"How can hip-hop be dead if Wu-Tang is forever?" the RZA asked over the summer. A few months later, some fans are asking if his sentiments will continue to hold true.
To the dismay of Wu-Tang fans, the Clan seem to be falling apart, and RZA is in the proverbial eye of the storm when it comes to the group's open dissention. Two of the group's most vocal, flamboyant and popular members, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, have accused the RZA of mismanaging the group's money and creative malpractice.
Rae told New York radio personality Miss Info that he and the crew craved more street-oriented beats on the new album, 8 Diagrams. Meanwhile, Ghost told MTV News that the album was "rushed," he hasn't heard good word-of-mouth about the handful of records that have leaked and, most importantly, the RZA owes him more dough than they have at your favorite pizza shop.
While others in the Clan have remained silent, one thing is for sure: The unity the group showed during the summer on the Rock the Bells Tour with Rage Against the Machine has been absent. Two weeks before what was once proclaimed to be the Clan's triumphant return December 11, the biggest buzz around 8 Diagrams has been about the group's infighting. Rae and Ghost have denounced it. There is no official single, let alone a video, and the group's promo run to push the album has been reduced to RZA telling his side of the turmoil and dragging his name out of the mud.
"It's really all good, it's just different directions," RZA told U.K. radio DJ Tim Westwood, in an interview posted online Monday. " ... Everything is back [to] peace already."
While in the U.K., the RZA also rebutted claims that he owes group members any money. "I ain't never take no money from nobody, and I don't owe nobody no money," he yelled. "Don't never say that. I pay all my bills. I work hard and pay all my bills."
In an interview with MTV Base last week, the RZA said that any discord the Wu may have is only temporary. "Over the years some of us have grown in doubt, or maybe some of us have grown creatively in different directions," he said. "But I will say that when we do come together, a lot of things just seem to evaporate. When we get on the stage together, we can have a problem 10 minutes before we get onstage. But once we're onstage, we feel like everything evaporates.
"When you read on the Internet that Ghostface is upset that his album is coming out the same day as the Wu-Tang's album, that's because after the tour, Ghost was gone for two or three months into his own world [and] we went back into our own world," RZA added. "So nobody was in synergy of what's really happening and that's what makes the problem. You've got to build every day. ... I can honestly say, though, we did come together to do this record, and it was recorded without money. Nobody got any money in the beginning to do this record — we worked the deal out later — but to sit down and do it, we were still negotiating, but every MC came to the table. Method Man came to that studio, his lawyer called him up [and said], 'Meth, don't go to the studio.' But he came. I think Method Man gave one of his most vicious, most hungriest performances in years on this album. U-God was the first one to come to the studio and said to me, 'You know brothers are trying to say that your production is on left. Let me hear what you got, brother.' I start playing the music and he was like, 'Man, we're going to be on fire. This is beautiful.' When he said that he loved the music I was producing, I knew I was on the right track, because he's the one that that really will say, 'F--- you.' I took it on face value that we all came because this is what we believe in. Now I think it's a little different, because all this flak is popping up, and it's like, 'Wow, I thought we were all on the same page.' "
That unified sentiment was the inspiration for the album's title, 8 Diagrams. RZA was watching a kung-fu movie almost 15 years ago, and the light bulb turned on. "There was a movie called 'Eight Diagram Pole Fighter,' which features a group of brothers all fighting for their country," he explained. "Their loyalty to their country and their loyalty to each other really struck a nerve to me, and when we first formed Wu-Tang Clan, we actually was called Brother Number One, Two ... Brother Number Five — that's originally how we did it. As time went on, we just took different names and abandoned that idea. For me, it's time to bring that idea back in effect, and that's what the 8 Diagrams is helping to do."
Musically, RZA's beats on 8 Diagrams were inspired by everything from the Beatles to his very own cousin, the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.
"The way I produce now is I produce more like a musician," RZA said. "In the old days, I produced more like a DJ. I didn't understand music theory at all. Now that I do understand music theory, I make my music more playable, meaning not only could you listen to it, you could get someone else to play it. Before, you couldn't even write down Wu-Tang music. I think almost 80 percent of this record can be duplicated by a band, which is important for music, because that means 10 years from now, somebody can make a whole song out of it and cover it like how I'm covering the Beatles song."
RZA's good friend, DreamWorks Records exec Michael Ostin, let the famed producer know that the Beatles' George Harrison wrote "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Eric Clapton played guitar on the classic song. When RZA decided to redo the record, Ostin also tipped him off that Harrison's son Dhani was a huge Wu fan and would probably clear the record. Not only did the young Harrison give his sign of approval for the new interpolation — the Wu used the composition sample, not the master sample, as they did not receive permission to use the original songs as heard on the Beatles LP commonly referred to as The White Album — he played acoustic guitar on it for the RZA. Then Erykah Badu was brought in to sing vocals after Corinne Bailey Rae bowed out.
"When I heard this song, 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' ... I made this big [drug] metaphor of my own," RZA said of the Wu's version, "The Heart Gently Weeps." "It's my own imagination. I got Method Man and Raekwon to give me the illest verses. Ghostface delivered one of his best verses in years. To me, that verse is comparable to the verse on Wu-Tang Forever's 'Jamie.' I heard his best spirit in it."
You can feel the spirit of ODB on "Life Changes." The Clan pay tribute to their deceased brother, expressing how they feel about his tragic loss. " 'Life Changes' I named it because the hook is kind of saying I go through life changes," RZA said. "But really, life does change after you lose somebody so dear to you. Your whole life can change. Maybe the grass is not green anymore. Maybe the spring does not feel like the flowers are there anymore because you don't have that person there to share it with you. That's one thing that I truly miss about ODB. I think I said it in my lyric: 'It's hard to live without you.' "
"Take It Back" and "Get 'Em Out Ya Way Pa" are probably 8 Diagrams' best examples of vintage Wu wolf music — that means fans will wild out as soon as the tracks come on. But RZA insists the album isn't all about wolf music.
"I was so aggressive and so unfriendly to people at one point, and now I feel like I'm good," he said. "I can sit here, I can talk to people, I can shake hands. I feel like I'm a mature man. I think it's important for me and my crew. It's not all about making music to punch people in their face. [I want to be] making music to inspire people to stop punching each other in the face."
But how big can Wu be with a more mature, worldly sound?
"I think we're bigger than we used to be," RZA said. "I see 19-year-old kids in the audience, and I don't know how they know my music, but they're jumping up and down singing my lyrics. We did shows in 1997 — the biggest audience I've seen in front of the Wu-Tang Clan was 30,000 kids with their 'W' way up in the sky. I was real proud of that: 'Wow, we've made it.' On this last summer tour, I saw 70,000 kids do it, 100,000 kids. I mean, the biggest crowd was 115,000. So it's bigger. It's just not popular in the media. And the funny thing about that is, when Wu-Tang came out before, it wasn't popular in the media. The media totally missed it. By the time they got it, it was already platinum. I think it may happen again: By the time certain people get it, it's going to be already over here. I'm not worried. I'm feeling very confident. It's not really about the record sales, either. Record sales don't really measure the bigness or magnitude of the person. MC Hammer is the best example. He sold more records than all of us. But who wants to talk to MC Hammer?"