By Michael Cerio
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — At this point you wouldn’t think anything shakes RZA, the leader of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan who has built an empire from the “Slums Of Shaolin” to the speakers and screens of Hollywood. Today though, he’s a little nervous.
“This is going to be pretty nerve-wracking” he laughs over the phone from New York.
He’s talking about his appearance at this weekend’s Made In America festival in Philadelphia, sharing the stage with artists like Rihanna and Coldplay for a two-day party on the Parkway. It will be one of the first trips out of the gate for RZA away from familiar friends in Wu-Tang and with his latest project Banks & Steelz – a rap-rock fused outfit featuring Paul Banks of the indie darling band Interpol.
“Being a part of Wu-Tang of course, I’ve made my mark – and Paul being part of Interpol has made his mark – but together playing this music that’s relatively new to such a unique crowd of fans, it’s very nerve-wracking but it’s also very exciting” explains RZA. “My adrenaline is anxious, I have an anxious adrenaline.”
“Paul is a rock musician, so he’s really really comfortable, and it’s me who has to get comfortable with playing my instrument while I rap” he continues. “Can you name a couple of hip hop artists that actually play an instrument while they rap?”
“Yeah, exactly. So here I am.”
Bigger than any nerves is RZA’s excitement for this latest chapter in an outstanding career, one which he feels is still growing and evolving as he gets comfortable being a musician. Banks & Steelz debut album Anything But Words shows that, seeing shades of the artist that haven’t always been at the forefront.
“I think I got more growing to do, more evolving to do. I’m not done with my artistic expression, and I’m not done with the way I see hip hop integrating itself in the fabric of music history.”
As RZA pushes new boundaries for himself, hip hop seems in danger of homogenization. Bigger than ever, it’s a global force that has gone beyond integration in to culture and on to domination, yet sonically speaking the production of a few top-line producers seems to have created a basic beat blueprint that some see as a disservice to everyone.
“The problem I do have now, as a listener, is it’s getting very hard to discern who’s who” says RZA after a lengthy talk about the phases of hip hop. “I think that’s a detriment to the hip hop culture.”
“If you look at from Tribe Called Quest to Ice Cube, or Scarface and The Ghetto Boys or you came back to Philadelphia with The Roots, Wu-Tang, Biggie, Nas, Tupac, Outkast – whether it was a group or solo you had very distinguishable people. They were distinguishable not only in flow, rhythm, delivery, production, even in look. Some of these kids look alike even” he laughs.
The good news according to RZA is that hip hop remains a ladder to success and a source of inspiration. The bad news is hip hop is a well, and when it runs dry there’s nothing to draw from.
“Somebody should be smart enough to go and dig another well, using a new formula, so that the next generation can have more to draw from.”
Banks & Steelz take the main stage at Made In America on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. To hear much more from RZA on their new album and the state of hip hop, check out the full interview below.