RZA Talks About His Camp TAZO Retreat, Mentorship, & What Current Rappers Inhabit the Spirit of the Wu-Tang Clan [Interview]
We talked to Wu-Tang clan leader RZA about his Camp TAZO retreat, his early days as Prince Rakeem, his love for kung-fu and anime, who his mentors are, and more.
While RZA is most notably known for being the mastermind behind hip-hop’s greatest collective, the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s his endeavors in music, film, television, and books that cannot be overlooked. At 50 years old today, the Staten Island native stands wiser and introspective than ever before.
Having filtered through numerous eras and monikers — including Bobby Digital and Prince Rakeem before that, the latter of which he named his son — RZA continues to inspire and influence the ever-changing rap game, exuding constant growth and success not only on the surface level, but in the mind as well.
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Which leads us to his most recent project: Camp TAZO: Zen, a creative camp retreat where 10 winners will be selected to attend camp and learn his approach to creative exploration. Taking place over two days in February 2020, individuals will have the rare and valuable opportunity to dive deep into his creative process while embarking on their own journey to creative enlightenment. (We’re not sure what all of this means, but Camp TAZO claims it will “make sense when you get there.”)
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RZA has officially opened applications for Camp TAZO, which will take place in his own hometown of Staten Island.
We were able to chat with RZA over the phone to talk about Camp TAZO, his early days as Prince Rakeem, his love for kung-fu and anime, who he looked up to coming up in the rap game, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, and more.
Check out the interview below.
When you started, you called yourself Prince Rakeem. What were the Prince Rakeem days like?
In those days, I was still finding the balance of my own life. Prince Rakeem was the first step into getting that balance, the first step to identifying my inner entity. In my opinion, this is part of what we’re doing here with Camp TAZO — and dealing with the Zen of it all. I think Prince Rakeem had maybe put his first toe into that zen, picking it up from movies and having more of a macro look at it.
Then eventually as I evolved and metamorphosed into the RZA, it became more prominent in my life: the concept of self-awareness, creativity. Prince Rakeem for me was an important step in my development. When you’re a prince, you’re the son of a king. You’re the son of someone great, but you haven’t risen to your own throne. You’ll notice when the RZA became me, I stood independently of anything in my own way.
Would you ever consider rapping under that name again?
No. I actually got a son, his name is Prince Rakeem. He’s in that position now.
Is he going to be a rapper?
You know, he’s never rapped around me. My wife [Talani Rabb-Diggs] tells me that he’s written about 30 lyrics so far, but he won’t do them around me. He’s 13 years old. He hasn’t gotten around the big lion. Simba’s not ready to step up yet. [laughs]
How did you settle on the name RZA?
So the Z in RZA stands for Zig-Zag-Zig, right? Sometimes you’re going in the right direction — which I think I was going in the right direction taking the name Prince Rakeem. [I was] starting to look at the world through a different lens and understanding who I am as an individual, as a young black man growing up in my community, the challenges against me, the challenges that I’d overcome.
But then I Zagged away from all of that. I probably became just the same as any other dude you would’ve driven by in the hood. Instead of being something that’s uplifting the hood, I became part of the same problem that brings the hood down. I saw and I became that. But fortunately, I got to Zag back to the right direction, which is a blessing. When you get a second chance — if you can learn through and live through a lesson, you can become stronger. That stronger version of me is the RZA.
II read how during that time your studio got flooded and you lost over 300 beats. Method Man, Ghostface, & GZA had to recreate those albums.
That was a disaster…But out of disasters, you build again. I can use this as a great example because it’s a terrible tragedy in my city’s history, but our towers went down. Now the Freedom Tower stands there, and it’s a very beautiful building. It’s very modern and very unique. For those who were born after it was constructed, all they know is that building.
For me, it was a disaster. But for the fans —who appreciate those first five albums classic — all they know is that. They don’t know what could’ve been, that’s the beauty. That’s what I call the lotus growing out of the mud. The lotus flower is considered the symbol of Buddhism, but it grows on mud and most Buddhist monks wouldn’t touch the mud because they said the mud will befoul you. But how could something befoul you that could produce something so beautiful? In that concept, I look at it as a disaster. But I look at it as a fire that forged me into a stronger being.
How has anime inspired you?
If you take a look at some of the Wu music, the intermissions from those first five albums. [On] Ghostface, his first album [Ironman] we pulled from Crying Freeman [for “Fish”] which, of course, is early anime. I’m a big fan of anime. I got three versions of Akira. And a closet full of anime. I love the classics like Vampire Hunter D. I love the first wave of animation. Of course, Attack on Titan. There’s a lot of great ones now. I even like One-Punch Man, which I think is funny. Anime is definitely a part of Wu’s zeitgeist and I collect a lot of it.
What’s your favorite kung fu style?
I would say Qigong. The Qigong is the root of so many other kung fus, but it’s actually a form within itself. That’s my favorite style because it’s the foundation of mostly every other style.
If you could score any kung-fu movie, what would it be?
I actually do a re-scoring of [The 36th Chamber of Shaolin] live now. So I’m having a ball doing that. It’s a process of taking something that exists already; I was allowed to strip it clean then add in a live platform. Whether it’s Wu-tang music, whether it’s me just sitting at the piano — for the audience I’ll do this — it’s just another expression of my creativity. One thing about creativity is you realize you can direct the creative energy into any form you want, but you have to realize that creative energy.
You have to realize it like realizing electricity exists. Through electricity, you can turn on every appliance in your house. Creative energy has the ability to turn on every aspect of expression, inspiration, aspiration, as well as performance. When you look at what we’re striving to do with this collaboration here with Camp TAZO, we’re coming together to help others explore their creative energy and identify it.
What are you teaching at the camp/workshop? What is it about your own career that worked?
I’ve identified the zen of creativity. My goal at the camp is to hopefully do five various explorations over the course of two days. I’m going to take the other creative beings that are going to be there with us and have them see it as clear as I see it. Maybe some do see it as clear, but those don’t know how to now activate it. Maybe some know how to activate it, but don’t see it clear. As a writer, have you ever had writer’s block?
All the time.
Think about that, what is actually blocking? If you compare writing to your energy, this is called your light. Your sunlight. So what’s blocking that light and casting a shadow over your creativity? Once you can identify that, because even though the creativity is used as an example for the light, the light still penetrates. The sunlight still penetrates even though it doesn’t seem like it. But the main rays that are penetrating it — maybe every color of the spectrum is not penetrating but the ultra, the gamma may be penetrating. Or the infrared may be penetrating.
It’s the same thing with creativity. Maybe my words are not coming together, but my idea is. Maybe my idea is coming together, but I don’t have the words to express it. How do I release that? How do I take the part that is penetrating and put it to use? As a writer — and I’m a writer myself — sometimes I just write one word then. Because I know that a picture can paint a thousand words, so how many pictures can I get from one word? I just reverse it. By having that one word, I found myself going back to that word and realize that word is a concentrated idea of everything I was going through. Now all I have to do is add water to that concentration and I got a whole pitcher of Kool-Aid. [chuckles]
You’re a mentor to many. Who was your mentor coming up in the game?
When I finally made it in 1997, I met Quincy Jones. He took time to give me some knowledge of the business and music that helped me expand my ideas. Before meeting Quincy Jones, I had the pleasure of meeting John Woo. I met John Woo in 1995. I was able to talk movies and decipher movies with him. The one who got me over the hump at mentoring was Isaac Hayes. I spent about three years with him from maybe ‘98 to 2001. Then the last teacher that I took upon as a teacher was Quentin Tarantino. I spent about six years studying with him to become a film director.
Is it weird to get a whole new wave of fans after Wu-Tang: An American Saga?
Well, I won’t say weird. I’d say it’s a blessing. I’d say that the goal of me, Wu-tang, all of us, is to entertain and inspire. You have to do both. If we’re lucky, we can also inform.
I want to point out the scene where you see Bobby [Diggs], Ason, Dennis [‘D-Love’ Coles], and Gary all sitting there watching the kung fu movie. All of a sudden, Bobby hears the kung fu guy say: “the five tones deafen every ear. The five colors blind the eye.” Then he’s inspired spiritually and creatively. That moment in my life was a real moment.
Hopefully, one out of a thousand kids see that scene and they realize those five colors are basically the colors that we put in front of ourselves through racism — Black, brown, red, yellow, and white. We keep seeing each other on the surface, but we’re not seeing the inner being of each other, so it blinds us to each other. Those five tones deafening the ear are because they see the five tones of the pentatonic scale. We’re being attracted to the music, hearing the music, but we’re not feeling the music or realizing the other affect the music took put upon us. For Bobby…it lead to a beat for him, then the beat becomes another inspiration for the rest of the guys and they start rapping.
This [TAZO Tea] project is the first I’m actually engaged in after the series. This is a Zen campaign. This is for awareness. It’s really perfect timing, makes sense in the evolution of the year. The goal is to say to people, “look, we can help you unlock your creative ability.”
When we do this camp, we actually want to bring the people who win the opportunity to come share this time with us. We’re going to bring them to Staten Island in the month of February. We think there’s something special about Staten Island, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard says. It’s like a small town with a big city mentality, with a microcosm of New York City. Even the projects, Stapleton, had more of that Brooklyn in it. Parkhill was more fly, had that Uptown. You see Haze with the MCM, the Gucci suits. That was how Parkhill was. But Stapleton, they was knuckle checking you. That microcosm of Staten Island means a lot to the Wu legacy.
How many seasons of the show can we expect?
I’m not allowed to talk about that at this moment.
What current hip-hop group brings the spirit of Wu-Tang?
I won’t say that it’s embodied in one group — I know YBN seems to have some diversity. There’s only a couple of them. It’s not embodied in one group, but it’s embodied in the hip-hop culture when you start looking at different MCs, artists, and their expressions of what they’re doing. Whether you keep it on the mature level with Kendrick and J. Cole or you take it to the youthful level with Lil Baby and DaBaby — they remind me of ODB, to be honest. If you look at DaBaby, everybody got some type of energy that I’m appreciating in hip-hop.
I could look at somebody and say “wow, he reminds me of [Method Man]” or “he reminds me of ODB.” He might remind me of Nas or [The Notorious B.I.G.] The ’90’s generation is eventually being represented by the youth and, each year, somebody else is finding their voice.
Maybe when somebody was first rapping, their lyrics weren’t at the level you want it to be. But three years later, you go back and you checking what Kodak [Black’s] saying. He’s not playing on the microphone, he’s saying ill stuff. You look at DaBaby, he’s able to tell his life like “Raekwon grew up on the crime side.” You can hear his shit. All the different energy to me, that’s the embodiment of Wu-tang. Hip-hop itself has found different individuals to me that represent what we were bringing forth collectively.