It's hard to overemphasize the Wu-Tang effect. The Clan and their music was inescapable in New York in the '90s. "Cash rules everything around me, dolla dolla bill y'all" was the anthem blasted from street corners across the city. It resonated in a place afflicted by both high poverty and immense wealth.
After 25 years the sentiment still resonates today -- making Wu's music both timeless and timely. The names of the group's members are as iconic as their songs: RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killa, Method Man, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Cappadonna.
Wu became a dominant force musically releasing waves of group albums as well as solo projects by its members. Songs like C.R.E.A.M., Method Man, Triumph, Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit, Bring Da Ruckus, Protect Ya Neck, Uzi among many others reflect an influence of comic books, kung fu movies and soul music. Their music often features tongue-in-cheek rhymes delivered defiantly in a raw stream of consciousness-like flow.
"Hey, you, get off my cloud!
You don't know me and you don't know my style
Who be gettin' flam when they come to a jam?
Here I am, here I am, the Method Man
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, hey, the Method Man
Don't eat Skippy, Jif or Peter Pan
Peanut butter 'cause I'm not butter
In fact I snap back like a rubber... band
I be Sam, Sam-I-Am
And I don't eat green eggs and ham
Style will hit ya, wham! Then goddamn
You be like, 'Oh shit, that's the jam!'"
The Wu's music videos are amazing and ridiculous in all the right ways. For the song Gravel Pit, there's a dinosaur and a massive ninja fight. Ol' Dirty Bastard -- who at the time was incarcerated -- is represented by a pair of arms hanging out from behind the bars of a jail cell.
For a hip-hop crew, Wu's influence on pop culture is nearly unrivaled. Their sound, style and rowdiness invaded everything from fashion to movies like Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 to TV shows like and . The Wu became a branding and business paragon for newer generations of hip hop artists.
The Wu has such loyal fanbase that the group did something very few artists could do: Release a brand-new album of which there would only be a single copy. In 2015, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was sold at auction to Martin Shkreli for $2 million. In March, Shkreli, who later became famous for his shady pharmaceutical practices, was forced to forfeit the album as part of assets seized.
Members of the Wu also stepped in front of the camera. Method Man acted in shows like Oz, The Wire and, most recently, The Deuce. RZA and GZA appeared with Bill Murray in the Jim Jarmusch film Coffee And Cigarettes. RZA directed and starred in the film The Man With The Iron Fists, which also featured Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and Dave Bautista.
The group is working on a new album to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
"Right now we got Ghost picking all of the beats for the new upcoming Wu-Tang album. And what I heard so far is crack in vial. Straight like that," said Cappadonna.
When that album will come out remains to be seen, but it's exciting to know the Wu is working on something new. Masta Killa also teased that there might be a movie. Could this be the much-rumored Ol' Dirty Bastard biopic?
I got to talk with GZA, Masta Killa, Cappadonna and Young Dirty Bastard -- Ol' Dirty Bastard's son -- before their show at Clusterfest in San Francisco. We discussed what keeps them performing, video games and how they make that Wu-Tang sound.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: The first album came out 25 years ago. What are the biggest ways things have changed?
GZA: I think we have grown and evolved. But I think, at the same time, we have stayed the same as far as humility, being humble. When you become an artist and you become mainstream, you grow and you grow. And the more people know about you, certain things change. But then some things stay the same, as far as who you are and you just reach out to more people. But it's been a beautiful journey, man. I mean this was a childhood passion.
Really? How did it start out when you were a child?
Well, it started out for me with Mother Goose, nursery rhymes and a little bit of poetry. And then hip hop came, and I was really moved by it. I was already reciting nursery rhymes so when hip hop came in, I already had that kind of flow, that knick, that knack for rhyming and delivering lyrics in a certain way -- although they were nursery rhymes. It was just something that I had interest in.
Well, I wonder, is it the beat that's leading the rhymes when you create the music? Or is it like, I have this great verse and we've got to find the music for it.
Well, as an artist, you're always writing. So a lot of times I'm writing without music. I don't always have to write to a beat or to a song. I'm always writing. You're always thinking. You travel, you're around people, so you always get ideas and thoughts. And they're in your head, so you're always kind of writing in your head. Although you're not jotting things down, you're taking mental notes of certain things. So, there's usually always a thought and the idea before the music. But sometimes you get in the studio or someone gives you a beat and then you'll match whatever you have to it. You'll try to flow to it. It's more of a flow thing when it comes to the beat and not the idea to me. I don't listen to a beat and get an idea. I listen to a beat and get a feeling of what flow or what delivery I want to use on this beat.
What about the sound? One of the things that I've always loved about Wu-Tang is how the sound is.
Yeah well, I mean I'm not a producer. I used to mess around with beats, but I never gave it my full attention -- enough time to actually be a producer. But when it comes to music -- it's kind of like this: Musicians, right? Or people that score movies? They watch movies. Sometimes it's a silent movie because there's no scoring on it -- you have the dialogue. So they watch the movie and then they add music to it based on what they're seeing. As a artist, it's the total opposite. So sometimes when I hear music, I get pictures in my I head. I get thoughts and I get pictures, and I match whatever I'm hearing to the beat. If it sounds sad, I may tell a sad story. If it sounds up-tempo and sounds like an action-driven beat, it may be a lot of action in there. If it sounds laid-back and mellow and psychedelic, I may go in that direction.
Wu-Tang had a video game for the PlayStation a long time ago. What kind of video games do play now?
I don't really play video games, I'm not into that. I play chess. I love to play chess. I play it as much as I can, as long as I can. That's my thing right there: I play a lot of chess. I used to play very few video games in the past, but I'm not really a big sports person. I don't really find it interesting playing like football or basketball. Maybe baseball?
How come baseball?
I don't know, I grew up playing softball and baseball and I would probably be interested in that. I've tried boxing video games and at times it seemed like I didn't even have to look at the TV. And just -- [looks away and mimes mashing buttons on a controller] -- hit the buttons to knock my opponent out. It didn't really seem like it took much skill. But baseball was cool. I couldn't really get into the football or the basketball. I played a game called Hot Shots golf many, many years ago on PlayStation. It's a great game I like to play that. It's been around for a while, almost two decades. It's made me have more of an interest in golf because you learn about the scoring -- the birdies and the bogies.
Going back to chess for a second. What is it about chess that you find so appealing?
It's the best board game ever. Monopoly doesn't compare, and checkers is not in its league. It's the greatest board game ever. It's a game of life. This is about thinking three, four, five, six steps ahead. Some grand masters can see 20, 30, 40 moves ahead. I think it's an interesting game because it's all about calculation and adding, multiplying, subtracting. There's a lot of math that's involved in chess. It's a lot of calculations and strategic planning.
We're sitting here 25 years after the first album and there's a big crowd of people. And all these people want to talk to you guys and see the show. What's keeping you guys going?
The drive, the love, the passion. There's a passion that comes with this, especially when we were young. There's this passion that's just in you. It's an innate thing. You just love it. If you're a writer, you just love to write. Everytime you get a thought or an idea you write it. Any time you see something interesting that you could put into a script, you write, you write. When you have a thought, you write. It's a passion you have for it. It's with anything, it's with golf, it's with basketball, it's with music -- especially in music.
Sometimes you may see a person that's a guitarist on a train, or on a plane. He doesn't even have the guitar with him and he's just like. [Mimes playing a guitar] Because he becomes one with the instrument that he plays. Because it's a passion for him. Same with the drummer, you may see somebody just doing this [Mimes drumming] without a drum set or sticks in his hand. No drum set around him, no sticks in his hand. So it become passion, and you're driven by that passion. You just love it, and that's what kept us moving. And it was a passion for a hobby that we were able to make a career out of and make money from. So that's even greater, when you love your job. A lot of people don't love their job. A lot of people go to work 9 to 5, they're miserable. They're, "I got to deal with the boss. I got to get up every goddamn day." They're just working to work. But it's something to work in a field we love and have passion for.
Well, I'm loving my job today because I get to talk to you and see you guys perform.
Q: It's the 25th anniversary of your first album which is beautiful and insane. How do you feel about all that?
Masta Killa: Man, it's very humbling. You know what I'm saying? I can't believe it. Twenty-five years has gone in a finger snap. Where did the time go? But it's truly a blessing to still have your fans and a whole new generation recognize your music and the history of what you've contributed to hip hop. And that's a great thing, a great thing.
Back in the '90s, you guys were in control of your music, your publishing. And now artists have to navigate the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal. You were way before your time on some of that, but how's it paying off?
Definitely, I mean it's paying off just to still be relevant. To still be here, you know what I mean? That's number one, you know what I'm saying? But, yes brother, I mean everything was definitely a blessing in disguise and now we've grown to see the tree bear fruit, and now it's time for a harvest.
What keeps you going? What keeps you performing the songs, going on the road and touring?
Man, the fans. The fans. Because if they don't want to see it -- I always tell people all of the time, "Listen, if there's no listener there is no me." You know what I'm saying? Somebody has to be listening. Somebody has to want it and that's where the blessing comes, you know what I mean? And that's very humbling for me. I don't care if it's 10 people, if they wanna hear it, I'm going to give it to them.
Well there's more than 10 people out there. There's like 12 at least. Your music has evolved over 25 years but your album The Saga Continues felt like it recaptured some of that early sound and feel.
Definitely, definitely, that's the formula. So you always have to have that ingredient in the pot or the soup is not going to taste right. You know what I mean?
What's next for you guys? I mean are you going to be like the hip-hop Rolling Stones? Out there in your 70s performing?
Why not? You know what I mean? I would love that! But, you know, right now the 25th anniversary is upon us. That's a beautiful thing. We have another Wu-Tang Clan album coming for you, you know what I mean? We got some film coming for you, you know what I mean? Maybe a movie or two, you know? Documentaries coming for you, you know what I mean? So, there's a lot of things in the works, man, a lot of things in the works. Wu-Tang forever!
Young Dirty Bastard and Cappadonna
Q: What keeps Wu-Tang going? What keeps you involved in the music?
Young Dirty Bastard: Well, the wisdom really. You know what I'm saying? It's the wisdom that keeps Wu-Tang going.
Cappadonna: That's right, that's right. Wisdom is the manifestation of knowledge. So one might as well make his knowledge known, you know what I mean? This Cappadonna I'm here with YDB and we representing, you know what I'm saying, out here in San Fran. Everything good?
I'm talking to you guys, how could it not be good? When you guys are putting all the music together, is there one thing that you feel leads the music more than the other?
C: Well, a lot of times we get the beats first. We sit with them for a little while and analyze them. The beats could come from various producers within the camp. We might get some from mathematics. We might get some from RZA, or we might even shop around. A lot of times we let the higher-ranked brothers who have the best ear pick those beats. Sometimes it be RZA, sometimes it might be Rae. Right now we got Ghost picking all of the beats for the new upcoming Wu-Tang album. And what I heard so far is crack in vial. Straight like that.
Now, when is this album coming out?
C: I can't give you that information. Because then I'd have to put you in the bag. But it's coming though, you know what I'm saying, we working on it though. We wanna give you all our best, so it could take a little while. Right now we just got the beats. Some joints have already been started already.
You guys watch the show Westworld at all? They cover C.R.E.A.M. off the first album.
YDB: I heard about it. I think science fiction could be however you perceive it. I think Westworld could be a whole other dimension. It could be fun. It could be alien. Or it could be something stupid. You can get real stupid with stuff like that.
What keeps you guys going? What keeps you performing? What keeps you making new music?
C: It's just us being together and having that one accord, that one thing on our mind, and that's to grind out, to keep giving you our best music, and keep coming together -- plus it helps us build. It's our social activity, you know what I'm saying, us building, coming together. Because we all got family, man, we all got a lot of different responsibilities other than music that we didn't have 25 years ago. See this is our 25th-year anniversary, you know what I'm saying. So for us to even be here, all together, and still be doing it, that shows and proves right there, that it goes beyond the music. We've got to be together socially and understanding each other's ups and downs and ins and outs, so we can keep bringing it together and bringing all this good music on a positive level.
Anything else you want to tell us?
C: YDB, Cappadonna, we just want to say that Wu Tang is forever. Wu-Tang is for the kids. We love y'all. Hold your head, stay positive, you know what I'm saying? And yo, say no to hate, yes to love, one hundred!
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