RZA: 'Martin Shkreli sold our album on eBay for $1.2m – he could have got more'

The Wu-Tang Clan rapper-producer-director boasts 16 names and plays a mean game of chess – and he’s had the last laugh over the disgraced ‘pharma-bro’

Hello, RZA! When members of the Wu-Tang Clan are together, do you call each other by your Wu names or your given names?
Most of the time we’re with each other, we’ll call each other by one of our nicknames, and no telling which nickname is going to be used that day. For instance, I’m hanging with Meth (1). He had some new friends with him, and they’d known him for two years, maybe. And I’m calling: “Hey, Johnny, everything good?” “Ah, doin’ good, Bobby (2).” And they’re: “Why you calling him Johnny?” And I say: “It’s Johnny Blaze, from the Cuban Linx album.” And when I see Ghost, I call him Tony (3). When I see Raekwon, I call him Chef (4). They call me Abbot. Cos I’m the Abbot. U-God had Golden Arms, call him Goldie (5). But whatever name you call one of us, we respond. I know when they say Steels, that’s me.

And you are variously RZA, Prince Rakeem, the RZArector, Bobby Steels, Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, Prince Delight, Abbot, Bobby Digital or 9th Prince. Do they all express different facets of your personality?
I would say so. A name is a description of an attribute. In the holy Qur’an – this is not a sacrilegious analogy – there are 99 names of Allah. Plus one, and the one you will never know. I got 16. I’m working my way up.

It can get quite confusing trying to work out which are official Wu-Tang Clan albums. The Saga Continues (6), the new one, isn’t a Clan album, is it?
I guess it wouldn’t be termed an official Wu-Tang Clan album because U-God isn’t on it (7). But this is an official Wu-Tang album. It’s definitely branded Wu-Tang.

So the Clan is flexible enough that if someone isn’t around you can just drop a word from the group name and put the album out anyway and keep it in the canon?
[Laughs] Yeah, I would say so. Because Wu-Tang, over a period of time, has ascended past the Clan. I’m not talking about the various offshoots we’ve had over the years, but, to me, Wu-Tang has become over the years almost a subgenre of hip-hop itself.

Watch People Say, from the new album The Saga Continues

You’re a bit of a renaissance man with all your different skills: producer, rapper, gent’s outfitter, actor, director. What gives you most satisfaction?
The most satisfaction on a creative level is directing a film and seeing it come to fruition (8). It’s a very peculiar feeling you get when you achieve it. I’ve heard directors such as Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino say that their films are their babies. They’re men with no children, and I had babies, so I didn’t understand why they would define it like that. But now I do. The time, the commitment, from gestation to delivery, feels like having a baby. And then it gets a life of its own. So for me it’s the most fulfilling artistic expression I have.

How did you come up with the Wu-Tang sound, which seemed to come from nowhere on Enter the Wu-Tang: The 36 Chambers?
It’s hard to describe it. While a lot of hip-hop was inspired by jazz or James Brown samples and was made to be played live in the clubs, I made hip-hop that was made for MCs to eat the mic up. It was an aggressive form of hip-hop. It was made just for hip-hop. It’s not made to sing or dance to, though you can if you want. If you take Nothin’ But a G Thang by Dr Dre, that could also be an R&B record. Bonita Applebum by A Tribe Called Quest could even be a jazz record. Bring Da Ruckus, you gotta call it hip-hop.

When you heard other producers taking on elements of your sound, were you pleased at the tribute or disappointed they hadn’t come up with something of their own?
That depends on what year. Anything after 1999 I took as a tribute; anything before, I thought they was biting on my dick. My ego was big. I think it’s a compliment, because I guess I thought hip-hop belonged to me. That’s a big statement, but that’s how I felt and you couldn’t tell me nothing different. I’m glad Wu-Tang was able to inspire other producers and artists, but I would never want to be erased or removed.

Watch the trailer for RZA’s film, The Man With the Iron Fists

Does it please you that Martin Shkreli could only get half what he paid for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (9)?
No. I didn’t like the idea of him putting it on eBay. I think he could have got more than what he paid. I was actually impressed that within eight days he got up to $1m in bidding. [Album producer] Cilvaringz heard my complaints for many years about music and the way it’s being devalued, and he came up with the idea of how to put value back in music – the idea was to use the art world. And we did it. And Shkreli, when he put it on eBay, he had a great paragraph to me. He said: “I bought this record from Wu-Tang Clan as a gift to them.” I’m paraphrasing. “Now I want to see who else values music the way I do.” And when it came in at 10 grand, 35 grand, I was like, “Ohhhhhhhh.” But within four days it was up into the half a mils, and before he got locked up, it was over a million dollars. We proved the theory. If it had been left a bit longer, no telling how far it would have gone. He didn’t have the right to do that, though.

How’s your chess game these days?
I think I’m OK now. I had a slump, but I think I’m pretty cool. I’m not at the master level I should be at.

Are you the best chess player in hip-hop?
Potentially. I’ve been in some hip-hop tournaments and I’ve got the belts.

Potentially’s not good enough, is it?
Anybody who wants to play a 10-round match, the door’s open. I know Jay-Z plays. I know Will Smith plays. Jamie Foxx plays. He actually played my student and they shared some good battles; I have a student that’s very good and right now he’s about 40% towards me. Out of 10 games, I get six and he’ll get four. The GZA plays well, but he lost to me twice in the tournament.

Are you an aggressive player, or do you grind it out?
Depends on my opponent. I’ll just say this: you don’t like to show your cards, but I’m comfortable using the King’s Gambit, and that technique has been beaten by the books because it’s been used so many times (10). But I’m confident using it. If you put me on the clock, I will use that game, and I will still beat you, even thought the theory of it has already been thwarted.

Foot notes

1) Method Man (Clifford Smith to his mum).

2) Bobby Digital, one of RZA’s many noms de plume. His given name is Robert Fitzgerald Diggs.

3) Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles) is sometimes known as Tony Starks, after the comic book character Iron Man.

4) Corey Woods is Raekwon the Chef.

5) As well as being U-God, Lamont Hawkins is also Golden Arms, Lucky Hands, Universal-God Allah and 4-Bar Killer.

6) The Saga Continues is out now on E One Entertainment.

7) Last year, U-God decided to sue the Wu-Tang Clan for $2.5m in unpaid royalties.

8) RZA directed The Man With the Iron Fists in 2012, starring Russell Crowe as an opium-addicted British soldier in China caught up in a kung fu war over a village with the typically Chinese name of Jungle Village.

9) In 2015, Wu-Tang Clan made an album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and pressed just one copy, which was sold to Martin Shkreli for $2m. He was then exposed for hiking the price of Aids drugs and earlier this year convicted of fraud. Shkreli then put the album up for sale on eBay, where it fetched $1,025,100 in September. RZA has plenty to say about the saga, but is bound by legal strictures. Lesson Learn’d from the new LP contains the diss: “My price hikin’ like the pills Martin Shkreli sell.”

10) One of the oldest openings in chess, and very rarely used now by leading players because of the perceived difficulty in winning with it when playing white.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Martin Shkreli's $2m Wu-Tang Clan album seized by federal court
The disgraced entrepreneur bought the sole copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in 2014 – his lawyer has described it as ‘probably worthless’

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

06, Mar, 2018 @10:51 AM

Article image
Martin Shkreli lists secret Wu-Tang Clan album on eBay
The embattled former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who was convicted last month on two charges of securities fraud, purchased the sole copy of the hip-hop group’s secret album in 2015

Jake Nevins

06, Sep, 2017 @4:38 PM

Article image
Wyclef Jean: 'Changing the world and having sex – I believe in both'
It’s a year ending in seven, so the one-time Fugee must be releasing an album. While out jogging, he contemplates the great beyond – and how he inspired Beyoncé

Peter Robinson

14, Sep, 2017 @11:44 AM

It's a rap: hip-hop and Hollywood

The movie industry has never known what to do with rap music. But from NWA to ODB, the extreme lives of its stars offer epic stories for the big screen

Steve Rose

19, Jul, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Martin Shkreli sued by Wu-Tang Clan fan artist
Pharmaceuticals entrepreneur who owns the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is among those approached for compensation by artist

Guardian music

10, Feb, 2016 @9:03 AM

Article image
Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow review – hit-and-miss final reel for legendary rap crew
RZA and Raekwon put aside their differences to make one last Wu album, but it’s at its best when those tensions flare back up, writes Paul MacInnes

Paul MacInnes

27, Nov, 2014 @9:30 PM

Article image
Ghostface Killah: Adrian Younge presents Twelve Reasons To Die II review – hard-boiled hip-hop capers
Ghostface Killah’s renaissance continues with this suitably OTT rap odyssey

Lanre Bakare

02, Jul, 2015 @8:15 PM

Article image
How hip-hop fell out of love with Obama

Barack Obama was once hailed as America's first hip-hop president. So why have so many rappers now given up on 'B-rock'?

Erik Nielson

23, Aug, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Kanye West – every album ranked!
As the rapper’s new album arrives on the usual sea of ego and controversy, we rate everything he’s done so far – from The College Dropout to The Life of Pablo

Alexis Petridis

31, May, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Missy Elliott on hoverboards, Pharrell Williams and WTF
With her first major release in 10 years, the Virginia rapper reflects on a decade of domesticity, working with Timbaland and not snoozing in the studio

Peter Robinson

19, Nov, 2015 @1:26 PM