"I told them the next five years would be guided by the force of will, and that those five years I was the answer. There was a certainty that nothing could hold us back. I would tempt death because I knew I couldn’t die. I told them that if each put their solo careers on hold, we could work together for something much bigger. I told them, ‘If ya’ll give me five years of your life, I promise you in five years I’m gonna take us to the top.’ And so we gave each other our word. The Wu-Tang Clan was born.”
The above passage was taken from the Capitalism chapter of the Wu-Tang Manual, a 240-page manifesto written by the East Coast group’s principal producer and strategic mastermind Robert Diggs, a.k.a., the RZA. After the success of the Clan’s first independently released single, “Protect Ya Neck,” RZA convinced the other eight members—Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, U-God, the GZA, Raekwon, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard—that before they could divide and conquer the industry, they had to stand financially and creatively united. What unfurled over the next decade would affect nearly every facet of the rap game, from the music to the contracts to the clothing.
The band’s first full album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), redefined the boundaries between underground and mainstream hip-hop. While Dr. Dre and the rest of the West Coast was falling in love with the cleanliness of the Roland JV-1080, RZA crafted 36 Chambers almost exclusively on the Ensoniq ASR-10. Smoldering with opaque bass and dusty drum grooves, the album underlined RZA’s love of funk and soul music. From the heavenly piano trill in “C.R.E.A.M.”—lifted off the beginning of The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You”— to the oft-sampled “Synthetic Substitution” on “Bring Da Ruckus,” RZA sliced and diced his parts in the ASR-10, pushing the machine’s meager 16MB capacity to the limit.
Wu-Tang Clan’s second album, the Grammy-nominated, two-CD epic Wu-Tang Forever, dropped in 1997. Though RZA began to farm out production duties to Wu family affiliates such as True Master and 4th Disciple, Forever featured RZA’s most eclectic gear combinations yet. Looking to obtain a richer drum sound, he made use of a ddrum prototype on “Hellz Wind Staff” and “Severe Punishment,” as well as a prototype Nord Lead, and a hard-to-find Oberheim OB-Mx rack module. RZA’s sound was still raw and grimy, but his palette grew larger, and he relied less and less on samples to dictate a song’s melody and progression.
The next two Wu-Tang albums, The W (’00) and Iron Flag (’01) never reached the stature of their predecessors, but RZA maintains that Iron Flag touched upon nearly every production tactic he had uncovered, from the triumphant string patches on the Kurzweil K2500 to the highly stylized, synth-heavy instrumentals he coaxed out of the Ensoniq TS-10. He continued to let protégés like True Master and Mathematics contribute to the Wu-Tang sound, but RZA’s sonic imprint was the lynchpin that held each Clan member’s distinctive style together.
“I think the Wu mentality still exists in hip-hop and entertainment,” says RZA. “I know corporate has been shuttin’ it down, but it’s there. Is the record company gonna let another wave like that come through? I don’t know if they will or won’t, but I think they need to. When we did this the first time with [Loud Records founder] Steve Rifkind, record companies and hip-hop itself grew.”
As fate would have it, RZA and the Wu-Tang have found themselves right back where they started, partnered up with Rifkind at a freshly resurrected Loud for the release of the band’s fifth studio album, The 8 Diagrams.
Most of The 8 Diagrams was recorded at Legacy Studios in New York and Paramount Studios in Los Angeles with RZA’s custom-painted, yellow-and-black Roland MV-8000 as the cornerstone for most everything you’ll hear off the album. (He began using the MV-8000 while working on the soundtrack to Blade: Trinity, and he’s currently scoring the Vin Diesel film, Babylon A.D.) Recording sessions at Legacy would usually commence with RZA dialing up a beat from his MV, and pumping it through the studio’s custom-built Augsperger monitors and subwoofers. Combining the fat analog signals of the Roland JV-1080 with the tactile flexibility of the MC-909, the MV has streamlined the way in which RZA is able to chop up and sequence his samples. In addition to its MIDI capabilities, the MV is able to handle up to eight tracks of audio, which allowed RZA to overlay his own bass and guitar instrumentation over the beats he created.
The MV was run through a Whirlwind passive direct box and into the mic preamps on a SSL 9000J console. RZA would either EQ sounds on the console, or in the box, using Sony’s Oxford plug-ins for Pro Tools. Vocals bypassed the console all together, being sent to Pro Tools through a pair of vintage Neve 1081 preamps. A dual-microphone configuration was set up for each MC to catch different elements of the performances. RZA and lead album engineer Chris Soper would alternate between a Neumann U67 and a U87 used in conjunction with an AKG D12e to retain the classic vocal rawness of the early Wu-Tang tracks. Though he used the Sony Oxford Limiter for rough mixes, the Waves Renaissance Compressor was Soper’s go-to plug-in for vocals, usually dialed up with a ratio of about 4:1.
“It was a lot like a sports team that has been to the playoffs many times,” says Soper of the vibe in the studio. “They were extremely confident in what they did. If somebody wanted to try something, they’d try it. We ended up working on the record for three months, and it was definitely one of the more creative sessions I’ve ever been on. RZA kept the craziest hours ever. He’d only stop if we had another session coming in the next morning. People would come and go, but he was always there.”
“We got some ill sh*t,” RZA smiles. “So many people came through. Nile Rodgers gave me three old songs with Bernard [Edwards] playing on them!”
P-Funk maestro George Clinton dropped by Legacy to freestyle the hook to “Wolves,” an old-school track with an indie-rock bounce that RZA pieced together on the MV-8000. It features a choice horn performance by Uncle John recorded with RCA 77 ribbon mics. Q-Tip arrived at the studio with an armful of LPs that were sampled into an MPC 3000 for the creation of “Kids With Words” (which may end up as a B-side), while RZA used the MPC 4000 for the slow rolling “Weak Spot.” Though it didn’t make the album, the cinematic RZA/King Tech collaboration “Thug World” features System of a Down bassist Shjavo Odadjian, who is currently working with RZA on a side project that’s tentatively titled Achosen. Hip-hop legend Easy Mo Bee—an early studio mentor and producer of RZA’s first-ever single for Tommy Boy in 1991, “Ooh I Love You Rakeem”—came through with co-production on “Take It Back.” Created using a combination of the E-mu SP1200 and Akai S900, “Take It Back” features Raekwon, Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, and a strong verse by U-God. Not wanting to skimp on strings, RZA enlisted the help of violinist Marco Vitali, who is featured on “Gun Will Go” and “Starter.” Recorded with a single Neumann U67 and run through the 1081s, Vitali’s performances were processed through a high-pass filter, layered by Soper for a full-bodied sound, and then treated with healthy amount of reverb—usually from the Waves Renaissance Reverb plug-in or a Lexicon 480L.
Mathematics, the group’s go-to graphic designer and touring DJ, contributes one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Stick Me For My Riches,” which originally appeared as an instrumental on one of his mix tapes.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Gerald Alston, who sings with the Manhattans,” says Mathematics. “I was sitting in my apartment in Queens after I completed the beat, and the track was giving me this certain vibe, so I just started writing some words to it. I got in touch with Gerald, and we came together to lay the vocals. I made it on my ASR-10, and I used some sounds from my Yamaha Motif Rack. Anything I make, I run through my ASR, because that’s what I started off producing with. It gives me a certain type of old-school sound.”
“Riches” was rearranged by RZA, graced with flows from Meth, Deck, RZA, and GZA, and touched up with a new bass line courtesy of Stone Mecca’s Trú James. The newest addition to the Wu-Tang family, Stone Mecca is responsible for the majority of the backing instrumentation on The 8 Diagrams. Their presence does more than just build a bridge between the classic sound of 36 Chambers and the crisp, sparse programming of RZA’s Bobby Digital-era production. It affirms RZA’s development as a composer and arranger.
“This is a natural progression for RZA,” says James. “He’s always going to have the same ear for making that Wu-Tang sound, but now he’s able to understand things like instrumentation and style. I think throughout the years he has learned to add his own musicianship to the overall picture. He shocks me on the piano, and now he’s playing a few guitars.”
Stone Mecca also appears on the brooding Beatles’ interpolation, “The Heart Gently Weeps”—which features a hook sung by Erykah Badu, lead guitar by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante (who also appears on “Windmill”), and some additional guitar by George Harrison’s son, Dhani.
“Me and Russell Crowe did American Gangster together,” says RZA, “and he gave me this 1961 Gretsch guitar at the end of the film. I gave it to Dhani to play on ‘The Heart Gently Weeps.’”
The track was co-produced by George Drakoulias at Paramount Studios. Harrison’s overdubs were handled in New York, where Soper ran the Gretsch through a Music Valve Vacuum Tube direct box, and then into Pro Tools, where Harrison tweaked the sound using Line 6 Amp Farm. The track is set to be the first single off The 8 Diagrams, taking the place of the cello-infused posse cut “Watch Your Mouth,” which had to be removed due to sample clearance issues.
“Even though we kept sampling to a minimum, we still ran into problems with that song,” says RZA. “The sample is from Mission Impossible, and it’s turning into a mission impossible.”
“Watch Your Mouth” is featured on the group’s MySpace page, and it can also be found (along with “Thug World” and the ODB tribute “Life Changes”) on a downloadable 8 Diagrams mix tape available on loud.com. You can tell, however, that RZA is still frustrated at its lack of inclusion on the album.
The consummate perfectionist, RZA was still sitting in on mastering sessions up until this article went to press, and due to each Clan member’s personal and professional commitments, few have even heard most of the songs in their entirety.
“GZA loves it, Rae said it’s different, and Meth says he’s digging it, except he don’t like ‘The Heart Gently Weeps,’” laughs RZA.
Someone consistently in tune with the album’s evolution, of course, is Rifkind, who has been a part of the group’s collective efforts since it brokered its deal with Loud in 1993.
“Iron Flag never got the opportunity to do what it was supposed to do because of everything that was going on with Sony,” says Rifkind, alluding to the lack of label support he received once Loud fell under the Columbia Records umbrella. “Everybody went off to do their solo things, but there was never really closure with Wu-Tang. So you couldn’t ask for a better time for this album.”
THAT OLD BOOM BAP
“When I go into a lot of studios, I see a whole lot of equipment not being used, or I see people who have a lot of equipment they don’t even know how to use,” says producer and RZA collaborator Trú James. “For me, it’s knowing how to use what you have, and my setup is pretty simple. I have one mic that comes right over the top side of the snare, and I don’t put any mics on the bottom. When I hit the snare, I want a thick, solid signal coming in. I don’t like to do a lot of messing with it afterwards. Old wooden snares are my preference, because they have a thicker, warmer sound. I found a nice ten-inch Pearl at a pawnshop while I was on the road. It’s a small, stinging snare, and it’s just incredible-sounding. For miking, I use an old Shure mic kit with a PG56 for the kick and a PG52 for the snare. I keep a blanket inside the kick, and I set the mic back just a touch from the beater to get a signal that has a good attack and nice roundness. You can put the mic closer to the beater for more attack if you want, and if you loosen up the back skin you get an 808 thing happening.
“Then, I have an old Sony condenser mic I put face down right over the top of the hi-hat, close to where the stick will hit because I like to hear the attack. I use Zildjian A Custom 12-inch hats that, like the snare, have a lot of sting to them. My crash is a Zildjian A Custom medium. For my overheads, I use a pair of AKG C-1000 S mics. I set one up closer to the right side in between the floor tom and mid tom, and I have the other hanging over the crash, which gets the high tom and crash side of the set.
“Once I have it all set up, I mute everything except for the mic I’m working on. The key is making it sound like I’m sitting there playing the set. You’ll hear the snare because it’s right there next to you. The hi-hat is heard a little off-center to the left, but it’s not as strong an attack as the snare. The kick and the snare I usually keep in the center of the mix. My goal in mixing in the overheads is just to add a little dimension to the sound—kind of like how James Brown used to record back in the day.”