Founded by Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones, who died of heart failure after a drug overdose in 2004) and GZA (a.k.a. the Genius, born Gary Grice), the Clan never officially broke up, though it hasn't released a new studio album since 2001' "Iron Flag," and many fans assumed the group was through. But this summer, the Wu-Tang Clan has reunited to headline the Rock the Bells Tour, and it's gearing up for the November release of a new album called "8 Diagrams." I spoke with GZA shortly before the start of a jaunt that brings the crew to Northerly Island tonight.
Q. Let's start with the new album, GZA: What can you tell me about how "8 Diagrams" is coming together?
A. [Sighs] I don't know; you're gonna have to ask RZA that, because he's the producer. The last thing I remember was recording a track in the studio about a month and a half ago. I haven't even heard all of the songs, so it's a question I can't answer.
Q. Has anyone besides RZA heard the whole thing?
A. I don't know. RZA may have been the only one who was in there every day -- he produced the majority of the tracks, and he can probably tell you the vibe and who is on what track. For me, it was good to be in the studio, but I wasn't feeling what I felt when I was doing ["Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" in 1993]. It's a totally different energy right now: The drive and hunger is different, and the opinions are all scattered. The way we do songs is so different now; some of us didn't even do vocals in the studio. Some of us weren't there, some of us were. I may be on four or five songs, and we have maybe recorded 20.
I love being with the Clan, and I love being out on the road. I think Wu Tang is a very special group, and much different from any other group: We have a strong following, with different generations of fans. People love to see Wu-Tang, and I think even 10 years from now, we could still be on the road -- like the Rolling Stones or something.
Q. How does performing on your own differ from performing with the group?
A. To perform with Wu-Tang, there's a lot of energy on stage. I've always been one known to be laidback and in the back; I'm never really the one up front, and I don't speak much during the interviews as a whole. As a group, there is a lot of energy, and I give my best, but there's so much going on with the Clan: There are so many songs! I don't have to give as much as when I'm performing by myself. Sometimes I can have a 20-minute break; it might be 10 songs before you even hear me again! So I can fall back, go downstairs, get a water, wipe off the sweat and cool off. It allows that space because there are so many of us.
Q. That's one reason why it was interesting to see you perform your 1995 solo album "Liquid Swords" at the Pitchfork Music Festival last July. Did you enjoy that experience?
A. Yes, and I'm looking forward to doing it again. It was like breaking the ice, because I had never performed that album from front to back before. I liked it, but I had to deal with not have guest appearances, which makes it different, because I have a Clan member on that whole album on one song or another: Inspectah Deck is on there once; Ghostface Killah, twice, Raekwon, twice; RZA; Ol' Dirty Bastard; U-God. But the good thing I noticed that I didn't even realize until it was time to perform that day was that the first five or six songs are just me.
Q. Why do you think that album so deeply connects with people?
A. I can't really speak for the fans, but one thing you might say is that the album does have a theme. It has the skits; the way RZA put the whole thing together after he was inspired by that movie, "Shogun," and the album cover was great: It was an idea that came from a chess game I was playing back in 1992 with Masta Killa, and the game was over and the pieces were still on the board in the checkmate position. I started to sketch out the board just the way it was, making people out of the pieces. Most people don't even know to this day that it's a game of chess for that album cover.
When I came to Chicago in July, it had been a while since I'd heard that album; I didn't even know the order of it! So I started listening to it in the hotel like 20 minutes before I was getting calls from the lobby: "You've gotta go! You've gotta get on stage!" But I started listening to it and I went, "Damn! This is a strong album!"
Q. Are you hearing anything today that is taking hip-hop somewhere new?
A. I barely listen to hip-hop, unless it's something I can't really avoid. Hip-hop has taken such a drastic turn, but I'm liking what's coming out of Chicago: Common's stuff, Kanye West... The average street rapper may look at Kanye and go, "He's soft, he's not hood," but he's making good music! He's got good lyrics! I like Lupe [Fiasco], and I think he should be an example for these young dudes, because he has lyrics, can tell a great story and can capture you; he's not on the bull----, he's himself. That's the kind of music I like: When I sit down and write, I'm not afraid to be myself.