In 1997, a rap crew made up of ten ill lyricists proclaimed that Wu-Tang was eternal with their sophomore set, Wu-Tang Forever. Apparently, the group coining themselves Wu-Tang Clan wasn’t exaggerating, because it has been over twenty years since the release of their classic debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and they are still at it. They’ve survived – even if barely – many of things that normally break groups up, like solo successes, egos, the death of a member and turmoil, among other things. According to the crew’s leader, The RZA, the Clan has been able to last for so long and connect with so many different people, because of what they’ve come to represent. “That W stands for wisdom,” he says. “Wisdom is like water, it is always going to be welcomed.”
Their latest album, A Better Tomorrow was initially being put together just as a way to commemorate the twenty years of Wu-Tang being in business. However, it becomes evident after a few listens to the album and also after watching the video for the title track that this project was about more than just celebrating an anniversary. This time the collective has returned with an appetite for change. “I felt that it would be great to celebrate our twentieth anniversary with a new album,” RZA says. “But it was also important that we created something that would hopefully inspire people for another twenty years.”
Here, Life + Times and the RZA connect to discuss the latest Wu-Tang album, working with Rick Rubin and inspiring the next generation.
Life + Times: Is there a special meaning behind the album’s title?
RZA: Take a look at the cover. You have images of the Freedom Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, the pyramids from Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Christ the Redeemer statue from Brazil, and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Why did we put all of these together as if they were all in one city with a cloud over it with a W? It’s because this wind of change and of improvement for man is blowing upon us. The idea is to envision a city where everybody respects everybody and what they’ve brought to civilization. We have to all respect each other in order for us to make things better. All of the different injustices happening in the world today are outdated. Are we men or are we beast? Nothing changes over night, but hopefully we can inspire the questions and inspire the ideas fit a better tomorrow. And even if you’re doing good you can use a better tomorrow. It says it in the good book, “Give us this day our daily bread.” So yeah, we’ll take our daily bread, but we’re still striving for that kingdom everyday.
L+T: How did you come up with the concept for the “A Better Tomorrow” video?
RZA: The idea behind the music was that hopefully through our music, Wu-Tang could help inspire a better tomorrow. To me, this video is a testament to the fact that it’s working, because we didn’t put this video together ourselves. The video was actually put together by a young man who was inspired by the music. The head of marketing at Warner Brothers had sent it over to me and had asked what I thought of it. I saw it and thought it was perfect. I’m just happy that he could just listen to the song and it all could be there for him. The crazy thing is that the song itself is basically about what’s going on now. It’s been going on for a while, but now it’s at the surface. It’s very timely.
L+T: Originally, A Better Tomorrow was to include no samples, which is strange because you are one of the pioneers in the art of sampling. Why did you want to step away from sampling for this album?
RZA: Originally, I wanted to stay away from samples, because I’m able to write the music now. When I first came in the game I didn’t know how to write music. I had to rely on the records of other people and I had to chop those records up and add my own flavor and all that. Now I’ve realized what chords I like and what sequences I like, and I now know how to play them on my guitar and I could have a band play it. It’s not that I can’t sample anymore. It’s that I’ve evolved from it. But I do know the sonics of what hip hop is and that the sample is at hip hop’s root and therefore there are a few songs on the album where we included a sample. It was like a ping pong thought process though. There were some crazy beats with some ill samples that I made that I wanted to put on this album. There’s one beat we got called “Bruce Lee” that has a crazy sample and it sounds like old Wu-Tang all day. But what stopped me more than anything were the sample laws. Sample laws are so unfair and disrespectful to the craft of that style of music that it deters me from even taking that chance.
L+T: Portions of A Better Tomorrow were recorded in studios in California, Memphis, cities throughout Europe and other places. How did recording all over the world impact the sound of the album?
RZA: I think recording in all of these different places was healthy for the record. I think there is always something entertaining and magical about recording in different places. Also, recording in different places directly inspired the artwork.
L+T: You co-produced “Ruckus in B Minor” with Rick Rubin. What was it like working with him?
RZA: It was historic, man. He’s Rick Rubin. He’s one of the biggest guys to ever do it. I’m glad he came on board. He doesn’t work on a lot of projects these days, as we all know. He said we had to do it for history. That’s why we did it.
L+T: The last Wu-Tang album, 8 Diagrams, wasn’t received well by critics. Did you approach the creative process for A Better Tomorrow differently than you did for that last album?
RZA: I’m not really interested in what the critics say, because when I do this, I’m offering you something. And when I’m offering somebody something I’m building that for you. I did it on my own regard and so I can’t think about what the critics are going to say. My Wu-Tang brothers are always arguing with me saying, “our fans are going to this, our fans are going to that” and I understand what they mean, but keep this in mind that a fan becomes a fan because they discovered you. They didn’t make you. You made what you made. It’s like if you buy a new pair of Jordan’s. You didn’t have anything to do with that new Jordan being made. You saw it, like it, put it on and it was comfortable. That’s it. That’s how I feel about certain things that I do. I don’t care about what you think I should’ve did. My calling is my calling. Would you believe that when we made 36 Chambers the record executives said that it would never sell? It was difficult getting people to buy into it. When the album first came out it did like 30,000 units. It wasn’t as clean or plush and all of these things is what people had said about it. The next thing you know, millions of people got it. It grew because they didn’t know what it was. They had to learn what it was, and when the fans learned what it was they became a part of it. So that’s what the fans have to realize also. Do they like us because of us or do you like us because of what they want us to be?
L+T: What was the biggest challenge in putting A Better Tomorrow together?
RZA: I think the biggest challenge was getting all of the boys together, as well as getting everyone on the same page, creatively. Since we’re a group of guys that have our own careers and own ideas it was pretty challenging getting everybody to focus on one thing.
L+T: Wu-Tang Clan has continued to transcend genre, generation and culture for over two decades. Why do you think that is?
RZA: Our resonations come from not only our music, but also our personalities. You’re looking at the whole neighborhood when you’re looking at Wu-Tang, and if you look at us a little closer you may see a glimpse of the world. Even though it’s nine Black dudes you still can see all of these different personalities and these different points of views. Somebody who may be more into the intellectual ideas can refer to the GZA. Somebody who may be more into the street life can turn to Raekwon. Somebody who is more into fun, wittiness, and more of the superhero can turn to Method Man. Somebody who wants straight hip hop, rhyming, and New York can turn to Inspectah Deck. I think “Preacher’s Daughter” is a great example of Wu-Tang, because Meth says something about the girl, Cappa says something about the girl, Masta Killa says something about the girl and then Ghost says something about the girl, but each one points out to some girl you can relate to. All of these different guys bring all of these energies and personalities and that helps us resonate with listeners.
L+T: Why is it so important for you to inspire others through your art?
RZA: It’s something to feel good about, to feel proud about and to be optimistic about. The Wright brothers made a plane using bicycle parts, which later lead to planes that were able to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and space shuttles that could leave the atmosphere, so you want to keep inspiring for things to be better. There are a lot of things going on. You young people got to face a lot of things and sometimes that inspiration stops in the world. Whether you’re a musician, athlete, corporate exec or whatever, you’re working for your life and your family’s, but you hope that you could potentially inspire a young life to carry it on.
A Better Tomorrow is available now (and Wu-Tang is still forever)