Interview: Masta Killa of Wu-Tang Clan talks 25 years of “36 Chambers”

What they say is still true: the Wu-Tang is dangerous.

Emerging from a dingy basement in the New York City borough of Staten Island, the Wu-Tang Clan was legendary from the very beginning. The group’s status was cemented in 1993 when the nine MCs came together like Voltron for their classic debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), changing the sound of hip-hop forever. The album’s mythic standing is so great that 25 years later Wu-Tang member Masta Killa still can’t believe he was a part of the saga, as we found out when The AU Review caught some time with the Wu member ahead of their quadruple run at Sydney Opera House. “Oh, man!” he said excitedly. “You can’t take that kind of stuff for granted. To have been invited is really a true blessing.”

The No Said Date rapper recalls being a fan of hip-hop “since day one when I first heard someone scratching in the parks across the streets in the block parties. I breakdanced and I’ve done everything that hip-hop has to offer”. As he navigated his way through the rap world, cousins RZA, GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard laid the foundations that would become the Wu-Tang Clan. Joining their ranks were Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, and U-God. It was through producer and Wu-Tang affiliate True Master that Masta Killa first came into the group’s orbit, becoming firm friends with the GZA. “You know how you meet somebody and you just click and just hit it off the first day, the first conversation? We just clicked. There was no looking back from that point.”

While a fan of rap, Masta Killa never took rhyming seriously. That all changed when GZA played him the group’s debut single, “Protect Ya Neck”. “I’d never heard anything like that,” he says. “When GZA brought ‘Protect Ya Neck’ to me, and I heard that for the first time, I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna go home and sit down and construct everything that I’d already admired about hip-hop and try to put it in a verse that I could bring to these brothers so they could respect me,’” he laughs.

Recording began in RZA’s basement, eventually moving into a cheap studio. RZA used whatever means to craft his beats, from sound effects from martial arts movies to, as Inspectah Deck describes in the new documentary For The Children, putting a microphone inside paint tin and hitting it with a spoon for the snare in opening track “Bring Da Ruckus”.

Fitting everyone inside the studio was a challenge, but an awestruck Masta Killa squeezed in and took in everything he witnessed. A particular revelation was watching Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s unhinged yet original performance. “He was such a beautiful talent,” he recalls. “He was so raw and so free. If you were a fan of hip-hop and know all the other artists, you’ve never seen anything like this. You know it’s something special, not because I’m a part of it; I’d feel the same way about it even if I wasn’t a part of it because I love hip-hop, I love music, and I know talent. Before I even became a part of it, I was a fan of him.”

As recording was wrapping up, there was only one spot left for an outside MC to contribute: a verse on “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”. The duel for that final spot was between Masta Killa and Wu-Tang affiliate Killah Priest. “I only had one rhyme; if that didn’t make it, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now,” he laughs.

Legend has it that Killah Priest slept while Masta Killa stayed up and feverishly wrote his verse. After showing his verse to GZA, who praised it and gave some tips on improving it, Masta Killa was declared the winner and stepped up to the mic. “I was nervous, man. I was NEEEERVOUS!” he bellows. “I felt like that saying, ‘Never let them see you sweat’. It was my first time with a microphone, I didn’t know really know how to channel my voice, I didn’t know anything. I’ve been to studio sessions and seen how it was done, but seeing how something’s done and doing it is two different things. Everything that I was saying in that rhyme, the intensity, everything that you might hear was the kind of pressure I was on. But, it’s swim or drown, and I had to swim,” he chuckles.

After establishing himself with that verse, Killa is now a celebrated member of the Wu-Tang Clan. He has been there through the highs, featuring across group and solo albums, and lows such as infighting and the passing of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Recently, there was the controversial one-of-a-kind album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, and The Saga Continues, a semi-reunion due to the absence of U-God, who sued RZA for mismanagement. Harmony appears to have returned to Shaolin as Wu-Tang have reunited to celebrate their much-loved debut’s 25th anniversary.

The seeds were planted when rapper Logic approached the Clan to appear on the track “Wu-Tang Forever” on his latest album. The group has also released the documentary For The Children: 25 Years Of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and their home of Staten Island officially declaring that 9 November – the day their debut album was released – will henceforth be known as Wu-Tang Clan Day. There are also plans for the group to reunite for an eighth album. In the meantime, they’ll be bringing Enter The Wu-Tang from the basement to the prestigious Sydney Opera House, where over four nights they will perform that album in full.

“Listen,” says Masta Killa. “It’s a historical even. It’s another landmark for the Wu-Tang Clan, another accomplishment for the group as a whole, and another blessing. When we come to Sydney, we’re going to give it everything that we have because when we get to that Opera House it ain’t never going to be the same again,” he laughs. “We’re going to bless it with the Wu-Tang spirit forever.”

Wu-Tang Clan Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) Anniversary Tour

Sat 8 – Tue 11 December – Sydney Opera House, NSW. Tickets available here. Note that the tour is currently sold out but you should definitely be keeping your eyes and ears out for any last minute releases.

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