RZA Explains How His Attempted Murder Case Transformed Him
Last night (October 5), RZA was interviewed before a live audience during Atlanta, Georgia’s A3C Festival. Wu-Tang Clan’s Abbott spoke about his career, personal transformation, and the earliest days of his group to National Public Radio’s Rodney Carmichael. Ambrosia For Heads was in attendance for the revealing conversation featuring one of the architects of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). That monumental Loud/RCA Records LP is celebrating its 25th birthday next month, prompting a “WuTangATL” multi-day event at A3C.
A highlight in the discussion occurs with Rodney Carmichael asking RZA about a period in his life between 1990 and 1993. During this time, the Brooklyn, New York MC/producer/DJ was a struggling Rap artist with label frustrations. He was facing a felony for shooting a man while living in Steubenville, Ohio. It was during this same time that RZA was also expecting a child. Out of these circumstances the Wu-Tang was born.
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Describing those years, RZA begins, “We [were] going through what a lot of young Black men was going through from [the ages of 14 through 17]. Those years, even though I had Knowledge Of Self, I still was living as a member of my environment, of my community—therefore, participating in everything that we did: drink, smoke, teenage sex, and drug dealing. That’s what was happening; that’s what we did.” He explains how Melquan (who also handled the careers of 1980s Brooklyn Rap group Divine Force) offered to manage him and usher the artist to become a professional. “I stopped all the drugs. We had gold cables and all that. Slowly, my gold cables disappeared. Slowly, I pawned my rings, and kept myself going [financially], hoping that I’d become a Rap star.”
At 18, through the help of “The Funky Melquan,” RZA signed to Tommy Boy. The following year, the label released an EP, Ooh I Love You Rakeem. “[It] didn’t reflect my full creative talents; it was something that they contrived me to be. It didn’t work,” explains RZA. GZA, who The Abbott calls his “teacher and enlightener,” suffered a similar, parallel experience at Cold Chillin’ Records (as “The Genius”) with his early video single “Come Do Me.” “[After our failures], the idea of success in music is dismal. It caused us to retreat back to the streets.” In 1990, RZA left New York City to live in Steubenville, Ohio, where his mother stayed. The artist has touched on this period in lyrics, as well in his text, The Tao Of Wu. On weekends, RZA stayed with his stepfather, who ran a convenience store in Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania’s Hill District. RZA continues, “The streets [were] not working. Every time we get a package, you can make $10,000. But guess what? Somebody [each time] got arrested. Somebody got shot. I kept seeing a cycle of non-success,” recalls RZA, who watched bad news within in his circle transpire on a weekly basis. “‘Yo, so-and-so got shot,’ ‘Yo, they stabbed [Wisegod] ‘Yo, they shot [Ghostface Killah].’ It was never right. Then, all of a sudden, myself is in violence; I’m facing eight years in prison. All of this knowledge that I accumulated is worth toilet-paper right now because I’m not [properly] utilizing it.”
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In 1991, RZA allegedly shot Willie Waters in the leg after Waters kicked RZA’s car. According to a 2000 Village Voice article by Frank Owen, RZA was charged with felonious assault. In this same period of time, Ghostface Killah was shot in Ohio. Wisegod (aka General Wise), who RZA referred to at the A3C chat (and would eventually go on to manage Killarmy) was also present in this era.
A critical moment reportedly changed RZA’s perspective. “What happened, for me, is my mother looked at me with the eyes of disappointment. There’s no other pain [worse] than that for a young man. But my family rallied together; my sister actually took her life savings and bailed me out. And we stood together as a family. I started taking [my passion for] reading to the law library. I found some cases that matched up to what it should be for me, ’cause it was self-defense. It was four-on-one,” RZA recalls of an event he rarely speaks publicly about. “But I still injured that young man, and I regret that. I’m a man of peace; I don’t want to injure nobody. But let me get to the point: we went to trial and I won. The jury said not-guilty. And when I walked out, my mother looked me in my eye and said, ‘This is your second chance. Don’t blow it.’ I’ll never forget this joy that overcame me. At the same time, I had a baby [on the way]. So I’m like yo, Rakeem is greater than this. I gotta be greater than that. I’m gonna put Rakeem to the side. I’m gonna [birth] something new. I’m gonna [birth] The RZA. When The RZA was born, I decided to walk the path of righteousness and not turn back.” The artist formerly known as Prince Rakeem rebranded himself as The RZA.
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“I took that positive route,” admits RZA, who cites The Bible as one of his key inspirations in the transition. “Every time we tried to scramble, all that violence and drugs, none of us made it. All of us would look back on our records and say, ‘Yo, I got arrested,’ ‘That was his gun,’ [and] all these other things. But when this group of men did something positive, in less than a year [we had] a platinum album, million-dollar contracts, a trajectory that not only changed our lives, but changed our families’ lives, and by the grace of Allah, changed the lives of many people.”
Carmichael then asks RZA about his leadership style. In an era where leaders, especially in Rap music, are thought to be feared and intimidating, RZA galvanized a massive and enduring bond through love and loyalty. “That would be a tough question for me to answer because it would be so egocentric,” replies the interviewee. “That’s a question that I would love to hear my brothers answer one day.” Pressed further, RZA expounds, “What I can say is that we all definitely had love for each other; my brothers definitely had love for me. If you go back and you check with Method Man or you check with U-God or you check with Raekwon, you’ll see that in the years that we’ve known each other, they can’t pull up nothing from their deck of cards of me doing them wrong. I was always a reliable, honest, loyal, true friend. Even though I lived in Stapleton—and Park Hill hates Stapleton [chuckles]—Park Hill would come to my house to make their music. Music being the common denominator, our mathematics being another common denominator,” he explains, referring to many Wu-Tang Clan members’ adherence to the doctrines of the Five Percent Nation.
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He continues, “Ghostface, who’s my brother, he was a very tough dude in those days, but he just felt that what I was saying and doing needed to be protected and [heard]. So he also was able to help whoever didn’t understand to understand.” RZA clarifies that the nine-member Clan required a leader and figurehead. “A democracy would not work; it had to be a dictatorship. But it had to be an agreed-upon dictatorship, not a force. “I [told the group and our managers], ‘I have a vision, and I see it. If you give me five years, we’re gonna be the #1 crew in the country. Five years.’ This was in the winter of 1992. This is before recording 36 Chambers; we had only recorded ‘Protect Ya Neck’ at that time. Five years later, in the summer of 1997, the #1 album in the world is [Wu-Tang Forever]. We delivered.”
Yesterday (October 5), Ghostface Killah released The Lost Tapes. Last week, the surviving members of Wu-Tang Clan appeared on Logic’s “Wu Tang Forever” song. In addition to Logic, RZA has worked with Joey Purrp and Cilvaringz this year. Nas recently confirmed that the Wu-Tang Abbott is working closely with him on his NASIR follow-up.