On November 13, 2004, a jolt of anguish ran through the hip-hop nation: Russell Jones was dead. The rapper known as Ol' Dirty Bastard (but also Ason Unique, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, etc.), one of the most beloved members of Wu-Tang Clan, was found dead in Wu-Tang's Manhattan recording studio two days before his 36th birthday. In not-unusual rock-star fashion, ODB had overdosed on cocaine and pills.
The overall mood of fans and of the music world in general: How could this happen? ODB was the grand master of the Wu-Tang Clan. "I rip the strings off Hendrix guitar," he once spat. "Oooh baby, I like it raw!" How can anyone forget the time he interrupted the Grammy Awards to tell us all the truth, that Wu-Tang is for the kids? Or that time he went to the welfare office in a limo to get his food stamps? Wu-Tang Clan was wounded, but continued, announcing last year that they were reuniting for a new studio album, 8 Diagrams.
I spoke with Wu-Tang's founder, RZA, in August 2007 in advance of the group's local appearance at the Rock the Bells festival. At the time, he was excited about "ushering in a new era of hip-hop" with 8 Diagrams. He was particularly proud of the group's reworking of the Beatles song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (now titled "The Heart Gently Weeps"), featuring Erykah Badu singing backup and George Harrison's son, Dhani, playing guitar.
The other centerpiece of the disc, which was released in December, was "Life Changes," a collective eulogy for ODB. With that track, and with ODB's 16-year-old son performing with the group during that summer tour, it seemed like grief might be a new unifying force for the famously fractious group. But since the release of 8 Diagrams, there has been nothing but turmoil among the eight remaining members. Ghostface Killah, especially, was so displeased with the album's production that he publicly denounced RZA as a "hip-hop hippie" and tried to release his own solo album, Big Doe Rehab, on the same date as 8 Diagrams. He decided to push the album back a week, but the internal rift was obvious.
Two weeks ago, just before I was set to interview the group again regarding its headlining appearance in Miami this weekend, I was informed that RZA had suddenly dropped off the tour. As their tour bus rolled into Virginia, Raekwon and Ghostface each picked up the phone to analyze the group's winter discontent.
New Times: What's up, Raekwon?
Raekwon: What's the deal?
Here in South Florida, we know about the Cuban Linx.
Ha ha ha. If you don't know about it, then you ain't representing real hip-hop. Word up. What's good, baby?
What's up with the current Wu-Tang situation? Word is that RZA is not on the tour.
Well, you know, we having some technical difficulty in the family, but the crew's just gotta hold it together. Right now, the issue is with RZA. We're not feeling him right now; ain't no love in the building. But as a respect for the Abbott and knowing who he is, we deeply respect him. But by the same token, it's like if you the president and we the Congress and we feeling like your moves ain't being conducted right... You trying to act like everything is sweet when you know it ain't.
There's a lot of money issues going around. It ain't being done fairly. We've been doing this too long. We in the books as legends, and you have to respect that. If you don't respect that, it's gonna be hell right now. By the same token, we out here promoting our album. The crew is all here, except RZA, and that's by choice, not by decision. It is what it is. We grown. I'm just giving it to you raw.
It's a big thing, but it ain't a big thing. I did shows where four guys were missing. RZA is still there in the heart, just not the physical. When we don't connect as a team, it becomes a problem. At the end of the day, it's all about growth and development with hip-hop. It ain't about trying to conquer what you did already. My whole philosophy is, just grow with the music. Know that Wu-Tang is an authentic group. Know that we are versatile all the time. Even with this new album... it might not be one of our favorite Wu-Tang albums, because it definitely ain't.
It's not that bad.
When we have beats in our face, it's murder music on top. You know what I mean? It ain't a wack album. The tempo is cool, but it ain't what we normally do. The production was based on RZA's ideology. He wanted to go with it, without us all agreeing. We still did the work, because we gave him the benefit of the doubt. If we are all not feeling the same texture and the same vibe, then it becomes a problem.
He couldn't really make us happy at the end of the day. He did not want to participate in the tour. We already knew that. Don't get me wrong; it hurts. But it's all about respect. You have to respect your brother like you respect yourself, and we have to work as a team. If we can't do that and we acting like bitches — excuse my language — that ain't what it's about. Before I have to strike my brother, I'm just gonna keep my distance. I think that's what he's doing right now.
The way I'm giving it to you, on a scale of one to ten, I'm only giving you a three. I don't like advocating our problems like this. I don't get a kick outta that. But at the same time, I'm a grown man with a family. And it ain't just me, so I don't feel like I'm snitching. Niggas are just being men, and we care about each other. Today, I may be mad; tomorrow, I may be a little cool with things. At the end of the day, it's always gonna be Wu-Tang forever in my book. I'm gonna rep it till the death, he gonna rep it till the death, the Clan gonna rep it till the death. Respect plays a major part in our success, man.
Well, let's change the subject. ODB's son went on tour with you last time....
Yes, sir. We love little ODB. School is the most important thing for him right now. He is still young, and he has a lot to learn. We all feel that before he can be out here with us, he's gotta get that education, boy. You gotta make your mother happy. You wanna talk to Ghost?
That would be great.
Ghostface Killah: One two. One two.
Yeah. Listen, Raekwon just told you everything. It is what it is. RZA's darkness will come to the light. We can't let one person fuck everything up for us. We came too far, and we are already in too deep.
How has Wu-Tang been for you without ODB?
It's fucked-up. You know what I mean? Somebody you grew up with is missing. You got the Big Doe Rehab or what?
The album you just put out?
Who the fuck am I talking to? You don't even know my fucking album?
It came out the same day as 8 Diagrams.
I'm getting off the phone. Fuck this nigga.