RZA is always on some next ish. Last year he linked up with fellow hip-hop icons Sway and King Tech to be part of their latest venture, When Art Imitates Life (WAIL).The Los Angeles-based company combines the worlds of music and fine art for unique one-of-a-kind pieces.
At the top of the year, RZA unveiled his contribution to the series, “Victory or Death,” a remixed version of George Washington Crossing the Delaware, featuring RZA in place of America’s first president at the head of the boat. Fan response to the portrait, which is available now on the WAIL website, has been crazy. XXLMag.com recently caught up with the Wu-Tang’s Abbott to find out how he got involved with the project, leading his own revolution and what it felt like to walk in the shoes—and wig—of a U.S. president.
XXLMag.com: How did you get involved with WAIL to do this “Victory or Death” portrait?
RZA: My buddy King Tech was talking to me about these paintings he was doing with other artists, and he asked me if I’d like to be involved with it and do something unique—I always like doing things unique. Tech is family; every time we do something together it’s always good.
XXLMag.com: Out of all the famous bodies of work out there, why’d you select the Washington Crossing the Delaware painting to re-envision?
RZA: Wu-Tang is a pioneer of hip-hop. Wu-Tang started a revolution of music and ideas that wasn’t involved in music prior to us and George Washington is the first American president. He started a whole new world. He had to fight for that. He had to go through a struggle for that. “Victory or Death” was his struggle.
XXLMag.com: And you felt inspired by that struggle?
RZA: I felt like I had that same struggle. Before Wu-Tang Clan became popular we were living in the streets. People were shooting at me, I was shooting at them. We was doing everything we could to just survive and eat and pay our rent. One of my buddies would call me from jail and it would be like, “Collect call from jail.” I was like, “Fuck it, you can call all you want because I’m getting kicked out of this place next month anyway.” …Life was tough. Sometimes when life is tough you gotta break through, come up for water, come up for air and I felt like that’s what I did. I had to take my crew and lead us through rough waters and bring us to the top.
XXLMag.com: Did you actually paint the portrait or was it merely designed by you and someone else came through and put it all together?
RZA: I’m a pretty busy man, I have a pretty tight schedule. So WAIL decided that to make it easier to get it done, they 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 6,000 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.
XXLMag.com: How long did it take to complete?
RZA: 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.
XXLMag.com: So you actually posed for the picture and got dressed in the old school revolutionary war gear for this?
RZA: Yeah, but 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.
XXLMag.com: How come you only incorporated ODB and GZA into the portrait and not the full Clan?
RZA: 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 Ol’ 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.
XXLMag.com: So there was never any plans to incorporate everyone?
RZA: We did talk about using the whole Clan at one point because we thought it would make a great album cover, but Wu-Tang is so scattered in ideas and scattered in business right now, we didn’t wanna get a business jamboree going on. Even though I do have the rights to do it, I didn’t want to go through the headache of arguing over my own rights.
XXLMag.com: How has been the public response to the portrait since its release at the top of the year?
RZA: From what I’ve been reading online and everyone who knows about it, it’s been a good response. I’m really happy. I didn’t even expect a response like this, actually. You never know what kind of people admire you. It’s very flattering and humbling when somebody would spend 500 bucks to have a canvas of me in their house. It’s a blessing for me, and I really appreciate anyone who supports this idea and buys these canvases because it really shows that my work ain’t in vain.
XXLMag.com: What do you mean by that?
RZA: A guy in New York sold a portrait of me that he painted at an art gallery for $10,000. It didn’t boost my ego, I didn’t get a big dick on it like that, but it was real peace, because sometimes I feel like I risked my life for the world, for some of the things I’ve said, and done, and tried to express. They killed Malcolm X for less than what I said. That’s how raw Wu-Tang was with the things we were saying and the information we put out there. We were talking about the Illuminati early on. And now everything is kinda known through the Internet, the information is there. At one point you couldn’t find information about nothing. It was up to an artist to bring that kind of information out, and we were bold enough and brave enough to bring it out. So when people support me back, it really lets me know that it wasn’t in vain. —Anslem Samuel