(Please note: This is from an interview with the Wu-Tang Clan from 2007 for Remix Magazine. While the magazine is no longer in business, this interview needed to exist! For all you old-schoolers, click here for a PDF of the printed article if you prefer.)
“Let me tell y’all something! You’re gonna see a lot of emcees in your life! You’re gonna see a lot of hip-hop in your life! But don’t you never forget one thing motherfuckers! TIGER STYYYLLLEEEE!!!” -RZA Rocks the Bells in San Bernardino, CA on August 11, 2007
Anyone growing up in this cursed generation ought to consider themselves awfully lucky. Yes, yes, you look at the news, you see the papers, you hear the polar bears cryin’, the Middle East bleeding, and the religious zealots choking on their own excrement, and it’s hard to immediately agree, but consider this...how many generations can rightfully claim being witness to the unlikely birth, the uncontrollably rapid rise, and the glorious apex of arguably the world’s most influential musical genre?
While hip-hop was gaining credible steam in attempting to prove itself as more than just a ‘passing fad’ through the 80s, there was a clan of cats from the streets of Staten Island, NY who were honing their craft, paying each others’ bail, fine-tuning a style, dodging bullets, stealing electronic equipment, street hustlin’, and spiritually evolving all at the same time. They embraced the culture that they lived, immersed themselves in the movement, and locked themselves in a chamber. What they emerged with grabbed the music world by its horns, turned it upside down, and shook the shit out of it until any semblance of doubt fell forever from its pockets.
Embraced by everyone from computer geeks to Australian pop rock bands to every ‘hood this side of the prime meridian, there is perhaps no other entity or individual in the past decade with such a strong and lasting influence on the genre, style, and culture that is hip-hop than the Wu Tang Clan. They exploded with a plan to take over the hip-hop world.
A 5 year plan masterfully crafted by their de-facto ringleader Robert Diggs, aka RZA.
A plan that worked.
Within the 14 years following the release of their raw and dirty debut masterpiece Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), they’ve managed to build not only a hip-hop super group comprised of 9 of the most talented MCs on the planet, but a multi-faceted cross-generational super-persona that has spawned an entire industry. Between the wildly successful solo projects of each of its 9 members (not to mention countless affiliates), an internationally recognized clothing line, video game, and comic book, all tastefully exploiting a wide appeal based on obscure Kung Fu samples, keen cultural commentaries, and an identity dominated by its eerie yet inspiring Shaolin ideologies and references, they’ve proven more than just another hip-hop group. The Wu created, and defined, a way of life, simply by holding a mirror up to their own.
Following the 2004 death of one of its most unique and celebrated, albeit trouble-prone, members, Russell Jones, (aka Old Dirty Bastard, Unique Ason, Joe Bannanas, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, Osirus, and, who could forget, Big Baby Jesus) a bit of the air was understandably taken out of them. But with a levelheadedness and insatiable appetite to evolve, RZA corralled the rest of the crew: GZA, U-God, Method Man, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and even Ghostface Killah. He also enlisted master wordsmith and formerly honorary member Capadonna, as an official member. They refocused, realigned, and, thankfully, soldiered on.
“It really just took a phone call and an explanation that ‘yo, it’s time for us to do our thing’ and everyone felt the same,” tells us RZA over a heaping plate of Thai spaghetti. “So I went up to New York myself, booked the studio, and started the process. We promised this to the people,” he iterates, “so now it’s time to deliver The Eight Diagrams. It's gonna be in their veins.”
In between records, and in the past several years, RZA has added to his arsenal both materialistically and spiritually. Inspectah Deck divulges that there are “well over 1000 Wu or Wu-affiliated songs,” a majority of which RZA has had a leading role in producing. It’s this tireless resume, along with numerous movie scores (among them Kill Bill Vol.1, Afro Samurai, and Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai), and an ever-increasing thirst for knowledge, that have played the biggest part in preparing for The Eight Diagrams.
“What I did over these last 10 years, I picked up my first music book. I started studying music theory, and now I've got 10 years in. I know how to play piano on an intermediate level. I know how to play guitar on an intermediate level. Now I know that he went from C to F, he went to B-minor then he went to A-minor,” RZA prides.
“Harmonic progression, that's what I mostly studied. In hip-hop, you don't need melody, because the voice and the rhymes are the melody, so you need harmony. I'll share that with your audience. That's a secret right there.”
Another important aspect of RZA’s uniquely keen production prowess comes not from something he has learned, but something he was born with - an innate ability to trust his own insticts. “If you go listen, I may have a slight off-beatness to my music, and I realize, it's me,” he tells us. “Forever may have been more quality than 36 Chambers, but it still never meet the quality of what Dr.Dre's doing...I still never had that wide EQ produced quality. Not because I ain't got an SSL (mixing board). I got the same SSL they got...the same big speakers, the same system. I just don't hear it how they hear it. I hear it how I hear it.”
“Method Man will vouch for this and Tru Masta will vouch, if you come to my studio session, if you touch one fader after I mix everything, you'll be like 'that's not on beat.’ The only thing keeping it on beat is the levels of where everything is at. You got like 15 things making one sound. I take all these different elements and make it one tone, but if you move anything, it falls apart like a card-house.”
“One thing I do different than a lot of producers is, most producers want their bass to hit with their kick,” RZA demonstrates with an impromptu beatbox, “but I don't think you need to. The bass can be wherever the fuck it wants to be, as long as it has a space of operation. Sometimes my bass note isn't even the same key as my kick note. A long time ago I realized music isn't only a note and a melody and a harmony, it's also a pulse. Music is pulse.”
“A lot of people are straight 1, 2, 3, 4, they're so formatted...they think the snare has to come here. With this dude,” the Inspectah marvels of RZA, “the snare may come in on an off-bar, but when it come in, it come in with a smack. It come in and announce itself. That's the difference between him and a lot of other producers. That's why we sound the best when we rhyme with him.”
Well, that and the methods and lessons learned through 14 years of recording and adjusting to the nuances of 9, and often more, emcees, each with their own subtle quirks requiring different approaches and levels of attention. “In the old days it was more like I knew whose voice would go on which beat, but over time, everyone's talent has grown and expanded and voices have changed somewhat. In my opinion, no producer ever mixes Ghostface voice the way I mix his voice. I always had his voice more warmer,” RZA confidently presents before explaining. “A vocal only sleeps between 70 and 100 kilohertz. Between that 70 to 100 khz, you got to find that perfect balance for your artist that takes away some of the nasal high, while still keeping the warmth of the mid, and a little bottom.”
”Each Clan member had their own compressor, so when they came to my house or studio, their compressor was always set to their voice. I had a preset channel that I would never touch.” RZA used Avalon and Urei pre-amps, as well as the DBX-160 compressors with Pultec EQs, both of which he rented for The Eight Diagrams as well.
“Basically, he's the conductor,” states Inspectah Deck, “so all I got to do is give him what I feel was decent to me, like my vocals, my ad libs, then I let him seal the deal. I know by the time he's done with it, it's going to sound how it's supposed to sound. It's gonna have that Wu Tang edge. There's only one RZA.”
“He'd be like ‘Get the fuck out the booth!’,” U-God reflects. “Next day I'm back in again, ‘Get the fuck out the booth!’ next day I'm back in again, then it got to a point where it was like ‘MOTHERFUCKERRRRRR!!’ I mean, the last time he kicked me out the booth, I done killed the whole booth, slammed the door, boom boom boom! Went home. But he brought it out of me. He made me go back and correct and made me perfect my shit. Now, it ain't nothing. He made me a beast.”
It was at this point that RZA shot a judgmentally discerning glare, sizing me up and down, before offering “I don’t know if I want to tell anybody...but I’ll tell you. I’ll tell your magazine only.”
Aha! A sacred Shaolin secret revealed.
“I recorded the vocals in 2 to 3 mics at one time.”
“I put a mic right at the chest, one up close to the throat, and one right in front of them,” he reveals. “It’s a mess for the engineer. You have like 20 tracks of vocals for Raekwon alone, but I wanted to have a new vocal sound. I wanted to be able to catch a niggas chest ambience, his throat ambience, and maybe his nose ambience.”
For this process, he used Neumann U87s as the main sensor, with AKG C12s and a Shure 55 Unidyne (“the mic that Elvis used to record his shit”) both of whose positions were slightly altered depending on the emcee up to bat.
In addition to utilizing new vocal recording techniques, the RZA draws a few new pieces of gear from his ever-expanding holster. Among them were the Roland MV8000 and MV8800, which he employed for most of the drum beats. “I had a lot of beats already on the 8000 because I had the 8000 for almost 3 years now, but the 8800 I had for a couple of months and it had some hot new kicks and some hot new sounds in it that I wanted to use.” Furthermore, “with the MVs you can record the vocals right into there and do a whole song...mix it, master it and put it out.”
Other new pieces of gear, such as the Roland V-Synth ”was a surprise. That's a strange machine. You can actually plug anything through it so you can make your whole beat and put it into the V-Synth and elastically stretch it out and do all kinds of shit. Just plug up to a MIDI keyboard or you can plug a mic directly into it and do your hooks and alter the sound or add an extra voice on top of the chorus. It’s also like a vocoder. It has great vocal cards in it, so you can have the flute sound like a vocal.”
“I’ve been using more Roland, but I actually hated Roland growing up. To me, their equipment wasn't user friendly...their interface wasn't proper, but now, I think they got it. Also now I'm smarter so I can figure it out. There's even two beats on the album where I use the Roland Oasys keyboard, which is the most expensive keyboard you could buy.”
“I used the Oasys for a song called ‘Tar Pits’ because the Oasys can give you 16 tracks of MIDI sounds and 16 tracks of audio. So I made a beat that I liked and recorded my guitar directly into the Oasys. I could be programming beats and have a live sound all coming out of one thing. Also, the pre-amps inside the Oasys are much better than the pre-amps in the (Digidesign) Digi 002. Sometimes I even dump the MV tracks into the Oasys because it has a better pre-amp.”
RZA also found himself pulling out older gems such as the “Yamaha VL7. If you plug it into an MPC, for some reason, MPC modulation causes all the notes to stutter, so it sounds like an Isaac Hayes type of delay, which I actually discovered accidentally, but once I found it, I ran with it. I did recently bring out the VL7 for this album for a song called ‘Wolves.’ I used it for the horns and it has one of these kind of flute synths. Also the (VL7’s) virtual bass sounds real good.”
Granted, a guy like RZA could afford to acquire any piece of equipment he so desires, but it’s not always a matter of what you think you need, it’s a matter of using what you have. While the majority of the production process employs Pro Tools, RZA uses it all because “I’m just a scientist of sound like that. I even used Garageband.”
Errr...he correctly interprets my blank stare as desire for explanation...
”I was on a plane, I was fucked up, I was bored, had my laptop, and it sounded good. I sent it for the Japanese to hear it for one of the characters in Afro Samurai and they were like 'woah, we like that.'”
But back to The Eight Diagrams, where RZA found himself unintentionally using Logic. “George Clinton came in and bugged out and I was like, you know what? There’re a few good bass loops in Logic that we can drag and drop and I’ll just take out some of the notes, but the sonics are going to sound good. So I started the session in Logic. We started smoking some weed, started getting into the groove, and to switch back over to Pro Tools was going to take a minute. I already had a spirit going on, so I wind up recording a song in Logic, which I didn't know I was going to do for this album.”
“When the Clan heard it, they all loved it, and everybody threw vocals on it. Raekwon said 'we got no ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ on this album, a song that's like that soul loop thing that you do' and that’s what this is, and it’s just one of those songs that I just did because I was fuckin' around with George Clinton. It's called ‘Land of My Dreams.’”
While the grimy, gritty, and fuck-you-up-cuz-we-like-it-raaaaaw still provides the foundation of everything Wu, the most surprising and unexpected element of The Eight Diagrams was RZA’s decision to use live instruments for the first time in the process of producing a Wu Tang Clan album. “He's redeveloped his skin,” U-God offers matter-of-factly. “That's what basically everything is. You got to shed skin, and redevelop.”
“It was something I wasn't used to back in the early Wu Tang days, but since I have become a Hollywood composer, I had a chance to work with 80 piece orchestras,” RZA gleams. “So now I know. It's actually something I've always wanted to do...to put those two worlds together.”
“As far as production-wise, RZA is a scientist with what he does,” the Inspectah awes. “I think that's a brilliant idea in 2007. With a live band, mixed with certain samples, it gives it a classic sound, but more up to date...more crisp...more clean. It's crazy man, I'm from the school where he’s on the ASR, the Korg Triton, the Kurzweil, so nowadays to be in hip-hop and you got dude in there hittin' the violin strings 100 mph, you got dude on the drums, it's different.”
“He surprises me every time, because right when you think he ain't got nothing, you swear he ain't got nothing,” enthuses U-God, “he got something.”
This is perhaps evidenced best in what is possibly the biggest WTF on The Eight Diagrams...their cover of The Beatles’ “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” RZA, the last person I would have expected to ride the Yellow Submarine, can’t hold back. “I love it! I love the progression, I love the 5 chords they’re using up and down, I love it. I always wanted to record that song.”
The story goes a little something like this: a music executive friend of his told RZA that not only was it one of the few songs George Harrison wrote, but that he personally knew Danny Harrison, George’s son. So “I get on the phone with Danny and not only does he know all the Wu Tang songs, he knows the samples of the Kung Fu movies that I use,” RZA marvels. “So we had a chance to eat, meet, hang and I just said 'yo, I want to do this song and I want you to play acoustic on it. I already got John Frusciante to play lead guitar...and when I finished doing American Gangster last year, as a wrap gift, Russell Crowe gave me a 1961 Gretsch guitar...mint condition. So I told Danny this is how we’re going to do it...’I want you to come in and play acoustic guitar on the song, but I want you to play on the Gretsch.’ 8 months later, we did it.”
Employing an army of Fenders and Line 6 amps, “the recording was supervised by (producer) George Drakoulias (The Cult, The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, Tom Petty) and I got a verse from from Ghostface Killa, a verse from Method Man, and a verse from Raekwon the Chef.”
“I think I did good job of incorporating electronic hardware, software, and live instruments on this album, and that's a war” muses RZA. “The software people acting like you don't need hardware, hardware acting like you don't need instruments, and instruments don't like all that electronic shit because it takes away their jobs."
Once the toils of production come to a close, the cathartic experience of the live show enters the picture. When you walk in and see 60,000 ‘W’s’ up in the air, you know some shit’s going down. And surprisingly enough, there’s not much more on the stage than a posse of killa bees, their mics, and a modest DJ setup. In addition to “2 (Pioneer) CDJs, and two (Technics) M3s, I use a Rane 55 mixer,” DJ Mathematics says. “And 360 Systems Instant Replay,” adds RZA, a device with ‘hot keys’ that enable “on-the-fly instant playback of sound effects.”
“Basically when we do a show, it’s the instrumentals from the albums,” divulges Mathematics. “Some of them I do certain things to, I may add an intro or a little breakdown or make beats to try to beef some of them up with an 808 or some hats, but basically it’s the instrumentals.” Over 100 of them spanning 6 albums (and that’s just the Wu as a whole...doesn’t even include the several hundred Wu-affiliated tracks RZA rightfully takes credit for).
“One thing that may not be a good thing about the RZA,” RZA humbles, “is that I strive not to repeat myself.”
“Sometimes it takes a minute to hear what he got, sometimes you got to have an ear for the future,” U-God emphasizes. “Like right now it's 2007. He got shit in stash for 2012.”
Uh-oh...bling-bangers “You best protect ya neck!” Are we witnessing the eerily familiar beginnings of another 5 year plan...
(Parts of this were originally published in Remix Magazine in 2007. Couldn't find a copy of it anywhere anymore, figured I'd post it here so it exists in the interwebs. Click here for a PDF of the printed article. The videos were part of a Kotori Magazine interview we did with them as well.)