In typically striking terms, this is how the mercurial Wu-Tang capo and artistic polymath, RZA, describes the live shows for his latest album, a collaboration with Interpol frontman Paul Banks, as we meet aboard their tour bus outside London venue XOYO.
“Awakening the aspect of playing and performing at the same time; I think there’s something cool about that. I’m on the keyboard, and I gotta buss a few raps here and there,” he tells me, with disarming self deprecation. “And I gotta control that pinky finger,” he adds, laughing.
Banks, meanwhile, enthuses about the fun they’re having taking the album to crowds across the US and overseas. Both, it seems, have been energised by their time together; the three years spent recording the album, Anything But Words, and the months since it was released in August.
Some of the accompanying artwork, which includes an image of a dagger running through a set of brass knuckles, is symbolic of the complementary skills they bring to the table. “We were sort of looking at it as assassins for hire,” explains Banks. “You got a problem; we’re gonna solve it. And also a little bit of a pick your poison.”
“Exactly, you won’t make it out – that’s the fact of the matter. And if you put it in an entertainment way: you will be entertained,” adds RZA, with a smile.
But, while the record is clearly intended to be enjoyable, the rapper also likens its subject matter to the title of KRS-One’s 1990 album, ‘Edutainment’: “I mention the things that is happening when it came to the environment – with fracking soil, with knocking down rainforests. It’s like if you go grocery shopping, and you buy a month’s worth of food and you eat it in a week – you got a problem. And that’s kinda what we’re doing, we’re using our resources at a faster rate of them being able to be produced. I just think we should be conscious of that.”
The recent passing of Leonard Cohen, a major influence on both RZA and Banks, has brought the emotional and political potency of their craft into sharp focus: “Leonard Cohen is definitely somebody that, you know, in the physical world, is a great loss to us,” RZA says. “A very unique, powerful songwriter and lyricist. Even up to just a few days before he passed, I was turning somebody else on to Leonard Cohen, y’know what I mean? His musicality, his lyrics – you come to my studio, I’m gonna play you a Leonard Cohen song to give you some inspiration of context, of lyrics, of what a lyric can do. Of what a lyric can invoke in one sentence. So a great loss, I just wanna say that out loud, I’m gonna miss him. But the beautiful thing is he left a lot of songs for us to continue to research, resonate, listen to, enjoy... and be entertained by.”
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Banks, too, has a keen ear for the dynamic energy of lyrics: “I’ll do a song where it means five things to me and I don’t care to ever really put my finger on what I’m trying to say. But in this collaboration I think it was sort of important that we tell some stories. I was using the analogy – you know those drawings where if you look at it from one side it’s a face, and then you look at it again, and you see all of a sudden, no actually it’s like a fuckin woman pushing a cart – I like lyrics like that. We did our song ‘Giant’, which I think can almost play as kind of patriotic at times, or like a sports theme – like let’s go kick some ass – but you listen a little more deeply, especially to what RZA’s saying, and there’s some subversive things happening. There’s different ways that you can look at the message.”
The political dimension of this duality is an aspect of the album that both artists are conscious of: “The pay off of capitalism for instance,” Banks continues. “You can’t just make these giant buildings without making a giant fucking hole in the ground, or a lot of fallen trees. So there’s a different couple of ways to see things.”
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I’m past what somebody thinks of me...
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And while both are forceful in their assertion that they have felt free from attempts to categorise them musically for a while, it is a state that has perhaps been enhanced even further by their experimentation on this record.
“I’m past what somebody thinks of me,” RZA tells me. “I don’t know if that’s from maturity, or just from consciousness, but I can honestly say, you know, the opinion of somebody towards me, if you’re not one of my loved ones – I would never want my children to look at me as some sort of weirdo – other than that, my wife and my children, I’m not really taking somebody’s view of me to my heart. Because I know that there’s only one of me, and what I’m doing is what I’m doing. If you digging it you digging it. If you don’t dig it, turn the channel and find somebody else.”
As happens many times throughout our conversation, he uses an analogy to make his point: “You know, if you wanna watch a movie, if you got to your hotel, and you got the whole thing there – they got comedy, they got action... adult. You know, choose what you wanna choose kid, aight? If you choosin adult films, you might not find me in that category. You find some drama, you may find me in that category. So in a nutshell, I’m very comfortable with myself. What I’m doing now, is what I’m doing now, and you don’t have to like it. It’s like my high school girlfriend don’t have to like me now; I got other chicks liking me.”
“But I feel like you got some of that rapping style on this record,” Banks says, in response to RZA’s citing of Wu-Tang affiliate Cilvaringz preference for a more aggressive style.
“He’s more of a Gravedigger. He wants young, high, that’s his favourite RZA. But that’s his favourite RZA, y’know what I mean?”
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We’re still on the upswing.
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And there is no doubt that the RZA heard on this album isn’t going anywhere any time soon: “You never know when we’re gonna win you over, but I think, because we’re good songwriters, good musicians, and have a nice travel of the world, I think that there’s something in our music that’s gonna resonate with you. And if it doesn’t resonate with you today or this year, it’ll get you another time.”
“I think you get better at what you do. We’re still on the upswing,” adds Banks.
“Yeah we’re still on the up, and I think that it can only get better because, knowing each other more, knowing the vibe of what our synergy brings to the listener, gives us a stronger point of reference,” RZA elaborates. “Before we definitely started in a vacuum, and we was comfortable in that vacuum, but now we are not starting in a vacuum. We’re actually starting with possibilities of what something can be.”
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This vacuum, as RZA describes it, is one which has become increasingly pierced by the hyper-connectivity of the modern age, though he concedes that in his early years it was a context which limited his exposure to music.
“In the beginning I was just hip-hop – fuck everything else. Everything else was trash to me and got me nauseated. But I think around the year 2000 a part of evolution popped into me and I just realised music is music. And it came because, when Wu-Tang was touring, we went from 1993 playing in front of the hood audiences, and guys that would beat the club up and gangstas and all that shit, y’know what I mean, to, by the time we got to ‘Wu-Tang Forever’, we playin' in places like Arizona, where you got blacks, Latins, Asian, white brothers, Native Americans – all puttin' their Ws up. And I just realised that wow, I probably had it wrong in the early days. Music is so universal.”
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In the beginning I was just hip-hop – fuck everything else.
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The intermeshing of genre, however, was something that Banks was attuned to from a young age, having been raised on a broad cultural diet: “All my friends growing up, being into music, you kind of you know about television and you know about Kool Keith and Wu-Tang. My friends listened to both genres, I just feel like maybe this is the first generation where you don’t even have to think about bringing those things together. I mean you have to think about making it not suck, because those things, they’re very different things. But if you grew up listening to all different kinds of music then I don’t feel like it’s that much of a stretch. I mean hip-hop has effected the mainstream super much...”
“You grew through that,” RZA interjects. “So that answers our question there – the time is ripe for a merging of what they call genres.” It is a development that he has clearly observed with relish: “It’s just music, yo. And I think this generation is probably the ultimate expression of it. There’s a festival that Odd Future put on in LA, they did it last week. 70,000 kids show up.”
“And equal amount of diversity. Equal amount of Asians, equal amount of blacks, equal amount of whites, equal amount of Latins. And I think our country’s becoming like that, that’s why they so adamant of how they reacting to the political landscape. Music has that power, yo. It’s done it in the 70s in it’s own way and now I think you really feeling it more now. So Banks and Steelz is on time, what we’re doing.” Since we’ve touched on the diversity of the contemporary cultural landscape of America, and the bonds it has created, I mention the final verse of ‘Giant,’ in which RZA quotes the 13 letter motto of the United States – a Latin phrase that appears on its Great Seal – E pluribus unum. It translates as Out of many, one. This, Clash suggests, is the essence of the Wu-Tang Clan’s marriage of distinct voices into a single, recognisable sound, and applies equally to Anything But Words.
“That’s right, that’s right. Two becomes one. And that’s what we’ve done – taken his elements, taken my elements and put it together as one,” RZA says, pointing at his partner, before expanding to take in a wider, social context. “If we all agree that this is our value, then this is our value. And if we don’t all agree that this is our value and yet this becomes our value, it still becomes your value, so that’s what I feel about it.”
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It’s just music, yo. And I think this generation is probably the ultimate expression of it.
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This realisation, he explains, dates back to the late 90s: “At the beginning, the ‘u’ in Wu-Tang was for unpredictable. But then, after 1997, the ‘u’ became universal, y’know what I mean. And I’ve learned this recently, talking to a Catholic priest who happened to take the time to sit down and give me half hour of his time, that catholic means universal. The original word, the Holy Catholic Church, means the holy, which is something that is not diluted or tampered with, universal, church of God.”
He smiles contemplatively, leaving the meaning of this anecdote to sink in for a moment. And as I leave, I’m buoyed by the fact that, after a heavily unpredictable year, RZA it seems, at least, is optimistic that music, be it hip-hop, or one of its many, fluid iterations, still has the power to overcome the divisive forces so prevalent of late. From a musical perspective, though, this duo still have some tricks up their sleeve.
“We’re the unpredictable,” says Banks, in a reference that could just as easily apply to this project, as it does to Wu-Tang.
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Banks & Steelz new album 'Anything But Words' is out now.
Words: Alex McFadyen