When it comes to hip-hop producers, Wu-Tang Clan‘s RZA has always been among the most visionary and entrepreneurial of the bunch. Feeling the need to restore value to the artistry of music-makers in today’s era of disposable content and detached listeners, he released an album, of which only one copy was made, which resides in a vault in Marrakech, and reportedly received a $5 million purchase offer.
For the upcoming 20th anniversary Wu-Tang album, A Better Tomorrow, the man born Robert Diggs, who counts among his aliases the moniker Bobby Digital, has tapped into the technology stream to team with music lifestyle product-maker Boombotix to deliver a limited-edition special version of the album on a portable speaker platform. The Wu-edition Boombot Rex, which can play music files from any Bluetooth device, and packs a powerful punch for its small size, is decorated with the group’s ubiquitous “W” logo and has a production run of 3000. Each Wu-Boombot will be embedded with eight songs from A Better Tomorrow, two unavailable-on-album instrumentals, and an exclusive song, “Big Horn B,” in advance of the full-length release (which RZA says will be out by Black Friday). The product will only be sold by one retailer (Zumiez.com) nationwide; Boombotix execs say they are hoping to create a frenzy around the release equivalent to that of a new, limited-edition sneaker.
While this might seem like a ho-hum co-branding product announcement on the surface, RZA sees it as much more: a way to jump-start a moribund music market and offset the damage done by bootleggers and illegal downloaders with a unique content delivery system which combines music, technology and an on-the-go lifestyle.
The day after a sold-out, off-the chain performance by the Wu-Tang Clan — including Raekwon — at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, I have brunch with RZA, who’s accompanied by Boombotix founder Leif Storer and VP of marketing Mustafa Shaikh. While casually munching on avocado toast, the Clan’s abbot switches on a Wu-branded Boombot Rex, presses a button to enter “chamber” mode, and the familiar intro to “Tears” emanates throughout the restaurant. RZA then proceeds to run down the story behind the album’s making and its title, and why he believes the Boombot is a potential game-changer for the music industry.
I was out in the audience last night looking at the crowd, and there were 19- and 20-year-olds who knew every word to the classic Wu material.
Young people, yeah. This is a blessing. Music is supposed to transcend generations, and good music has, or unique music. Good music and unique albums and unique bands always seem to permeate and transcend generations. The Beatles, we’re still checking them out… Wu-Tang, I remember [when] Steve Rifkin told us, “You guys are the f—ing rap Beatles!” That’s how he felt about the band he signed. As years [went] on, he changed it: Pink Floyd! Now he’s talking about the Rolling Stones. Either way it goes, he sees the uniqueness and the longevity of this band because it’s unique, especially from the genre that it comes from.
So tell me about the 20th-anniversary album.
It’s called A Better Tomorrow. The full-length album should be available by Black Friday. It’s a record to me that merges the way music was made in the classic essence, in an analog way. As well as merging what’s going down the digital way. All the entire 10 Clan members are on it. All the [living] members, which is a beautiful thing. And the album has a small concept in a sense, musically it travels from a guy who is going through difficulties, tries to find himself, gets involved with some violence, some troubles, but then realizes that it’s best sometimes to walk away from the past and all the bad times and maybe work on making his life better, and making a better tomorrow. The process of making this album was very unique for me. I started first in my home studio in L.A., then I went to my buddy Adrian Younge and I went to his basement in Southern California where he has all this old ’60s equipment that he be using.
Tube amps and all that?
Yeah. So then from there, I went to Memphis. And I recorded a lot of songs with the same guys who played on a lot of Isaac Hayes music and all the Stax, Hi, Willie Mitchell records. I recorded at Willie Mitchell’s studio, with his son Boone Mitchell, using some of the same old equipment that made “Love and Happiness.” The records for me that I used to sample, now that I’m a composer, I can write my own music and then go to these musicians and have them play it. So it sounds like a bunch of samples but it’s not; it’s all music written by the RZA. So then from there I went to Europe, and dropping by some studios out there, Power Play, you know, different countries. This process has traveled across different countries. And then we brought it all the way back to 36 Chambers East, which is where we recorded most of Wu-Tang Forever. I recorded the final songs and vocals there, and then to mix it, I came back to California, where we mixed Wu-Tang Forever and a lot of process there. So this record has traveled, it’s been in different studios, different musicians have touched it. It took over 18 months.
So the title is a reference to the John Woo film, right?
No, I wouldn’t say that it’s a reference to the John Woo film in the sense that, even though that’s a John Woo title… John Woo has always been an inspiration to me. But it wasn’t just in reference to that film, because that film is actually a very violent film, very specific about the police corruption and things of that nature. My concept of a better tomorrow, moreso, is what the sentence says itself. We need a better tomorrow. I’m a vegetarian. Why? Because no animal needs to die for me to live. I’m into renewable energy, I’m into getting rid of the plastic bottles and coming with another form of drinking our water. I’m into the people respecting each other. We don’t got to like each other but respect each other for everything you are, whether you’re black, brown, white or red, homosexual, woman, whatever it is. We gotta have respect for each other first.
It’s interesting, because what you’re saying is basically the concept of redemption. Like whatever you’ve gone through, maybe you were a violent individual in the past, there’s that hope that tomorrow you might be peaceful. So I think you’re on to something.
I have a manifesto that I put out that will be included in the album package. It says man has always been on a quest, a quest for fire. To conquer the seas with great ships, to conquer the air with great planes. To reach out of the atmosphere with space shuttles. So we’ve always been striving for a better tomorrow. And Wu-Tang, throughout music, I’m aiming to inspire a better tomorrow, to other people, know what I mean? … Don’t get me wrong, someone will get punched in the face on this album. But where it’s taking you, there’s a song on the album, one of my favorites, called “Never Let Go.” U-God has a lyric: “Never let go of your dreams, never let go of your hope/When you’re in jail, never let go of the soap.”
It’s pragmatic. Anyway, Wu-Tang lyrics are like that. We always got all these angles. GZA said, “Never let go of your mind, it’s a terrible thing to waste but it’s difficult to find.” When you hear these lyrics, you’ll be inspired. That particular song starts out with Dr. King speaking. Hopefully everybody’ll be cool with it. But he says one thing that’s important. At the end of the song, he says it is evident that our white brothers and sisters who are here with us now, that our freedom and our advancement is integrally tied to their advancement. I can’t say it like Martin says it, but we know that, yo, our growth, as a country, is connected. You can’t be downtrodden and he’s uptrodden and the country grows. You can’t be free and I’m oppressed and the country grows. No. The country won’t grow unless we all rise. Because we’re a small portion of this planet. You take America, just America alone, at most they say it’s 400 million people. What’s 400 million to 7 billion? All right? We’re highly outnumbered, OK? … In order for this new civilization to go on for 1,000 years, 2,000 years like Europe, China, Africa, it has to go in a way that is beneficial to ourselves.
How did you come up with the idea of delivering content through Boombotix?
I had the idea pop up into my head, for a while, about music being kind of disconnected to us. Of being so digitized and accessible, but yet not tangible. I just remember how I enjoyed music, when I bought the record, or bought the CD, or bought the cassette. I bought it, it was in my hands, it was mines. I felt like music wasn’t really ours anymore. You know what happened to me one day? I got a lot of songs I bought from iTunes. And then, I tried to play them on my Serato. But because it was in my purchase section, it wouldn’t show up in my Serato library. … That bummed me out. I paid for it but don’t really have access to it. Something about that don’t make no sense, you know what I mean? But this thing here, a tangible item, like your old Walkman or your old cassette, or your old record, that’s what this is bringing back. As far as this company Boombotix, there’s a few people reaching out to us: “Put your Wu logo on this.” But something about this company resonated. I think the ruggedness. Also, their device is more geared to portability. Put it on your bookbag, or strap it on your belt. And so, I felt so cool about that.
That fit the brand.
Yeah, it fit what Wu is about. So then I was like, “Yo, let’s have a talk, guys, let me tell you what I’m thinking about. It’s not [just] about stamping my logo on top of your device, I wanna embed our music into the device.” When someone buys the device, whether they got a phone, whether they got nothing, they have this album. This now becomes part of their collection… You can’t download it, you can’t send it to your buddy, it’s personal. But a group of people can enjoy it at the same time, like a boombox … Artists been trying to find a way to protect their music for a long time. This is also a layer of protection.
That was pretty important to you, right?
Very important, because we’ve come into a time when music is unprotected, really… but at the same time, to make an album, to make a record… one day in the studio is $1,000. So let’s say it takes them 30 days in the studio, that’s 30 grand. At least. Mastering is 2 grand a day. It takes you three days to master your album. At minimum, you gonna pay 35, 40, 50 grand if you don’t pay nobody. That’s the cost of a professionally made album. Some people go in, make it on their laptops and do all that shit. It’s not the same. When you hear this album, you’ll hear that this album could not have been made on no damn laptop. Straight up. First of all, you won’t get Teenie Hodges, Lester Snell, and the Memphis Horns. They’re not in your laptop. You gotta go to Memphis for that. Which I did. So anyway, when you put all this work into it … I had a problem with everybody getting their phones and everyone getting their headphones, the headphones cost 300 dollars, the phone cost 600 bucks, and they won’t pay 10 dollars for the music. What’s the use of the headphones without the music?
What this does also for the music industry is that they have different outlets for their music product. An artist who wouldn’t traditionally be located in Zumiez or a cycling outlet now has another outlet. The brick and mortar idea of music is gone. This puts it back in, in its own way. So I think this is revolutionary.