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RZA on Brick Mansions, Working With Paul Walker, and Why Wu-Tang’s Secret One-Off Is Like a Trip to the Moon

RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and Brick Mansions. Photo: Patrick McMullan

The hip-hop icon RZA has been popping up in the news quite frequently of late, having helped prep a secret Wu-Tang Clan project called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for auction to one (and only one) buyer, finding himself caught up in a war of words with Wu colleague Raekwon over the crew’s upcoming A Better Tomorrow, and promoting his role alongside the late Paul Walker as a drug lord in the new action film Brick Mansions. Despite his busy schedule, Vulture got RZA on the phone while he was cruising through New York and let him hold court on these and other RZA-related topics.

With Brick Mansions, Gang Related, the new Wu-Tang albums, and the sad Christ Bearer incident, you probably don’t have much to talk about, huh?
Ha-ha. Nah, not too much to talk about, kid. I’m just driving through New York City looking at the buildings.

You’ve said that only two or three people have heard Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Does that mean the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan haven’t even heard it?
No, none of the members have heard the album. On the original 36 Chambers, that was how it was done. They didn’t hear it until I finished it and brought it back and showed them: “This is the album. This the work we put in. This is what I concocted.”

Do you have any plans to play it for them like you did with 36 Chambers?
This is different than that, so I don’t think the same course of action will follow. I’ve given the power of the situation over to some experts, and they’re going to take about two weeks to figure out exactly the proper course of action to take, and then we’ll announce it. And I’m going to take the expert opinion. That’s something I’ve learned over the years — to stand up strong for that which I truly know, but for that which I don’t know, I’m willing to be taught and learned. I don’t have an ego that gotta jump.

Who are these experts you’re referring to?
They don’t want to be named at this time. They’ll give you the proper time that they want to make their presence known.

Can you let me know what world they come from: art, music, business?
These guys are in the art world. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is to be considered a piece of art, first and foremost, so these are people in the art world.

Everyone’s focusing on the unique release method, but there hasn’t been much revealed about the music. What can fans expect?
All those questions, we’ll answer at the proper time because I don’t think it’s proper to dissect it. You don’t take the Mona Lisa and just cut off the head, cut off the eyes. You look at it as a single unit. The person who gets to own this or possess this, they don’t want nobody else wearing their shoes before they’re buying them. [Laughs.]

Have you been surprised at how people have reacted to it?
I can say I’m surprised, in a sense. I can’t really measure it because [the project] hasn’t really taken its proper course. It’s still on course. If we was headed to the moon, it’s a good takeoff and it looks like we’re going there, but we haven’t landed on the moon yet. If we’d landed on it, then we’d say it’s a successful mission, but at the same time, we have to get back to Earth. So it’s kind of in flight right now. It was a good launch and it looks like everything is healthy and we’ll see if it makes it all the way there and back.

The thing that bothers me a little bit, though — and I understand why, because I’m in the entertainment business, I’ve made a lot of money in this business, I’ve made a lot of black millionaires — is that I don’t like so much that the dollar makes the headline more than the art. Don’t talk to me about the value of the art that I bring into the world. Even when I did a $20 million movie [2013’s The Man With the Iron Fists], when I brought it back from China to Hollywood and showed it to my peers, they thought it was a $50 million movie because of the value of what I got and the input of the people involved put into it. I’m saying that the art of it is very subjective but the dollar value of it is less so. Art captures a period of time and that’s what makes [for example] the statue of David so valuable; it’s not only the person who did it. That was Da Vinci, right?

Yeah, pardon me. Michelangelo does the statue and makes it important, but it’s not important only because he did it, but also because of how long ago that he did it, the materials that he used to do it in. So, it’s a capture of time, a capture of art, a capture of inspiration. This is a similar situation here, and as time goes on … Even if you take a simple cassette. I know a fan that has a Protect Ya Neck cassette — he was offered two grand for it. There was only a few thousand of those made, [as] that was before Loud Records, our old record label, had it. And he has one, an original, and he wouldn’t sell it for two grand. He probably only paid $3 for it when he got it, but it means more to him than that. At the same time, when he showed it to me, it meant more to me than it did when I made it because I was like, “Wow, I don’t own one of those anymore.” And I’m the company that put it out! I don’t own one and this guy held onto it for 20 years, so he probably could’ve gotten five grand from the creator of it. Music is like that. There was a movie that came out recently, Captain America, and there’s a great scene that happened with Anthony Mackie when he tells Chris Evans to listen to the Marvin Gaye album Trouble Man and he’ll basically catch up on all the years that Captain America was asleep. He’s like, you’ll get a big chunk of it just listening to that one album, 20 or 30 years of information. He’s right. You listen to Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and things, you feel the pains of how people felt in the ’60s but you feel how it relates to what’s going on now. That’s just that power of music.

Anyway, let’s get into the movie a bit. I’m excited about this film. It’s called Brick Mansions. It has Paul Walker in it, a good buddy of mine and a great guy. It has David Belle, who’s called the father of Parkour, the French martial art that’s now become a world sensation, and this film will bring it to our shores. I’m in the film as well, playing a bad guy, Tremaine Alexander, which is a real cool role for me. I think I got some good laughs in there and some cool things. It’s a fun ride, yo.

Did you put much of your Brooklyn and Staten Island upbringing into the character?
I brought things from myself and people that I knew. I knew a guy similar to Tremaine, a guy named Dusty who was a tough drug dealer but he also had a smartness about him. He would push positivity onto the young people. When you think about me growing up versus now — I’m a vegetarian and I have a very humble nature, I hope — I’m not bringing the ruckus like that. [Laughs.] But being Tremaine, I was allowed to bring the ruckus, I promise you. That one scene where’s he like, “Time to strap up!” — I did it ten times in different ways, but the one that we kept, as you see in the trailer, is the one where I kind of held my dick like I was onstage saying, “Bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus!” When I seen it in the trailer, I was like, “Oh, that’s what the director wanted.” He wanted some of that rah-rah RZA to come out.

What was your relationship like with Paul Walker?
I could never exhaust myself talking about him because he was such a cool dude. I just looked forward to seeing him those days that he was on the set. He had this magnetism, he had this energy, and we had what they call a covalent bond. Some of the other actors in the movie are up-and-coming but we were already established, we probably both got mansions and also both had humble beginnings. The difference, one thing I didn’t have in common with him, is that I’m not into cars. A car is a necessity for me, but before I bought a car, I bought a beat machine. When we made a big deal, I bought another 100 Gs’ worth of music equipment. So that’s the thing I didn’t have in common with Paul, the love of cars.

You’re a big movie buff. Who are some of your favorite movie villains?
One of my illest villains was the Butcher from Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis. That movie and There Will Be Blood, both of those characters to me are an incredible, intense study of a villain. That dude was ridiculous. That movie Hellraiser 2, to me that was the most evilest display of evil I’ve ever seen. I watched that movie ten times because I couldn’t believe that each character became more evil than the other.

Is it more fun to play a villain?
It depends on the setting. Tremaine was fun but playing [American Gangster detective] Moses Jones was just as fun. We was bringing down Frank Lucas! I’ll never forget when the film was over and we was walking down the red carpet for the premiere. Denzel Washington comes up from behind me and says, “Hey, RZA, yo, the hood gonna be mad at you for bringing down Frank Lucas. Oh, the hood gonna be mad at you.” And I’m like, “What?! Wait a minute. I’m the good cop!” “Yeah, but you brought down Frank Lucas. Ain’t nobody gonna like that, RZA.” [Laughs.] That was a good one.

You’re also playing a cop in the new Fox show Gang Related. Between that and Moses, how would a young RZA react to older RZA playing cops?
He wouldn’t have saw that [coming] because I’ve been arrested 15 times, man. As a kid, I was naïve. One thing I did have a dream of, though, I had a dream I would make a kung-fu movie. I would walk to school every day dreaming of kung-fu movies. I’d be placing my face over the Chinese actor’s. After we’d watch a movie, we’d get on the train and play karate all the way home, so that was a personal dream that I was so glad I was allowed to live.

You acted in three movies and the TV show within the last year. How do you balance that with Wu-Tang?
I’m focused on creating art and whichever outlet it can get out in. The thing with Wu-Tang is that my art doesn’t only depend upon myself. With everything else you just named, the only thing to depend upon is myself. All I gotta do is show up. For Wu-Tang, I need everybody to show up and that’s the big challenge. But I’m pushing hard every day for that to happen. I’m pushing hard.

I can tell. Earlier today, you retweeted an article about you needing Raekwon to join up for the next Wu album.
Yeah, because it means a lot to me, and I think it means a lot to other people, too.

A lot of people who’ve never met you are really worrying about how you guys are getting along.
Wow. Well, let’s keep doing it, man. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

RZA on Brick Mansions, Wu Beefs, and Paul Walker