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RZA on the Future of Hip-Hop and Why Ol’ Dirty Bastard Would Be ‘One of the Greatest Artists Alive’

The Wu-Tang legend goes deep on being honored by Rihanna and A$AP, the possibility of a new Wu album, and why rap is “at the base of the mountain, not at the top”

RZA on hip hop

Daniel Hastings*

HIP-HOP WAS BORN IN THE Bronx in the summer of 1973. To celebrate the music’s 50th anniversary, “Rolling Stone” will be publishing a series of features, historical pieces, op-eds, and lists throughout this year.

IT’S THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER when RZA hops on Zoom one afternoon, but the Wu-Tang architect and Hollywood maven isn’t exactly taking it easy. The Wu-Tang Clan are on tour with Nas for the overseas leg of their New York State of Mind Tour, thrilling crowds while exemplifying the possibilities for hip-hop icons entering middle age. “We have to show the young generation that this can be a lifelong career if you follow the proper path,” he says.

We’re at hip-hop 50. What do you think are some of the biggest things that the community needs to be asking itself heading into the next 50 years?
We’re at the base of the mountain, not at the top. Somebody tweeted recently that “we are still not aligned.” I think we need to align. Maybe get some of the godfathers to come together and talk about what we’re going to do with this culture, and how we’re going to protect it, preserve it, and advance it.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame didn’t come immediately [to hip-hop]. We’re happy that now they’re inducting some of us. Great. Let’s make the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. The BET hip-hop awards is cool. Love BET. But it’s not from us — it’s corporate. We need people of the culture to govern and guide the culture.

The Wu-Tang: American Saga show chronicles your five-year plan for the group, where you planned Wu’s triumph as a group and the solo albums to follow. As you revisited those moments, did it make you wish you had done some things differently?
Not too many things. I think that what I did was necessary. I think that it was ordained. One day, Jay-Z told me, “Yo, I got [the idea for] The Blueprint from you.” At that time, I was headed to Hollywood already. Now, here’s a path, here’s a way it can work. And it continued to work in different regions of the country and with different crews.

What do you think Ol’ Dirty Bastard would be up to these days? I feel like he’d be the most viral person ever.
[Laughs.] He was such a unique talent. He had a couple of left turns that was pretty off course from the person who he really was. I think he would’ve found his way back on his right path, and potentially would’ve been one of the greatest artists alive. Who is the greatest artist alive? Let’s ask ourselves that real quick.

Stevie Wonder.
Stevie Wonder. He’s a great example. It’s like ODB will probably be at least 50 percent at that level of popularity in the world. And whether it was his music, his voice, or whatever he was doing every day, he was going to continue to grow to be a globally recognized energy.

What are the chances of a new Wu-Tang album?
We’re still here on the Earth, all praises due. We’re having a great run on this tour. We’re laughing with each other, sharing music with each other. There were a couple of [tracks] I heard that sound like it’s very possible. [One in particular] I didn’t produce, but I heard it and gave my notes. [Wu producer and DJ] Allah Mathematics went into the studio and took heed to the notes.

Was that something with all the members on the track, or a lot of them?
No, it wasn’t a “Triumph” type of joint. It just had that Wu spirit.

Can you speak to how artists like you and the other Wu-Tang members, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and others are forging a new path for rappers into middle age?
People thought hip-hop was just youth culture. We had no examples like rock & roll, where you have the Rolling Stones playing into their seventies, or the Eagles or Earth, Wind, and Fire. The brothers you just named, Nas, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, Busta, Joey Cracks, Outkast, pioneered this global success. Not taking nothing from Run-D.M.C. or Rakim and all of them, who also [pioneered hip-hop in the Eighties], but it was the Nineties when the constant multiplatinums just kept coming.

Now, here we are, living different lifestyles than our parents. At 50 years old, my grandfather was already looking at a wheelchair. You look at Method Man, he got more muscles than ever. He’s on some Hercules shit at 50. Our strength and our vitality is there.

You play a lot of chess. What are some of your most memorable matches with other notable people?
My most notable is actually with a brother who passed away named Emory Tate. He was a six-time military champion and international master. Chess was bugged out in the Seventies because it was the Cold War. He got to go to different Army bases and play; they said they wanted to kill him and take his brain because he was whipping ass so bad. Tate was this very unique Black man who loved the game, served his country, and was a fascinating individual.

But on a celebrity level, we get busy. Right now, it’s me and my buddy Rob Morgan, and before our brother Jamie Foxx had to take a sit-down for a little while, we had an ongoing rivalry.

People will say it’s a rivalry, but it’s only one person winning. Was it a back-and-forth rivalry?
[Laughs.] I let them tell the rest of it. I am the Abbot.

How did you react when you heard that Rihanna and A$AP Rocky named their kid after you?
It’s an honor. It has such an energy and relevance to it. The R in RZA is for “rule” or “ruler.” And to rule something, the first thing you got to try to do is rule yourself, rule your lower and higher nature. A ruler is also something we use to measure things. And so therefore, you have to measure your movements, your ideas, and where you stand at all times before you make your next move to that Z. So to me, that’s a beautiful name.

Did they just call you and tell you? Or ask you? Or how did that go?
I’ll leave all that in the air. Just saying I was aware of it.

Recently, you said that you felt like hip-hop was going in a one-sided direction in terms of songs that depict violence, but not the full scope of the tragedy that’s behind the violence. What do you think it would take to reverse that dynamic?
[It’s on] the artists. Open the door for more of them. Sometimes our system gets hooked on the hamburger and french fries because they sell and they’re cheaper to produce.

But you got to open up the door and let the art go. If you go back and check some of that history, whether it’s Wu-Tang, Outkast, the Roots, Jay-Z, you’ll see that the system let them be, opened the door, and let them try it. The industry has to get back to that. The labels got to get back to that, letting it breathe. Even McDonald’s is not stupid. When Kentucky Fried Chicken is bubbling, they got to come with the McChicken.

What’s your day to day like these days? How intent are you about not spreading yourself too thin with all your ventures?
I live my culture. And whether it’s the hip-hop culture, or it’s my spirituality through Islam, and the study of Buddha, and the great Christ, I live this. If you look at my company, 36 Chambers, which is a vegan-lifestyle company, that’s exactly what I am.

Right now, we doing this New York State of Mind Tour. It’s not easy to get up, leave your family, fly around the world, go through airport security, or be on a damn bus, and do it night after night. The joy of it for me is that when I come back home, I come home to that heaven that I wanted to build on Earth, where all my 12 jewels of life exist, my knowledge, wisdom, understanding is there, my culture, freedom, and equality is there. So Superman goes to his Fortress of Solitude after saving the world. He’s got to go back to the Arctic and sit down and reminisce off his mother and father’s history and all those things. And I follow that path.

What can we expect to see coming from the RZA for the rest of 2023?
We’re looking forward to continuing the New York State of Mind Tour. It’ll hit the USA in September. Wu-Tang and Hot 97 are going to rock Madison Square Garden. And, of course, I’m waiting for the strike to end to get back to making some new films.

I’m also looking to do a radio show in New York City. Been talking to a couple of good brothers — Grandmaster Flash, LL [Cool J]. I was DJ’ing since I was 11 years old. So it would be fun for me to play around in that world for a little bit. We’re talking to [Hot] 97 right now, which owns two stations. They got 97, they got WBLS.

You also got Rock the Bells Radio, which LL is doing a great job with over there. I told him a Wu Wednesday would be nice, right?

From Rolling Stone US