DATE March 7, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: The RZA discusses his career as a composer, producer
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is known as The RZA. He's the chief composer and producer of the
Wu-Tang Clan, which the All Music Guide calls `the most revolutionary rap
group of the mid-'90s.' They turned the concept of a hip-hop crew inside-out.
Wu-Tang was a loose congregation of nine emcees. Each of them worked under
several different pseudonyms and spun off side projects. Time magazine called
the group a branded marketing juggernaut.
The RZA is also known as Prince Rakeem, Bobby Digital, the Rzarector and
Robert Diggs, which is his birth name. He joined his cousins GZA The Genius
and Ol' Dirty Bastard in 1992 to form the Wu-Tang Clan. The name was taken
from a mythical martial arts sword style said to be exceptionally difficult to
master but unbeatable in battle. The RZA has also composed music for several
films including Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" and "Kill Bill" and its sequel
directed by Quentin Tarantino who shares The RZA's passion for martial arts
Now The RZA has a new book called "The Wu-Tang Manual." Here's "C.R.E.A.M."
from the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut album.
(Soundbite of "C.R.E.A.M.")
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I grew up on the crime side, The New York Times side.
Staying alive was no jive. At secondhands moms bounced on old men. So then
we moved to Shaolin land. A young youth, yo rockin' the gold tooth, 'Lo
goose. Only way, I begin to gee off was drug loot. And let's start it like
this son, rollin' with this one and that one, pullin' out gats for fun. But
it was just a dream for the teen who was a fiend, started smoking woolies at
16 and running up in gates and doing hits for high stakes, making my way on
fire escapes. No question, I would speed for cracks and weed. The
combination made my eyes bleed. No question, I would flow off and try to get
the dough all...
GROSS: That's the Wu-Tang Clan. My guest is The RZA. Welcome to FRESH AIR.
THE RZA: Well, thanks for having me on the show, y'all.
GROSS: Now, you know, in addition to being, you know, an emcee and to being
one of the rappers with Wu-Tang Clan, you were also the chief producer and
arranger. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, composing and sampling
the music backing for the records, what your approach is to that?
THE RZA: Well, my musical knowledge really came from being a deejay. You
know, at the age of 11, I got my first pair of turntables, straight-arm
techniques, you know what I mean? The hardest ones that you could scratch on.
And I was building up an extensive record collection. Even as a deejay with a
four-track, my production style was similar to the style, you know, of 36
Chambers which was taking something from old soul music to something from a
funky drum, you know, whether James Brown or a Willie Mitchwood(ph) type drum
pattern and then come with maybe a Woody Woodpecker record, you know what I
THE RZA: And then mix that in with some kind of classical. So I was the kind
of deejay that would do that. When I would deejay at parties, you know, when
I would interloop between records, I might throw on a "Peter Pan" quote or
something and then throw on a crazy hip-hop gutter beat that makes the crowd
go crazy. So when I started producing, I had that same approach.
GROSS: So were you--you know, since you had such a wide variety of musical
records that you were drawing from, where any of those records things that you
first heard from your parents' record collection?
THE RZA: Oh, guaranteed. I mean, you know, everything started from what our
parents had, of course. And for me...
GROSS: So what was in your parents' collection?
THE RZA: My parents had all the soul records from, you know--well, I had a
single mother most of the time, but from The Crusaders to the O'Jays to the
Delfonics to The Temptations, you know what I mean, all the way to--Kenny
Rogers was in the crate, you know what I mean? So my mother was--being a
single mother, I guess, she probably went through a lot of different feelings
and changes, and she had a lot of different artists' records, you know, that
she would play over the years.
But what made my selection and collection so ill was it wasn't only my
parents' records, I was taking everybody's parents' records, you know what I
mean? I went to Inspectah Deck house, and his mother had a whole closet full
of old records that she gave me; GhostFace's mom's. I mean, people would end
up being in New York City, in the Village, just selling records on the street
corner. I mean, I'm the kind of kid that buys everything. I used to buy
records everywhere, anywhere, no matter what. And I'm still kind of like
that, you know. I've now collected records from over probably 40 different
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how you started composing, because, you
know, first, you were deejaying, basically, you were sampling things from
records and playing records under raps, but you actually compose now. So how
did you make that transition?
THE RZA: That was pretty--something that came to be. And I think around
1995, '96, you know, I had a few platinum records under my belt already. I
was, you know, getting worldwide recognition and really a lot of praises from
the music industry and community about what I did, what I've done, the sound
that I was bringing to the table. But I took a look, and it was, like, `You
know what? Wow, I'm considered a famous musician, but technically, as far as
terminology, I'm not a musician, because there's no instrument that I could
really say I could play.' And so I kind of felt, like--I'm one of them kind
of people that would like to be part of a fraternity because he earned it.
And so I took the time out to start reading books on the music theory and
studying chord progressions and the way things should be, because I always
heard it, you know what I mean? I always heard it, you know, by listening to
songs or listening to some of my samples. When hip-hop was only doing
one-loop samples, maybe two-bar samples, I came with the four bars, or I came
with, you know, sample changes, you know, as if I played it, you know what I
mean? I was able to take, you know, three different parts from one song and
make it become, you know, a intro or verse in a chorus. So I had the song
structure and arrangement always in my mind, but I had to use other people's
But around 1996, I decided to start studying the theory and being able to make
my own progressions and make my own phrases of music, and that's what started
leading to me being a composer. You know, I always sampled stuff that was
similar to that anyway, and so I wanted to learn how to play it myself, how to
express it myself. And I think in 1997, on the "Wu-Tang Forever" album, you
first hear me doing things like that.
You listen to songs like "Triumph," you hear how the strings, you know, they
come in, they have--you know, it plays staccato, but it's a rise to it, so
it's, like, `Duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. Chun-chunt, chun-chun-chun-chunt.'
It rises up, and then they'll drop out, and then a voice will come in, and
then that'll drop out. Then you'll just hear the guitar hit with the piano.
So that was, like, during '97 when I started experimenting with the theory of
music, chord progressions and things like that mixed with my sample deejay
background. And that's how I produced "Wu-Tang Forever."
GROSS: Well, let's hear "Triumph" from "Wu-Tang Forever." Here it is.
(Soundbite of "Triumph")
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I bomb atomically. Socrates' philosophies and
hypotheses can't define how I be droppin' these mockeries. Lyrically perform
armed robbery, flee with the lottery. Possibly they spotted me.
Battle-scarred Shogun, explosion when my pen hits, tremendous ultra-violet
shine blind forensics. I inspect you. Through the future see millennium.
Killa B's sold fifty gold sixty platinum. Shacklin' the masses with drastic
rap tactics. Graphic displays melt the steel like blacksmiths. Black Wu
jackets, queen B's ease the guns in. Rumble with patrolmen, tear gas laced
the function. Heads by the score take flight, incite a war. Chicks hit the
floor. Diehard fans demand more. Behold the bold soldier control the globe
slowly, proceeds to blow, swingin' swords like Shinobi. Stomp grounds and
pound footprints in solid rock. Wu got it locked, performin' live on you
As the world turns, I spread like germs. Bless the globe with the pestilence.
The hard-headed never learn. This my testament to those burned. Play my
position in the game of life, standing firm on foreign land. Jump the gun out
of the fryin' pan, into the fire. Transform into the Ghostrider, a six-pack
and `a streetcar named Desire.' Who got my back?
GROSS: That's "Triumph" from the album "Wu-Tang Forever," and my guest is The
RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, also a solo artist, and now he has a new book called
"The Wu-Tang Manual."
You know, you do something on some of your music that I think you call a
detuned piano. And listening to it, I never knew whether it was an electric
piano or what, but it has this really distinctive sound. And, in fact, I want
to play something from the Jim Jarmusch movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the
Samurai." And you did the score for this movie, and it's really...
THE RZA: Yeah, that's my first score.
GROSS: Yeah, and it's really wonderful. Let me play the theme from it.
(Soundbite of theme from "Ghost Dog")
GROSS: That's music from the Jim Jarmusch music, "Ghost Dog: The Way..."
THE RZA: Ghost Dog!
GROSS: "...of the Samurai," composed by my guest, The RZA.
What are you doing on that? What's the keyboard that we're hearing?
THE RZA: The keyboard that I used for "Ghost Dog," I used a combination, but
I used mostly--it's a keyboard called the Kurzweil 2500. And there's another
keyboard called the Ensoniq ASR-10. And the ASR-10 is a sampling keyboard.
The Kurzweil's also a sampling keyboard, but it's made with this thing they
call VAST technology, which is variable architecture synthesis technology.
And that means that this particular keyboard could emulate any other keyboard
ever created if you just use the filters and play with the filters. It could
emulate any other keyboard and potentially any instrument if you know the
proper, you know, parameters.
And the "Ghost Dog" theme, the `doo-doo,' it sounds like--this actually was a
partial of a flute sample that's tooken out, just that one frequency of it,
and then played, of course, the piano. So that was how I came up with that
right there, mixed in with some muddy string pads, you know what I mean, and a
muddy string guitar sample, `da-na-na-na.' So it was a pretty awful
combination, but the sound of it--it's funny.
When I made that particular song, the sound of it was--to go along with "Ghost
Dog," had a lot of birds in this movie, you know. And being studying music, I
read about "Peter and the Wolf" and how the composer used instruments to
reflect each animal. For instance, when the wolf came, he threw in the
trombones. When the bird came, he threw in the flute. So this is why, on the
"Ghost Dog" theme, you hear that flute in there, because he had a lot of birds
in. When the movie first came on, a bird was flying, so I started with that
flute sound so you could feel that joyfulness. But it's also put into a RZA
context that was joy mixed with sorrow and morbidity.
GROSS: Morbidity, did you say? Yeah.
THE RZA: Yes.
GROSS: Well, there's something very eerie about the theme.
THE RZA: That's what I mean. I think--I meant eerie. Morbid and eerie don't
mean the same thing.
THE RZA: Do they mean the same thing...
THE RZA: ...morbid, eerie?
GROSS: Well, eerie is kind of mysterious, and morbid has to do with death,
but I think it's both, because the movie has a lot to do with death.
THE RZA: Right. Well, I'll say eerie, then, and morbid, because I wanted to
be, like, you know, to catch the spirituality of the bird but also to capture,
like, the internal of Ghost Dog.
THE RZA: You know what I mean?
THE RZA: He's a very troubled individual, really.
GROSS: See, you used the word `detuned.' What do you mean by detuned, and
what is detuned in the music we just heard?
THE RZA: Well, you know, when a piano gets old, right, and it sits in your
studio for a long time, it becomes detuned, meaning, you know, all the notes
are maybe not a half step, but maybe one-eighth of a step, just out of tune in
the proper chromatic order. And I like that sound. You know, most people
come in and go, `I need to tune the keyboard,' or `I need to tune your piano'
or `tune your guitar.' I like it when it's detuned, because that means it's
not in the musical harmony according to the theory of music, but yet it has a
harmony of its own. And that's something I use a lot throughout my--whether I
sampled the sound or whether I played it, that's a sound I use a lot.
GROSS: And I think one of the reasons why that works when you do it is 'cause
you're often using, like, one-note lines, so...
THE RZA: Exactly.
GROSS: ...there aren't, like, chords that you're playing, 'cause the chords
might sound really raggy, but that single-note line, it works really well.
THE RZA: It carries out.
THE RZA: Yeah, 'cause it's like a person that sings, that doesn't
really--that does vocal training. You know, he'll be able to sing and give
you all the fill-ins he'll want to give you, but he may not be able to sing in
the key of A, you know. But he'll be able to sing a song that's in the key of
A and, just because he has a natural style and a good flow, it'll just somehow
mesh all together. I've been asked what hip-hop singing is, you know, like a
lot of hip-hop artists that sing.
THE RZA: You hear some of these songs--I know, like, people who hear it on
the radio are, like, `How's this song on the radio?' Even one of the great
hip-hop R&B singers, Mary J. Blige, in her early career, a lot of, you know,
trained musicians was, like, `Oh, Mary's always out of tune,' or--but the
hip-hop generation loved it, because there was no sound like that. It's only
sound was her, you know.
GROSS: My guest is composer, producer and rapper The RZA. He has a new book
called "The Wu-Tang Manual." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is hip-hop artist The RZA. He has
a new book called "The Wu-Tang Manual."
Now you've had several personas over the years. I mean, your birth name is
Robert Diggs. You're known as The RZA. That's a name you took when you
co-founded the Wu-Tang Clan. You're also Bobby Digital. And early in your
career, you were Prince Rakeem. So let's take it chronologically.
THE RZA: Well...
GROSS: Let's start with Prince Rakeem. I mean, who--what did you see that
persona as being? The music that you made with him is different from Wu-Tang.
THE RZA: I would say so. Well, first of all, I came, you know what I mean, I
was, basically, more of a student in the studies of life, shall I say, and as
well as definitely a student to the music and the music industry and things
like that. But as Prince Rakeem, you know, being young, 17, 18 years old, you
know, all you think about is girls, you know what I mean? And I was, you
know, a pretty popular guy with the girls. Like, you know, a lot of girls
thought--you know, had good things to say about me, `Oh, he's cute,' and `He
always got on some Polo and Gucci, and he's just'--you know. And I actually
liked to carry myself like a prince. I was the kind of kid that, you know,
kept his fingernails right, you know what I mean, wouldn't touch my food
without a napkin and, you know, walk like Mr. Spock, have my hands behind my
back. I used to walk very straight up and very elegant, you know what I mean?
That's how I felt, you know what I mean?
THE RZA: And I probably had about 30 different Polo suits that I got, you
know, 'cause we had many ways to make hustles back then. But every day, I
would come out with a new suit on. You might see me wear a powder blue Polo
suit with a gold chain, you know, gold teeth, I mean just something real fly,
real fly, you know what I mean? And that was kind of the persona of Prince
Rakeem. He was definitely a fly guy, as the word was back in those days. You
GROSS: Why don't we hear a 1991 record that you made as Prince Rakeem? And
this is "Ooh, I Love You Rakeem."
THE RZA: Oh, no. OK, let's go for it. Come on.
(Soundbite of "Ooh, I Love You Rakeem")
PRINCE RAKEEM: (Rapping) It seems I'm a feem for a sex routine. Love to hear
Backup Vocalists: Ooh, Rakeem!
PRINCE RAKEEM: (Rapping) And my response is `Oh.' Always satisfy them. You
know how I flow. But since I'm not lazy, I'm buck wild and crazy, I kiss the
bosoms but never eat the daisies. And my ladies love me deeply, because I'm
handsome, charming and freaky. And when they meet me, they won't go. And now
GROSS: OK. So let's move from Prince Rakeem to The RZA. How does The RZA
compare to Prince Rakeem?
THE RZA: Well, when I came up with Wu-Tang Clan, and the first single was
called "Protect Your Neck," and you'll notice in the video, it was, like, exit
Prince Rakeem and enter The RZA, because there was no time for me to be a
pretty boy. There was no time for me to be this elegant guy that was, you
know, into the ladies and into how I dressed and into how I looked. I became
The RZA basically, which was a total rebel, really, you know what I mean? It
was somebody that had it with society and that was coming to get his fair take
You notice when I came in as The RZA, I became, you know, very militant in my
look. I was very militant in my action. I just went through so much
different personal traumas, as far as with the law, with my life, with people
in the streets, the hood. And I basically made a Z, you know what I mean? I
made the first curve in my Z, shall I say. And I was, like, you know, `I'm
not--I'm no longer Prince Rakeem. That's part of my attribute, but I'm gonna
be The RZA,' you know what I mean? Because, you know, that means I was
strictly dealing with focusness. It's funny, because I didn't even, like,
care how I dressed. I didn't even change my clothes that often, you know what
I mean? I just was this one focused individual that was built on leaving a
legacy for himself.
And the Z, in mathematics, you know what I mean--'cause, you know, I studied
mathematics. And the Z stands for Zig-Zag-Zig, which represents knowledge,
wisdom and understanding. It means, like, people go this way, and sometimes,
you're going to have to zag back, 'cause you got to go back and check on
yourself. But then you realize you was going the right way in the beginning,
so you zig again. And that shows you that sometimes, you may know something
and you can understand it, but if you don't live through it, you know, it's
not fully understood by you. And so that zag is me living it out. And when I
zagged, you know, I went through so much troubles of life and life
experiences, so now I have the experience. So now I have to zig again, and
that's what really put that Z in my name. I was, like, `You know what? I
done went this way, that way, and now I understand which way I gotta walk.'
And I actually walk a very straight narrow line from the day that I took that
title, The RZA. I didn't really, you know, commit sins or--I was just a real
straightforward, focused determined individual, and I gave myself a five-year
period, you know what I mean, of to make sure I stayed on that path. And
that's what I did.
GROSS: And after the five years?
THE RZA: Well, after the five years, which I basically had took that name in
1992 and then, by 1997, my idea was I would be on the top, you know, that
musically, you know, and what I stood for would be the top in the world. And
I think in '97, it happened. I think in 1997, Wu-Tang made a number-one
record or something like that. We was the number-one hip-hop group,
number-one-selling hip-hop group at the time, you know, nominated for Grammys
and all that, you know, and really the number-one of influential groups at
that time. So it actually kind of came to fruition from that five-year plan.
GROSS: The RZA will be back in the second half of the show. He has a new
book called "The Wu-Tang Manual." Here's "Protect Your Neck," the song in
which he made the transition from Prince Rakeem to The RZA. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Protect Your Neck")
WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Yo, chill with the feedback. Black, we don't need
that. It's 10:00, hos. Where the (guitar power chord) your seed at? Feelin'
mad hostile, ran the apostle, flowin' like Christ when I speaks the gospel.
Stroll with the holy roll, then attack the globe with the buckus style the
ruckus. Ten times, 10 men committin' mad sin. Turn the other cheek, and I'll
break your (guitar power chord) chin. Slayin' boom-bangs like African drums.
We'll be comin' around the mountain when I come, crazy flamboyant for the rap
enjoyment. My clan increase like black unemployment. Yeah, another one dare.
GZA Genius, take us the (guitar power chord) outta here.
The Wu is too slammin' for these cold killer labels. Some ain't had hits
since I seen Aunt Mabel. Be doin' artists in like Cain did Abel. Now they
money's gettin' stuck to the gum under the table. That's what ya get when ya
misuse what I invent. Your empire falls, and ya lose every cent for tryin' to
blow up a scrub. Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt lightbulb.
Should have pumped it when I rocked it.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, The RZA on how the martial arts and movies have influenced
his music. He's written the scores for several films, including Quentin
Tarantino's "Kill Bill" and Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with The RZA, the chief
composer and producer of the platinum-selling hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan.
He's also written music for several movies, including Quentin Tarantino's
"Kill Bill" and Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog." Now he has a new book called "The
So we're talking about your different, you know, personas as a performer. So
we've talked about Prince Rakeem, The RZA. There's also Bobby Digital.
THE RZA: Right.
GROSS: Who's Bobby Digital?
THE RZA: Well, Bobby Digital actually is like a going backwards type of thing
because once I took on the persona The RZA and I took on the responsibility of
The RZA, which was basically like a father figure or what the Wu-Tang Clan
would call the abbot of all these great minds, and not only the abbot of
Wu-Tang Clan but abbot to the Wu-Tang fans, abbot to the students of Wu-Tang,
abbot to the people who took the words we said and the inspiration we said and
went and got tattoos on their arms and went and really felt this spirit of
unity that we brought, you know what I mean? It was kind of strange for
Wu-Tang when, you know, you went to Wu-Tang concerts, you're seeing every
ethnic group in there together, unified. And so I became the abbot of that
situation, the abbot of that movement. But being the abbot, you know, my
responsibilities really gave me no time to be this cool New York kid that I
was, you know what I mean? This cool street kid, this cool, savvy kid that
was into the Polo and the Gucci and into really that Prince Rakeem mentality.
And so Bobby Digital was basically, like, a regressing back towards that.
And the reason why I chose the name Bobby Digital--because I didn't want to go
back to being Prince Rakeem. I wanted to go back maybe a few years before
that when, you know, Robert Diggs--you know, my teachers called me Bobby. My
last name was Diggs. But we was in the digital world at that time, in my
opinion, everything was going digital. I felt that we had to go digital
mentally, meaning everything should be on a mathematical code. I believed we
had to keep our minds digital--You know what I mean?--in order to keep up with
time and space. And so I turned the Diggs into Digital, and Bobby Digital was
But the thing about him was that it was an alter ego that was, you know, also
based on my, you know, teen-age years but also baed in comic book, mythology
and based on fantasy, you know what I mean? And based on being an outlet to
express some of the things I missed. I mean, as Bobby Digital, that's when I
first started partying again. I remember spending maybe a hundred grand a
month just having a good time because I didn't have a good time doing the main
Wu-Tang success from the years of '93 to '97. I basically stayed in the
basement a lot, you know, kept producing everybody's solo albums. I didn't
really come outside and didn't really have a lot of girlfriends at that time.
I kind of, you know, went from Prince Rakeem to being The RZA, which was the
abbot or some kind of hermit, you know, just stayed with one woman, which was
really the best way to be is with one woman and focused, you know what I mean?
But, you know, you definitely miss a lot of fun, you know, being an artist.
And so it was like when Bobby Digital came, he gave me a chance to kind of
take a dip in the pool of sin or in the pool of, like--I don't want to say
sin, but definitely in the pool of fun and the basic things that a hip-hop
artist or a rock 'n' roll artist would enjoy. And I thoroughly enjoyed that
for about two to three years. I enjoyed it heavily until I started coming
back out of it--You know what I mean?--around the year 2000.
GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is a great track. This is
"B-O-B-B-Y" from the album "RZA as Bobby Digital."
(Soundbite of "B-O-B-B-Y")
THE RZA: (Singing) Digital. Yo, you know us to be robust, the greatest crew
since cold crush. This poisonous slang keep MCs avoiding us. Can't think
about the proper remedies for destroying us. Your best bet black is sit back
and start enjoying us, and run your commissary, attack your coronary. I'm a
bury revolutionary. Honorary is sonic. Electronic brain like Johnny
Mnemonic. Get boosted from the sorrow and went wu-tonic. You be fickle, get
your tongue thrown into a jar of pickle. To serve your bird with cheese and
pumpernickel. Ch-cha pssh. Three state Charlie, a classic like Marley Marl.
Tie your ass down and run you over with a trolley car. My nigga kucky keep
'em bucky like dent. Intent, read the fine print. It says do not enter or
cross the lines. You be tossed behind and force to submit to the rhyme.
B-O-B-B-Y, D-I-G-I-T-A-L. B-O-B-B-Y, D-I-G-I-T-A-L. B-O-B-B-Y,
D-I-G-I-T-A-L. Digital. Digital. Four-four in the holster strapped tight by
the Velcro, steel padded vest on the chest...
GROSS: That's from the album "RZA as Bobby Digital." My guest is hip-hop
artist The RZA. And he has a new book, which is called "The Wu-Tang Manual."
I really like that track a lot. You know, it's funny, you know, like, your
influences--you have so many influences musically but conceptually, too, you
know? Like, one of the really big influences in your life is martial arts
THE RZA: Yes.
GROSS: ...and samurai stories. And, you know, the samurai, man, that's all
about focus. That's all about discipline and using all your energy to focus
on whatever that skill is. But, you know, your influence is also comic books.
And you started off doing more of, like, party records. And, like, the party
vibe and the focus vibe are really just coming at it from opposite ends...
THE RZA: Right.
GROSS: ...which is one of the reasons I find it interesting. You've had all
these different personas because that's--I guess that's given you the chance
to kind of embody those different--yeah--to express those different
THE RZA: Yeah. You know, also, you know, I read a lot of things, right?
THE RZA: But I kind of felt like, even at a young age and even, you know, as
I went through the phase of hip-hop, that a name is like an attribute, you
know? You read in the holy Koran, it says, you know, the 99 attributes of
God, you know what I mean? And it's different attributes that's used to
describe him. And to me, that's how our names are, you know what I mean?
It's like if you look at me as Prince Rakeem, you know, you could kind of
picture the kind of person that you're talking about. And even though it's
the same person, but it's the characteristics of that person, you know what I
THE RZA: And everything has a yin and a yang in it. Everything has a yin and
a yang. So it's two extremes. So it could be one extreme of positivity and
one extreme of negativity because that's the yin and the yang of it. And I
think being aware of that, I knew that personalities sometimes can have names.
And not schizophrenically, but definitely a personality can be named. And you
notice that a lot of artists in hip-hop, as well as artists in the music
industry--look at Garth Brooks, he even came with an alter ego to describe a
certain sound of music he was doing that wasn't in line with what his fans
knew, but it was something that he felt. And he named it something different,
you know what I mean?
GROSS: My guest is composer, producer and rapper The RZA of the Wu-Tang
Clan. He has a new book called "The Wu-Tang Manual." We'll talk more after
our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is The RZA, the chief composer and producer in the group The
Wu-Tang Clan. The name is inspired by a mythical martial arts sword style.
Now The RZA has a new book called "The Wu-Tang Manual."
What would you say has been the influence of martial arts movies on you as a
performer or as an artist?
THE RZA: Oh, man, I think martial arts movies have given me a tremendous
amount of influence and inspiration. I mean, not only from the beautiful
fight scenes and the beautiful art they display but even in story lines and
the heroic ways that martial art films pit their characters. You know, you'll
see one man fighting 10 men, you know what I mean? Or you'll see three men up
against an army, and each one will die for each other no matter what. It's,
like, `No, I got it.' `No, I got it. I got it, brother. You leave. No,
brother, you leave.' You see? It's that kind of loyalty in a film--that
inspired me. And also the music and the stings and the stabs that used to
come out of nowhere because, you know, the fight scene has to be edited and
so, therefore, the music had to be edited to match the fight scenes. And they
had a very abstract flow of music in these movies. So I had a lot of
inspiration on that.
And then finally, the philosophy, you know? I was able to pick up on the
philosophy that was being talked about in some of these movies early because I
was familiar with a certain kind of knowledge and from reading the Bible and
things like that. So there's a movie called "The 36 Chambers" where you see
the monks are talking to each other, and one monk is like--he's saying the
five tones differ in every ear, you know what I mean? The five colors blind
every eye, you know? Silence is bliss. Do you hear the sound of bells? We
hear nothing. All is empty. And so he is looking at these people, saying
this. And they're like, `What is this right here,' you know what I mean?
Without wisdom, there is no gain. And this is a kung fu movie. And that was,
like, the 35th chamber of, you know, kung fu, which was basically studying
sutras, memorizing them and talking about them. And I was inspired by that,
you know? And I started, like, paying attention to what they were saying in
these movies. And I kind of call it, like, a fantasy history of the Shaolin
temple, their heroes, what happened to it, how it got burned down. And I got
all this from movies. And when I went back and referred this information I
got from the movies to the real historical facts, maybe some of the names were
not right, but the incidents were correct.
GROSS: What were the movie theaters that you went to when you were a kid to
see the martial art films?
THE RZA: Oh, 42nd Street was flooded with kung fu movies during--maybe from
the year of 1979 to the year 1984. I mean, you could go on 42nd Street and
there was maybe a dozen theaters on that one strip, showing, you know--with
two or three screens inside these theaters, you could bet that there was at
least 15 martial art films on the strip at any given moment. And I'm the kind
of kid that would go to the movies and watch three martial art films at one
screen, come back the next day, go across the street and watch the three that
they had, you know what I mean? And so I was a fan. And 42nd Street was,
like, the capital of that.
GROSS: How old were you? You were living in one of the boroughs out of
THE RZA: Yeah. Brooklyn and Staten Island, back and forth.
GROSS: So how old were you when you could go by yourself or with friends on
the subway to get to Manhattan?
THE RZA: Well, I'm a street kid. I was riding the subway by myself by the
age of nine. That's just because New York is like that, you know what I mean?
You know, growing up with a single parent in a house with brothers and
sisters--I come from a family of 11 brothers and sisters. So you could
imagine the kind of independency that fell on some of us as children, you know
what I mean? And so I was riding trains to Manhattan at the age of nine. By
the time I was 11 years old, I was taking myself and my little seven-year-old
brother with me and my six-year-old brother all they way from Brownsville,
Brooklyn, to 42nd Street Manhattan. That's, like, a 45-minute train ride.
And we'd get off and go to the movies. And the movies actually had signs
`only 17 and older.' And I would have to ask a stranger on the street to buy
my tickets and all that just to get inside the theater and sit there and watch
some kung fu films, bringing food from home, maybe some chicken wings in my
pocket or something, you know what I mean? It was crazy. But it was a past
that, when I look back on it, I look at it as a destined path because the urge
and the hunger that attracted me to martial arts and the urge and the hunger
that would attract me to travel all the way from Staten Island, to get on a
bus to a ferry to a train and ride all the way past Yankee Stadium, you know,
to go hear hip-hop, to go to Soundview Projects with The GZA to hear somebody
rapping and talking and to see break dancing, or to travel all over and ride
trains just to write your name in graffiti on it, you know?
It's strange how the urges of it is like almost as strong as the urge of sex,
you know what I mean? Because, you know, a sex urge leads men to all kind of
foul-mouth practices from rape to suicide if a man get his heart broke like
that. So imagine that same kind of drive and urge for martial arts and for
the study of knowledge and for music and hip-hop. It's, like, that's the kind
of urges I had. And, man, you know, it was kind of a blind urge, too, because
I really didn't understand it until now. I see that, wow, what a path that
was chosen for me.
GROSS: OK, so you just had this instinctive urge to hear music, to go
wherever you had to to hear the music you wanted to hear and to go as far as
you needed to to see the movies you wanted to see. And that was an incredible
education for you, particularly in the field that you are in, which is
THE RZA: There, exactly.
GROSS: ...and movies, 'cause you write scores for movies. What was actual
school like for you where you were officially supposed to be getting your
THE RZA: Well, in school, I made--a lot of teachers, they was very impressed
with me, but I wasn't a very attendant student. You know what I mean? I
mean, any given year, whether it was--even when living with my mother from
poverty and from the times we suffered, you know, with so many brothers and
sisters, and it was, like, I mean, I would miss 40 days out of any given
When I became a high school student, I basically--you know, the first year, I
kind of tried to stay focused, and it was hard. I mean, it was times when I
didn't have a nickel to catch the bus to go to school, and the school was
maybe, like, a 45-minute-to-an-hour walk. And you know, going through all
that the first year, I struggled and struggled, and I made the honor role, and
they offered me a scholarship to write, and, you know, I was on the school
newspaper and all them things.
But by the time my sophomore year, I was a hookey-playing, 40-ounce-drinking,
girl-chasing, give-up-on-school, trying to find a way to make a dollar, trying
to find a way to hustle. But what saved me, I think, in the long run, was
whether I went to school or not, I would always study. So I may wake up at
9:00 in the morning and go, `I'm not going to school,' but still sit there for
two hours and read and study first before I go outside. And..
GROSS: What would you read and study?
THE RZA: Well, I'm gonna tell you, I would even study the books I got from
school. Whether it was my math book, my science book, I would study any book
I got from school. At this time, I was allowed the Bible, so I would read the
Bible a lot. And also, we had what was called the 120 lessons that's taught
from the Nation of Gods and Earths. That's dealing with questions
of--actually, a lot of controversial questions about history and about science
and certain things.
Like, there's one question: What makes rain, hail, snow and earthquakes? And
the answer to the question was: The Earth is covered under water
three-fourths of its surface, and the sun and moon have attracting powers on
our planet, draws water up into the Earth's rotation which is called
gravitation. And the fine mist that your eye can't see, but that's just a
mist that sends higher and increases for other mists of water, different
currents of the atmosphere, till it becomes heavier than gravitation. Then it
distills back to the Earth in the form of drops of water, drops of ice which
depends on how heavy the mist was or the current of the air it was in.
So, you know, we had to memorize these things like that. So I would memorize
that kind of information, you know, the total square miles of the planet
Earth, 196,940,000 square miles. How much is land? Fifty-seven million two
hundred eighty-five thousand square miles of land. How much is water? One
hundred thirty-nine million six hundred eighty-five thousand square miles of
water. We would quiz each other on these things. At the same time, I learned
about magnetism, the proprieties of light and chemistry.
But I just didn't have the patience to sit in the class or the attention power
to sit in the class and listen to a teacher tell me these things, because I
would be thinking of a girl or something, or thinking, you know--even
sometimes, you know, it's funny. And I say this out loud, 'cause I know a lot
of men can relate. Sometimes, you could be a 14-year-old boy in the
classroom, and all you're thinking about is having sex with the teacher. You
know what I mean? And it's crazy. You'll be sitting there, just looking and
looking. No matter what she's trying to teach you, say to you, all you is
dreaming about is, `Man, what if you could just take Mrs. Bull(ph) in the
back?' You know what I mean? And I realized that in my own self that this is
a real true distraction of life, and I should take time to stay at home and
read and study, myself.
And that's why, you know, self-knowledge is important, and self-study's
important no matter--'cause whether you go to school, whether you go to a kung
fu class, for instance, you're not going to learn the technique because of
(unintelligible), because you're going to the class. No, it's going to be
your self-practice, your self-dedication on the side that's going to help you
perfect what you need to perfect.
GROSS: My guest is composer, producer and rapper The RZA. He has a new book
called "The Wu-Tang Manual." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is The RZA, the chief composer and producer in the group the
Wu-Tang Clan. Now he has a new book called "The Wu-Tang Manual."
You were writing rhymes--you started writing rhymes when you were about nine,
THE RZA: Yeah, I wrote my first lyric--I stole them from the age of eight to
nine, but at nine, I wrote my first lyric, yeah.
GROSS: So do you remember what your first lyric was?
THE RZA: I kind of remember. It was something like, `You see the girl with
the biggest breasts,' you know what I mean, `(rapping) I would like to get my
hands under her dress.' It was definitely straight-up, you know, the wrong
thing to think about, but you know, it was sex, sex, sex, sex fantasies.
GROSS: Even when you were nine?
THE RZA: Oh, man. You could imagine growing up in the hood. I mean, nine
years old, you know, you tried things at nine years old, you know. I don't
want to get too, you know, into my personal life and get psychological, but I
mean, I tried at the age of nine, and I know at the age of 11, I was
successful at doing what I wanted to do. You know what I mean? By the time
I got to 11, I knew many things about women already.
So that's just--you know, that's just--I don't know if that's--I think that's
just growing up poor. Somebody told me that. I think--yeah, I was talking to
Quentin Tarantino. We had a long talk about this, right. And he said--I was
talking about how my children don't seem to be like me. Like, you know, at
the age of nine, I already had marijuana in my system, drinking 40 ounces--I
mean 30--I mean, there was only quarts back then--drinking 32 ounces of Old
English, and I was only nine years old, smoking joints and stuff like that.
So it's, like, I look at my son. I have a nine-year-old son right now. He
don't know nothing about nothing. And it seems like his life is totally
oblivious to where I was at at that age.
And I was talking to Quentin about that, like, you know, trying to, like,
ponder, understand it. He basically kind of gave me some insight. He said
that when you are poor, you know what I'm saying, you don't get a chance to
truly live your childhood out. There's so many things on your mind, so many
things that's pulling you. And sex is probably one of the best, you know,
(unintelligible) regression, you know, sex and drugs, from the problems of the
world. So he pointed that out to me. And I was, like, `You might be right,'
'cause none of my children--you know, they have everything they want, and, you
know, they're basically the children of a millionaire. And so they
don't--they play with Godzilla all day. They're playing with toys right now
when, by the time we was nine or 10 when I grew up, you've seen a gun in your
hand already, you know.
GROSS: Well, you were really lucky, you know, like, having that kind of
childhood and emerging...
THE RZA: Surviving, y'all.
GROSS: Yeah, emerging so intact, not to mention successful. And, you know,
someone--one of your cousins, ODB, who was also in Wu-Tang Clan, I mean, he
died, I think, of a heart attack or some kind of heart problem.
THE RZA: He did.
GROSS: But, you know, he wasn't so lucky in the sense that he was in and out
of jail for a while, in and out of prison.
THE RZA: I know. I think the time when I saw that changed, the time when it
was time for me to really walk a positive straight line and to put my trust in
God, would probably be the terminology people would understand, put my trust
in God and try to reflect his image, you know what I mean...
THE RZA: ...on Earth, like, be God instead of being a man or being the devil,
(unintelligible) show God qualities? When I made that decision to do that, I
think I made it at the right time, because I think I was headed to death also.
I mean, you know, I was involved in things with people. I was doing all kinds
of things that was definitely, you know, not a good citizen. You know, I
don't like to see nobody doing these things, you know, but I know how it is to
struggle, but at the same time, it's, like, there got to be a better way
without--at 1992, I'll never forget, you know, how I won the trial and I got
the chance to say, `You know what? I'm not doing negativity no more.'
GROSS: What was the trial for?
THE RZA: Oh, the trial, I think, attempted murder trial, you know what I
mean? I won as self-defense, you know what I mean? You know, I ain't turning
GROSS: Did you think, at that point, you might have been convicted and ended
up behind bars for a long time?
THE RZA: Oh, I was gone, y'all. I couldn't believe I won, you know, I mean,
because the person--you know, of course, if, you know, you bring injury to
somebody, they're not going to want to be your friend. But the person really
had it out for me, and he really wanted me to go to jail. I mean, he had it
out for me so much that he wound up telling lies and things like that. And
that's what helped me out is that he had too much of a personal vendetta that
he had fabricated a story. And, you know, all you need is one reasonable
doubt to win a trial, and that's what saved me is that this guy just started
lying about stuff and things that he didn't have to lie about, but he wanted
me down so bad.
You know, when I won the trial, I realized that, you know, what I did, I won't
say whether it was right or wrong, because it was, you know, some guys, and
they was, you know, out of order coming on me like that. You know what I'm
saying? I wasn't the guy to do that to. I was--you know, I didn't bother
nobody, but if you don't mess with me, trust me, you don't want to mess with
me. Messing with me is not the right thing to do. You know what I mean? And
they made that decision, and the results was, you know, gunfire. That was the
result. And I'm not proud of that or nothing like that, but that was the
result. And I'm glad that nobody got hurt more serious than they did. And
I'm glad that really, you know, being on the scene, more people could have
been hurt that night, the way that these guys had really drawn my anger out
and drawn me out to protect myself. It's, like, I would have slayed the world
that night. You know what I mean?
But I realized how one moment could change your life. You know what I mean?
I was facing eight years in prison, three years before I even could see the
parole board. I had just got a young girl pregnant--You know what I mean?--a
16-year-old girl. I think I was 21, and I got a 16-year-old girl pregnant, so
that wasn't feeling so good. I mean, it was really, like, `Man, what am I
doing right here, y'all?' And I mean, all the things I learned growing up,
you know, as far as knowledge, wisdom, understanding and respect and all these
things, were not being applied. It was more like things that was in my mind
and things I could talk good about, but none that I could say that I applied.
And so I made the decision. You know, thanks to the second chance I got, I
stopped myself from going that route.
And I've learned to balance my life. For instance, you know, you look at my
cousin, and you see that, you know, he left from a heart attack. You know, a
heart attack just means that you overused your heart. You know what I mean?
Meaning that, you know, all he'd ever took was he never stopped. If we
started at the age of nine and he's 35 years old when he leaves, that's
showing you how many years of doing what we do. But what I used to do, I'd
take a year off. I'd say, `I'm not getting high this year. I'm not drinking
this year. I'm not smoking this year. I'm not smoking no weed this year,' or
I'll take six months off.
I also always, like, take chances to balance myself off and not just stay
(unintelligible). `I'm not doing it no girls this year.' Like, I said from
the year of 1993 to 1997, I stayed with one women, and I was, you know, just a
faithful, you know, come-home type of guy, workaholic, you know. I mean, I
didn't even care about my clothes, nothing, just wanted to work and wanted to
build. It's, like, so therefore, I got a chance to chill with that scaled
back a little bit.
GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you so much for talking with us. I
really appreciate it.
THE RZA: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: The RZA is the chief composer and producer of the Wu-Tang Clan. His
new book is called "The Wu-Tang Manual."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Here's "For Heaven's Sake" from "Wu-Tang Forever."
(Soundbite of "For Heaven's Sake")
THE RZA: Yo! One, two. One, two.
Wu Tang. Wu Tang. Wu Tang. Wu Tang.
It's the Wu creepin' in the shadows.
Oh, baby, for heaven's sake.
Wu Tang. Wu Tang. Wu Tang.
Sir, I, Excalibur.
Wu Tang. Wu Tang.
Oh, baby, for heaven's sake.
Wu Tang. Wu Tang.
Oh, baby, for heaven's sake.
Wu Tang. Wu Tang.
Yo, aiyyo my rap style swing like Willie Mays. My eyes Purple Haze, my solar
razor burn through shads. My grenades raid the airwaves, catch this rap page.
I glide like hovercrafts on the Everglades. Boom master, with the faster
blade, track slasher. Manufacture poems to microphones, bones fracture.
Limited edition composition spark friction. Non-fiction, the calm bomb keep
your arm distant. Zero tolerance, dominant intelligence. Wu original, true
colors step from the melanin. The most high, most try, to get close by. And
overthrow I, but choke, with they hopes up high. I circulate the tri-state
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