Last year, the Wu-Tang Clan tried something different for the release of A Better Tomorrow: it released the album first on a portable speaker, three weeks before it showed up anywhere else. The Wu-Tang also announced an additional album — and that they would only produce one copy. Fans reportedly pooled together $5 million to buy the sole copy, but nothing materialized. We sat down with RZA, a Wu-Tang co-founder and one of its principal producers, to talk about both albums, the concept of music as tangible, exclusive art, and find out more about the Wu-Tang pay tier.
RZA on the secret album (and music as exclusive art)
The track "Big Horn B" is exclusive to people buying the limited-edition Wu-Tang Bombotix speaker. Most artists want to get their music out to everyone, using Spotify, Android, Pandora, etc. This has become a very exclusive song.
I think exclusivity is important in life. When you look at a hot pair of Jordans, not everybody got them — it's a limited run. You look at guitars. When Gibson made the robot guitar, it was a limited run. I had to wait in line and get mine.
But that's a tangible object, a utilitarian function. This is art, this is expression.
Even art becomes exclusive. If you wanna see the the Mona Lisa, you better have a ticket to France.
But there are pictures of the Mona Lisa.
It's not the real thing.
The secret album. Did that really go out for like 5 million dollars? Is it in a vault somewhere?
That was the highest offer that came in. I had a gag order, a non-disclosure agreement with the auction house, but I think I can talk about it now.
"This is all part of this idea of making music tangible and making it have a value within itself."
I would love to know what happened to it.
We gave it to an auction house and they gonna handle the process. I'll say this. There's an auction house called Paddle8 — have you heard of them? Paddle8 is more modern like us, they understand the world we're in.
So these are a group of guys who see the vision of what we're doing. They respect the idea of music being returned to art. It's the same thing with Boombotix; to me, this is all part of this idea of making music tangible and making it have a value within itself instead of just becoming something that's being devalued.
I'm a big fan of technology, I've been a geek since 1986... and I was spending all my paper money on gadgets. Now we up to the level of streaming through Spotify and all these guys — and you can use [the Boombotix], of course, Spotify can stream through your a Bluetooth speaker. But the trick of it all, to me of this is that somebody will go and pay $300 for headphones, $600 for a phone or some device, and yet the device is most useful when music's playing through it, but you won't spend a dollar for a song, or ten dollars for an album. It's not logical. The reason why you got these great headphones — why you got these great gadgets — is because what it does for your media. If the consumer don't pay attention to him devaluing the media, where's the new concept gonna come from?
RZA on Taylor Swift and Spotify
Wu-Tang is on Spotify, we've seen Taylor Swift and others say that's it's devaluing the business model. Are you guys staying on there?
What Taylor did was smart for her business, but to me, I like Spotify. It's like a new radio station. I like the fact that the music is accessible, but that's when you're listening, that's when you're maybe in the car or somewhere just going through it. I like you having music. People don't have turntables so I don't expect you to go buy a vinyl. People don't have cassette players so I don't expect you to go buy a cassette.
If you put out an exclusive cassette, people will buy it.
Well, I mean, that'd be a limited.
We all are reaching toward our Bluetooth speakers — we're all looking for ways to hear our music. So how about you get you get the Bluetooth speaker, but you have your favorite artist. Not just Wu-Tang, but I think the whole music industry could use this. Think about if a company like Warner Bros. said, "Ok, we're gonna take Warner Bros.'s classic 100 rock and roll songs and put it in a personal portable speaker for the consumer so he doesn't have to depend on his phone, or depend on the internet, or depend on any other force, to enjoy music."
How RZA makes beats
I'd like to talk about Wu-Tang background. You are the principal producer, not just for Wu-Tang but for a bunch of people. You do say you're a gadget person. What's your set-up?
Don't get jealous, anybody. I'm a gadget geek, so I have multiple set-ups. If you go in my dining room, which should be a dining room, I have the Maschine hooked up to my laptop. It's called the Maschine, by Native Instruments, yeah. I use that when I'm eating and I get an idea, I bang on the pads there. And if you go up to my living room, it's strictly digital piano that records for composing music.
If you go next door I've got the new Motif, the new Korg, there's a company out of Sweden, the company's called Elektron, I've got all their product, I got every product they make. If you go to my studio then you'll find my rolling material, of course I love Pro Tools, that's industry standard, and I'm into New Window, I'm into Sonar, but I love Ableton. Ableton is very unique to their approach to music programming. I didn't know about Ableton til Mikey D, a producer who works with Kanye, he was like "I do all things in Ableton." I was like, "Yeah but I need to touch my stuff." But then I got the push that comes with it, and I'm having a lot of fun with it.
Has your style evolved over the years? Do you see what you do versus when Wu-Tang first formed, versus even 15, 10 years ago when you started doing scores for Ghostdog.
"Technology causes us to be more creative and experiment more."
I think my style has evolved but I think I can go back and forth. You hear the new album and a song like "Felt" — I could've made that 20 years ago or a song like "Pioneer the Frontier," those are the same drums from 36 Chambers. When you're hearing like Ruckus in B minor, you're hearing live instruments, you're hearing Ableton, you're hearing the Pioneer DJ set. You're hearing all these different elements that make this one song. Technology causes us to be more creative and experiment more. In the old days there was a quarter note delay, you had to patch one thing to another, patch it to another, walk over, twist it, then maybe get the tempo right. Now it's just like "Yo," drag and drop.
RZA on the Wu-Tang pay tier
In interviews you talked about the Wu-Tang pay tier. Can you set the record straight on that?
There was a pay tier.
There was or there is?
"I put myself on the lower tier, because I don't agree with the concept."
There was. It should be over. I agreed to not contest it for a year, but I didn't agree with the pay system at all. I thought that it should be equality. That's what makes brotherhood. I know other bands and rock and roll, whether it's System of a Down, who I hang with — we equal. The Beatles broke up because they started talking about who wrote the songs and all this stuff. I thought equality was achieved by keeping the band together, because I know we all have a value. But I was outvoted. Not everybody, but the upper-tier guys wanted a tier system.
So I was like okay, let's try it for a year. My idea was, if it works, it works. But what happens when someone in the lower tier becomes more valuable than the upper-tier guys? Well I put myself on the lower tier, because I don't agree with the concept. I said, let's go with the lower tier, and I'll stay here for a year, and you upper-tier guys go get yours.
Here go a little bad news about it — it didn't really work. It didn't work because the upper tier started wanting to go a little upper. There's no end to it. Once you start something like that. I understand it works in basketball, it might work in football, but when you done with a band like Wu-Tang Clan, people are paying to see Wu-Tang Clan. They're not paying to see RZA, or paying to see GZA, or paying to see Method Man, or Ghostface, or Raekwon, or Masta Killer, they're paying to see all of us.
Are you guys gonna tour soon?
I think we will. Hopefully the system will be diminished by then. But if not, I'm just one voice — it's a democracy. If it was a dictatorship, I'd be like "Yo man," *slaps air*, but it's a democracy so I go with the votes.
RZA on hip-hop vocabulary
What do you think about you and GZA and Raekwon, all of you are in the top 20 for largest hip-hop vocabulary. How does it feel to make some of the most sophisticated lyrics in hip hop?
That was very flattering actually. The other guy, Aesop, I never really knew his music. I knew him from some years ago but I never really knew his music, but he had the highest. But it just shows that a lot of work goes into what we're doing. They didn't even count the Wu-Tang Clan, they only counted our solo albums, I was like, well I only had three solo albums, and I made it to the top 10. I need to drop some more solo albums, I might move up a rank!
Just read a dictionary over a 4/4 beat, see what happens.
I think it's the unique words, so you can't even just have a dictionary. I had one where I rhymed the word "achievement" with the word "deviant." I think of words that have different context but use words to define words. I like to do that when I write lyrics. You may not understand the first half of the sentence, but the second half explains it to you.
One last question. What's next for you, and what's next for the Wu?
Well this comes out this summer, the Boombotix Rex Plus, 2GB memory inside it. We're thinking of putting an album on it, so we'll see what happens.