Re-Enter The Wu Tang: RZA on the past, present and future of the hip-hop icons

Twenty-five years ago, RZA – along with his New York City rap collective Wu-Tang Clan – changed hip-hop forever. Here, Leonie Cooper meets him and the man he’s mentored to become the group’s chief beatmaker, Mathematics, to talk the past, present and future of the Wu. But first, WTC obsessive Joe Madden explains what makes them iconic

This December marks the 25th anniversary of ‘Protect Ya Neck’, the debut single by nine-strong New York rap collective Wu-Tang Clan. Produced by Wu-Tang mastermind Robert ‘RZA’ Diggs on a scraped-together budget of just $300, released independently and accompanied by a scuzzily lo-fi video, ‘Protect Ya Neck’ landed on hip-hop like a demolished tower block. It was simultaneously rougher and more technical than anything that had preceded it; a chorus-free juggernaut of jagged beats, esoteric slang and freewheeling flows, all filtered through an impenetrable martial-arts mythos. It sounded – still sounds, in fact – completely bat-shit mental.

If ‘Protect Ya Neck’ got the hip-hop world’s attention, Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, 1993’s ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, cemented them as the most game-changing rap act since Public Enemy emerged in the mid to late ‘80s. Masterfully executed by rapper-producer RZA, the album was hip-hop’s ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ – a wilfully raw, artfully aggressive statement of intent that instantly made everything in its vicinity seem bloated and old hat. Bored by the glossy production and pop-radio pandering that pervaded hip-hop at the time, RZA had opted to march as far as he could in the complete opposite direction – and rap fans’ ecstatic reaction to the Wu’s lo-fi griminess validated his instincts entirely. “If you keep eating McDonald’s, you gonna get sick,” explained RZA during a 2013 NPR show celebrating 20 years of ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’. “You need a real home-cooked meal. I knew that that would be healthier. And that’s what Wu-Tang was: a home-cooked meal of hip-hop.”

RZA and his eight Wu-Tang bandmates – Method Man, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, Masta Killa and U-God – were just warming up. RZA asked for unquestioning trust and loyalty from his bandmates, in order that he might execute the most ambitious hip-hop game plan ever devised. “I used the bus as an analogy,” RZA told NPR. “I said, ‘I want all of y’all to get on this bus. And be passengers. And I’m the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I’m taking us to number one. Give me five years, and I promise that I’ll get us there.’” Which – fair play – is exactly what he did, by masterminding, producing and guest-rapping on a breathless run of Wu-Tang spin-offs, all arriving within months of each other and each more acclaimed and astonishing than the last. First up, in November 1994, was Method Man’s debut album, ‘Tical’; in March 1995, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ‘Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’; in August 1995, Raekwon the Chef and Ghostface Killah’s ‘Only Built For Cuban Linx’; and finally, in November 1995, GZA’s ‘Liquid Swords’.

Each album was markedly different from the other three, and yet they all shared enough stylistic DNA – martial arts aesthetics, abstracted soul samples, god-tier rapping, recurring Wu catchphrases – for them to form a cohesive, cultish whole.

To mastermind one objectively insta-classic hip-hop album is impressive; RZA banged out five of them in two years. Nobody else in hip-hop – not Dre, not El-P, not Kanye – has achieved anything comparable, before or since. As noted by Steve Rifkind, head of Loud Records and the man who signed the Wu-Tang, “What made the Wu different from everyone else was that they had RZA, and he was just so much smarter than everybody else.”

Even if they’d disbanded following this dazzling first phase of activity, RZA and the Wu-Tang’s legacy would still be assured. And while they actually inspired very few sound-alikes – their Shaolin schtick being too singular and flawlessly executed for anyone to dare copycat it – the crew’s influence can still be felt throughout hip-hop: it’s there in the dark psychedelic comedy of Danny Brown; in Action Bronson’s OTT flamboyance; in the woozy, druggy melancholy of Future; in the ‘chipmunk soul’ sound of early Kanye, and in the scruffy experimentalism of his late period.

Besides masterminding a quarter-century of Wu-Tang activity – increasingly sporadic as it is – RZA has also released four solo albums of his own, alongside two with rap super-group Gravediggaz; acted in and directed several movies and TV shows; written two books; won chess championships; and promoted veganism on behalf of PETA.

He’s also mentored several artists, including producer – and back-in-the-day designer of the iconic Wu logo – Mathematics. The onetime apprentice has steadily risen to become the Wu-Tang’s chief beat-maker, with RZA granting Mathematics full creative control over the group’s latest album, ‘The Saga Continues’ – leaving RZA free to concentrate on his trademark kung-fu-vampire rapping.