On a recent Monday evening, fortune graced San Francisco with a glimpse of New York rap titan and Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA (né Chris Norris), who appeared at the San Francisco Public Library for a discussion with Barbara Lane, director of the Commonwealth Club of California's Good Lit Series, and a chance to promote his new book, The Wu Tang Manual (Gardners). Organized by InForum — a division of the Club by and for people in their 20s and 30s — the Aug. 8 event packed the library's Koret Auditorium with a mixed-race crowd of young-adult hip-hop aficionados. Lane began the interview by asking RZA how he became fascinated with the pop-culture influences that formed the blueprint for Wu-Tang — among them kung-fu movies, superhero comic books, videogames, Afro-centric mythology and chess. Smiling gamely under his yellow baseball cap, the rapper claimed he had good reasons for glomming on to the idea of kung-fu superheroes “jumping over buildings” or “taking [down] 10 men.” After all, he grew up in a two-bedroom garret in Staten Island, N.Y. His neighborhood, he said, was packed with glue sniffers and junk users, and someone was always waiting around the corner to jump a little dude for his lunch money.
RZA talked about how he cut his teeth as a New York City DJ with an Ensoniq ASR-10 and an E-mu SP-1200 sampler and crates of vinyl culled from the record stores in Queens. He says that at the time, he “didn't know what a C [note] was,” so he'd make tracks by taking one noise and spreading it across the whole keyboard. RZA also told the audience that once he gained some notoriety after forming Wu-Tang Clan in 1992, many professional musicians told him he was “destroying music” and putting people out of jobs by making tracks with drum machines and studio effects instead of live drummers and bass players. RZA took those criticisms to heart and learned music theory, taught himself how to play piano and guitar, and geeked out on old Blue Note recordings by Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
When fans praised his music or regaled him with cogent statements about the state of hip-hop during the audience Q&A, RZA responded with an approving, “Yeah, boomp, boomp,” which roughly translates to, “Good lookin' out.” When pressed, the artist said that another Wu-Tang album may be on the horizon. In the meantime, he's sopping up new founts of inspiration: His home CD player plays Frank Sinatra in heavy rotation.