One of the high points in my career as a journalist happened back in January, when I had the honor of chewing the fat with my hero and Wu-Tang Clan mastermind, the RZA. We were supposed to talk about a new Ghostface Killah album, featuring production from his protégé Adrian Younge, that RZA had executive produced and was going to drop on his then newly launched Soul Temple label. However, I hadn't heard the album yet. And I had only found out I was slated to conduct the interview a few hours before I had to show up, which I did out of breath and a little bugged out. I was also woefully underprepared—I even forgot to bring a camera, so I couldn't get a picture with Mr. Bobby Digital, something my entire family is still pissed at me about months later. Luckily, I did have my recorder, which was good. And I'm pretty sure I didn't smell, despite having sprinted to the interview in what felt like a coat made of whale blubber on a peculiarly warm day for the dead of winter.
The album we talked about, which I finally got a chance to listen to and love a month ago, is called Twelve Reasons to Die. It hit the streets at the end of April and features Ghostface spitting a fictional narrative that falls somewhere between The Candy Man and The Crow. You should really listen to the record for yourself, but basically it details how a black gangster named Tony Starks, who works for the Italian mob, becomes the Ghostface Killah, a phantom assassin who avenges his death every time a mysterious vinyl record is played. As would be expected, Ghost's rhymes are flawless, pulling you into a world where wronged gangsters can come back from the grave. But what's most surprising about the record is the production, which Adrian Younge laced with live instrumentation and throwback techniques. The beats sound like Sergio Leone scores and Delfonics ballads—the latter makes plenty of sense considering the standout track "Enemies All Around Me" features William Hart of the famed Philly soul group.
I would've dropped this impromtu interview with RZA and Adrian a lot sooner, but I was hoping to get another chance to connect with RZA and possibly Ghost after I had time to digest the album and add a perspective with some hindsight. I'm still waiting on that one, if only so I can snag a picture of myself with RZA or Ghost throwing up the W and make my father proud. (Wu-Tang, for retired dads living in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, really is forever.)
So here is an old interview with a rap legend and a rising hip-hop star that is still definitely worth reading a few months after it was conducted, especially if you're like me and you eat, sleep, and breath all things Shaolin. We talked about the collaborative process for Twelve Reasons to Die, what it's like working with Ghost, and how the Wu-Tang Clan are actually mutants.
VICE: So, Adrian, just to start off, how did you come up with the concept of Twelve Reasons to Die?
Adrian Younge: Initially, Bob Perry, co-owner of Soul Temple with RZA, hit me up to ask me if I’d like to do a Wu-Tang project. I’ve always composed from the RZA perspective. My concept was always, what would RZA do if he was a producer in the late 60s? So, when he hit me up about doing that project, I was like, OK, this is too good to be true. Then he hit me up a few weeks later and I was like, “Yo, you’re serious? All right. Then we have to figure out a concept to make this important to people.”
Why make a concept record?
Adrian: Whenever I’m creating, I ask myself why anyone should care. I figured if we came together and did something that was based on a story, it could turn into something more massive. I thought about it every day for a couple weeks and the story hit me. I planted the seed and the people around me helped to nurture the concept.
RZA: The concept is what attracted me to the project. I like to think conceptually when I make my music. When I see somebody producing in that same vein, I invest in that. You see a guy like Adrian, and you know that he has a future ahead of him.
Was there a moment in the process when you said, “Whoa, Ghostface is really putting his all into this?”
Adrian: I’m a hip-hop dude, but I generally say that I left hip-hop in '97. To me, at that time, it was making a shift I didn’t feel. I’m somebody who’s been trying to find a hip-hop album that gives me the same feeling the music did in '97. To finally hear it and to have been the one to produce it is incredible. Ghost exceeded my expectations, and I always expected him to come with it. That, in turn, inspired me to do more and make it even better.
Adrian records a lot on analog equipment. What do you think about that in terms of not sampling, but using organic instruments to create sounds that are reminiscent of samples?
RZA: Hip-hop started off from sampling certain parts of old records. The musicians who were making those old records weren’t coming from the hip-hop perspective. Now you have a new generation of people who’ve grown up on hip-hop, whether it was Wu-Tang or G-Funk or whatever. And they’re musicians, but they’re able to think in a hip-hop way. It’s great to see.
Has working with traditional musicians like Adrian showed you anything about yourself?
RZA: I noticed the stuff I sample on every album has an A-minor progression. That’s just what my ear is attracted to. I didn’t know it was an A-minor when I did it. But now now that we’ve got a producer like Adrian who is a musician, we can really attain the spirit that we want. And having all that old equipment is great. This guy is sitting on a lot of old toys. The only other people I’ve seen with that many old toys in the studio are the Black Keys. He’s able to create a sound that made those old records. I think it’s great for hip-hop.
Some might argue that what Adrian does isn’t hip-hop at all.
RZA: People think if we take the rappers off of a record, it won't be hip-hop anymore. But I disagree with that. Say this was just an instrumental. You’re going to hear that soul you’re looking for. If we come back to a generation of people who don’t become musicians because they’re using their Logics and their Abletons and they don’t get that musician part in life, they’ll use this record as their sample base. It will come full circle.
That’s an exciting thought.
RZA: Yeah, as a musician myself, it’s fun to see a someone who can execute those ideas so I don’t have to. It’s a big relief to me. It’s like being a great dancer and wanting to see someone do the most incredible spin that you were always working on, just because you want the world to see it too. You get to a point in life when you aren’t break-dancing anymore, you’re choreographing dancers in movies. But you see a young guy come and he does that fucking Triple Lindy that you dreamed about. That’s how I feel right now.
Adrian, as a hip-hop fan, why not sample?
Adrian: Hip-hop was started on the break. It’s about finding those breaks and those chords. I stopped sampling because my brain was going further than the chords. When RZA was doing his thing, he was finding all the ill breaks and creating weird changes that were syncopated and made sense. Now, I can make the entire sample myself and evolve it.
RZA: Right. And not just on the drum, but the music on top of the drum.
Adrian: Quincy Jones said that hip-hop mastered the drums. When I’m recording these drums, I record them as if they were made from the SP using different snares and different mics and different setups on the same songs. But it’s still all live. This process is pushing the musical and compositional component of a subculture and style of music that is dear to me.
Can you really go any further than where hip-hop has already been?
Adrian: Every generation declines. Hip-hop got to a point where it was getting better and better and it hit a pinnacle. Then it started to drop because it was getting into pop and becoming more of a dance thing. This record is something that takes it back to that passionate core.
You guys come from different generations of hip-hop. Was there something you learned from this experience that you didn’t know before the process?
Adrian: One of things I’ve done with music is study why musicians are the best. When I got a chance to meet RZA, I’d ask him some of those questions. But I already had the answers for what I thought he did. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong and my mind was blown. It’s like he was helping me to sculpt my future and mold my thought process when it came to finalizing shit. He’s had 20 years of experience with this. I have not. I’ve learned a lot just by upping my game.
RZA: For me, making music has been a lot about searching—searching for the right sample to get that bell, searching for a digital keyboard that can play certain sounds. But to go back to his studio and to see all the analog equipment that made those sounds, I learned that if you want a bell then buy a damn bell. You’ve got a fucking mic. I work with a digital orchestra and I enjoy it. It has its benefits. But if you want organic sounds, 90 percent of the time a computer isn’t going to generate that. Trying to make all this music with the older equipment showed me you can stick to the organic way. You don’t have to change because the equipment changed. You can still use that same old shit. You can still go down and get the same musicians. I knew that, but I forgot it, and Adrian reminded me.
You’ve been working with Ghostface for a long time. In terms of this project, did you see anything different come out in him as an MC?
RZA: Ghost is a dope MC—one of the dopest to ever touch the mic. But on this particular record, he reminded us that Ghost can get into any water and swim well. He killed it on the Kanye record. He killed it on the Wu-Block record. But on this one here, he kept a cohesive narrative. I don’t think he’s done that since Supreme Clientele. Even Supreme Clientele somewhere in the middle doesn’t hold the narrative. Cuban Linx was the first time a story was really kept all the way. It was Tony Starks and Lou Diamond and they were there all the way through. This is a return for him to a complete narrative from front to back... I’m going to give a quote about Ghostface that Quentin [Tarantino] said to me, “Two of the greatest writers in American music history are Bob Dylan and Ghostface Killah.”
Growing up listening to Wu-Tang as a young kid, I always looked at the different members of Wu-Tang as almost like comic-book characters. You all had such larger than life personas. Do you ever intend to tell the origin stories of other Wu characters you've helped create inside this universe?
RZA: As far as Wu and comic ideas, I’ve written something called Black Shampoo. In it, everybody’s a superhero and it touches on their own personalities. For example, everyone knows Meth is a weed smoker. In this story, some guys come and confront him at a table. They’re going to kill him. They’ve got guns pointed under the table. And he’s sitting there smoking this big blunt. The blunt flies across the table and knocks the guys back. That’s my imagination on how super he could be. Wu has always been something that’s real, but we always had this superhero idea about ourselves. That comes from when you you feel that you have the proper position in the world to be a supreme being. Or, instead of the supreme being, because there’s only one, the ability to be supreme amongst other beings. There’s a small part of me that says, “You know what, motherfuckers? We are mutants.” Think about it, Meth has smoked for 30 years straight and never been to the doctor for anything. Iron lungs, right? He must have iron lungs. Ghostface really has a ghost face. It’s hard to find him. It's like he disappears.
What was it like actually turning this album into a comic book?
RZA: The trick that a writer needs to understand is, when you’re dealing with hip-hop, you’re dealing with concentrated language. It’s like concentrated orange juice. You have to add cups of water to it. If I say, “Camouflage chameleon / ninja scaling your building / no time to grab the gun / they’ve already got your wife and children” within two lines, all this shit has happened already. To make this a story, they have to stretch that out to a ten-minute scene. That’s one of the secrets of writing from listening to hip-hop and hearing the story and being able to extract it out. But the writers were good. I like what they did. They took the story and instead of making it from just one point of view, they did something cinematic with it. They made it a parallel story.
Your music’s always been described as cinematic. Has the process of working on The Man with the Iron Fists changed your process in general?
RZA: It has impacted everything. That was like the final education. It was definitely a college-graduation thing for me. I have my PhD in art right now, thanks to that experience. But the final, ultimate test is, can you beat death? So far, nobody has beaten the ultimate test. That’s a test for your ass. But doing a movie definitely comes close.
RZA, any advice you want to give to MCs and producers out there who want to be the next RZA or Adrian Younge?
RZA: There’s no limit to artistic expression. You just have to find that wavelength and ride that wave all the way to the shore.
Thanks, Adrian Younge and Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah!
Buy Twelve Reasons to Die the album and the comic.