Ask RZA about the greatest adversaries he’s faced in his lifetime and he’ll tell you most of those battles had nothing to do with hip-hop. More than likely they were fought on a table chessboard in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village–the clock ticking, his mind racing to catch up to zen masters putting the kibosh on his hopes of being the next Bobby Fischer one move at a time.
“The guys in Washington Square park, man. You go there, you just go to make donations, you’re not gonna win too many games,” says the hip-hop mogul born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs. “You go in there knowing you’re making donations for that ass whooping.”
In his early 20s, on the cusp of releasing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)— WuTang Clan’s classic 1993 debut–he remembers a specific chess beating he took in the park that lit a fire under his ass, a desire to be great that would go on to last for decades.
“I was about 22-23 and I had my girl with me [at the park] and this motherfucker was whipping my ass, not even looking at me,” RZA remembers. “And my girl thinks I’m good, this nigga embarrassed me and shit, sent me home limp, then I kept coming back trying to whip on him, and it took years before I was able to move fast enough to beat him. Because in speed chess you gotta calculate that decision quick, you ain’t got all day. And they still be beating my ass but I got some victories at that so I feel good about that.”
Fast forward 25 years, it’s pretty clear that Wu’s founding member took his analytical chessboxin’ skills and applied to the rap game in ways the entertainment industry never saw coming. The five year success plan he promised the other eight greats on Wu-Tang’s extrapolated into a quarter century of critically acclaimed albums, a fashion empire, video games, film scores and feature films. Not to mention what the world would do if the phrase “Protect Ya Neck” never entered into the lexicon.
But as easy as it would be for a rappers to rest on his laurels (as plenty far less successful ones do), Wu’s roster of greats have all mastered the art of staying busy ripening themselves as artists in a ways that remind us that a true master’s game plan thrives regardless of time.
“You’d be surprised how long it takes things to ripen, even a man, a man starts off as a little seed as well and he has to ripen,” RZA says in a recent phone conversation. “For myself as an artist I was blessed to be welcomed into the art world in my peach fuzz days but it took a long time for me to ripen as an artist and as a man.”
This Friday, the Wu and their West Coast fans will get to relive the early days of their storied career with a sold out show at the Shrine in LA, featuring all living members of the group as they perform 36 Chambers in its entirety. It’s the gold-plated Cadillac of hip-hop shows and a historical one for all members of the crew, including Cappadonna we also spoke about his longevity with the Wu as an unofficial 10th member that became part of the group’s success after 36 Chambers, went to prison at Rikers and was replaced by Method Man at the time the group was working on the album. While staying focused on completing his bid in the pen, he remained supportive of everything Wu accomplished. Now to still be a part of it and tour on an album he didn’t get to participate in at the time is humbling.
“I’m grateful to be part of the success and all these years to still be relevant and requested for sold out shows, that’s iconic even at this stage where hip hop is ever changing and ever evolving that we’re able to attract generations of fans from babies to old men and women,” Cappadonna says. “We’re still being relevant and taking care of business giving the people what they want so they could learn to want what they need.”
On that front the Wu is also reportedly started work on their seventh album. In the shadow of the 36 Chambers anniversary, Ghostface Killah is leading the charge on new material which RZA says he’s already begun to contribute to in between working on his third full-length film Cut Throat City (slated for release in 2019).
“I’ve been in the studio [with Ghostface] and contributed and it sounded pretty interesting, he has a pretty good vision of some great song ideas that are hopefully developing to hopefully develop into more classic Wu to add to our library,” RZA says.
Coming up on the three decade mark of Wu-Tang’s history, the notion of finally becoming a legacy act on par with KISS, The Rolling Stones and U2 is something RZA says is on the cusp of happening as hip-hop continues to age and acts like Public Enemy, Snoop, Master P and Wu-Tang maintaining their relevance to generations of fans.
“It’s a blessing and I’m so appreciative that WuTang is in that cypher and I do know that a lot of it is due to what we bring to the table and we’re comfortable bringing our version of it,” RZA says.
More than the masterful lyrics, the heroic status of its members who survived the pitfalls of street life decades ago to become entrepreneurs in all facets of hip-hop, the ability see the Wu relive the record that started it all with the master level maturity they’ve achieved in the game is something their Shaolin disciples won’t soon forget.
“We know Wu-Tang relates to Kung Fu, when you see those old men get the white hair, that white Lotus, you don’t wanna fuck with those dudes,” RZA says. Inevitably talking to any member of the clan means getting into a conversation about martial arts. In this particular case, trailing off into a story about legendary Kung-Fu flick The 10 Tigers of Kwantung (bits of which were sampled on1997’s Wu-Tang Forever), RZA talks about how the old masters in a war against the villains in the story were able to save the young hot headed fighters in an endangered village from being killed while defeating their rivals in a few swift moves…kinda like those chess masters that used to beat up on him in Washington Square Park. No doubt that when it comes to his success in life and chessboxin’, Wu-Tang’s definitely become more advanced than a 23 year-old RZA could’ve ever dreamed of.
“We always said we gotta be like the 10 Tigers,” RZA says. “We gotta aim to have that resemblance in ourselves when we get to certain ages and we are masters in our art and our art and everything is at a master level.”
Wu-Tang Clan perform Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in its entirety at The Shrine Auditorium, Friday, July 27. For info and tickets, click here.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.