I mentioned in my inaugural post last week that I have been taking guitar lessons in my spare time. In one of my lessons I was having some difficulty with a concept – my teacher was trying to explain to me how you are always a half step away from the right note even though he’d yet to explain what a step was or what notes I was playing when I played a particular string. In something of frustration he began “Okay, just think of it like this: the C-scale is basically like Divine Consciousness…” My 30 minute lesson was more than an hour and a half that day. I sat through most of his ‘om shanti om‘ ramble for the next hour or so with a grin on my face, oscillating between sincere interest and wondering how baked he was. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but this feeling would mirror my experience reading The Tao of Wu by the RZA.
For those familiar with the RZA or the Wu Tang Clan, it is indisputable that they changed hip-hop and that RZA is obviously a talented man. With not a lot of financial or socio-economic advantages coming into this world, he was able to establish himself as a hip-hop superstar with the Wu Tang Clan as both producer and MC. As the leader of the Wu Tang Clan he helped launch solo careers for several members including: ODB, Raekwon, and Method Man. He is still regarded as one of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time. And don’t think he’s going to let you forget any of that.
This book read like a giant homage to RZA himself with some interspersing “words of wisdom”. I’m not sure what I expected when I picked this book up – a spiritual memoir written by a well-known member of Wu Tang with “New York Times Bestseller” written on the front. I thought, if nothing else, it would be accessible. But RZA’s stream of spirituality is supremely esoteric. I am not spectacularly religious or well-versed in religions though I do think I am, and have been throughout my life, introspective enough to read different religious texts, spiritual guides and attend a variety of religious services. I do not know enough about Islam to comment on whether RZA’s brand is far reaching or not but when he speaks of Supreme Mathematics he really loses me. In Mathematics, each number is associated with a worldly value. For example, 1 is knowledge, 2 is wisdom and so onto 9. When you get to 10 you’re really back at 1 because 0 represents infinity so 10 is actually 1 plus infinity which is still 1. RZA would use this system to explain why certain things happened in his life at certain times….
At one point in the book, RZA talks about how he was a teacher for the kids in the ghettos; for those kids who so desired to be taught. As he’s describing the “verbal kung-fu” he has learned and can pass on to these kids – “Man, fuck them bitches nigga, Mike. We gon’ get those niggas next time!” – I started to wonder what the harm-to-benefit- ratio would be of his teachings. On the one hand, it is reassuring to have a sort of guide book (even in the form of numbers) when life is chaotic or confusing, on the other, kids would be putty in his hands, unable to think constructively or critically about the information he was feeding them.
What I did get (a snip-it of) from this book was the spiritual/ghetto life dichotomy I was expecting/looking for. RZA gives one example of this when he describes taking the bus home one day with his book of 120 lessons plus a .38 revolver hidden in his jacket. This interesting image of a young man living in the ghetto, trying to arm himself, both mind and body, is then followed by a ridiculous story about how RZA was able to make himself invisible through sheer faith one day while he was being chased by members of a neighborhood gang. Any merit the book had created for itself instantly disappeared for me at that point.
As in life, the more negative I felt about these excerpts, the more irritating the whole book became for me. I would put it down from time to give myself a break, hoping that I could see it in a new light when I picked it back up. Unfortunately, a new chapter might begin with RZA explaining just how similar he actually is to a superhero and I would be back to negative town.
My only wish for this book is that someone like Kelly Oxford will read it. I think someone like here would have the necessary gall to really call RZA out on his bombast and wannabe ghetto homilies.