If the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco seems like an unorthodox venue for one of the world's most famous hip-hop producers to premiere a new song and fashion collection, you obviously don't know the Wu-Tang Clan.
Samples from kung-fu films like Shaolin and Wu Tang pepper the Wu-Tang Clan’s early albums, an outgrowth of group leader RZA’s adolescent obsession with martial arts. Over the years, however, the rapper, producer, and entrepreneur has immersed himself in Eastern philosophical and spiritual teachings, and has even traveled to the Shaolin Monastery — a Buddhist temple in Dengfeng, China — to become officially ordained as a disciple.
“My appreciation [of Asian culture] has evolved from being an outside admirer to being a historical studier to actually becoming, you could say, a member of it,” says RZA (a.k.a. Robert Diggs) when we sit down in the VIP room of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum on Thursday night.
Tonight, the museum is abuzz with hip-hop heads, fashionistas, and photographers anxious for the launch of RZA’s second fashion collection for 36 Chambers ALC, his nascent lifestyle brand and record label. In addition to its new line of limited edition jackets, t-shirts, and accessories -- available online and at the Asian Art Museum starting today -- 36 Chambers is also set to release Wu-Tang Clan’s next album, Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues, on Oct. 13.
The launch party’s attendees are the first to hear the collective’s new single, "Lessons Learn'd," which plays every hour on headphones available at the museum’s kiosks. In it, the group takes a clear attack on Martin Shkreli, the "pharma bro" who purchased the sole copy of Wu-Tang's last album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for $2 million — and who, while being sentenced this month to federal prison, unloaded it on eBay.
Museum attendees wear headphones, hearing the lyrics: "Hater / Wouldn’t last a day in my shoes / You know very well / Bet he swell / You can tell he jeal’ / My price hikin’ like the pills Martin Shkreli sell."
Before our talk is over, RZA talks about Shkreli and his eBay auction. But first: why the Asian Art Museum?
Last year, RZA's San Francisco-based business partner at 36 Chambers, Mustafa Shaikh, went to the museum on a date, and was immediately impressed by the Emperors’ Treasures exhibit of artifacts from the National Palace Museum in Taipei spanning the 12th through 20th centuries. When RZA was in town on tour, Shaikh brought him to the museum, and they began to conceptualize fashion designs based on Buddhist sutras, wax seals from calligraphic scrolls, and other artifacts from Emperor’s Treasures.
“When I got here, I wished I had more time,” says RZA. “I was really engaged. I was like a kid in a toy store.”
Fashion is by no means RZA's first foray into another creative field beyond hip-hop. His soundtrack work has appeared in various films and video games, including Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Soul Plane, and Afro Samurai. He’s also the author of two philosophy books, The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu, which combine teachings from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and more esoteric sects like the Five-Percent Nation. For RZA, fashion is simply the next step in his continuous creative evolution.
“I recognized early on that art is a wavelength, and that wavelength could be tuned to different forms of art,” he says. “If I become the instrument, I can let anything flow through me, like a trumpet. You can play jazz with it, you can play rock with it, you can play classical with it. You can play anything you want with it, it depends on the player. But if I become the instrument as well as the player — you know what I mean — then I can be both, and that’s what I think I’ve become.”
RZA recently returned to his roots with the new Wu-Tang album, handing off beat-making to DJ Mathematics (who, incidentally, created the original Wu-Tang logo) so that he could focus exclusively on rapping and post-production. On the new project, Mathematics channels the gritty, organic feel of RZA’s old-school piano loops, the foundation of Wu-Tang’s first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Even amidst the new album’s rollout, RZA says that he’s already itching to make more music. “Look, I love the studio. Sometimes when I’m not in it for a while and I get back in it, I wind up staying in it for a month,” he says. “I get stuck in it. I’m in a very musical mode right now, even today. I’m kind of fiending to make some music.”
RZA’s desire to push the envelope has made him no stranger to controversy — including the ongoing Martin Shkreli episode. To many fans’ ire, Wu-Tang’s last album, 2015’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, was auctioned off as a single copy for $2 million to the infamous pharmacy executive, who was recently convicted for fraud and awaits sentencing in a New York jail.
Many fans were perplexed by why Wu-Tang created an album intended for a single listener — let alone a man who raised the price of an AIDS drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill.
“Right here, we’re at the Asian Art Museum. Everything in here is singular,” RZA explains. “So the idea was that we were creating a piece of art, not something that could be mass-consumed. We also thought music was losing its value and we wanted to bring value back to it.”
Shkreli recently put the album up for sale on eBay. The auction appeared to close at just over $1 million, but the sale hasn’t been finalized since Shkreli is currently behind bars.
“Out of all the bad things they say [Shkreli's] done, he did one thing that was good, which was that he helped prove the theory of the value of music — even by him putting it on eBay, which I’m pretty pissed off about.”
Its unclear whether the world will ever hear Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, but after Wu-Tang drops their next album, The Saga Continues, RZA says the group will record one more final project. He doesn’t want to tour into old age like B.B. King, he jokes later during his artist talk with hip-hop historian Jeff Chang.
“I think everything a man does, as he lives longer, he should evolve," he tells me. "So I just keep evolving, and I’m ready for the next.”