Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Tao of Wu by The RZA | Book Review

The Tao of Wu by The RZA
(Riverhead Books; Oct. 15, 2009)

On “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” from the Iron Flag album, The RZA said something about a “Wu Library”. Was this what he had in mind?

Behind the allure of their esoteric lyricism and imagery, there’s vast depth behind the Wu-Tang Clan’s interest in kung fu films, chess and comic books, as well as their ties to the Five-Percent Nation, Eastern philosophy and the boroughs of New York from which they hail. There’s nothing kitschy about these now hipster-standard cultural elements that were once an avant-garde, new angle to the hip hop world and, especially, mainstream America. If textbook rules applied, the Wu-Tang Clan would have either dissolved into the depths of underground obscurity or retooled their image to satisfy commercial norms. Through The RZA’s vision, however, the Clan held steadfast to their distinctiveness and stormed through the industry with a divide and conquer strategy.

RZA’s new book, The Tao of Wu, discusses the various steps and influences that paved his road to success (in music and in life), the roadblocks that tested his discipline, and the jewels of knowledge he’s gathered along the way. Loaded with the terminology and precepts of The Universal Language, The Tao of Wu is definitely intended for Wu-Tang fans and folks familiar with the concepts of the Five-Percenters; but anybody with an interest in music and the game of life, eccentric as RZA’s story may seem, can glean much from The Tao of Wu.

As the book’s jacket suggests, The Tao of Wu bares resemblance to Hermann Hesse’s cult classic Siddhartha. RZA’s tales, much like those of the young Siddhartha, are framed as a coming of age story with key parables and glimpses of enlightenment. RZA’s narrative, of course, is nonfictional; thus The Tao of Wu is part Wu-Tang fact book and, mostly, part memoir. RZA retraces the roots that led him to music and philosophy all the way back to his early years. It was his days as a child in North Carolina after all – with his Mother Goose rhyme-reciting uncle Hollis – that cultivated the inspiration behind the Gravediggaz and 6 Feet Deep.

Even the most well-versed of Wu-Tang fans will appreciate The Tao of Wu’s trove of never-before-told tales. RZA digs deep into Supreme Mathematics and the sutras of Buddhist scripture, establishing his pillars of wisdom; he equates the historic destruction of the Shaolin monastery with the 1996 flood that wrecked his 36 Chambers studio in Staten Island (a.k.a. Shaolin), an incident that caused Ghostface’s Iron Man album to sound different from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords (a fact that never occurred to me until I read this book); he recounts both the weapons charge case he faced and Method Man’s near-death experience, both of which could have easily wiped out the Wu-Tang Clan from existence; he picks out various hip hop phrases like “get in where you fit in” and “it’s all good” and traces their Buddhist origins (seriously). RZA even cites Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 Hour Rule’, the point at which mastery in any field is presumably attained, and identifies the moment when he reached this peak in his quest to perfect his production skills.

The Wu-Tang Manual, The RZA’s previous book and first in this series of Wu-literature, was a valuable collection of facts – a primer on the foundation of the Clan. The Tao of Wu, however, goes deeper into the brain of The RZA and as such is a more absorbing reading experience. If you liked The Wu-Tang Manual, you’ll really enjoy The RZA’s follow-up. (Even Cornel West gives it a thumbs-up!) The Tao of Wu is written in a conversational style that’s both easy to digest but difficult to put down. It’s a light read, but the more spiritual-based aspects of the book may take you some time to reflect. The section on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s passing was particularly stirring. In reading The Tao of Wu, I gained a better appreciation for RZA’s work – specifically the depth of his lyricism. And if you ever had a doubt as to why The RZA, aside from being the Wu-Tang Clan’s chief producer, is heralded as the group’s leader, The Tao of Wu will make that unmistakably clear. I highly recommend The Tao of Wu to Wu-Tang fans and the uninitiated alike. Bong, bong!