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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Wu-Tang Clan's RZA

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're wrapping up the 50th anniversary of hip-hop by looking back at some of our most memorable interviews with performers who hold a significant place in history. Our first interview is with RZA, the chief composer and producer of the Wu-Tang Clan, which has often been called one of the most revolutionary rap groups of the mid-'90s. They turned the concept of a hip-hop crew inside out by creating a collective of nine MCs who also created their own music under different pseudonyms. RZA is also known as Prince Rakeem, Bobby Digital, the RZArector and Robert Diggs, which is his birth name. He joined his cousins GZA The Genius and Ol' Dirty Bastard in 1992 to form the Wu-Tang Clan.

Martial arts movies had a big influence on RZA growing up. The name Wu-Tang Clan was inspired by kung fu movies and a mythical martial sword technique. RZA also composed music for several films, including Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog," as well as "Kill Bill" and its sequel, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Recently, RZA was one of the executive producers of the Hulu series "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," which chronicled the rise of the group. The third and final season wrapped up in April. Terry Gross spoke with RZA in 2005 after the release of his book, "The Wu-Tang Manual." We start with the single "C.R.E.A.M." from the Wu-Tang's 1993 debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I grew up on the crime side, The New York Times side. Staying alive was no jive. Had second hands, Mom's bounced on old man. So then we moved to Shaolin land. A young youth, yo, rockin' the gold tooth, 'lo goose. Only way I begin the G off was drug loot. And let's start it like this, son, rollin' with this one and that one, pullin' out gats for fun. But it was just a dream for the teen who was a fiend, started smokin' woolies at 16 and runnin' up in gates and doin' hits for high stakes, makin' my way on fire escapes. No question, I would speed for cracks and weed. The combination made my eyes bleed. No question, I would flow off and try to get the dough...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: That's the Wu-Tang Clan. My guest is the RZA. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

RZA: Well, thanks for having me on the show, y'all.

GROSS: Now, you know, in addition to being, you know, an MC and to being one of the rappers with Wu-Tang Clan, you were also the chief producer and arranger. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, composing and sampling the music backing for the records, what your approach is to that?

RZA: Well, my musical knowledge really came from being a DJ. You know, at the age of 11, I got my first pair of turntables - straight-arm Technics - you know what I mean? - the hardest ones that you could scratch on. And I was building up an extensive record collection. Even as a DJ with a 4-track, my production style was similar to the style of the, you know, "36 Chambers," which was taking something from old soul music to something from a funky drum, you know, whether a James Brown or Willie Mitchell-type drum pattern and then come with maybe a Woody Woodpecker record, you know what I mean...

GROSS: Yeah.

RZA: ...And then mix that in with some kind of classical. So I was a kind of DJ that would do that. When I would DJ at parties, you know, when I would interlude between records, I may throw on a "Peter Pan" quote or something and then throw on a crazy, hip-hop gutter beat that makes the crowd go crazy. So when I started producing, I had that same approach.

GROSS: So were you - you know, since you had such a wide variety of musical records that you were drawing from, were any of those records things that you first heard from your parents' record collections?

RZA: Oh, guaranteed. I mean, you know, everything started from what our parents had, of course.

GROSS: So what was in...

RZA: And then for me...

GROSS: ...Your parents' collection?

RZA: Oh, my parents had all the soul records from - you know, from - well, I lived - I had a single mother most of the time. But from The Crusaders to The O'Jays to The Delfonics to The Temptations - you know, I mean? - all the way to - Kenny Rogers was in the crate, you know what I mean? So it was - so my mother was - being a single mother, I guess she probably went through a lot of different feelings and changes, and she had a lot of different artists and records that she would play, you know, over the years. But what made my selection and collection so ill was it wasn't only my parents' records. I was taking everybody's parents' records, you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

RZA: I went to Inspectah Deck's house, and his mother had a whole closet full of old records that she gave me. Ghostface's mom's - I mean, people would out - being in New York City in the Village just selling records on the street corner. I mean, I'm the kind of kid that buys everything. I used to buy records everywhere, anywhere, no matter what. And I'm still kind of like that, you know? Now I've collected records from over probably 40 different countries.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how you started composing, because, you know, you first were - you were DJing, basically. You were sampling things from records and playing records under raps, but you actually compose now. So how did you make that transition?

RZA: That was pretty - something that came to being, I think, around 1995, '96. You know, I had a few platinum records under my belt already. I was getting - you know, getting worldwide recognition and really a lot of praises from the music industry and the community about what I did, what I've done, the sound that I was bringing to the table. But I took a look and was like, you know what? Wow. I'm considered a famous musician, but technically, for the false terminology, I'm not a musician because there's not an instrument that I can really say I can play. And so I kind of felt like - I'm one of the kind of people that like to be part of a fraternity because he earned it.

And so I took the time out to start reading books on the music theory and studying chord progressions and the way things should be, because I always heard it, you know? I mean, I always heard it, you know, by listening to songs or if you listen to some of my samples, when hip-hop was only doing one-loop samples or maybe two-bar samples, I came up with the four bars or I came with, you know, sample changes, you know, as if I played it, you know what I mean? I was able to take, you know, three different parts from one song and make it become, you know, an intro, a verse and a chorus. So I had the song structure and arrangement always in my mind, but I had to use other people's music. But around 1996, I decided to start studying the theory and being able to make my own progressions and make my own phrases of music. And that's what started leading into me being a composer.

You know, I always sampled stuff that was similar to that, anyway, and so I wanted to learn how to play it myself, how to express it myself. And I think in 1997, on the "Wu-Tang Forever" album, you first hear me doing things like that. You listen to songs like "Triumph," and you hear how the strings - you know, they come in. They have - you know, they have a - you know, it's played staccato, but it's a rise to it. So it's like (vocalizing). It rises up, and then they would drop out. And then a voice would come in, and then that'll drop out. Then you just hear the guitar hit with the piano. So that was like - during '97 is when I started experimenting with the theory of music, chord progressions and things like that mixed with my sample DJ background. And that's how I produced "Wu-Tang Forever."

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Triumph" from "Wu-Tang Forever." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRIUMPH")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I bomb atomically. Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses can't define how I be dropping these mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery. Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me. Battle-scarred Shogun, explosion when my pen hits tremendous. Ultraviolet shine blind forensics. I inspect view through the future see millennium. Killa Beez sold 50 gold, 60 platinum, shackling the masses with drastic rap tactics. Graphic displays melt the steel like blacksmiths. Black Wu jackets, Queen Beez ease the guns in. Rumble with patrolmen, tear gas laced the function. Heads by the score take flight, incite a war. Chicks hit the floor. Die-hard fans demand more. Behold the bold soldier, control the globe slowly. Proceeds to blow, swingin' swords like Shinobi. Stomp grounds and pound footprints in solid rock. Wu got it locked, performin' live on your hottest block.

As the world turns, I spread like germs. Bless the globe with the pestilence, the hardheaded never learn. It's my testament to those burned. Play my position in the game of life, standing firm. On foreign land, jump the gun out the frying pan. Into the fire, transform into the Ghost Rider. A six-pack and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

GROSS: That's "Triumph" From the album "Wu-Tang Forever." And my guest is the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, also a solo artist. You know, you do something on some of your music that I think you call a detuned piano. And listening to it, I never knew whether it was an electric piano or what, but it has this really distinctive sound. And - in fact, I want to play something from the Jim Jarmusch movie "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai." And you did the score for this movie. And it's really...

RZA: Yeah. That was my first score.

GROSS: Yeah. And it's really wonderful. Let me play the theme from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RZA'S "GHOST DOG THEME")

GROSS: That's music from the Jim Jarmusch movie "Ghost Dog: The Way...

RZA: "Ghost Dog."

GROSS: ...Of The Samurai," composed by my guest, the RZA. What are you doing on that? What's the keyboard that we're hearing?

RZA: The keyboard I use for "Ghost Dog" - I use a combination, but I use mostly - it's a keyboard called the Kurzweil 2500. And there's another keyboard called the Ensoniq ASR-10. And the ASR-10 is a sampling keyboard. The KR - the Kurzweil is also a sampling keyboard, but it's made with this thing they call this VAST technology, which is variable architecture synthesis technology. And that means that this particular keyboard can emulate any other keyboard ever created. If you just use the filters and play with the filters, it can emulate any other keyboard, and potentially any instrument, if you know the proper, you know, parameters.

In the "Ghost Dog" theme, the (imitating flute), it sounds like - it's actually was a - it was a partial of a flute sample - just took it out, just one - that one frequency of it and then played across the piano. So that was how I came up with that right there, mixed in with some muddy string pads - you know I mean? - and a muddy string guitar sample (imitating guitar). So it was a pretty awkward combination.

But the sound of it - it's funny, when I made that particular song, the sound of it was to go along with - "Ghost Dog" had a lot of birds in this movie, you know? And we - in studying music, I read about "Peter And The Wolf" and how the composer used an instrument to reflect each animal. For instance, when the wolf came, he threw on the trombones. When the bird came, he threw in the flute. So this is why on the "Ghost Dog" theme, you hear that flute in there, because he had a lot of birds. And when the movie first came on, a bird was flying. So I started with that flute sound so you could feel that joyfulness. But it's also put into a RZA context. It was joy mixed with sorrow and morbid.

GROSS: Morbidity, did you say? Yeah.

RZA: Yes.

GROSS: Well, there's something very eerie about the theme.

RZA: That's what I mean. I think - I meant eerie, then, if morbid and eerie don't mean to same thing.

GROSS: What...

RZA: Do they mean the same thing, morbid...

GROSS: No.

RZA: ...And eerie?

GROSS: Well, eerie is kind of mysterious, and morbid has to do with death. But I think it's both, because the movie has a lot to do with death.

RZA: Right. Well, I'll say eerie, then, and morbid because I wanted to be like - you know, to capture, you know, the spirituality of the bird, but also to capture, like, the internal of Ghost Dog, you know I mean?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

RZA: He's a very troubled individual, really.

GROSS: So you used the word detuned. What do you mean by detuned, and what is detuned in the music we just heard?

RZA: Well, you know, when the piano gets old - right? - and it sits in your studio for a long time, it becomes detuned, meaning, you know, all the notes are maybe - not a half step or maybe a one-eighth of a step just out of tune in the proper chromatic order. And I like that sound. You know, most people come in and go, I need to tune your - I need to tune the keyboard or I need to tune your piano or tune your guitar. I like it when it's detuned because that means it's not in the musical harmony according to the theory of music, but yet it has a harmony of its own. And that's something that I use a lot throughout my - whether I sample the sound or whether I played it, that's the sound I use a lot.

GROSS: And I think one of the reasons why that works when you do it is 'cause you're often using, like, one-note lines.

RZA: Exactly.

GROSS: So there aren't, like, chords that you're playing, 'cause the chords might sound really raggy, but that single-note line, it works really well.

RZA: It carries out (ph).

GROSS: Yeah.

RZA: Yeah, 'cause it's like a person that sings that doesn't really - that's vocal trained. You know, he'll be able to sing and give you all the feelings he want to give you, but he may not be able to sing in the key of A, you know? But he'll be able to sing a song that's in the key of A, and just because of his - if he has a natural style and a good flow, it just somehow meshed all together. I think that's what hip-hop singing is, you know, like a lot of hip-hop artists that sing.

GROSS: Right.

RZA: You hear some of these songs - I know, like, people hear it on the radio like, how is this song on the radio? Or even one of the great hip-hop R&B singers, Mary J. Blige, in her early career, a lot of, you know, trained musicians was like, oh, Mary's always out of tune or - but the hip-hop generation loved it because it was no sound like that. It's - only sound was that was her, you know?

MOSLEY: RZA speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUIS BACALOV'S "SUMMERTIME KILLER")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. We're commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop music this week. Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with RZA, who co-founded the Wu-Tang Clan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You've had several personas over the years. I mean, your birth name is Robert Diggs. You're known as the RZA. That's a name you took when you co-founded the Wu-Tang Clan. You're also Bobby Digital. And early in your career, you were Prince Rakeem. So let's start with Prince Rakeem. I mean, who - what did you see that persona as being? The music that you made with him is different from Wu-Tang.

RZA: I would say so. With Prince Rakeem - you know what I mean? - I was basically more of a student in the studies of life, shall I say, and as well as definitely a student to the music and the music industry and things like that. But as Prince Rakeem - you know, being young, 17, 18 years old, you know, all you think about is girls, yo, you know what I mean? And I was, you know, a pretty popular guy with the girls. Like, you know, a lot of girls, you know, had good things to say about me. Oh, he's cute. And he always got on some Polo and Gucci. And he's just, you know - and I actually liked to carry myself like a prince. I was the kind of kid that, you know, kept his fingernails right, you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

RZA: Wouldn't touch my food without a napkin and, you know, walked like Mr. Spock - had my hands behind my back. I used to walk very straight up and very elegant, you know what I mean? That's how I felt, you know what I mean? And I probably had about 30 different Polo suits that I got, you know, because we had many ways to make hustles back then. But every day, I'll come out with a new suit on. You may see me wear a powder blue Polo suit with a gold chain, you know, gold teeth, you know, just something real fly, you know what I mean? And that was kind of the persona of Prince Rakeem. He was definitely a fly guy, as the world was back in those days.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a 1991 record that you made as Prince Rakeem. And this is "Ooh I Love You Rakeem."

RZA: Oh, no. OK, let's go for it. Come on.

GROSS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOH I LOVE YOU RAKEEM")

RZA: (Rapping) It seems I'm a fiend for a sex routine. Love to hear them scream, ooh, Rakeem. And my response is, oh. Always satisfy them - you know how I flow. With sex, I'm not lazy. I'm buck wild and crazy. I kiss the bosoms but never eat the daisies. And my ladies love me deeply because I'm handsome, charming and freaky. And when they need me, they won't go. And now I'm stuck. I should've said no.

GROSS: OK, so let's move from Prince Rakeem to the RZA. How does the RZA compare to Prince Rakeem?

RZA: Well, when I came with Wu-Tang Clan and the first single was called "Protect Ya Neck." And you'll notice in the video, it's like exit Prince Rakeem and enter the RZA, because it was no time for me to be a pretty boy. It was no time for me to be this elegant guy that was, you know, into the ladies and into how I dressed and into how I looked. I became the RZA, basically, which was a total rebel, really - you know what I mean? - you know, somebody that had it with society and that was coming to get his fair take of society.

You notice when I came in as the RZA, I was - you know, came very militant in my look. I was very militant in my action. I just went through so much different personal traumas as far as with the law, with my life, with people in the streets, the hood. And I basically made a Z, you know what I mean? I made the first curve in my Z, shall I say. And I was like, you know, I'm no longer Prince Rakeem. That's part of my attribute, but I'm going to be the RZA - you know what I mean? - because, you know, that means I was strictly dealing with focusness.

It's funny because I didn't even, like, care how I dressed. I didn't even change my clothes that often, you know what I mean? I just was this one focused individual that was built on making a legacy for himself. And the Z in mathematics - you know what I mean? - because, you know, I study mathematics. And the Z stands for the zig-zag-zig, which represents knowledge, wisdom and understanding. It means, like, you could go this way, and sometimes you're going to have to zag back because you've got to go back and check on yourself. But then you realize you was going the right way in the beginning, so you zig again.

And that shows you that sometimes you may know something, and you can understand it, but if you don't live through it, you know, it's not fully understood by you. And so that zag is me living it out. And when I zagged, you know, I went through so much troubles of life and life experiences. So now I have the experience, so now I had to zig again. And that's what really put that Z in my name. I was like, you know what? I done went this way, that way, and now I understand which way I got to walk. And I actually walked a very straight, narrow line from the day that I took that title, the RZA. I didn't really, you know, commit sins or - just I was a real straightforward, focused, determined individual. And I gave myself a five-year period - you know what I mean? - to make sure I stayed on that path. And that's what I did.

GROSS: And after the five years?

RZA: Well, after the five years, which - I basically had took that name in 1992. And then by 1997, my idea was I would be on the top, you know, that - you know, musically. You know, and what I stood for would be the top of the top in the world. And I think, in '97, it happened. I think in 1997, Wu-Tang made a No. 1 record or something like that, was the No. 1 hip-hop group, No. 1 selling hip-hop group at the time, you know, nominated for Grammys and all that, you know, and really, the No. 1 influential groups at that time. So it actually kind of came to fruition from that five-year plan.

GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

RZA: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. Next up, our archived interview with Andre 3000. I'm Tonya Mosley and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Yo, chill with the feedback, Black, we don't need that. It's 10 o'clock, hoe, where the [expletive] is your seed at? Feeling mad hostile, ran the apostle, flowing like Christ when I speaks the gospel. Stroll with the holy roll, then attack the globe with the buckest style, the ruckus. Ten times ten men committing mad sin. Turn the other cheek and I'll break your [expletive] chin. Slaying boom-bangs like African drums. We'll be coming around the mountain when I come. Crazy flamboyant for the rap enjoyment. My clan increase like Black unemployment. Yeah, another one dare - Genius, take us the [expletive] out of here. The Wu is too slamming for these cold-killing labels - some ain't had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel - be doing artists in like Cain did Abel. Now they money's getting stuck to the gum under the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOTEI'S "BATTLE WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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