Solid interview with Rza on the creative process into making Victory or Death.

The last time we spoke, for an EQ Magazine cover story, we talked about how you were a little creatively and emotionally taxed from putting so much effort into Wu-Tang and other outside projects that you didn’t have much left for yourself. I know you’re steadily working on all types of projects, from film to music, but does the Victory Or Death project represent a large step in that personal creative rebirth?

Yes, in a sense. Since we last talked I’ve had a lot of time to myself to do what I want without doing it for money. Because of that, I’ve gotten better. My knowledge and my talent and my experience is increasing rapidly because of the time I’ve had and the restraints I took off myself.

Victory Or Death is, of course, modeled on the iconic Washington Crossing The Delaware. What is it about that particular image that resonated with you so much? Was it more of a direct correlation to Washington himself, or was it more of what that crossing meant? Or both?

George Washington was the first American president, started the American Revolution, tried to bring freedom and justice to his nation of people and bring out their philosophy and their ideas with the Declaration of Independence and all these things. Same with Wu-Tang, we were bringing out the ideas of hip-hop, the ideas of freedom of expression. At the time, hip-hop was very glossy. I felt the true hip-hop emcees weren’t making it. I also felt that hip-hop wasn’t being represented even by the other [hardcore] artists, even though I got much respect for the other artists: Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, all of them. But the producers that were producing hip-hop weren’t emcees, they weren’t breakdancers, they weren’t graffiti writers. They didn’t have all these hip-hop elements combined into one being. That’s what I am. I was a graffiti writer, a deejay, a breakdancer, as well as an emcee. I took all those elements and I became a producer, a new form of hip-hop; taking the beat machines and all that. So I see me being the same kind of pioneer as George Washington, causing a revolution in the game. Shaolin is a place that, according to history, had all this knowledge of martial arts contained within itself, and it kept itself apart from the regular world. So it never got bothered by who conquered China. But after a while, the knowledge that Shaolin possessed, the regular world needed it. People would come to Shaolin and learn their secrets and learn their training. It was the one abbot who decided to let these students in, and to teach them his secret knowledge, so the knowledge would spread. He realized that even though Shaolin wasn’t part of the war, eventually it would become part of the war, because when evil is all around you, it doesn’t stop. It’s gonna come and get you. If the wolves are all around you and you’re the last thing surviving, the wolves must now come and attack you. So this abbot was wise. That’s why in Wu-Tang Forever you hear that sample, “We must get more students so the knowledge can expand.” That’s from the movie Shaolin Temple where the abbot made the decision: let the new students in. Let the people into our world so we can teach them and they can spread it out. That’s what Wu-Tang Forever was. It was us letting the world into our minds and our world and spreading out the Wu-Tang culture all over the world.

How was Victory Or Death created? What type of mixed media was used?

I’m a pretty busy man and I have a pretty tight schedule, so W.A.I.L. decided that instead of going to some photo studio downtown or in Hollywood, let’s bring the photo studio to RZA’s house. I got six thousand square feet to play with. So we brought the canvases here, the crew and staff, the photographers, the painters. They brought everything to me, which made it much easier. We were very conscious of time. We said we would take six hours to get the foundation of this thing done, and we did it. No holds barred. We just went in and we did it. It took me like an hour to put this suit on, first of all. I didn’t know George Washington wore tights so tight. I actually couldn’t put the tights on how I was supposed to because they were so tight. I was kind of embarrassed with the tights on because they really hug your nuts. So instead of the tights that we bought from the prop house, I had a pair of tights [thermals] also. I’m from New York. So I put on my own tights. I didn’t wear the costume tights that they bought. More baggy, more space for my nuts. We tried some shots with the wig, without the wig, with the hat, without the hat, some with me holding my beat machine. It was real fun.

There are “hidden elements” in each canvas, with the Legacy and larger Monument version having a different number of elements in each one. Why was it important for you to have an artistic subtext to the overall message?

There’s a mystery to how many elements are there. All the elements are from the ideology of The Tao Of Wu and from Wu-Tang philosophy. So if you read that book or you know Wu, they’ll pop up to you. You’ll find the elements through your subconscious. We wanted to make this painting fun as well, so to have people looking at it and noticing things like “Oh, there’s a W over there! Is that a face in the clouds right there?” There’s gonna be some things there that aren’t even there, but because the fan is so much into the Wu mythology, he will make a vision of his own out of it. If you look at the mountains [in the piece] you will see a W. The reason why we chose to do the W formed in the mountains is because when I went to Wu Tang Mountain in China, I went there with my sifu and we took a photo of me standing on the side of the mountain. In the photo it looked like the Wu-Tang W. And my sifu, who’s from China, never been to America, didn’t hear Wu-Tang as he grew up. He said, “History already knew you would come one day.” It was destiny for me to be who I am, and that’s remarkable. So we took that and put it in the painting.

Let’s talk about some of the specific details in the piece. ODB makes an appearance, the Wu-Tang symbols take the place of stars in the flag, the ninjas rowing the boat. Could you illuminate your reasons behind choosing each of those three elements, and any other elements you’d like to speak upon?

The pioneers of the Wu-Tang sound is RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty. We started as teenagers, and we were the first foundation of the group, and everyone else was, in one way or another, students of ours. So we brought the three masters, the three elders together for the piece. Ask the other Wu-Tang members and they’ll tell you that RZA, GZA and Old Dirty are the teachers. Ghost said, “I learned from the best.” That means RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty. Everybody will tell you that we are the ones who inspired them. So that’s the main reason why we said, “Let’s use them, that’ll be enough.”