Hip-hop's Wu-Tang Clan Re-energizes
How can hip-hop be dead if Wu-Tang is forever?" asks RZA. For the founder and chief producer of the multiplatinum New York rap group, the question is purely rhetorical.
It's hard to argue with his logic - or with the enduring Wu-Tang mystique. The group's return to the forefront of the music world draws nigh, courtesy of this summer's Rock the Bells Festival and Wu-Tang's long-awaited fourth album, "Eight Diagrams," which is nearly completed.
In a phone interview conducted two days before the start of the national Rock the Bells tour, RZA (born Robert Diggs), analyzed hip-hop's health and discoursed on all things Wu. For starters, he takes issue with Nas, whose recent album "Hip Hop Is Dead" sparked a heated debate among keepers of the culture over the genre's mortality index.
RZA points out that Nas himself is part of the Rock the Bells tour, whose lineup also features Rage Against the Machine, plus others including Cypress Hill, the Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, EPMD, Pharoahe Monch, MF Doom, Hieroglyphics and Blackalicious. There's even an appearance by Public Enemy. If that's not the ultimate fantasy hip-hop concert lineup, it's hard to imagine what is.
Talentwise, Rock the Bells 2007 rivals the fabled Fresh Fests of yore. Yet these days, RZA says, "there are not that many hip-hop tours." To some degree, that's the genre's own fault. Rappers are frequently in the news for the wrong reasons, and hip-hop's image could certainly stand a thorough polishing.
Even more worrisome, RZA suggests, is the state of the art form, which has become commercialized to the point of dilution.
"They let pop take over hip-hop," he laments.
To him, that's where the problem lies, not with the infusion of new technology.
"It ain't downloading," he says, pointing to hip-hop star T.I.'s sales figures as proof that rap fans will still buy strong albums.
While RZA opines that "hip-hop is unbalanced," he believes its course can be righted by Wu-Tang's "killa beez": GZA (also known as Genius), Method Man (or Johnny Blaze), Raekwon (also called the Chef), Ghostface Killah (or Tony Starks), Inspectah Deck (Rebel INS), Cappadonna (Cappuccino Don) U-God (Golden Arms) and the mysterious Masta Killa.
"To come back around," RZA says, "it means music's crying for us."
When the Wu takes the stage Saturday night at McCovey Cove, one key member will be missing: the late Ol' Dirty *******. But even though ODB won't be there in physical form, "his energy is still present at our shows," RZA says. In fact, concertgoers can expect to see an ODB tribute performed by the entire Wu-Tang Clan.
Co-headlining with Rage Against the Machine makes the show even more special - not just to music lovers but also to RZA himself. He notes that the two groups were originally scheduled to tour seven years ago, but circumstances - including ODB's legal and personal problems - forced the Wu to bow out. The group reunited in 2004 for the first RtB, held in San Bernardino. The festival has since become an annual event; this year, the Wu signed on for the full tour.
During the Wu's hiatus, its members kept busy by releasing various solo projects. Method Man and Raekwon dabbled in acting, while RZA scored films for directors Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino. RZA says Jarmusch told him that the idea for the movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" was inspired by the Wu's music, adding that fellow Wu fan Tarantino had never worked with a composer before inviting him to do the soundtrack for the first "Kill Bill" film. Most recently, RZA scored the animated kung-fu miniseries "Afro Samurai," and he's in the cast of two forthcoming films: Giancarlo Esposito's directorial debut, "Gospel Hill," and the Denzel Washington-Ridley Scott vehicle "American Gangster." Meanwhile, the Wu-Tang empire continues to grow; second-generation killa beez Ice Water and Cilvaringz recently dropped albums, and GZA appears in a new DVD documentary "Wu-Tang Revealed."
"The energy is resurging," RZA says. "When the first album came out, nobody knew what to expect."
Back in 1993, after Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" had tipped the scales toward West Coast G-funk, the Wu's debut "Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers" re-established East Coast hip-hop, paving the way for Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. Certainly, no one thought a ragtag bunch of music industry outcasts, felons and high school dropouts would amount to much, much less change the rap game irrevocably. Despite the Wu's roguish background, the group's mission is to uplift, RZA says. "We will f- you up, but what we'd rather do is enhance your spirit."
RZA likens the Wu's colorful, oversize personalities to a team of superheroes, and no hip-hop group before or since has ever spawned so many successful solo artists or assembled so many affiliated acts under one banner. For all the Wu's verbal finesse, a big part of their appeal remains RZA's gritty, soulful production. Whether chopping samples in a unique way or blending '60s and '70s R&B with dialogue lifted from John Woo triad dramas and obscure kung-fu flicks, RZA's tracks strike a universal, if esoteric, chord.
"I looked at music as being pulses," he says.
Fourteen years after "36 Chambers," hip-hop heroism is again needed, and the Wu is ready for the challenge. With RtB hitting cities across the United States (the tour ends Sept. 1 in Hawaii), the stage is set for "Eight Diagrams," the group's first album of all-new material in six years. Details about the still-unfinished album are scarce, but this much can be revealed: Its title was inspired by the 1983 Shaw Brothers film "Eight Diagram Pole Fighter," whose plot revolves around eight brothers skilled in martial arts. That's an obvious parallel to the Wu, whose lineup currently features eight original members (ODB was the ninth); one of the album's main themes, RZA says, is brotherhood.
In addition, the "eight diagrams" are a reference to the "I Ching" - or "Book of Changes" - a seminal tome in Eastern philosophy and a major influence on RZA. The "I Ching" is "one of the main reasons why I chose the title," he says. As usual, Wu fans can expect plenty of cryptic slang, as well as new levels of knowledge previously unexplored. "There's things on ("Eight Diagrams") that haven't been done," RZA says.
But unlike, say, Smashing Pumpkins' comeback album, "Zeitgeist," RZA and the Wu aren't looking to the future at the expense of the past. "There's a couple of classic chambers that we brought back," he promises. As an example, he points to the spine-tingling, emotional vibe evoked by Ghostface on "Wu-Tang Forever's" "Impossible" - a rhyme so powerful, it was named "Hip Hop Quotable of the Year" by Source magazine.
This time around, the Wu-Tang Clan is older, wiser and more aware of the group's capabilities.
"We bring a special energy," RZA says. "It's good when you can keep it real and have people respect you for your realism."
Rock the Bells Festival featuring Rage Against the Machine, Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill, the Roots, Nas, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, EPMD, Pharoahe Monch, MFDoom, Hieroglyphics, Blackalicious, Murs 3:16, Sage Francis, Immortal Technique, Jedi Mind Tricks and Public Enemy. Hosted by Supernatural, DJ Mike Relm, Hi-Tek and Rahzel. Saturday. McCovey Cove parking lot. $76-$151. www.ticketmaster.com.
Eric K. Arnold is a freelance writer.
Might seem a bit pricey at first glance, but given the incredible amount of talent on display, this tour is a real bargain.