It’s rare these days that an emcee can share their spiritual and philosophical sides and not be ridiculed for it. The RZA is an obvious exception. The mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan added best-selling author to his resume with his first project the Wu-Tang Manual. This Thursday (October 15), he debuts The Tao of the Wu, an autobiographical text detailing lessons RZA’s learned from his humble beginnings in Staten Island, to his ascent to the top of the music and film industries. Along the way there’s been pain, loss, and triumph. Come share in the wisdom of one of Hip-Hop’s most brilliant minds.
Ismael AbduSalaam: After the Wu-Tang Manual, was it always in the works to do this sequel or was it something that developed later?
RZA: Actually this book was the first idea. The Wu-Tang Manual was to appease the publicist. I wanted to do this first, but they argued that nobody knew me as an author, so maybe it would be smarter to do the Wu-Tang Manual first and then eventually come back and start showing my writing ability.
Ismael: The book posits 7 Pillars as a pathway to gain spiritual enlightenment and peace. How long did it take you to finalize these attributes into a set system?
RZA: The 7 Pillars was actually suggested to me by [co-author] Chris Norris. First we thought about 9, being we’re always dealing with 9: 9 chambers of the heart, 9 Wu members and everything like that. But then when we started going through it, we didn’t want to do 5 like it was the 5 Pillars of Islam and we were changing Islam. That’s impossible. The 7 does represent the body of work of the book and the steps that can be taken for a person to gain the wisdom that I’m trying to instill. And I still strongly advocate the 12 Jewels of the Nation of Gods and Earths. I’m not the author of those, but I’m a person that lives by them and they are 12 steps that every man should be able to obtain.
The last jewel is happiness. But there’s basically enlightenment, an awakening you gain that leads to freedom. The goal of life is to be happy.
Ismael: Personally, what would you say was the most difficult jewel for you to master?
RZA: I’ll say this. To obtain the jewels you must have them mentally, spiritually, and physically. I ain’t going to go into the other planes because that’ll take forever. Now mentally you gain them all in one night simply by memorizing them. Spiritually you can gain them by living it and making sure the next man you come across you don’t infringe on his jewels. But, physically? That’s a difficult task in our society, because you’re not given food, clothing and shelter. So that means I can get knowledge, wisdom, and understanding just from my own studies. But to get freedom, justice, and equality I have to turn to my government for that. And it may be hard to obtain that if they don’t offer it. You may find love in the realm of a woman or children, but if you don’t have food, clothing, and shelter how are you going to find peace? You ain’t going to be at peace or feel free. How are you going to be happy? So you can obtain some of the jewels but if you don’t have all of them, you liable to lack in more than one of them.
Ismael: You talk favorably about a lot of the religious stories found in the texts of the major faiths without necessarily endorsing the people who claim to represent them today. As far as religion today, many would argue by nature it is divisive and causes strife. Do you feel those are inherent qualities of religion?
RZA: Yeah, I think it is inherent in religion. The word religion, what does it really mean? That’s one question. It basically means to rely on something. If you’re relying on anything other than yourself you’re always gonna have a problem. But, to find the truth, shall we say, that was taught by these different prophets and great men don’t need a religious tradition to prove it. It’s when the traditions get involved that man creates problems. For instance, if I have a tradition to not work on Sunday, and you have a tradition to work on Sunday and we’re in the same country or workplace, we gonna have a religious dispute. You’re saying, “I need you to work, because I’m the boss.” But I’m saying I don’t have to work because of my religion.
Yum Kippur was a Jewish holiday [last month] and a lot of people aren’t going to work because the Jews are a big part of the economy that if they don’t work, it ain’t worth going to work! But some people are going to have to go because they don’t fall under the group.
Traditions cause the problems. It ain’t nothing that the prophet Muhammad said, the prophet Jesus said, it’s nothing that Moses said in truth we can dispute.
I’ll add this to you. The Qur’an says that certain prophets are sent to certain nations. It means that the messages were for certain people. In Moses’ day, the people I guess were pretty unclean, and childish in their understanding of life and culture. He had to tell them, “look, when your woman has a period you don’t have sex.” [laughs] If a man discharges on himself he needs to wash, he’s unclean until the evening. In Leviticus, the book of law, you find all kind of things that naturally you’d think someone would do. But somebody whose far from civilization wouldn’t know.
I’ll give you one more example. When the prophet Muhammad was teaching the Muslims about the oneness of Allah, he told them don’t kill your daughters and give to the orphans. He was giving this to a people who practiced infanticide and had 360 idols inside the Kaaba. So they needed to be told specifically where their foolishness was at. One thing that comes up in the Hadith that’s interesting is that they had a slave there named Bilal who wasn’t of their culture. He was from Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia. Muhammad said Bilal’s a natural! Bilal naturally had these characteristics that Muhammad had to teach his people and family to be.
So when a prophet’s words are addressed to a group, it may not apply to all the people. There’s no need to tell me thou shall not kill when I’m not a murderer. But for those who are murderers they need to learn that law. There’s no need to tell me thou shall not steal when I’m not a thief. Those who are thieves need that. That’s another thing about religion; who are these words being applied to? Yeah, it can work for everyone, but some are further down the road.
Ismael: On the point about messengers coming to different people, I remember on the History Channel’s Bruce Lee documentary you framed him as being a messenger for how he spread martial arts around the world. Just looking at , do you see any messengers?
RZA: There’s a few of us. You got to give respect to the Teacher KRS-One. He opened up a lot of brains. Respect also to Rakim. Gotta give respect to Chuck D. A lot of Hip-Hop emcees are messengers in one way or another. Look at Jay-Z. He describes his life and a lot of things we’ve been through so he adds hope to it. I would say the Wu-Tang Clan is definitely messengers, too. I think we use our lives as examples and beyond our lives. Method Man says in one of his rhymes “Code Red that be Agent Orange/Killing you slow.” Agent orange killing you slow, what is that? But that’s contained in every bottle of orange juice you drink. There’s a message right there [laughs].
Ismael: In the book you mentioned Rakim as an artist whose early work epitomized the core sound of Hip-Hop along with Wu-Tang. Aside from those two, what other acts do you see today that have that pure sound?
RZA: I’m not totally familiar with everyone nowadays, so that’s a disadvantage. I’m sure there’s guys out there only doing 50,000-60,000 units that are doing great by our culture. But even when Kanye came with College Dropout and even Graduation, he helped a lot of college students and people in that age bracket. He did good with his lyrics. I was telling my Killarmy guys, who are hardcore and hate every rapper, he speaks directly to a core people we can’t reach. We didn’t go to college, we can’t speak for them. We speak to people who didn’t make it there.
Hip-Hop itself has been that voice for the world more than any other form of music. It’s spreading out to rock now. That early Led Zeppelin, people thought they were talking that demonic shit. But now a lot of them are talking about logical and sensible stuff that can be applied in our lives.
Ismael: When the Wu-Tang Manual first dropped there were some brothers who had issues with you posting the Lessons [Writer's Note: The core teachings of the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths] in there. I thought that was ironic considering the Lessons got disseminated among the masses simply because the Father [Clarence 13X, founder of the Nation of Gods and Earths] took it out of NOI temples and dispersed it to the people. In that regard, do you feel some of the gods have lost the core principles of the Lessons?
RZA: I think there’s only a few. I rarely come across a brother who chastises me. Those who do, it’s normally somebody testing to see if I’m validated or capable of dispersing the knowledge. One person said to me a camel can walk through the eye of a needle before a rich man can make it into heaven. I said yeah, but what is a rich man? If you saying because I’m a rich man I won’t make it to heaven, than you’re forgetting the whole core of your lessons. These Lessons should put you in heaven at once! [laughs] The richness ain’t coming from the money, but from the wealth of knowledge. I think that Jesus quote is a bad translation. I can’t see them saying a rich man don’t make it to heaven. Because really, that’s where heaven as at.
In the Holy Qur’an, it’s paradise with palaces of gold. It’s popping in paradise, baby. Milk is flowing down the river, got you wanting to stick a cup in there! [laughs] That’s supreme wealth, ok. The new city of Jerusalem in Revelations, the streets are made of gold, not just the palaces.
But brothers tried to use the rich thing on me like there’s something wrong with me because I got money and he don’t. My money doesn’t make me. My knowledge comes first from being in the struggle and living that savage life. I was able to take knowledge and apply it to my life and free my poverty. Without knowledge of self I’d be like everyone else. Knowledge without application is like a gun without bullets. You have to apply it. I’m not scared to apply it. I’m not scared to say who I am, either.
Dirty wasn’t afraid either, when he got on the awards show and said the black man is god. That’s what he believed. Whether he could prove it or not, he believed it in his heart and stood for what he believed. And at the time he was acting like a bastard [laughs].
I’m grateful that the Wu was able to spread the knowledge. Poppa Wu is one of the older brothers of the Nation and one of the earliest to learn it. I met some of the first Nine Born [Writer’s Note: The first converts to the Nation of Gods and Earths] and they all complimented me for what I did. They think I helped bring more students in recent years to them than any other source. I didn’t do it for them to have a big school. I just put the knowledge out there.
It doesn’t matter if they go to the Nation of Gods and Earths to get it, go to the church to get it, or the mosque. There’s people now reading the Bhagavad Gita [Writer’s Note: An essential scripture of Hindu religion]. To me, all of these are paths to the same destination. Don’t let nobody stop you from joining that path. The Nation of Gods and Earths is definitely a path to get on. The mosque too, and the studies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas [A sacred Hindu scripture]. But you know what, you can do it as simple as people have been doing in America for the last 400 years, and pick up your Holy Bible.
Ismael: Referencing the Bible, let’s look at the Creation myth. In it, when man got that enlightenment, the angels said that man has become like god, one of us knowing good and evil. With that point of reference what do you think is more difficult: to continue to live righteously once you get that enlightenment or first having your mind open enough to accept that truth?
RZA: Man is a mixture of flesh and spirit. So the angels ain’t have to worry about the flesh. That’s why Jesus had to come 2000 years later and say the flesh is what’s weak. The flesh is what gets hungry, horny, it itches. The flesh is looking for its own pleasing. It’s the pleasing of the flesh that causes man to get off his course of living righteous.
So then his greed comes in. It’s like a kid keeps going in the refrigerator after eating, yo you just ate! [laughs] They’re not hungry really, but their flesh is causing them to psychologically react. They say power leads to corruption. It shouldn’t but when the flesh gets involved, yeah. It starts to feel greater than another piece of flesh. It needs more land. You don’t need more nothing. You need more money, for what? They’re just getting it to control more people. The most powerful thing a man of power can feel is to have control and have others prostrate before him.
It’s like that sample in Chamber Music, where it says the greatest thing a man can feel is to have another man prostrate before you. In the Bible it says you should never do that, only prostrate before God. But an evil man who’s egotistical like you said and knows good and evil and has these god like qualities, wants to replace god with himself!
Nimrod was the first one to do it. He challenged Abraham and Abraham said look you’re no more God than me! Just because you have all these people following you you think you’re God himself? You want to take God’s credit, than make the sun come out the other side of the world tomorrow. Just do that one simple thing for me. Make a gnat right now [laughs]. You can’t do it. Of course he can’t. There’s mass everywhere, because it’s already in existence.
Ismael: For years none of the Clan would talk about Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s passing because it was so painful. What finally made you comfortable putting it out there in the book?
RZA: His son is old enough now, and his son was there. His nuclear children are old enough to understand. That would have been a problem [before]. Second reason was the truth will always have its time. The truth out of season bears no fruit. Now it’s time. It’s 5 years later, we can speak on that and shed light to it. And it took a lot of time for me to really understand it too. I replayed that day in my head over and over looking for everything. I looked for the science, the chemistry, God, and every cause and effect that lead to that death, yo!
A year and half later Flava Flav told me a story that helped me clear my mind, because I was really puzzled about how it happened. My cousin Mario who I hadn’t seen in 4 years was coming to meet me at the studio because he wanted some money for his school tuition. And I exiled that cousin because he had stole my gun 4 years earlier. I didn’t want to fuck with him but I finally gave in. He comes on his own and right before I left I started to tell everybody don’t let nobody in. That’s what I meant to say.
Dirty was right near the elevator and I told him I’d see him in about two hours. And I left. And something in my mind said call the studio and tell them not to let nobody in. I didn’t want Mario stealing no shit, but I didn’t make the call. I was late and rushing. And then Mario was the one who comes and gives him that pill! Ain’t that crazy? If only I would’ve knew. He died when the bag of coke opened up in his stomach.
I asked everybody who was with him that day if they had done any coke. They all lied! They didn’t tell the truth until after he was finished. And they still didn’t tell that he swallowed it! Only way I found out is when Flav told me he was with the guy that booked the show for him that day. And Dirty brought a couple Gs worth of shit, and he couldn’t use but $400-$500 of it that day, and he swallowed the rest because he didn’t want to leave his shit.
If we would’ve had that little bit of information we would’ve had his stomach pumped. So I replay that day but you know what, I share my part of the story with the world.
Ismael: When you speak about your mother in the book it reminds me of the Nas lyric where he says your mom is closest thing to God you’ll ever have. What is the biggest lesson you’d say your mom instilled in you?
RZA: Hmmm. There’s so many but the one that popped in my head first is when I was doing a lot of negativity and acting crazy, I got in some legal trouble and got out of it. My mom just looked in my eyes, knew I was a good kid and said “look boy, this is your second chance. God is giving you a second chance, Rakeem. Don’t waste it. Walk the right path.” And that’s what I did. And it lead to everything that’s here today: from Wu-Tang, to my company, to my babies, everything. I listened to her, and I stopped doing the negative shit. I’m not doing nothing. I stayed away from all that shit we were doing in those days.
Here an example that Ghost can vouch for. With street business, let’s say you get a kilo. You know how much more trouble you got on your hands? [laughs] Not just the law, but the people who want to shoot and rob you. You gotta carry a gun and all this negativity is all in your life. A kilo can probably make you $100 Gs. But then you got 5 to 6 niggas to work on it. And each one of those lives are at risk because they were giving a year a gram. One gram you got a year. That’s a 1000 years of jail, easily! [laughs] If you make it through you got a $100 grand that won’t last more than 4 months. Crazy game.
That’s how stupid we were. 2 years after that I’m selling beats for $100,000. It takes 10 minutes to make in my crib without no chance of getting in trouble. [laughs] But it shows you how positivity multiplies. I’d never become a millionaire stealing clothes and all the other dumb shit we were doing as kids. 1 or 2 years of righteousness gave millionaire status. And not to say money is everything, it just shows you the multiplication of positivity. My mom inspired that.
Ismael: A lot of young men struggle with taking the step to marriage. When did you know it was the right time to take that leap with your spouse?
RZA: We became one 10 years ago. At first I wasn’t going to get married again. I was married once before. It was hell and I wasn’t going through that shit again. I didn’t like the divorce system, the whole tricknology of it. So we decided to get engaged and live as husband and wife without going through a whole ceremony of bureaucracy.
But living like this with her brought peace and harmony and my life was getting more beautiful every day. I decided to make it official so everyone in the world would look at us as one. The sad part is you can love someone and feel like your husband and wife, but if you’re not married and have children, you’re going to come across a lot of difficulty. Why go through that with them when there’s a solution?
And my woman comes from a family who has a long tradition of marriage. They live it out. Her parents were married for 30 plus years. So it was the good quality of family as well.
So I did without a shadow of doubt. Yo, I did it without a prenup…
Ismael: Wow, really?
RZA: Yeah [laughs]. Before I was like “I’m getting a prenup shit, after the last divorce.” But then I was like I’ve already defined my life with yours, so if we separated then half my life has been yours anyway so it wouldn’t really matter anymore [laughs].
Ismael: Final question, what would you say is your greatest achievement first as an artist, and then as a man?
RZA: As an artist I appreciate the birth of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’m grateful, it changed my life and thousands of families. But as far as feeling just proud, it’s really when I hear people say they’ve read the book and learned something from it, whether it’s the Wu-Tang Manual or someone who got an advance copy of this one. That shit feels very gratifying. As an artist that’s my creative high, to know my wisdom has multiplied in another vessel.
As a man, there’s nothing greater than your children. There’s nothing greater than providing for your family and being able to watch them grow. I watched them come out of the wombs of their mothers. Well at least 5 out of 7. [laughs] I’m a Hip-Hop dude so I had a few over here and over there being caught up in the hype. My children say they love me, and that’s real because my pops disappeared. If I wanted to tell him I loved him I couldn’t say nothing. It took years for us to catch up with each other. For me to be here and part of this family is a great achievement.
This generation of Hip-Hoppers are striving to be better fathers then what we’ve seen in a long time. I’m striving to be a real good father, man.
Now since you’re the man with all the answers, I have a question for you.
Ismael: What’s that?
RZA: What does your name mean?
Ismael: Ismael means “Allah will listen” and AbduSalaam means “Servant of Peace or Most Peaceful.”
RZA: All praises due.
Ismael: Indeed, brother! Peace.