. And in order to live it out, sometimes it takes a script. And of course, there’s resistance.”

Resistance and all, here are the highlights of a day with (most of) the Wu.

~

RZA

As usual with the polymath, RZA’s areas of interest that day were wide-ranging. He discussed everything from his evolution as a film composer and director to the doctrines of the Nation of Gods and Earths, an esoteric Nation of Islam offshoot whose teachings and slang run throughout the Wu’s lyrics. But his most enthusiastic responses came when he was asked about the musicians he’d worked with on A Better Tomorrow, including Memphis guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges.

Teenie was a guitarist who was part of the famed Hi Rhythm Section that played on 1970s soul classics by Al Green and Ann Peebles, among many others. RZA worked with him right at the end of the musician’s life, months before Hodges passed away this past June. The producer reflected on meeting Hodges, and on what it was like to work with the same musicians he had once sampled.

“At first, his brother was in the studio with us, and Teenie didn’t make it for the first few days. But he heard about what was going on, and so he decided to come. I didn’t expect him. But he just came and rocked hard. I was so into him, I asked him to come back again another day, and he did. He came with an oxygen tank, but he came. He had his guitar, he had an oxygen tank, and he rocked, man. Now, that’s magical.

We sample people not knowing how much time it took to build their talent, not knowing their conditions. It’s just a sample. You don’t think about those guys having to record things together and make it sound so great that it plays forever. To be with those who I sampled, and especially with Teenie, [was amazing]. And they have the same Coca-Cola box. You know in [Al Green’s] “Love and Happiness,” it goes, [stamps on floor twice].

That’s a Coca-Cola box. They got the same one there. It’s been there since the 60s. It’s become part of the story, part of the legend.”

 

Cappadonna

On the opposite end of the enthusiasm spectrum from RZA was Cappadonna. His songs with longtime Wu affiliate Mathematics jump-started work on the album. “I just kept rapping and rapping on the tour until I made everybody start rapping,” he says. But by the time A Better Tomorrow was finished, he was far from happy, and painted a bleak portrait of how the record was created.

“It was a tough album. Nobody really wanted to do it. There was [some] brothers who didn’t want to participate. There’s a lot of negative energy surrounding the project. I didn’t really feel for it.

Last time I seen the Clan was at the Warner Brothers signing [a month and a half prior]. It ain’t like we ever hang out. I don’t want to dress it up and make it sound like it was all good when it wasn’t. It was bad. It’s still bad.”

 

U-God

U-God seemed, more than anyone, to be having fun during the event. Whether it was stealing coffee cake from his manager, bragging about “touching Russian titties” on tour, or hawking his upcoming autobiography, he did and said exactly what he wanted, pretty much all the time. One thing he was unhappy about, though, was how RZA shortened his verses on A Better Tomorrow.

“On the Wu albums, all I do is six bars, eight bars, 12 bars. When I do my own records, it’s diarrhea on the track. But when I do Wu [songs], it’s chopped up. My ‘Ruckus In B Minor’ part was [originally] 22 bars. They chopped it down to 12. That gets on my nerves. I tell RZA all the time. Then he gets to come behind me all hard. [laughs]”

 

Inspectah Deck

Inspectah Deck was in a reflective mood. He looked back on the evolution of his writing (to kids who are winning school poetry contests like Deck used to, keep the faith—you too may one day “bomb atomically”); on his former group-mate Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones, who passed away ten years ago this month; and especially on the Wu’s 1997 song that was, like their new album, called “A Better Tomorrow.” While not a direct inspiration for the album, Deck noticed major thematic similarities.

“That song reflects what this album wants to reflect. That song said it: ‘You can’t smoke your life away, party your life away/Your seeds grow up the same way.’ Your kids follow your footsteps. This is a perfect example of how the kids today are following the footsteps of what we said back then. So now we’re talking to the babies of the people we were talking to back then.”

 

Masta Killa

Aside from RZA, Masta Killa seemed the most invested in the day’s goings-on. He was upbeat, on-message, and seemed grateful both for his legacy and the chance to continue it. He got most emotional, though, when discussing how so many soul music heroes of the 1970s participated in the making of this record. In addition to the Memphis musicians mentioned above, Philly soul icon Kenneth Gamble gave the Wu access to his master tapes. The cross-generational nature of the project would likely have resonated within his own family, but sadly didn’t get the opportunity.

“These were the records that were sampled and the things you listened to when you were growing up. And to now be able to shake hands and work with these people, that’s something that I’m really honored and proud of. My mother passed away July 18th, and this is the project that I really wished she was still here to witness, because I’m working with some of the people she loved.”

 

Power

While not an official group member, Oliver “Power” Grant has been a vital part of the Wu-Tang empire since its inception. Best known for founding and running the group’s trendsetting Wu Wear clothing line, he has been a vital force in all aspects of the Clan’s business, from making beats to branding. In a crew as large, disjunctive, and contentious as the Wu, Power often finds himself playing the role of peacemaker.

“Over the years there’s been a lot of in-fighting, a lot of guys not going the same way as each other. Us all being family, I’m always still trying to keep things going for a better tomorrow. That’s always the job.”

Power ended the day with a final meditation on what “A Better Tomorrow” really means. “Every day up is a better tomorrow,” he said, just before leaving the studio. “Everybody should be looking for it and trying to make one happen.”

 

 

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