These things just took over me. Took over my whole body until I can’t even see anymore. I’m calling my black woman a bi**h. I’m calling my peoples all kinds of things that they’re not. I’m lost, brother. Can you help me? – ”Wu-Revolution”
Like a young man helplessly shackled on a prison bus riding into his first, and very uncertain, state bid, and greedily begging God for a miracle, this is the urgency that commences Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, the follow-up to their classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
On the album’s intro, “Wu-Revolution,” Papa Wu and Uncle Pete attempt to peel away the stereotypes that prompt men to shun help. But if we’re being totally honest, many men fear admitting their weaknesses. So, we try to hide it. When this happens, our fear is disguised in violence, gang membership, drug and alcohol abuse, among other atrocities. This is especially prevalent in the ‘hood.
But the slums are more than just a space that houses helpless men and women. Some, if not all, of us, have platonic aspirations, and we boldly embrace the fear of stepping into the unknown–a life outside of the ghetto. With this, we passionately chase knowledge, wisdom, understanding, culture, freedom, power, refinement, equality and God. And like many impressionable novice minds that are trapped in marginalized zones, our quest for guidance and wisdom–if not sparked inside the home—takes root in hip-hop. Spitting organic intellectuality combined with harrowing crack sales over dark and brooding instrumentals is just one of the many ways that the Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized hip-hop, and raised a nation of aspiring high-brows through their music.
There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasure–Giles Deleuz.
As a nation of Wu-Tang hip-hop stans delved deeper into the nine-member group’s confounding lyrics, we –or at least myself– emerged with a list of books that ushered us through cold days and lonely nights that we experience inside spooky crack houses and diabolic cell blocks. Books like The Prophet (Kahlil Gibran),The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck), War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), The Bible, The Holy Qu’ran, and others, were greedily devoured by curious teenagers, and myself, because Wu’s leader, RZA–who during our adolescent years was believed to be the most intelligent man on Earth– said the former were some of his favorite books.
On a clear and lukewarm Thursday afternoon, RZA and his protege, Mathematics, gracefully walk into VIBE’s New York City office. Standing 6’2,” the 42-year-old rapper/producer/actor/filmmaker dons a snug fit pair of black jeans, black dress shoes complete with black glasses and a black flat cap to match. The only clothing item that’s not black is the light green stripes on his casual sweater that’s partly unzipped, allowing his upper chest to breathe a little bit.
Mathematics, who produced songs like ”Mighty Healthy,” “Wu-Banga 101,” and others, falls into his role as the student by rocking baggy red jeans, a red t-shirt with a picture of an exotic Native American, an oversized army green jacket, complete with a black skully sitting atop his dome.
Yes, gun talk, sophisticated dope boys, non-feminist content, and boastful lyrics embedded RZA’s catalogue, too. But life is a contradiction also. After the gangster and utter disrespect rap, The Abbot would release a documentary titled Domestic Violence, which sheds light on men abusing women, or he’d break down science on how the black man is a god on Earth, and we can’t survive life without the love and comfort of black women.
But RZA’s teaching wasn’t limited to domesticity. In between narrating the lives of the young and restless, the rapper born Robert Diggs, a.k.a Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, also gave us names like Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Many of us never heard of Medgar Evers until RZA talked about him being among our forefathers. RZA belted out the size of the science with raps like, “Two hundred thousand million atmosphere cubic feet of air we breath,” and told us that Jesse Jackson was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his assassination. This is jaw-dropping information that we never learned in school–at least not in the schools that I attended.
Being a Five-Percenter, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, Bobby Digital was basically required to vocalize messages of self-love, the importance of unions with your Moon (wife). He rhymed stories about Biblical figures such as Daniel and Moses, but more importantly, RZA was able to convey all of these lessons in a language that high-school dropouts, convicted felons, and those labeled with having ADHD, could understand.
I’m a proud recipient, and now graduate student studying the Black Panther Party, of every piece of knowledge that RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan put into the universe. I represent that thugged-out intellectual sh*t that RZA and his fellow Wu henchmen rapped about. Like many curious young minds, my quest for a better life started with Wu-Tang, which lead to books, morals, principles, and college degrees.
Daddy-O: I got some new info for you, right here, some lessons
RZA: Supposed to give me some lesson? (what you talking about, ni**a?)
Daddy-O: Yeah, lesson
RZA: On what? On how to cook the sh*t up, ni**a?
Daddy-O: Nah, nah, Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, Culture, Freedom.
RZA: Son, what’s that all about, though, yo?
Daddy-O: Yo, God, it’s the new way of life, knowhatimsayin? It’s the truth. It’s the way it’s gonna set you free.I think you an intelligent brother, you should check this out - ”Whatever You Want” by RZA (Birth of a Prince)
For the next hour or so, RZArector takes us on a journey through his life, his voracious reading habits, and ponders whether or not he understands how the Wu-Tang Clan instilled a platonic way of life into the minds of many kids of the ghetto.
VIBE: Take me through the journey of your reading habits.
RZA: Well of course it starts in every black family. The Bible and church is part of your life. And I actually liked the Bible. My mom gave me the children stories of the Bible. I memorized that book at the age of nine.
Stories of the Old Testament inspired you to dig deeper? Those stories have a bit of entertainment to them also.
Before that, I was also blessed to have an uncle who was a doctor. He took me away for a couple summers. I got to get out of New York. He had a lot of big books, and he told me that it was my destiny to read. He thought I was going to be a doctor, too. He passed away and I had to come back to New York, back to the projects.
In the book of John, it says, ‘In the beginning, there was the Word. The Word was God and Word was made Flesh –RZA
So, you’re 9 years old under the tutelage of a doctor? That’s crazy.
Word. When I come back to New York after my uncle died, my aunt saw that my reading level as a 9-year-old was that of a 15-year-old. She gave me this book, it was Sigmund Freud. So, I’m reading that. Then at the age of 11, somebody asked me – it was actually Born Knowledge who gave me that book – if I heard about the Twelve Jewels [Gems in Homeopathy]. I said, ‘No, what’s that?’ I got ahold of that and that book led me to the knowledge of self. When I went back to tell Allah Justice, GZA, about it, he already had knowledge of self. He told me that I should study this, it was the Mathematics [The Science of Self]. It was the Mathematics that led me to every search of every other knowledge. Because in the Mathematics there are lessons.
Can you explain the lessons?
There were 120 lessons, and within those 120 lessons, there are actual mentions of different things and cultures and time periods all within this. And being a guy like you, I can tell by your personality, if I hear one word, I researched it. There was a sentence that said, ‘The Indians were exiled from India 16,000 years ago.’ I said, ‘When was that? How could that possibly be?’ Then I went and started studying the Mohandas, the Indian history, and it goes back 35,000 years. I kept at it, and those things sent me into a quest.
Here in New York during your era, Five Percenters were big. In Mississippi, where I’m from, we had stories from our uncles who recalled old Blues songs. From the streets, who pointed you in the direction of knowledge?
When we were in our teenage years. There’s a brother who is also a Wu-Tang producer named True Master. When we were doing street pharmaceutical business, he was selling books. He would make 40 G’s over the course of the summer just from books. Downtown Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Harlem. He had all the books. The Isis Papers. They Came Before Columbus, Mis-Education of the Negro, Behold a Pale Horse. I actually worked for him for about a month. I wanted to leave the streets alone. So he helped us also get a nice library full of books. That’s some of the foundation. By the time that you got to Wu-Tang Forever, I already traveled the world, spent time in different places. I’m the type of person that will actually go to a library or a record store.
RZA [addresses Mathematics]: Remember the Bodhi Tree bookstore in L.A.? They had books that were locked in the case?
RZA: Check this out. The books that are locked in the case, there may be one or two copies of them that somebody just wrote and gave to them to sell. I’m telling you, the things that we’re seeing now, it was in these books. The book was called The Matrix–the books. I have all of them.
Hold up. You’re taking me too fast. The Matrix–the movie?
RZA: Exactly. This is around ’96. The book on unused energies. This is the book that Elon Musk must’ve used [turns to face Mathematics]–only 100 copies of the books. Science. When you hear me say, ‘Fusion of the five elements/Search for higher intelligence…,’ I’m dropping all of that right into the rhyme hoping someone can hear that, go search it and decipher it.
‘Women walk around celibate/Walk around irrelevant/The most benevolent King…’ How did the cats in your ‘hood receive all of this? Were you kicking this sh*t while on the block doing what you do?
RZA: That’s why I’m the Abbot. I’m in the hood on the bench. I have half the hood listening to me. I’m building. When I came out, I came out to build. Or you come up to my house to make music. I was known for that. I had to do that. When one has knowledge, the civilized is responsible for the uncivilized.
Can you break down the analogy behind the Shaolin Temple?
When you look at the Shaolin Temple, and why we named our borough Shaolin, that’s the foundation. The Wu-Tang were the ones who actually left Shaolin and joined government, police, crooks, and took the martial arts and found the light and exposed it to the world in a different way. Then they cultivated it back into the Wu-Tang mountain and became more spiritual. That’s similar to our history. Going out and being wild ni**as, and now as grown men, we can cultivate back. Shaolin is a place that wouldn’t allow guys like us in. They wouldn’t allow the regular people in. It’s like the Nation of Islam back in those days, you had to become a minister, stop smoking, stop drinking and all of that. You couldn’t just get that knowledge. So when Shaolin kept its doors closed, or the Nation, and what happens is that the young and the laymen are not getting the knowledge. The wolves who are eating up everything around them, what are they going to do after they eat everything around them? They are going to come to eat you. If you have the knowledge on how to stop that you have to spread that so that it goes to the people.
Was there one sole person responsible for bringing this information back?
There was Shaolin monk who gained the information and brought it back to the people. Eventually, they burned the temple, but if he never would’ve brought it to the people, they would’ve died when the temple died. So our duty is to teach. I was never shy to get up and share my math.
What’s the hardest part about having all of this knowledge?
The hardest thing for me was to put myself in the humility form to put it in a book because that’s almost like putting a target on your back.
So can we discuss your libraries?
I talk a little bit about my libraries [Laughs]. We have to stay shallow and really say a little bit [Laughs].
How many do you have?
I have two libraries. We kept the Wu Mansion and that has a lot of great books in there. There are well over a thousand books in there. I have my new home, and I also have well over a thousand books in there. I was given a gift from a Berkeley student, a graduate, he gave me the whole course of all Western knowledge as a gift. I have the philosophy of Eastern knowledge. The sacred books that go all the way back to Nimrod. [Addresses Mathematics] You know, Nimrod? I have all them sh*ts. I have a lot of books on Martial Arts, books on history. I choose my books on history wisely though. One book that True Master used to sell, what’s that book? Is it Antiquity? Book one and two?
Mathematics: With the ark on the cover?
RZA: Not that one. It’s a couple of those with the ark. One goes into the history of Christianity. It’ll come to me.
My reading habits started with you, Nas, The Good Earth, War and Peace and a few others…
RZA: The Good Earth is a great book. The Holy Qu’ran, The Bible. There’s another one called The Bhagavad Gita, have you read that one?
Never heard of it.
This means the song of God. It’s the book that was written in Indian philosophy. It’s part of the Marathi, the Indian history. The Bhagavad Gita is part of the 700 verses taken out of this book and put into its own book. And it’s the basic principle of Yoga, Hinduism, and conscience. This is one of their more prominent books. They have more books, but this particular book, what makes it so powerful is that it shows the struggle of a man who has to make a decision to do something that’s painful for him. He has to fight a war against his own family and those who love him in order for righteousness to exist. And he’d rather die than do that. He has to figure out his way through this. This book is beautiful. I highly recommend it.
Mathematics: Were you the one who put me on to that book?
Mathematics: I remember one time the Wiz and I were going at it and I had the book sitting in my file cabinet. I had Malcolm X, the breakdown to the Bible, and I had The Bhagavad Gita. She picks up that book, looks at it, and says, ‘What are you into?’ I said, ‘Read it.’ That’s when I realized that, ‘You don’t get it.’ It’s simple. Read it. She thought it was something far.
RZA: Mythical or magical sh*t.
Mathematics: Yeah, I said, ‘Read it. It’s simple.’
RZA: Did she ever read it?
Mathematics: No, she didn’t.
We’ve talked off-record, and I told you how the Wu and Nas are partly responsible for me getting my Ph.D. in history. Do you understand the impact your music had on our minds?
RZA: To say that I do understand, I can answer you by saying yes because we knew what we had to do. That would be my answer, but at the same time to understand still doesn’t take away the fact that I appreciate it. It’s different. It’s like the guy who takes the three-pointer. He knows he can hit it, but when he hits it…
Again, I’m speaking for me and how my path is connected to your music. Is this what you had in mind?
RZA: My son turned 22 years old today. He doesn’t eat meat. He’s a student at Berkeley in Boston. Doesn’t smoke weed. Didn’t have a drink until he was 21. His name is Understanding. He had to walk around with that name. When I named him that, Wu Tang Forever was only a couple years after that. I named him Understanding because the world needed more of it. So, I understand the power of the word. I understand that. I’ll give you another one. We saw B.I.G. right before he died. We named our album after we lost The Notorious B.I.G. His album came out after he returned [Ed note: RZA is speaking metaphorically about The Notorious B.I.G.’s album, Life After Death]. But he returned to the essence before we had a name for our album. When he returned, we had just seen him in L.A., we broke bread together. He had the cane and everything. After he returned, we went back, we always do the knowledge of things [Ed note: A mathematical system used by Five-Percenters figure our meanings of certain life situations]. His first album was called Ready to Die. He was about to put out Life After Death. We were like, ‘You can talk yourself out of this, man.’
We named our album Wu-Tang Forever. A conscious decision. That’s how serious this is. It still sparks an energy. In the book of John, it says, ‘In the beginning, there was the Word. The Word was God and Word was made Flesh.’ People like you, with your goals, and wanting to bring history to the people, and how we inspired you to read those books, what you’re doing in school, you’ll pass that knowledge to others. And you’re part of why Wu-Tang will live forever.