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The last time I saw RZA in person, he was nursing a massive hangover: the result of a long night out in New York City, not to mention too much tequila. So when the Abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan—and, of course, the extended Wu multiverse—FaceTimes me from Los Angeles with his camera turned off, I joke that maybe he’s worse for wear again.
“Nah,” he reassures me. “During the pandemic I had a setup to do all the Zooms I have to do, with the right frame and all that crap like that. But [since] we go back, I called you from my phone, and if you don’t care, I’ll just say peace.”
And with that, RZA flips on his camera. Framed by the warm glow of the Cali sun, he looks just as he should: like an all-knowing hip-hop shaman. Our conversation precedes the third and final season of Wu-Tang: An American Saga, premiering Wednesday on Hulu on. If Season 1 was the origin story of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the second season was built around the explosion of creativity around the time of the Clan’s breakout 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, this third season digs into the trials and tribulations that childhood friends encounter when all their dreams finally come true.
But while there’s the usual mix of autobiographical storytelling and mythmaking as only Wu-Tang can do it, Season 3 also stands apart creatively, featuring a trio of allegorical mini-movies that dive into three key moments in the group’s individual careers. There’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard finding his voice for his debut album, in a ’70s Blaxploitation-inspired story; Raekwon and Ghostface exploring the ’90s gangster crime genre for the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…; and GZA’s hero’s quest in a post-apocalyptic NYC as he attempts to unite the Clan on his album Liquid Swords, in the style of the Saturday afternoon kung fu features they grew up on.
Below, RZA takes us behind the scenes of the making of Wu-Tang: An American Saga, reflects on his cousin ODB, and talks about what he hopes viewers will take away from the final season of Wu’s on-screen story.
I’ve followed this show from the beginning, but I knew the story. I’ve talked to more casual fans, and I think what they loved is that it gave them not just the history of the Wu-Tang Clan, but also what was going on culturally in New York City, and in hip-hop generally. For them, I think they’ll love to see, in Season 3, what happens to people when they get a taste of fame. Challenges come up; conflicts come up. Had you thought out the arc of the story and how you wanted to approach it, or is it just the way it happened?
We wanted to do it the way we did it. The only thing is, when you do a TV show, you never know if you’re going to come back for a second season, right? So we made sure, no matter how we did it, each season had a completion. It’s hard to win in life. We wanted to show that. But for the third season—and it was fortunate that Hulu was like, “OK, we’re going to go again, guys, but this’ll be the last time we go”—we knew we’d be coming to an end. And to be honest with you, making television is not easy. It’s an intense job. It’s been the hardest job of my life, and I’ve dedicated five years to it. But I’ve gotten better at it, too, so one thing you’ll get in this season is that we actually were able to take some things that happened after 1997 and put them into context in the philosophy and the themes of this season. And I think that’s fortunate because the process of success—and then the disparage, discontent, disbelief that happens—even though hopefully it doesn’t happen in two or three years, it happens. And we wanted to show that. I think the audience will see it, both the good and bad, and realize that, “Yo, hold on. This is a potential path for my life.”
In Episode 5 you deal with some of the members that aren’t household names. I thought that was really crucial to the arc of the story; that everybody gets their due. Talk to me a little about that choice as an executive producer, but also as a storyteller.
Yeah, you know, some of the Wu-Tang members are unsung. You don’t recognize that when you see the whole picture, or the whole outfit. But Masta Killa, U-God are crucial. And especially Inspectah Deck, who, if anybody is an unsung hero of Wu-Tang, it’s Inspectah Deck. But he seems to be overlooked. And even if he’s not overlooked by the diehard fans, he definitely always felt overlooked by his brothers. We did an interview one day and someone was like, “What? You? We love you.” And he didn’t know how much love he got.
So in the writers room, and especially for me and my partner Alex Tse, we knew that the beauty in telling this story in this way is that, at any given time, we could turn the lens in another direction. And by being able to turn the lens in another direction, we could give the audience something that they definitely do not know. So we decided to let people know that, yo, it’s not all glitz and glory, man. Real life happens every day to us. And it’s painful. And how we handle it is going to determine the full outcome of our lives. So, that episode, Episode 5, what I’m hoping it does is that it rekindles what viewers felt in Season 1 for U-God, when his son gets shot and he has to wrestle with that. I think Episode 5 is, like, give them a track from Season 1.
Seven of the episodes this season are traditional storytelling, but three of them are allegorical films, which I think are really crucial to giving people the broader picture of the story of the Wu-Tang Clan. And they also allow you to jump forward and backward and give more context. That’s my take. But why did you want to do those three episodes that way?
Well, two reasons. One was because, even though this is classified as an autobiographical series, it still comes from the Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang family and the Wu-Tang form of art. That form of art expands the imagination. Let’s be blunt about it. You get these risks as an artist. Jules Verne was writing about submarines before there were submarines. Sometimes, as an artist, you get to put your wildest ideas in your work. We played with that a little bit in Season 1, where we had the shaolin kung fu scene [in Episode 9], or when we went into the mind of the wizard creating the music [in Episode 6]. So in this season, it was like, yo, we could actually take this one step further. And by doing that, we could suspend time. I read a book by Sidney Lumet a few years back and he mentioned that one of the biggest powers of film is the ability to control time. So you can see a guy wake up in the morning, brush his teeth, get in the car, get to work, and argue with his boss in one minute. So with that as the concept, and for me as a writer, we could play. We could take the Liquid Swords album, or the Return to the 36 Chambers album, or ODB’s album, and continue the story that we were telling so we didn’t break the thread of the story, but also glimpse into the future of things.
For me, the difference between Season 1 and Season 3 is the difference between 36 Chambers and Liquid Swords. In other words, with 36 Chambers, you were trying to make a real statement. By the time of Liquid Swords, it was full-on artistry. The storytelling in this season has advanced in a way that is more self-assured, and it’s more expansive. Episode 8 in particular feels very confident. It feels as though you’ve got a message you want to share, not just to older fans, but to younger people out there. Talk a little bit about what you were trying to achieve with Episode 8, because it’s everything I think most old-school Wu-Tang fans ever wanted from this series.
Well, we assign writers to every episode. That’s how we do it in our room. And I was going to write Episode 3 at first—ODB’s allegorical film—because he means so much to me. So I said, “I’m going to do 3 and 8.” But then I decided, “No, I’ll pass 3, so I can focus on 8.” But I would say that your observation is correct in the aspect of the maturity and confidence in what I’m doing. When you enter a karate class, you first have a basic stance. You could be strong, but you can’t break a brick. It’s going to take time before you break a brick. I feel like I can break a brick now in the art of storytelling. Season 1, “Are you going to direct?” No, I’m not going to direct. Season 2, “Are you going to direct?” No, I’m not going to direct. Season 3? Yeah, I’m going to direct something. And I’m going to offer something.
What I wanted to do was give a point of view—and take a lot of things that I think Wu-Tang say in our lyrics, a lot of things that us as young men and then as adults have to think about in the artistic world, in the creative world, in the industry—and tell it in a way that aligns with the story of Wu-Tang, but that also could be any man’s journey. And I’m going to be honest with you, too: I’m waiting to hear how the fans respond to these episodes. Because I think they are a very brave, unusual thing to do. Especially for the Wu-Tang part, we’re the ones always saying, “Keep it real, keep it real.” And I can argue we are keeping it real, but we definitely step into the allegorical. And I’m so curious to see how fans react.
There’s so many references to the movies you and I grew up with as kids, plus the storytelling devices from the Saturday afternoon kung fu flicks we both love. If you’d only dropped one episode this year, that would be the one I would’ve wanted.
That’s cool. Well, let me ask you this, man, of course you caught the Walter Hill reference, but did you catch the spoof on Planet of the Apes? Because I’ve never forgotten in Planet of the Apes when the guy was sitting there talking all that shit and all that false religion, but he had a fucking nuclear missile!
You’re talking about Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Yeah! That affected me as a kid so much. So referencing that was important to me to include.
See, I think the allegorical episodes are going to introduce the younger people watching it to the broader ideas of Wu-Tang. Standing together, you’re greater as a whole. While that comes out in the individual episodes, it’s the allegorical episodes that really drive that home. There’s a moment where everybody’s going their separate ways. To me, that’s the heartbreaking part of the Wu-Tang story—the promise of Wu-Tang has always been bigger if you can keep it together. But that’s also an impossible task. And I think the thing that struck me this season was—and you know, it’s your story as much as it’s the Wu-Tang story—the pressure on you as the producer, as the guy coming up with the beats, the guy driving the train, the Abbot. Everybody else has their role, but somebody’s got to be the leader. Nobody wants that job, but somebody’s got to do it.
It’s not a great job [laughs]. The heartbreak of it all. You know the story, so it resonates with you, but I do hope that the audience sees the heartbreak of it all. Because heartbreaks are always present. As men, in this so-called alpha position that a hip-hop artist has to uphold, it seems that he’s invulnerable to heartbreak. Nobody is. I’ve been continually heartbroken. But I would say that I also continually got up and fought again. It won’t stop me.
There’s a word that I think I’m pushing now, for this year, and I’m going to put it out in energy. And the word is determination. And I mean not like the short-term—you’re going to take a picture, you’re going to post it, you’re going to get your likes, that’s going to be instant gratification. I’m talking about the determination of spending four years on a subject to master it, to be one of the best at it, to then break into the world and make the world better in that field. Determination is leaving us; leaving our country, leaving our schools, leaving our youth. It’s even leaving our artists. But if you look at an artist like H.E.R., you’ve gotta give her two hats off. You could tell that she was determined to be who she is. We need to get that sort of ideal to our youth. That’s my mission now.
So what do you do next, as Wu-Tang or RZA, to keep the conversation going? Because this season is very much about the culture wars, although from a completely different point of view—showing them in a way that a lot of people who are going to watch this never think about.
Well, let’s use this analogy: I hope, as an artist, that my paintings are not only putting the questions out there and inspiring conversation; I hope that they inspire an answer. So, I’ll keep doing what I can to do that. Be an answer, bro. That’s what we do.