When Magnus Carlsen reached across the chess board last month to shake the hand of Fabiano Caruana, he did so as world chess champion. Again. Still. It’s a title the greatest living player is familiar with, having first notched that honour in 2013, but how Carlsen defended his throne in 2018 was a departure: yeah, the young genius crushed his American opponent 3-0 across the series’ lightning-quick final rounds, but they only came after twelve gruelling draws, back-to-back. Plus, the still-dominant Carlsen had offered Caruana the draw in that twelfth tie, something his younger self would have never done.
Likewise, a hungrier Carlsen would have never admitted a loss could have spelled retirement from the game’s elite levels. “If I had lost, it could very well have been my last world championship match,” Carlsen told stunned reporters after the final bout.
“A game of chess is like a swordfight: You must think first before you move,” intones the intro to Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’, the centrepiece of the Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). And Wu-Tang Clan icon RZA has been thinking. 25 years after that record defined an era of hip-hop and inspired a generation, the rapper and producer is contemplating his own legacy, and the pieces he still has in play. And like Carlsen, he’s thought about what comes next.
“Of course Wu-Tang is forever,” he tells me from his home in sunny California, but he admits he has “definitely come across the thought” of winding back from putting his personal projects on wax. Perhaps it’s “a self-imposed position,” he muses, but it’s one that has come after extraordinary success.
RZA and the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan – GZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Method Man, and Raekwon – are set to touch down in Sydney this week for four consecutive sold-out nights at the Sydney Opera House, blasting through 36 Chambers in its entirety. They’re doing so because the massively influential record is gritty, talismanic, and unkillable, and in the early 90s, it took the crew from the streets of Shaolin (read: Staten Island, New York) to the world.
“It was definitely aimed at domination. It was a clear footprint in the concrete of hip hop,” RZA tells me. “36 Chambers was great at capturing the youth, it was a gateway to the culture.”
History has proven him right. Conversation turns to the culture of acts RZA admires, who all sprung up in Wu-Tang’s wake: There’s Kendrick Lamar, who featured a RZA acapella on Section.80. There’s J. Cole, whose Miss America Reprise borrows RZA’s beat from It’s Yourz. Yeah, there’s Drake, who has an entire goddamn track called Wu-Tang Forever. And of course, Kanye West, whose own soulful production is directly informed by the chopped samples RZA himself threw down on 36 Chambers.
There’s “a lot of optimism” for the freshest crop of talent, RZA says, but with a career that spans entire rap empires, the man who has led the Wu-Tang Clan to global conquest has some hard-earned perspective.
“The age bracket of hip hop is expanding,” he says. “You used to only get 5-7 years to release music. Biggie didn’t make it to 40.” Operating that kind of timeframe means artists need to stay sharp not to “fall into the same traps” that ensnare so many musicians, and he muses that “some fall short of the responsibility” of music stardom. The sympathy is heavy in his words, even when conversation turns to Tekashi 6ix9ine, the 22-year-old New York rapper who could face life behind bars over a suite of racketeering charges and alleged links to deadly gang violence. “What happened to 6ix9ine, it’s sad,” RZA says. “He’s an artist that’s not fully evolved.”
Evolution, of course, is partially why Wu-Tang Clan now has what RZA calls the “pioneering opportunity” at the Sydney Opera House, and the chance “to show other aspiring artists it’s now a reasonable destination” for hip hop deities. I ask about the evolution RZA has taken to get there, his transition from the brash, give-no-fucks attitude of 36 Chambers and if, like Carlsen, if he’s thought about just letting his legacy speak for itself.
There’s a quick return to the concept of responsibility. As RZA sees it, 36 Chambers was “a strong foundation for us,” but even a classic can be just that – foundational. Sealing off Wu-Tang’s work early would have kept fans from hearing a Ghostface Killa who is “tired of wakes”, RZA says, or a Raekwon decades removed from packing “chrome TEC’s, nickel-plated MAC’s.” That’s to say nothing of carrying the torch for Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Wu-Tang Clan mainstay whose 2004 death rocked the hip hop world.
Still, the thought of diverting his energies has crossed RZA’s mind. He’s candid about his thoughts, and how it seemed like Wu-Tang Clan might not reassemble on record after 2007’s LP 8 Diagrams. What propels him in 2018 is a “knowledge of self,” he says, and the unshakable knowledge the young, hungry RZA who recorded 36 Chambers would say “keep evolving, you’re only gonna get better.”
He addresses me directly. “Everything you do, it needs to serve the purpose of what it means to you, it needs to serve the purpose of what it means to the world,” he says.
“I was sitting at the piano this morning, just playing a melody. Nobody’s gonna hear it, probably. But my wife came over, and she said ‘that’s beautiful’. And that’s payment enough for me.”
Cash rules almost everything, it seems. It makes sense his view would change: a grandmaster is always looking at the moves ahead.
(Oh, for the record: tickets to the shows running Saturday December 8 through Tuesday December 11 are sold out, but you should keep an eye on the official site for possible last-minute allocations nonetheless.)Image: Steven Ferdman / Getty Images