Wu-Tang fans might be surprised to hear that the RZA’s latest work of art isn’t a piece of music. Victory or Death is a limited-edition set of canvas prints that samples and remixes Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. In his version, the RZA replaces George Washington, and he’s proudly flying he flag of Wu.
“It didn’t begin 20 years ago… more like 200 years ago. And when you see the piece we’re making right here, you’re going to know what I’m talking about,” RZA has explained. “We’re about to rewrite and change history.”
After the jump we talk to the RZA (and his buddy King Tech) about the meaning behind the project.
The crossing of the Delaware by Washington, how does it relate to you leading the Wu-Tang?
King Tech: [The American revolutionaries] were going to the last fight. It was like, this is it. We’re on the boat, there’s no more bridges to come back to. We gotta either win, or America’s gonna go down. And I felt like it was a great decision for [RZA], because that’s how I felt like Wu-Tang was for me, as a hip-hop dude. There was a point when everyone was wearing the super-baggy suits and doing the typewriter dance, and it just getting out of control. And then to see these guys come so gritty, grimy, with cassette tape-sounding stuff, it was like “wait a minute, did we just go backward? Or are they onto something new?” And it was a matter of time before we started figuring out that these guys were on to some new stuff.
Why are you willing to stake everything to get across it?
RZA: At a certain point, Wu-Tang Clan was so desperate in the street world that we had to become successful artists, or go to jail, or become your local criminals, which we probably were anyway. 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’. Just up and move to the next place. 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.
Victory or Death, available at When Art Imitates Life
If the crossing can be summed up in one moment, what is your intention in that moment?
RZA: The changing of the world. America became the most powerful country in the world, starting from that date. And for me, I always remember when Wu-Tang came out, Hammer was a year or two ahead of us and he had sold ten million records, and people were like “you think you can sell ten million records like MC Hammer?” and I always said “even though MC Hammer sold ten million records, that’s still ten million people that remain asleep. If Wu-Tang sells one million records we still did much better than Hammer because that’s one million people that’s being woken up.
Have you crossed the river yet?
RZA: Yeah, I think I’ve crossed the river. Crossing the river is very metaphoric to Christian, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. When you go to nirvana you cross to the other side to find spiritual enlightenment and freedom. And I feel like I’ve crossed it because I’m way far from the man that was on the other side of the river. It’s a different guy that was over there, even though it’s the same guy in the vessel. When you go somewhere that you’ve never been before and you fall in love with it and it changes you, it’s the same person, but something new is now inside that vessel. A new spirit is in that vessel.
“Victory or Death” was the pass phrase for Washington’s men to identify themselves. What’s yours?
RZA: “Wu-Tang Forever.” Meaning, the decision I made to be this, and what it represents and what it means. Wu-Tang means “man who deserves God.” And we should always be in that position. So “Wu-Tang Forever” is my phrase.