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POP MUSIC

The Head and Heart of a Hip-Hop Clan

Master producer RZA keeps the Wu-Tang ties strong even as he focuses on crafting that unpolished sound.

November 19, 2000|KRIS EX

NEW YORK — "To hear these brothers chewing on stuff is so much fun," says the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, sitting in a Manhattan hotel suite where seven members of the hip-hop supergroup are gathered for a series of press interviews to promote its first album in three years.

The rappers are trading light banter about blockbuster movies, new clothes and neighborhood exploits.

"It was good for us to come back together under one roof," observes RZA. "Some of us didn't see each other in three or four months. We all have our own crews, so even when we see each other, we may each have 15 or 20 people with us, so we never got to vibe among ourselves."

"I feel like a fan sometimes when we're all together," says Method Man, stretched out on a pastel couch. "I'm ready to whip out a pen like, 'Can I get an autograph?' "

Ever since Wu-Tang hit the rap world in 1993 with the seminal "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers," the nine-member collective has been widely hailed as one of the most creative forces in the genre. It is most certainly the center of East Coast hard-core rap.

The group's music coupled frenetic, slang-heavy lyricism and a mythology based on martial arts movies, urban conditions and Nation of Islam polemics. Much like N.W.A before it on the West Coast, the team spawned successful solo careers for several of its members, notably Method Man, Ghostface Killah and RZA. Raekwon the Chef, Ol' Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA/Genius, Inspectah Dek and Masta Killa round out the lineup.

Though Ol' Dirty Bastard's run-ins with the law are well-documented (he has been a fugitive since fleeing from a court-ordered drug treatment program last month) and Ghostface Killah had to push back the release of his second album because of jail time for a parole violation, the Clan maintains a low profile outside music-making.

Wu-Tang returned three years ago with a follow-up collection--the two-disc "Wu-Tang Forever"--that won more acclaim and sold more than 5 million copies.

After time away for solo projects, they've re-teamed for a third album, "The W," which will be released Tuesday. (See review on Page 68.)

With gritty, unpolished numbers such as "Chamber Music" and "Careful," the new album stands in stark contrast to hip-hop's current, smoothed-out orthodoxy. On the new single, "Gravel Pit," the group even eschews hip-hop's reigning status symbol, declaring, "Can't stand Bentleys, they cost too much."

"It's like everybody went away," observes Raekwon. "But when we came back to the crib, we're still the same brothers, waking up, having breakfast, snapping jokes, getting high, late-night talks. Just the regular stuff we used to do."

"Wu-Tang is one big family," says Steve Rifkind, president of the Clan's label, Loud Records. "Them together is pure energy. It's family, it's love."

At the heart of that family is RZA. Besides producing the bulk of the Clan's music, he has worked with such artists as Cypress Hill and the late Notorious B.I.G., fronted his critically acclaimed side group, Gravediggaz, scored the movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," and crafted its heralded soundtrack.

"RZA makes ghetto symphonies," observes Wyclef Jean, who has made acclaimed albums both as a member of the Fugees and as a solo artist. "His music has classical elements, but at the same time it's hard-core and street. No one can go from Beethoven to the 'hood like he can. He's amazing."

Though RZA is ranked in hip-hop circles alongside Dr. Dre and DJ Premier as a master producer, some worry that his nonstop schedule will lead to burnout.

But RZA, 29, doesn't see any danger of that.

"I'm addicted to music," he says. "I have to make beats every day. Wherever I go, I got a keyboard waiting for me. Some people collect cars, I collect equipment."

*

Despite the success of hip-hop artists during the last two decades, many in the pop world still refuse to acknowledge the artistry in the best rap. It's almost as if all the studio sounds are an accident. But RZA's musical approach is built on a lifelong study of some of pop music's key figures.

A few weeks after the hotel gathering, RZA is tearing into a takeout tin of spicy vegetables and rice during some downtime in a photo studio inside Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, where he was the subject of a publicity photo session.

Dressed in black, oversized army fatigues, a matching vest, black shades and a matching military hat, RZA seems more an urban warrior than the founding father and producer of rap's premier supergroup.

"They call me the nucleus of the group because I have a common denominator with each one of them," he says. "Before they knew each other, they definitely knew me."

From an early age, RZA was enraptured by the power of spoken communication--what he calls "the living word"--and by music's ability to affect people's emotions.

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