We all know what Shaolin means to NYC rap crew Wu-Tang Clan, right? It’s pretty important, and has been so since day one.
The school of martial arts and its accompanying ethics and philosophies is mentioned in the Wu’s very first single, 1993’s ‘Protect Ya Neck’: “Ow, here comes my Shaolin style…”
So when Clash met up with five members of the Wu – RZA, Method Man, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck and Ghostface Killah – we thought the only appropriate angle of questioning was to follow the 10 laws of Shaolin, the guiding principles behind students, and masters, of the (life)style.
Below, three of the laws and how they relate to the lives and careers of the Clan…
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“Respect the master, honour the moral way and love fellow disciples as brothers and sisters,” from which Clash asks: was it mutual love for hip-hop forerunners that bonded the Clan in its early days?
Cappadonna: I’d say that our work before Wu-Tang actually brought us together. Because we all had reputations, but we were all in different aspects of our ‘hood life. So we was finding out about each other through various different entities and connections.
Our friendships were founded that way – and then we began to build this conglomerate. So, when one of us met RZA, that’d be one spark of energy. And then, I might meet up with Raekwon: another spark of energy. There might be four of us… And that just went on and grew until we had that first nine born. And when that first nine born came, they were the first nine to be complete, in that cypher, to go forth. That’s what created the strength.
RZA: It’s like how we say about the Voltron (a giant robot formed of myriad, autonomous parts – ‘80s cartoon ed), that’s how we all form. You can’t say that we bonded over a particular record or album. But all of our music that we were making, that bonded us.
Cappa had a neighbourhood tape out. GZA had a neighbourhood album, Method Man had a neighbourhood album, I had a neighbourhood album. These were demos made in different places. And we were all MCs.
Then there was a central location where we could all make songs at, and that was my house. At different times, different brothers would come through there to do a demo. So Method Man maybe came Thursday. And maybe GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard would come another day. So it was our own music, and our own lyrical skills, that brought us together.
I’m not saying that in an egotistical way, but there came a time… There came a point where I identified the style that I felt that we had, a definition, and the word for it was Wu-Tang, which means “The Sword Style”. And I identified that we were the best lyricists, the best MCs. I’d already met a lot of people in the music industry, and a lot of other MCs, and I realised that we were the best MCs.
So, the concept for the Wu-Tang style came, and we were the Wu-Tang Clan, and even though we were all from different neighbourhoods, everyone agreed to be Wu-Tang. Y’know, I’m not that shit; what I’m doing is Wu-Tang. And that is also part of the foundation of us.
Everything should have a common denominator, so the thing you said about respect your teachers, that applies because GZA is my teacher, and I have nothing but respect for him. These brothers… we all teach and respect each other, and that’s the bottom line of it.
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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Protect Ya Neck’, from ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’
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“Required to train in the Shaolin arts diligently, and to be physically and mentally healthy,” from which Clash asks: just how ready for mainstream exposure was the Clan when debut album, 1993’s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, was released?
RZA: Well, ‘36 Chambers’ is the completion, if you look at the numbers. ‘36 Chambers’ is a Shaolin concept (1978’s ‘The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin’ is also a kung-fu classic – kung-fu movie ed). Our album’s called ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’ and we say we’re from Shaolin, so we were using those concepts.
Maybe at one point one of us was more knowledgeable about that stuff and was applying it more. But if you look at our training, we were all disciples. We were training the cyphers. We were like, “We won’t spit 16, we’re gonna spit 32 bars,” y’know? And we’ll all be spitting, and we’ll all be making demos.
Now, you know I like to apply hip-hop to martial arts, so if you look at ‘36 Chambers’, think about how long each of us, as individuals, had been MCing.
I wrote my first rhyme at the age of nine. By the time of ‘36 Chambers’ I was 22 or 23, something like that. So if that was kung-fu, I’d be a master already, because it takes 10 years to master a style, they say. So we were already masters, by the time the world heard us.
So now we’re celebrating 20 years of ‘36 Chambers’, so count how many years that is of us doing what we do. We do it because we love it, and it’s part of us. So the training is very important, and we do it diligently. And a student can become a master, but a master always knows that he remains a student.
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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, from ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’
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“Forbidden to rape, molest, do evil, steal, rob, abduct or cheat,” from which Clash asks: do some rappers, some artists in pop, lose track of their musical personas, and allow the characters they play, who might be evil, spill into their personal lives?
Ghostface: I ain’t gonna make this long, but a lot of that’s god’s law. To those that’s raping, you got a problem. The ones that do it to the babies, you got even bigger problems.
But sometimes you gotta steal, y’know. It depends what you’re stealing for, because you’ve got to survive. If you’re doing it just to do it, though, forget that.
RZA: First of all, I’ll say this openly, I used to be a thief. I couldn’t afford the things I wanted, the things I needed – I couldn’t even afford food. I’d go to the grocery store and come out with a bloody T-shirt because I’d stuffed a steak down there. So sometimes out of desperation I’d steal. But I don’t agree with it. I do agree with survival. If you’ve been oppressed, you’re gonna have to resort to what you have to do.
But the worst kind of stealing is stealing amongst your own. I’ll never forget that we were doing a video, for ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ or something, and this guy we all know…
Ghostface: You mean the guy I punched in the face? Little short, dark-haired dude?
RZA: Yeah. Anyway, what he did, was steal something from us, when he thought Ghost was asleep. But Ghost had one eye on him. He saw! And Ghost let him steal it, and he walked all the way down the block with it. And then Ghost, he yells out, “Hey yo, come here, I gotta tell you something!” Just as this guy think he’s getting away.
So he comes all the way back, and then Ghost whips his ass. Because you don’t need to steal from us – we give it all away. You’re with Wu-Tang, you’re gonna get food, clothing, even shelter, because we give that away. So we’re heavily against stealing.
But how do we maintain the division between our art and characters and our real life? Sometimes it does mix together, but I think that an artist needs a character through which to express themselves.
I know we came out all “keep it real”, but keep it real refers to real hip-hop, and expressing yourself through your own ways, and not copying someone else. In today’s hip-hop climate, because of their popularity, their real lives are being captured and diffused and mixed with their artistic personas. And I think that some of these artists believe they are that persona – and you can become that.
Look at Rick Ross, right. He has the name of a famous criminal. Now, does he become that criminal? Not intentionally – but now people in the streets are shooting at him, and he’s just rapping. But he had the persona of a criminal, and sometimes that follows you.
Look at Kanye West. He can’t have a normal day because his life is part of our culture. Oh, Kanye’s having a baby, it’s like the Royal Family is having a baby! He can’t even go nowhere. He has to come out with his baby covered up! I got children, but I keep my hip-hop persona separate from my life persona.
Even Superman disguised himself. You do not know that Clark Kent is Superman. You do not know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. What makes Superman’s disguise great is that you can’t believe that a bumbling, clumsy-ass fool could ever be Superman. That’s what makes his disguise great. He’s tripping over a pebble!
The thing with Wu-Tang is that we changed our names, and put out these different personas through which to express our music. But some rappers now, they can’t hide themselves. Kanye West, that’s his name.
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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Can It All Be So Simple’, from ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’
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Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ turns 20 years old this November. The group has a new album, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, planned for release later in 2013.
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