Fans of music have had a field day with Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s “Verzuz” series, which has revered producers and songwriters squaring up on IG Live to play 20 of their best songs and leaving it up to the fans to pick a winner. But this weekend, there’s perhaps the biggest lineup yet: RZA vs. DJ Premier. The leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, arguably the greatest group in hip-hop history, will face off against DJ Premier, who has provided his signature scratches and warm golden era sound to everyone from Jay-Z and Nas to Christina Aguilera and D’Angelo.
RZA has spent much of recent years working on film and TV, but his musical catalog is undeniable. His dusty drums and eccentric samples made the Wu-Tang Clan a global institution, and he’s also produced gems for Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun and Kanye West. Two days before his Verzuz battle, The Abbot took some time on the phone with VIBE to speak about how the battle came to be, explained how it continues a years-long relationship with him and Premier, and who he would want to see battle from the all-time pantheon of musicians.
VIBE: Tell me how this conversation with Swizz and Timbo happened.
RZA: Swizz didn’t have my number, so Buck had my number. Buck shouted me out, he connected me and Swizz three-way. We chopped it up, Swizz explained to me he was doing with Verzuz and what it means for the culture. I’ve been absent a little bit from the culture, in the sense of music – I’ve been strictly making films and TV shows and bringing the culture to another chamber, in all reality. He felt we could reflect back on the foundation of what I brought to hip-hop, that it would be ideal, iconic, timely, and I agree with him. Hip-hop is my foundation. The music itself. I don’t care how many movies I make or how many TV shows I do, it took this to get me where I’m at.
A lot of these battles, what’s made them so interesting is that the producers and songwriters bring out so many songs people don’t know what they did. Do you think there’s a good understanding of what you’ve done, or that people don’t know what you can bring out?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I haven’t given thought to that, in all reality. I’ve got a vast catalog, some you know, some you don’t know. You gotta keep in mind, I’ve been doing sh*t for a minute. From Gravediggaz, to–I’ve done all types of crazy shit at the end of the day, if I’m going to dig in my own crates.
One thing I can say is this though, DJ Premier is an elite type of producer. Of course, he’s part of the legendary Gang Starr, rest in peace to Guru. Him in Gang Starr alone is something special for hip-hop that we appreciated, nah mean. Even myself striving to get on, I had all their records. But he also, as a producer, has the ability of not being in a group, and producing for so many iconic names in our industry. I think that’s a blessing because he got a chance to spread that foundation of hip-hop into a lot of arenas. For me, I was able to be one of those producers who produced entire albums. You don’t find a lot of producers like that. Maybe you’ll find five us us — Dre, Rico Wade — that can produce the whole sound of a movement. I think those are the two different degrees of what we’re having here. He could have produced for a couple of dozen MCs — but, I’ve definitely got those nine dope Wu-Tang MCs. We’ve got a lot of stuff in our catalog.
Have you ever considered a battle like this before?
Nah, because to be honest with you–I came from battling in hip-hop, that’s how I started. I used to go to the Bronx to ni**as houses to battle them, I used to travel on the trains just for a battle. This is definitely being called a battle, but at the end of the day, what has me involved and taking my time to stop what I do every day, is this is really a celebration of the culture. This is a format that Swizz and Timbaland figured out how to make it work. When Swizz shouted me out, he was very clear — hip-hop is about fun. What we do and what we’ve done should be celebrated in any form or fashion, and this is part of that celebration. I said you know what, I’ve got to agree with you. I agree that this is cool for the culture. Ni**as wanna be like, “oh sh*t, they’re putting their gloves on.” Whatever, hand me the gloves.
I’m going to give you a boxing analogy real quick. I was going for Wilder, nah mean? (laughs) And Fury took him out of there, right? I was pissed off that he lost the fight, but I was impressed that he spoke up for the sport of boxing, for the culture of what it means. Not only for his greatness, but the greatness of everyone else before him, and of everyone that’s gonna come after him. I’m happy that hip-hop is in that phase right now. You have so many great young hip-hop artists now rocking the world, doing it, touching new grounds and new lands and building economics for their family. Then you got those who came in the 90s who helped it become a world phenomenon as well by being the first ones to break in certain countries. Then you got the forefathers who sat right there in the Bronx, who started with these parks and people would travel to the Bronx to go to a block party, or travel to Queens or travel to Brooklyn to go to these block parties. Now, that culture, you find it in everything. You find it in TV commercials, you find it in movies. For me, as a guy who has now expanded to the movies, this call for me is, “hold on, let me put my foot back in the water to the foundation of the culture, dig through catalogs and have some fun.” That’s what I’m here to do, yo.
Have you watched any of the other battles?
He sent me a link to check out a couple. I haven’t gotten a chance to watch all of them, just some snippets or whatever. It’s definitely on.
So, are you making a bet, yo? (laughs)
(Laughs) People are definitely making their bets. Like you said, I always go to Premier for individual bangers, and I always go to you for full albums. So I’m trying to see how that’s going to materialize itself in the battle.
I’m interested too, yo. The best part about this is, of course Premo was in the game before me, and I was trying to get in the game and I’d hang out with him, Keith and Guru. I remember playing tracks to them, just trying to get in. That gave me an out of how to get in for myself. Once I got in, we had a lot of the same friends: Jeru, Afu, Masta Killa. That’s the East New York crew, all known each going back to 18 and 19. But when I was coming with the Wu, and I was on my producing swordsmanship, I could always come up to him and challenge him, “yo I’m going to hit you with this and hit you with that.” We kinda got a history of talking sh*t back and forth to each other. And of course we’re friends, and we toured together, and it’s all love. But this is an ongoing thing that me and him have been involved with, directly indirectly, for a while. Seems like it was done when one summer, we were laughing about the youth mentality that we had. And here we are, about to rekindle it. It’s going to be very fun and very interesting.
If you had a chance to see another battle like this, between any two musicians of all time, who would those two artists be?
I’m not going to be able to give you a spontaneous answer on that, but I’ma put it sideways for you. Who they put on the pedestals as the top two guitar players, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Let those two go battle, even though I know who my money’s on.
So who’s your money on?
Hendrix revolutionized what that instrument could do. At the end of the day, Clapton, remember he played on the Beatles songs. But Hendrix revolutionized it, and he world popularized it. Everybody plays a part in these chambers, bro.