Interview: RZA talks about the making of ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’

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RZA discusses new show detailing the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan on Hulu
Image: Brian To for the Paley Center

The year was 1993. “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” could be heard on radio stations across the country. Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album was on its way to becoming one of the most influential pieces of work in the history of hip-hop. The record had a raw, underground vibe. It mixed hip-hop with martial arts sounds and drew on comic book references—something that was never even imagined before. “Protect Ya Neck” was the rap group’s lead single. It had debuted the year before, and off of its success, helped to secure Wu-Tang’s record deal with Loud Records.

At the helm was RZA (aka Bobby Diggs). A master producer, beatmaker, and rapper extraordinaire, the Staten Island local fought his way through a life of crime in order to pursue his passion for music. Wu-Tang members came to include GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and eventually, Cappadonna.

The Baddest Man Alive

For over 25 years, RZA has spanned the spectrum when it comes to projects. Outside of producing and rapping, he has branched off into acting and directing. As The RZArector, he was also a founding member of Gravediggaz. The East Coast-based horrorcore group earned praise for its experimental sounds in the early ’90s. RZA’s long list of accomplishments is well-known. In his latest endeavor, he serves as co-creator, writer, and executive producer of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.”

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The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills held a special screening and Q&A for Hulu’s new 10-episode scripted series during its PaleyFest Fall TV Previews. RZA was there with co-creator, writer, and executive producer Alex Tse. Joining them for the September 10 event were actors Ashton Sanders (RZA), Johnell Young (Gary), and Zolee Griggs (Shurrie).

Image: Brian To for the Paley Center

“I think [fans] will be surprised about how separate the guys were before they became a group,” Griggs told The Burn-In at the event. “I think everyone thought they were family or that they were cool friends. No, they were able to overcome those adversities to become something great. We, as human beings, should all do that,” the actress shared.

Can It Be All So Simple?

Tse, who is a self-proclaimed Wu-Tang superfan, said that even he had no idea how divided they all were. “I always thought they were friends and were like, ‘hey, let’s do a rap group together,’” he assumed. “It couldn’t have been anything further from the truth. That was really shocking to me.” At that moment, Tse said that he knew there was a show here. Tse also says that there are more surprises coming in the season. “The show evolves and starts to show some of these other influences and some of the other points of inspiration that he had that you may not have known.”

RZA tells The Burn-In that while he wasn’t about to give away any spoilers, there was one moment in the series that was extremely important to him. “There’s something that happened in episode five that was so personal and hard for me to understand as a young man, the way it happened. When I watched it happen again inside the show, it was a little disturbing. It was funny, disturbing, amazing—it was a lot of emotions all at once,” RZA divulged.

“The biggest thing that really affects me emotionally is watching uncle Hollis being portrayed because he was such an important figure in my life,” RZA added. “Without him being in my life for those three-and-a-half years, I don’t think that the RZA would exist. He played a very important part in [my] evolution.”

Most of his memories, he says, flooded back during post-production. “Sitting there and watching the footage over, and then when it’s edited together, all of a sudden the scene that you saw in your mind, the scene that you lived in your life, it’s now playing back in front of you,” he explained of the process.

Reunited

RZA’s main message about the series is one for the younger generation. “I definitely hope they get inspired,” he tells The Burn-In. “Our series opened with conflict. How do young men figure out how to escape conflict and move to a better situation for themselves, their friends, and their community? You think about that period of time on the L.A. side of things, the Bloods and Crips were at their peak. The Rodney King verdict just came out. The riots were happening.”

“In New York, a lot of things happened. I could go through the whole civil movement; Tawana Brawley, and [the Central Park Five], but there were so many things happening,” he continued. “The community is every man for himself. Right now we’re in the world of individuals. Everybody is individual. I think Wu-Tang can help inspire that unity. The ‘u’ in Wu-Tang, for this generation, is for unity.”

Image: Brian To for the Paley Center

While actors step in to tell the story and play their respective Wu-Tang roles, most of the group’s real-life members were involved in this project to some degree. Method Man is listed as producer, along with RZA and Tse. GZA and Inspectah Deck are also noted as consulting producers on the Hulu series. During PaleyFest, RZA mentioned that they actually had a “weekly Wu Wednesday call.” He welcomed whoever was in town an opportunity to jump into the writers’ room and add their input, once again, leading his fellow Wu members in a truly collaborative effort.

“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” airs on Hulu. The series is also executive produced by Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo.

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Sari Cohen is a journalist based in the Greater L.A. Area. She began her career in the entertainment industry as a stand-up comedy writer/performer and over the years has developed scripts for both the stage and screen. She currently covers music and live entertainment for AXS, reviews movies for Hollywood First Look Features and writes for InLove Magazine. She also pens funny stuff for popular sites such as Cracked and Screen Rant. You can often find her at concerts or on a red carpet somewhere, talking to someone about something. From on-the-scene reporting to exclusive interviews, she tackles every topic from music, movies and television, to fashion, lifestyle and politics. You can check out more on Twitter at @ask_sari or follow her adventures on Instagram under @thesavvyscribbler.