RZA Explains How Words From The Genius & Walks Around Shaolin Unlocked His Potential
This week RZA released a different kind of audio project. Guided Explorations finds Wu-Tang Clan’s Abbott offering listeners some meditations. Read by RZA, these are journeys that mirror his path, both in entertainment, as well as in spirituality.
It is a partnership with tea-maker TAZO. Beyond the six-song album (which includes detailed accounts of Staten Island and RZA’s famed studio, The Chamber), the legendary MC/producer/DJ/filmmaker is guiding creators through inspirational workshops meant to unlock hidden potential through the second-annual Camp TAZO in Staten Island/Shaolin. Fans can visit the website to learn more.”
In celebration of the partnership, RZA spoke with Ambrosia For Heads. In discussing the theme of unlocking one’s potential, the Hip-Hop icon shared insights about his beloved studio as well as how his new Chamber is symbolic—and an elevation. He also credits his Wu-Tang Clan band-mate GZA with changing his life. The interview also includes some reflections on the late Popa Wu, as well as RZA recalling a recent reunion with Method Man in the streets of New York.
Ambrosia For Heads: Tell me about your relationship with meditation. Do you remember when you started?
RZA: Yeah. The first time I tried to meditate was probably in my early teens, just from reading books—Eastern books from kind of being a martial arts fanatic. That was the first time I tried. But [I] didn’t truly catch the concept. Then, later on, I met the Shaolin monk Shi Yan Ming, and he talked about meditation. He explained to me the differences between still meditation and moving meditation, and how there’s a myth to meditation. The myth is that you’ve got to always sit still and chant or hum, or whatever. Meditation is, at one point, more simpler than that, and at one point, more complex than that on both sides of the scale.
Around the time of 1996, goin’ into ’97, I got a book called The Eight Pieces Of Brocade [by Ba Duan Jin]. This particular book was the one that really helped me fully realize what [worked] for me, as meditation. From that point on, [I meditate] at any given point in the day.
AFH: What I liked about what you’ve done with TAZO is that it’s authentic to who you are, but it’s also true to meditation. It calms the spirit. It inspires. It reminds people of what you went through to make something out of yourself. Can you tell me about that experience?
RZA: The idea is to encourage people to explore and unlock their own potential. I think that was [the vision] for our collaboration, me and TAZO, both being—for lack of a better [word]—brands that care about well-being. They design their flavors of tea and blends of tea [to be] calming, relaxing. When they came with the idea of the Zen tea, that matched my ideology. The goal to encourage people to unlock their potential; that’s something that’s [important] in my heart and mind, and also their brand. So I think it was something natural. Usually, when people come and pitch things to me as an artist, some things you may do [because of] an economic decision; some things you may do based on what it gains you. But this was one of the most no-brainer collaborations that came to me. This is basically me doing what I [already] do, doing what I love. So we’re coming with five different guided explorations. We know that there’s information and energy in there that can unlock the potential of somebody else.
AFH: My condolences for Popa Wu, who passed in December. I think of him as I ask this. Who taught you to unlock your potential? I know you have a lot of strong people in your life.
RZA: If I was to credit that to somebody, I would probably credit it to The GZA—The Genius. You know, he had the name Allah Justice. He told me to do the knowledge to go through Knowledge Of Self. When he presented that concept to me, he had put me on a path. So I always call The GZA my enlightener, ’cause he’s the one that lit and sparked my wick. Once that wick was lit, I did everything to keep that candle burning. So if you look at one of our explorations, it’s called “Fan The Flame.” Once you start a fire, you gotta fan it. You gotta nurture it. You gotta add logs to it, to keep it burning, or it’ll fizzle out. He started that fire in me, and I continue to fan my flames. At any given moment, I can just go back to the first day that it happened to me in all reality. I can go back to many conversations we’ve had. The beauty of it all is after he lit my fire—to use the analogy—even at times in life when his flame had gotten dim, he told me that I re-lit his fire. Him being my enlightener, then at one point me becoming [a] leader, it means that my enlightener was willing to take my leadership. That’s because I fanned my flames, and I kept it blazing. So I give a lot to The GZA.
Popa Wu—I’ll share this with you—was also a great inspiration on me, in the sense that he was the one that maybe poured some gasoline on that fire. He was causing an acceleration of it. I think around the age of 14, 15, when he would come over to my house, he was [part of] my mom’s generation. So he would come over to visit my mother but then take time to talk to the young ones in the house about the world, about Knowledge Of Self, about preparing your body and mind. “The child that you are or is gonna make you the man that you’re becoming. Look inside yourself.” Those types of equations he had brought to the table. That also got me seeking and gaining more insight of myself.
AFH: You mention going back to GZA and getting the enlightenment, the flame. One of the things that you’re doing with Tazo from what I understand is giving a tour of certain meaningful places on Shaolin. In the track that I got to hear, you talk about your studio there, where I know things began. When you’re back on Staten Island, what kind of inspiration do you feel?
RZA: The cool thing is, I had a conversation recently. After we did the Loud [Records] 25th [anniversary] reunion [concert], I took the next day to go spend it with Method Man. We met in the city and just spent a couple hours just vibin’. We went to a couple of stores and just talked. We talked about also, those walks on Staten Island that I would take. The thing about me—there’s a certain path that I walk in order to get to school. I describe it in “Making Moves.” There have been times, even after what they call “successful” and economic freedom for myself—there have been times over the course of the years when I’ve returned back and taken that [same] walk. There’s been times when I drove through there and brought my son to Staten Island, got him on the ferry boat [laughing] with my wife; we got on the boat, got off the boat, and kinda did my route. The coolest thing was when were doing the TV series, the first season of American Saga, Chris Robinson came on as the director of the pilot. I took him on that same exact route. We did it in a scout van. I said, “You’re gonna take this route.” And we took that route. And he understood to travel, the movement. If you look at Park Hill, Stapleton, and then going up to New Brighton, and then going to school. The time of walking—I call it “moving meditation”—actually inspired so many ideas in my head. It inspired lyrics, it inspired stories. When I look at The Man With The Iron Fists—a movie I created, you could recall the roots of that movie materializing in my head from those walks to school. Yeah, I return to that, and I make sure that I’m constantly recharging my battery when needed. There’s some other great places in the world, for sure, but that was one of the foundations—those walks where The RZA came to [be].
AFH: On that track, you talk about the studio. You and I have spoken about it before; I never had the opportunity of visiting. How do you think that place, being a basement, informed—as a producer—the records you were grabbing and how you were manipulating them? It’s such a foundation, to use your word.
RZA: Yeah. That studio had so [much] symbolism that I can kind of relate to now—more so now than then. Back then, it was The Chamber, right? That’s what I called it. “Yo, we goin’ to The Chamber.” Some people call it “the lab,” where you go and do your laboratory experiments. You create; a scientist goes into a lab. But it’s also a cave, right? You think about the cave and how many great men had to retreat to caves in order to get the Word and get the spirit. One of the greatest stories about the man and the cave is when The Prophet Muhammad used to go to a cave and come back Enlightened. And here He is, a guy who couldn’t read or write, but yet one of the greatest Books, ever, is coming from Him. [Laughs] From the cave [and] these visits. To me, a studio has that ability. When we think about the Wu-Tang and those foundatin’ tracks, whether it’s 36 Chambers or Cuban Linx… or Liquid Swords, we’re goin’ down to this basement. In those days, no light was in it. It’s just the light that’s provided by the studio itself—but there’s no outside light. You go down there, and it can become very cloudy, ’cause you get the trees burning, right? [Laughs] And we create there. And I think that’s important for any field. Some people go into a tool-shed. I saw something recently on [film director] M. Night Shyamalan. He actually—on his property—built a shed for writing. He lives where the Amish live at. His idea was some go there [to] milk their cows in their barn. Some go there and do carpentry in their barns. His idea was, he built a shed where he’s also going to work. For him, it’s creating stories. I think the studio is symbolic to that for me, and I think every person should have that for themselves, whether it’s the closet, the room, whatever it’s at. Have that space.
AFH: To your point, you’re able to go back. Whether you were working at Wu-Tang Studios on 34th Street [in Manhattan] or at the Wu Mansion, you’ve been able to channel that same vibe mentally—as we talk about meditation, the flame, and this whole theme of unlocking potential. No matter where you go or how your economic situation changes, you’re able to re-channel The Chamber, and that’s what’s ill.
RZA: Respect. It’s so funny, right? So when I moved to California, I had to look for a new home. I didn’t want to have a studio in the house. For so many years it was in my house, and people would come to the house—my homies would come, and we’ve [also] got my children there. The smell of what we’re doing and all that would come in the house. I gotta have a studio, but it can’t be in the house [anymore]. So I gotta get a house with a guesthouse.
So my guesthouse may be about 120 steps up. It was funny, ’cause when Nas came over when we were recording songs for The Lost Tapes  or Busta [Rhymes] came over, or whatever, it was a joke to them. They were like, “Yo, you really are The Abbott; you gotta walk up all these mothaf*ckin’ steps to get to the studio to go to work with you.” [Laughs] I told ’em, “Yo, that’s right. You know when you come up, you’re comin’ up to somethin’; you’re walkin’ up a mountain to rock with me. And we create.” When I found that house, I said, “This is the one. We’re gonna be carrying a lot of water up these steps.” [Chuckles]
AFH: You mentioned how you’re approached a lot for brand collaborations. You’re one of the first artists of my generation who worked with companies and brought Hip-Hop to the mainstream without compromising. Fans used to see fried chicken commercials; you know the ones like I know the ones. The community responded. But you’re able to do so many things, Tazo being the most recent. How are you able to walk the line and deliver the culture while being true to who you are and what Wu is?
RZA: At the end of the day, from the energy that I put out, certain brands and certain companies can look at and go, “This doesn’t fit our brand because this might be too pure.” So that protects me on one level. So I don’t have to suffer through a lot of confusion to help represent our culture. But also, [it is] being conscious that if I do get into a situation to where it may seem like, “Okay, wow, that’s a weird mix,” I’m still gonna bring the culture to it. One thing I realize about myself—and I’m very comfortable with this revelation—when I hit the button, it’s how I hit the button, yo. If somebody says, “Yo, RZA’s really offbeat,” that’s what it is! That’s what it is, yo. Some people got that shot. That’s the shot. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Skyhook, baby. [It is not pretty], but it goes in. So that element has been a protection for me. No matter what you put me in, the naturalism of myself and the energy that I bring manifests itself out, and it becomes part of our culture automatically.
Press photo provided by TAZO.