Hip-Hop: a Young Man’s Game?

The Wu-Tang Clan defies hip-hop’s youth obsession—none more than RZA.

Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA was wise beyond his years when, nearly two decades ago, he drew from the kung-fu movies that had imprinted his youth to put a stamp on his nascent Staten Island ensemble. He set them up for life--financially, for sure, but in another way too: The most heroic figure in kung-fu flicks is arguably the "old master," the seasoned fighter and thinker who's learned to harness his reckless energy and skill and who's gotten better with age. His existence defies the notion that youth always reigns supreme, something RZA and his comrades well understand.Hip-hop, as we've all been told, is a young man's game. But some of the Wu vets—closing in on or passing the threshold of 40—have taken that "old master" role to heart, crafting work in recent years that stands with the best of the Wu-Tang catalog. There's Ghostface Killah with 2006's exceptional Fishscale and its worthy follow-up, 2007's The Big Doe Rehab. Method Man, ably assisted by Redman, offered up this year's satisfying comeback, Blackout! 2. And then there's Raekwon, who, judging by the recently leaked "Surgical Gloves," will soon have another killer platter on his hands, the forthcoming RZA-helmed Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II.But it's the Abbot himself, RZA, who's been the sharpest of late. To wit: His acclaimed Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2, Afro Samurai, and Afro Samurai: Resurrection soundtracks, the last of which, released earlier this year, features a collaboration with Sly Stone. Last year's Bobby Digital (one of RZA's alter egos) disc Digi Snacks is spotty overall, but the good stuff is really good—dark and gritty. The supremely underrated 2007 Wu-Tang album 8 Diagrams was virtually a RZA solo joint. And most recent, the unexpectedly vital-sounding Wu-Tang Chamber Music was executive-produced by RZA, who also provides rhymes and beats.RZA, who celebrated his 40th birthday on July 7, is in an especially cheerful mood when reached by phone. "I'm feeling super-positive, yo; I feel really energized," he says. "You know, life is strange 'cause you never really know when it begins or ends. But when you find yourself, when you know yourself, I think that's when life really begins. And I feel like that's what I achieved. I feel like I'm me, I know who I am, I'm happy to be here. And I'm not that old! Knowing myself and being myself, I haven't been that for many years. I been on the earth twice as long as I've known myself."This clarity, RZA explains, came to him at the end of 1997. Coincidentally or not, that was the year Wu-Tang Forever arrived, marking the end of RZA's famously dictatorial—and ultimately successful—"five-year plan" for the group's hip-hop domination. It was also around the time when director Jim Jarmusch began floating the idea of having RZA score his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, effectively launching his lauded career as a soundtrack composer. The producer/MC says that the focus and discipline that came with that epiphany have allowed him to tackle myriad projects simultaneously, everything from music to his burgeoning acting career (he's got a significant role in Judd Apatow's new dramedy Funny People) to his WuChess Web site.Of course, RZA's got a cinematic martial-arts analogy to illustrate this point. "There's a kung-fu movie called The White Lotus, right, and at different times of the day his weak spot was a different location," RZA says. "So if you came and attacked him at 1:00, you had to attack him in his balls. If you come at 3:00, you gotta get him in his forehead. The point of the matter is, throughout the day all of our energies change, and I believe that as an artist, to balance yourself, you gotta find those times when it's best to do different things. As an example, yesterday, the first thing I did was exercise in the morning. And then by midday I started making beats. And then when dusk came and shit, I just started playing a little bit of chess along with my family. And then we did a table read of my new script, and then after that I made some more beats. And then, while everyone was kinda doin' nothing but talking nigga jokes and shit like that, I walked away from the conversation and spent 30 minutes at the piano practicing my scales. If I wanna do all this shit, I gotta practice and train at the right times and make it happen."Though he's doing solo shows this summer, Wu-Tang Clan still figures prominently in RZA's future recording plans, despite the toxic internal dissent that surrounded 8 Diagrams. Hip-hop headz will recall that some members of the crew wanted to go back to the sparse, hard-hitting, sample-based attack of 36 Chambers rather than follow RZA's recent fascination with elaborate, esoteric soundscapes that often incorporated traditional instruments."I think the generation of musicians now has come up with hip-hop all on their brains," RZA explains. "I remember doing interviews in the early '90s, and I was like, 'Hip-hop can't be played by a band.' Nobody could play this shit 'cause they couldn't figure out the off-pitchness, the weird chords. But now they got it to a level where they actually can do it. The funny thing is, on Chamber Music, the same guys who complained the most about [8 Diagrams]—Rae and Ghost—are all over the album rhyming over live instruments."From RZA's perspective, that whole bitter episode is a thing of the past, and the Wu brotherhood is intact. These days, digs are delivered with far less venom. "Raekwon seen me the other day at Rock the Bells, and he's chillin' with the nice clothes, the nice jewelry, lookin' cool. And there comes RZA, nappy Afro and an army suit on, so he was like, 'You're on some G.I. Joe shit, nigga!' Muthafucking right, nigga, that's exactly what I'm on. But don't sleep on what I do, everything I do. Watch me. I'm on time with the world and pop culture."music@seattleweekly.com

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