Rolling down a highway somewhere in the Midwest, RZA is between gigs as he describes his latest self-realization. “I've turned into a Willie Nelson — type motherfucker, you know?” he says with a laugh into the crackle of a cell phone. “The only time I feel serene is when I'm on the road. I had to kind of lose the crazy vibe on all the business shit so that I could just produce, write and create more as an artist.”
The tireless studio sensei and driving force behind Wu-Tang Clan is in the midst of a creative flurry, releasing his solo project Birth of a Prince (Wu/Sanctuary, 2003) at the same time that his score work for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 hit movie screens around the world. As its title suggests, Birth signifies RZA's reascension as Prince Rakeem (his nom de guerre in the early Wu days) and the laying to rest of Bobby Digital, the way-out persona he adopted for his past two albums: Bobby Digital in Stereo (Gee Street, 1998) and Digital Bullet (In the Paint/Koch, 2001).
“I don't know if I'd say I evolved,” RZA asserts when asked how his sound has changed throughout the years. “I might have re-volved, because I came with a heavy electronic sound on the Bobby Digital albums, but I think now, with these tracks, the direction was more to the soul, back to the basic hip-hop flavor. It's not as hard as Wu-Tang's stuff is, but it's definitely in that vein.”
Whether he is inside Wu-Tang's futuristic 36 Chambers Studio (at the heart of which is an 80-input SSL 9000J console) or on tour and in need of instant access to a random setup, RZA constantly adapts to new conditions and equipment. The Funkadelic-inflected “Chi Kung” was tracked in Helsinki and later mixed in New York, and “You'll Never Know” had its genesis in Paris. The processed synth-bass hooks and beats of “Cherry Range” were composed on a Korg Triton Studio, then bounced to a Roland VS-2480 24-track digital workstation and finally to a Studer 2-inch analog tape machine. In contrast, the ominous funk of “The Drop Off” took shape on an E-mu MP-7 (which RZA endorses) in tandem with a Roland TR-909 drum machine. Whatever the situation, RZA applies his years of experience behind a mixing desk to the task at hand, building on his signature style of stripped but aggressive beats merged with crafty synth, string, guitar and even flute arrangements.
“I like to take all of my individual effects loops and assign them,” he reveals. “Some people don't do that, but I like to break my shit down. Each track has got its own output, and then I can put my effects on it, and then I like to dub it to another machine. That's why [my studio engineer] Choco is basically my hands and arms. He's a real hip-hop engineer who lives the culture, but he also has 15 years with SSLs and boards like that. All I gotta do is tell him one thing, and he knows exactly what I'm talking about.”
RZA's exacting technique in the studio extends to his overall work ethic, which is picking up yet another head of steam. “I think Wu-Tang Clan needs to come back together and do another album, and then I can retire with The Cure [his much-anticipated magnum opus, a glimpse of which can be caught in “See the Joy,” the closing track on Birth]. I've also been talking to Quentin [Tarantino] about revisiting [Kill Bill] Volume 2, because I think we could hit it a little harder and maybe hip-hop produce it like my own album. So we'll see how that turns out.”