I was in Junior High when the Wu Tang Clan were starting to produce albums. Up to that point, my experience with hip-hop was MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. I wasn’t that interested in music yet, I was just interested in liking what everyone else liked. And at the time, that meant baggy parachute pants and carving steps into the sides of your haircut.
I wouldn’t “discover” the Wu Tang Clan until I was in my mid twenties. I had heard the name, but never paid any attention. I was a metal-head and didn’t have much interest in rap.
But the film Kill Bill was out in the theater. I loved everything about it, and the music was no exception. “Music by The RZA” said the credits. And I wondered who in the world The RZA was and how he got tapped to do music for Quentin Tarantino. And then I listened to everything I could find that he had been a part of and a lot of my questions were answered.
It is exactly that question–Who is The RZA?– that The RZA himself answers in The Tao of Wu. He’s a man who knows how to be curious.
A life of seeking
At its most simple, the story is about a man who starts a rap group and lives out the American rags to riches story. But it’s not a simple story. Yes, there are stories about the projects and dealing drugs and shootouts and tragic deaths. But what is atypical to me about The Tao of Wu is that curiosity and the need to create seems to be the driving force behind The RZA and his vision for what would become hip-hop’s supergroup.
The Tao of Wu is a book of wisdom. Parts of it read like scripture. There are meditations on vegetarianism, the essence of beauty, and the art of war as seen on a chess board. For every story about street violence and culture there is a story about the influence of Shaolin monks or Kung Fu films. Numerology and Christianity. Islam and block parties. And more and more and more. For every familiar ghetto element I recognized from my conditioning by TV and Hollywood, there were three things I would never associate with life in the projects or the history of the hip hop.
I can’t speak knowledgeably about the history of the music so I won’t get in over my head there. What I do know is that the most interesting people in the world to me are the creators. People who need to produce things. People who stay curious and can’t figure out how to stop learning. People who learn enough to finally realize that they will always be students, and that that is all right.
I have always had the need to create things. Just for me. Just to see what happens. Reading The Tao Of Wu was like bumping into an unlikely friend. Just another curious person making their way, feeding off the same energy we all do when we’re struck by the urge to make something just for the fun of it or learn something just because it feels good. It’s a book about human potential and how we die if we quit making progress.
I can’t recommend it highly enough, in case it’s not clear. And if a white, 32 year old librarian in Salt Lake City can get into it, what’s your excuse for not trying it?