Rapped in himself - 2003-08-29 00:00:00

© The Wu-Tang Corp.- 2003-08-29

Perhaps it's because he is the founder of the hugely influential hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, but modesty isn't one of RZA's most forthcoming attributes.

"A lot of kids have used me as an icon," he says over the line from a New York studio. "I've influenced a lot of kids with Wu-Tang and introduced them all to hip-hop."

It hasn't been easy pinning down this icon. This is the fourth attempt to speak to the producer who claims to be behind 20 per cent of the world's biggest hip-hop acts.

But it's that blunt self-awareness that led to his latest project, The World According to RZA, a whirlwind collaboration with acclaimed European artists, from the Scandinavian Allstars to Germany's Xavier Naidoo.

Over 30 days RZA recorded 22 tracks with more than 20 artists, in what he calls a family-oriented affair. During that time everyone slept under the same roof, breaking bread together in the name of the album. It's a far cry from his Wu-Tang days, when fraternising outside the Clan wasn't the done thing.

"It's about paying tribute to and [giving] respect to hip-hop around the world and to all the kids who thought that I was the only master of hip-hop. I lived hip-hop all my life, y'know what I mean? I really was protective over it. But now I've realised it has became a world movement. It became the soul and the sound of a lot of generations."

While Europe hardly constitutes a world album, he says this is the first of many and he hopes to work with artists on other continents. One day he might even collaborate with New Zealanders - a few weeks ago he met King Kapisi on the streets of New York.

But it was on tour with Wu-Tang in the early 90s that he became fascinated with European hip-hop culture. "It was less Americanised, it was less McDonald's, it was less everything, y'know what I mean? It was so German.

"And to go to a concert and have thousands of kids screaming and yelling your name, understanding your music but not your language, caught me by awe."

The album almost didn't come out as the label folded mid-project. It was a low-budget production anyway, he concedes. Even the cover art was done by a zealous Wu-Tang fan who would show him drawings at their concerts.

But he says he had to pay the artists out of his own pocket. "I used to be caught up in the, 'I'm not going to do shit unless you pay me,' y'know what I mean? But with this album I'm just doing it, man. I don't care nothing abou' no money, I don't care if I make money, I did it just to do it.

"It intrigues me because I got a chance to look into the mirror. I got a chance to look into the past and see a reflection of myself.

"When I went to Europe and I saw these hungry artists who weren't spoilt by money, it added on to my hunger and rekindled a flame in me."

The fire was first lit in the early 90s when RZA (Robert Diggs to his mum) decided he wanted to pioneer a new industry. He formed the Wu-Tang Clan with eight friends, including his cousins Ol' Dirty Bastard and the Gza, who took their name from a mythical kung-fu, sword-wielding congregation of warriors.

The idea was to overtake the record industry, to establish themselves as a force with their debut album, then spin off into as many solo projects as possible. The plan worked. The commercially successful Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers introduced the world to RZA's lean-but-menacing beats and the various MCs' biting yet humorous lyrics.

Along they way they were nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Album (Wu-Tang Forever) and kick-started the solo careers of some of hip-hop's biggest names, including Method Man and Raekwon.

RZA's entrepreneurial streak also led him in other directions. There were the video games, the martial arts movies, the clothing label and the audio equipment company, which has since gone bust.

"I learned my lesson. I ordered my parts and had to wait six months to get my shit because Panasonic ordered a million of those, y'know what I mean? There was no way for me to compete with that kind of world."

He is now working with Metallica's Lars Ulrich on the soundtrack to upcoming Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill, after creating the great soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch movie Ghost Dog.

And although he has severed business ties with the Clan, they still work together. Ghostface Killah turns up on his album on a track with French group the Sian Supa Crew. He has also produced tracks for Rapper Killah and Raekwon.

But times have changed since Wu-Tang were the biggest thing in hip-hop, and he admits he finds it difficult to come to terms with that sometimes.

"I don't like seeing what some artists get away with that we couldn't.

"All this tough rough stuff is out there being idolised and popularised, and when we was being tough and rough we was [expletive] terrorists, y'know what I mean?

"This world is crazy when it comes to the truth. You wanna deal with lies? Hey, I'll do it all day. You wanna deal with the truth? You gotta wait til you die for that."

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