There are few people in hip-hop that deserve to be called an auteur (the French word for author, a title reserved for consummate creators) as much as The RZA. The de-facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, he’s more than just a legendary producer. From the earliest days of the Wu, Rzarector was their creative visionary.

He’s also a savvy businessman who helped the Wu-Tang Clan change not just the sound of hip-hop, but the business model too. Wu was the first team to land a group record deal as well as a variety of solo deals. With Wu Wear, he became one of the first rappers with a clothing brand. He’s also written a book (The Wu-Tang Manual), composed and recorded original scores for movies like Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai and Kill Bill, and he even claims he helped create the technology behind Serato and Final Scratch. Oh, and he’s directing his own upcoming film, The Man With The Iron Fists. Needless to say, the man has always been at the forefront of hip-hop culture.

And now he’s got one more notch to add to his black belt in hip-hop: Headphones. Since Dr. Dre ushered in the headphone boom with his ubiquitous Beats By Dre, everyone from 50 Cent to Ludacris has been trying to get in on the action. However, unlike 50 or Luda, The Abbot actually knows a thing or two about decibels, kilohertz, and the basics of sound quality. And just like with hip-hop production in the early ‘90s, he’s one of the few people who can rival Dr. Dre’s sound with his Chambers By RZA headphones

With the headphones going on sale today on the WeSC website as well as Guitar Center locations (they'll become more widely available at additional retailers in the coming weeks), we sat down with The RZA to talk headphones, hip-hop, and Hollywood.

Yes, he also responded to Method Man’s claims that GZA wrote many of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s rhymes, revealed that he had to censor Raekwon and Ghostface Killah on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and claimed he recently gave away 10 beats to Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, and Nas...

Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)

How did you get involved with making the Chambers by RZA headphones?

I got involved through mutual people that knew the headphone boom was happening. They was telling me to get involved but I wouldn’t get involved. I came across a company [called WeSC] that had something cool about them that resonated with me.

 

I already owned a pair of Beats [by Dre headphones]—I dug them—but my battery ran out on me. I was kind of pissed off that I paid $300 and had to fucking wait for the batteries. I said, "I’m making some shit so that will never happen."

 

They said I could personally design them and make them how the fuck I want. If I wanted to put three ears on it, I could put three ears on it—well, that wouldn’t work on Earth. [Laughs.] They let me zone in and make something that I thought would be cool.

I already owned a pair of Beats [by Dre headphones]—I dug them—but my battery ran out on me. I was kind of pissed off that I paid $300 and had to fucking wait for the batteries. I said, "I’m making some shit so that will never happen."

I did a few other things and then I just got involved in it. When I was making my film in China, a lot of the ideas for the headphones materialized. Now, here they are.

I hear you were very hands on with the project. What were some of specific ideas that you were bringing?

It’s a lot of them, but the most prominent is I wanted lights on them. We have a small meter on it, so you know if [the music is] peaking or not peaking because I know some people like to mix.

I wanted them to be able to link together. It was off my own experience from riding the plane with my wife and she’s looking at something and says, ‘Oh, look! [and has to put her headphones on my head].’ We can both sit there and watch the same thing.

You can have one iPad, and we both can watch a movie on that iPad or one iPod and we both can hear the same song. Now that I came up with that idea, you actually can chain five of these headphones together with one equal sound resolution—actually you can chain 20 [if you wanted].

You mentioned owning a pair of Beats by Dre. How much did that influence this product?

We started this before all of that. This is a two year process. These ain’t something they made last month and then told me to put my logo on it. That’s another thing: These were made by me.

I don’t know their situation or what he did, but they are the pioneers of it. We got to respect the pioneers and I respect them doing it. I usually wouldn’t even do something somebody else did to be honest with you. I started Wu Wear, and other people started copying me! I came with the first sneakers, other people copied me. When it came to these headphones, the question in my head was, ‘Am I gonna do something that somebody else did?’

 

When it came to these headphones, the question in my head was, ‘Am I gonna do something that somebody else did?’ I decided to say yes to this one. The only way I was gonna do something that somebody already else did is if I did something different. I’m not the first guy to make hip-hop, but I did it differently. I’m the first one that took it to the chamber I took it to.

 

I decided to say yes to this one. The only way I was gonna do something that somebody already else did is if I did something different. I’m not the first guy to make a record or to make hip-hop, but I did it differently. I’m the first one that took it to the chamber I took it to and that’s where I’m going with my headphones.

There’s no lights on [Beats by Dre] headphones, you can’t plug up multiple headphones to their shit, and if you have noise cancellation with the battery and your battery runs out, you can still use mine.

When I made hip-hop, I made hip-hop. I didn’t make R&B or make it for the radio. I made beats so niggas could rhyme to it. I wanted you to rap to it. I didn’t want you to dance to it—if you dance to it, it’s up to you. With “Protect Ya Neck,” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin,” and “Bring The Ruckus,” you can rap to that shit. If you find a dance to it, that’s on you. You definitely can rhyme to that shit.

Same thing with [the headphones], I made it to be the fit of style. In New York, a lot of us wear those Nikes—the Air Force Ones/Uptowns and shit. If you notice, If you had on the red and white [Air Force Ones, your headphones would match]. I like the metallic silver Benz, [so there’s] metallic silver headphones. I got a white Maserati, so I got a solid white pair of headphones.

Is that really how you based the colors—on your cars?

I based [the metallic silver and white headphones] on those two [cars]. I based the black matted headphones on my buddy Chavo. When I got the Maserati, he got him a matted black Mustang. His is the Knight Rider and my shit is the Mach 5 Speed Racer. I made these from inspirations from my life and things I like. That’s another thing that makes it cool.

That’s why I signed my name on it. That logo is my signature. Every autograph I’ve signed for any fan, they’ll know that’s that nigga’s real fucking signature. They sent me logos, but it’s just a logo. I never put that [signature] on something, besides what I gave to fans. I’m not selling that though.

 

People be like, “Yo, how come you make your music lo-fi?” I’m like, “Muthafucker, I got a million dollars worth of equipment. You don’t think I can make my shit sound [hi-fi]? No! They can’t make theirs sound like this!”

 

We’re not selling [the headphones] because of [the signature]. This is just authenticating it. I sign autographs for free. This is authenticating the headphones. If you take the logo off the headphones, you got some headphones, but is it really mine?

Other people can take my [technical] specs and come out next year with the colors, and a daisy chain, and put 20 lights on theirs, and copy all that shit—the same way they did with clothing and beats. That’s what they do; that’s America. Shark biters. But they won’t have [my signature] on it. [Laughs.] I have to make sure something is still pure.

That’s why people be like, “Yo, how come you make your music lo-fi?” I’m like, “Muthafucker, I got a million dollars' worth of equipment. You don’t think I can make my shit sound [hi-fi]? No! They can’t make theirs sound like this!”

Now you can buy shit like “’90s hip-hop” or “lo-fi” drum kits. No. It don’t sound like it, kid. You don’t know what filter I’m using. You don’t know what machine I got and I won’t tell you what machine that is. In fact, you don’t know why I EQ at the kilohertz I do. You don’t know why I use hertz and you don’t have to know. Why does Ghostface sound how he sounds [on my records]?

 

Right, you EQ it a certain way.

Exactly. He sounds different on other people’s records. I have a compressor with his name on it. I found the parameters and left that forever. He come over to my house and hit the button, and it’ll always sound like you. They don’t make those anymore but that’s me.

That’s a quality of me that I don’t mind being. I don’t mind being in my own world, but if I can share my world with others, let me share it officially and properly on how I’d like to share it. To me, that’s what I did with these headphones.

 

They have the wrong inches of the planet in [my book]. [The correct number] is 12 trillion, 478 billion, 418 million, 400 thousand square inches. But they got it wrong and I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” That made me realize, we read the Bible and it’s 2000 years old and we don’t think something is typed up wrong? I even said to my brother, “If I wrote this myself and I sent it in this way, and it came back this way, imagine what happened with Moses.” [Laughs.]

 

These are great but to me, there’s a small thing that’s missing that’ll be in the next [line of headphones]. I’m like, “Yeah they’re great, but hold on guys. Can I [add] this one thing?” And they’re like, “Yeah you can [add] it on the next one.” Well then I want to [add] it.

The same thing happened with my book. I had a book called The Wu-Tang Manual out and it had the wrong number! Some numbers in there are not accurate numbers. I was like, ‘Who the fuck did that?!’ I can tell you the number right now out my mouth and prove to you that it wasn’t me.

They had to print the next 50,000 copies with a little cardboard in it that had the right numbers. They’re supposed to fix the rest of them, but who knows, I don’t print the books up. If anybody asks me the number, I’ll have to correct them personally.

They have the wrong inches of the planet in [my book]. [The correct number] is 12 trillion, 478 billion, 418 million, 400 thousand square inches. But they got it wrong and I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” I know the answer, so don’t send the wrong answer out as if the RZA gave the wrong answer.

That made me realize, we read the Bible and it’s 2000 years old and we don’t think something is typed up wrong? If I’m still living right on Earth, my book dropped five years ago, and something is wrong in that shit. Come on, man. To me, that was the living proof. I even said to my brother, “If I wrote this myself and I sent it in this way, and it came back this way, imagine what happened with Moses.” [Laughs.]

You mentioned being in China working on your film, The Man With The Iron Fists. What is the release of that looking like?

With movies you never know because it’s controlled by studios, but everybody that’s working with me seems to be really excited about it. They know when to put movies out; I don’t. That’s a science that they’ve mastered. It was a great experience for me.

I’m still in post-production. Special effects are still not done. It takes a long fucking time. I’m learning a lot about movie-making. Maybe I’ll tell people about it or maybe I won’t. One thing about movie-making is this: Sometimes knowing is not as good as not knowing.

For instance, I love kung-fu movies. I sample them and one of my favorite movies is Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Now, I watched that movie to [the point where] I almost know the English dubbed version by heart. I’m able to cross-reference that movie to 36 Chambers, Death Chambers, Five Masters Of Death—many movies I can cross-reference to. You’ll see the white eyebrow priest pop up in many movies [like] White Lotus, and he’s in Kill Bill.

 

When I went to the real Wu-Tang mountains, I met [the real] Abbot and he told me it’s a book that was written. The book is pretty old, maybe 500 or a thousans years old, but it’s not what happened. It’s just literature. It’s like us reading Shakespeare and thinking King Lear [was real].

 

I honestly believed that because of all the movies, references, and being that it was based on a historical moment, I believed it to be historically true. It has some reality to it. I can discuss that with you and give you logic on it.

When I went to the real Wu-Tang mountains, I met [the real] Abbot and he told me it’s a book that was written. The book is pretty old, maybe 500 or a thousans years old, but it’s not what happened. It’s just literature. It’s like us reading Shakespeare and thinking King Lear [was real]. These are stories based on a time period. It may be true that at that time there was a Black Plague or silver was the monetary system, but it’s still fiction.

People may read the Da Vinci Code years later and think that Jesus did fuck Mary. That fucked my head up a little bit. [The Abbot] was like, “Nah man, that Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is a story, but it is true that Zhang Sanfeng did start as a Shaolin monk. He did leave Shaolin and founded his own school, but it wasn’t no kung-fu fighting like the movie.”

With Zhang Sanfeng, out of the three histories of the temple, there’s three different potential histories. He’s one of them and is the most popular. It’s like the brother of Jesus. You have a story about him in the Quran and a story about him in the Bible. It’s different events.

Was that disheartening for you to find that out?

No. It was awakening for me, actually. It bugged me out, though. But I said, “Wait a minute?” There’s nothing like the truth. The truth sets you free. So I was free. I told you that story, just to go back to movies, I’m seeing all the things I’ve got to do to make a movie happen. I’m seeing it’s magic.

When it’s magic, there’s a magician performing, and if you don’t know the trick, it’s magic. But if you know the trick, it’s just a trick. When you’re the director, you are a magician. So you have to dedicate yourself to that from now on.

My wife and I go to movies every Wednesday. While I’m doing my movie we continue to go, and I’m like, “But baby, I know what’s going to happen.” [Laughs] That’s how it goes. I’m starting to see the edits in this motherfucker.

 

I had to censor Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. They were saying worse shit than that. I said, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that, G. You can’t say it.” They were like, “Man, come on.” I’m like, “Nah. You’re going to do that to her? Nah. See, you don’t do that.” As time went on, they started saying whatever the fuck they wanted to say.

 

So that’s what I mean, you’ve got to be careful. I’m smart enough to pull back, though. I’m smart enough to know to enjoy, but like I said, I don’t want to tell people too much about that process. I’d rather they go and enjoy the movie and enjoy the world that we’ve created.

Have you seen Star Wars? I loved it. Now that you look at Mark Hamill, you see that he’s really not a great actor. But you didn’t know that as a kid. As a kid, he was the greatest actor.

It’s funny what you were saying about the monks and the stories. When I was growing up listening to Rae and Ghost talk about drug-dealing, I thought all of it was real. I thought that was exactly what their life was like but it wasn’t like that.

Hell no. Hell no. It’s a song. We did live a wild...actually, I don’t rap about that. I’d rather keep it personal and shit. I mean, I had to censor that album. They were saying worse shit than that.

On Only Built 4 Cuban Linx?

Yeah. I said, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that, G. You can’t say it.” They were like, “Man, come on.” I’m like, “Nah. You’re going to do that to her? Nah. See, you don’t do that.” As time went on, they started saying whatever the fuck they wanted to say, but when I was there in the studio, I wasn’t going to let just anything be said. I know the attraction power.

After Cuban Linx came out, I already knew how many thugs and gangsters were born and that it would make. I knew how many people would be glorified by it. If I knew that when the movie Scarfacecame out, we all wanted to sell drugs. I knew I had the same power with that album. I didn’t want to be responsible for it, but I did want those kinds of people to listen to me.

 

After Cuban Linx came out, I already knew how many thugs and gangsters were born and that it would make. I knew how many people would be glorified by it. If I knew that when the movie Scarface came out, we all wanted to sell drugs. I knew I had the same power with that album. I didn’t want to be responsible for it, but I did want those kinds of people to listen to me.

 

So after Cuban Linx, I did GZA’s Liquid Swords, I did want college kids to get into it, and they did. As a producer and the captain of the team, I planned the audience. I knew Gravediggaz could fit white boys. I knew it. I said I’d get all the fucking rock and this and that. I went on tour with Biohazard just to get them, because I wanted everybody to come back to Wu-Tang on the next one.

I went out and attracted everybody, so that when Wu-Tang Forever came out—boom. It had all those elements but there was some real important messages in there; “You can’t party your life away/Drink your life away/Smoke your life away...Cause your seeds grow up the same way.” I wanted that to be known.

I wanted people to realize the propagation of school. They teach us lies, and we have to grow up as adults and unlearn them. [Laughs.] Unlearn the shit you’ve been taught to be real. I was on a mission and I succeed actually. When Wu-Tang Forever came out, it was a number-one album. I promised number one in five years, and in five years, we were number one.

 

Switching gears, we recently interviewed Method Man. We talked about Cuban Linx he mentioned that, at that time, you started working with True Master who influenced those records. And his album and ODB’s first album didn’t have True Master—

No, no, no. True Master worked with Meth on his second album. True Master came in on Tical 2000Judgement Day. He did “Fish” on Ironman and that was his first production. Then he did a lot on Judgement Day. What was Johnny saying though?

He was saying that one of the reasons there was a big growth for you as a producer—you went from the lo-fi sound of 36 Chambers to the cinematic sound of Cuban Linx—was because you were working with True Master.

Nah. I think that's a miscalculation for him because True Master’s actually my student. What happened to me was I just got challenged by musicians. Some musicians were saying I wasn’t a musician and that I’m fucking up music because I’m sampling and using drum machines and all that shit. So I challenged myself. I went and picked up some music theory books and started going through that, and that was in ‘96-’97. Judgement Daycame out when?

After Wu-Tang Forever. It was '98.

 

I signed Mathematics and True Master to my production company and I assigned them [people to work with]. I told True Master to work with Meth and Math to keep up with that grimey stuff and I’m going to move on. I don’t know if Meth knew this, because it was more of a business thing. It wasn’t like, a discussion. [Laughs.]

 

Exactly. So by then, True Master was still using the same EPS-16 Plus that I used for the first album. I gave it to him, okay? And Mathematics, I gave him a whole stack of records that I used and the idea was for them to facilitate the classic Wu sound as I head to a higher level. That was a physical plan.

I signed Mathematics and True Master to my production company and I assigned them [people to work with]. I told True Master to work with Meth and Math to keep up with that grimey stuff and I’m going to move on. I don’t know if Meth knew this, because it was more of a business thing. It wasn’t like, a discussion. [Laughs.]

That’s when I did Bobby Digital and went electronic. I went to what I call “digital orchestra.” That’s when I started learning music. Then that led to Ghost Dog, which led to Kill Bill, and I’m here now. So it was a long path.

But True Master...Nah. I mean, True Master’s always been a good producer. I’ve known him for years. We always used to swap samples and stuff like that, but if you talk to True Master, I’m the Abbot. I’m the one who schooled him and shit.

Another thing he said was that on ODB’s first album, a lot of the records were actually written by you and by The GZA.

Lyrically, yeah. Well, we were a crew. That was the first crew. So a lot of the old rhymes and the old stuff that we had, Dirty just loved saying it. He loved rapping that. I mean, he wrote a lot of his own stuff. Don’t get it twisted. He wrote “Brooklyn Zoo,” every word of that for himself. “Hippa To Da Hoppa,” he wrote that.

 

ODB would go right to my rhyme book and take a rhyme right out the book. But I had stacks of lyrics, books of it. But I would just say that he was like a singer though. Singers don’t write, they sing. They perform. Dirty was a performer.

 

GZA wrote [some of his rhymes]. I would say maybe 50%. Some songs were definitely written by us, but ODB wrote a lot of his own stuff. At the same time, Dirty always would get rhymes from me.

I mean, he would go right to my rhyme book and take a rhyme right out the book. But I had stacks of lyrics, books of it. But I would just say that he was like a singer though. Singers don’t write, they sing. They perform. Dirty was a performer.

You recently worked on Watch The Throne on the record “New Day.” How did you get involved with that album?

Well, it really started from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. I spent some time with Kanye. I took a lot of tracks down to him. He got a lot of tracks. What I’ve been doing is this: I’ve been cleaning out my machines. Meaning, I’ve got so many beats that it will never all be heard. Simple as that. I know that. I have to accept that.

But more should be heard. [Laughs.] So Nas came to my crib and just took 10 [beats]. I don’t know what he’s going to do with it. Busta took 10 [beats]. I don’t know what he’s going to do with it. ‘Ye, I probably left him with 20. I don’t know what he’s going to do with them.

So is the “New Day” beat from back in the day?

No. It’s not from back in the day like that. It’s from Dark Fantasy times. When I went down there I was like, “Yo, here goes a stack of joints.” “New Day,” he called me when I was in China on that one. I might have sent that one from China.

Bottom line, I’ve got 10 beat machines full of beats. Talib Kweli just took a few too. It’s just time for them to air out. They were all saved for Wu-Tang. [Laughs.] But they’re doing all other kinds of shit.

 

I’ve been cleaning out my machines. I’ve got so many beats that it will never all be heard. But more should be heard. [Laughs.] So Nas came to my crib and just took 10 [beats]. Busta Ryhmes took 10 [beats]. Kanye, I probably left him with 20. I don’t know what they're going to do with them.

 

I never produce for other people like that. My shit was for my brothers. But now it’s like, “Yo, the world can have it. I’m making movies now. Y’all can have the music.”

I’ll just say this last thing, I’ve got a buddy named John Frusciante [who is the lead guitarist of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers], and he said something to me that changed my whole perspective. He said, “RZA, I don’t do music for money. I do music for music. And my music belongs to the world.”

It’s like, it’s so personal. I was doing it for fun at first, when I was young. Then I started doing it for money. I started getting paid for it. Then if you don’t pay me, you don’t get the beat. Yet, I’m still making them. If nobody’s buying them, now what’s happening? They’re accumulating and shit.

He freed my mind to be like, “Yo, it’s music, man. It belongs to the world, whether I get paid for it or not.” Of course, I prefer to get paid for it, because my equipment is expensive, and I’ve got bills and shit, but since he opened my mind that helped me give away all these beats. I didn’t ask nobody for nothing. I’ve got a manager that’ll probably go back and charge these brothers and shit, but as far as I’m concerned? Help yourself.

Your famous for your five year plan of starting Wu-Tang and getting a #1 album in five years. What’s in the next five years for The RZA?

Well, I didn’t tell people this plan about directing. I just did it and completed it. So the thing is, complete the plan first. If you talk it out it becomes air. Keep that in your mind, as a young man, grow above it.

Don’t throw it in the universe as air because somebody else will breathe it in. You’ll be watching your shit somewhere else. I’ve seen that happen to myself as well with Seratto [and the Wu-Replicator].

[My original plan] worked. It’s working right now, again. I left the East Coast to come here to be a movie director. It took five years, but I worked on it. As a man you’ll realize because you’ve probably done the same thing in your life, you had a goal, and you reached it.

They say a wise man sees that. He sees ahead of himself, and then he walks the path to get there. The earth already knows where it’s going, buddy. [Laughs.] You’ve just got to ride it until we get there.