Art by Coup d’Oreille
Being a member of the most influential rap group of the past twenty years is like a passport into whatever interests you have: Acting suits Method Man; GZA has given lectures at MIT; and RZA has worked in Hollywood and cosigned Chipotle for a new ad campaign. Masta Killa, the last core member of Wu-Tang Clan to release a solo album, has even more specific priorities: becoming the vegetarian hip hop spokesman for PETA while releasing his solo music independently for almost 15 years. Masta Killa has always valued health. If you look back at his first appearance with the Clan on the seminal hoodie-and-Timberlands anthem “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” he spent his introductory bars warning of attacks to the immune system.
On the heels on his latest solo album, Loyalty is Royalty, his fourth as a solo artist, Masta Killa remains an elegant writer shrouded in mystery. But as hardcore fans clamor for the ruckus, Masta Killa celebrates the courtship of beautiful women, passing wisdom down to the next generations, and the rudimentary beginnings of hip hop in the ‘70s and ‘80s that led to a life of rhyming for a living. I spoke with Masta Killa on being unburdened by industry demands, enjoying the freedom the Wu-Tang shield has given him, and how he survives in a rapidly changing business. —Zilla Rocca
You’ve been involved with a major label in Wu-Tang Clan through Loud Records and you’ve been with Nature Sounds, one of the longest-running independent hip-hop labels. What is freedom for you as an artist still after experiencing every level of the rap industry?
Masta Killa: Well I’ll tell you, brother, I’ve been very blessed to be in this industry even from day one. You know, I was caught up in a position where I was so blessed to be in a group to be able to learn. And I was also kind of being paid to learn. Even with the Loud situation, that pressure wasn’t directly on me as far as my freedom because all of those beginning albums, I was still learning and perfecting my craft. I was on [Enter The Wu-Tang] 36 Chambers but I was only on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.” Do you know why? Because that’s the only rhyme that I had. That was the first rhyme that I ever wrote.
How about that!
Masta Killa: Then came [Raekwon’s] Cuban Linx, [GZA’s] Liquid Swords, [Ghostface Killah’s] Iron Man, all of those albums that came, I was still learning the business, learning my craft with MC’ing. So I was in a position where I got to enjoy all the perks that came with being in that industry. I wasn’t actually signed to be contained to stop my creative flow of learning and growing. And that was a blessing to me.
And how do you think that paid off by the time you went solo with your independent albums No Said Date, Made in Brooklyn, and Selling my Soul? What do you think the payoff was for you being a student at first?
Masta Killa: I wasn’t oversaturated. I still don’t think people had gotten enough of me to say, “Okay, I know what Masta Killa is about, I’ve heard his rhymes, I’ve heard his music.” I was the last person in the group to release a solo album. There was still a lot of growth and creativity that I had to give to the world that they hadn’t seen from me. So I was able to give them my creativity but without burning myself out. I was able to preserve a lot of my solo ideas and talent to do my thing. I was able to display it. I wasn’t burnt out with everything else. I wasn’t burnt out on the business of the industry. I wasn’t burnt out on anything. I still feel like I’m growing.
You’re part of this shining movement that everyone adores, but there’s still questions about you because you’ve had a mystique of being low key. How do you feel when you approach albums now? Are you making albums because you have never been burned out and is it that you just always have ideas on deck?
Masta Killa: Rest in peace to the greatest Muhammad Ali. Right now if you saw him, he would still put his hands up and throw a jab at you, because it’s a part of something that he does. I love music. I have to be around it, all genres of music, from R&B to soul to rock. I love being around it and I love creating it. So I think for me, I’m just going to always be creative.
You dropped a single late last year with Adult Swim called “Therapy” with Method Man and Redman. I thought that was a really good platform to get that song out because I always associate them with more left-field artists like MF Doom or Flying Lotus. How did that come about?
Masta Killa: I have a great business partner, my man Devin [Horwitz] from Nature Sounds. We’re like left-hand-right-hand. I can never take all the credit for anything that I do. Together we create situations that are kind of left field for people—they wouldn’t think or expect Masta Killa to be in that arena. And for me, being the ninja of the group, that’s always right up my alley. That’s always the best approach—the unexpected.
You said Devin puts you in places and that you guys are very aligned with your ideas. You also came up under RZA and his famous five-year plan to have Wu-Tang Clan on top of the industry. So what’s the best business advice or knowledge you gained?
Masta Killa: Sometimes you can see something and no one else around you sees it. But you have to trust your instinct to move forward on it. This is a good thing to do. Devin has always been a person seeing the vision and then he’s been able to activate it with me. I’ve come to RZA with visions and business ideas and maybe he didn’t even see it at that time. Sometimes you see things later. Even being involved with PETA, it’s just something that I ordinarily wouldn’t be involved in, but I am involved in it.
As far as business, know the business when it comes to this industry. Know everything about it. Talent is talent and business is business. Being on top of your business is really what you want to be about because it can get away from you. It can be overwhelming. You can trust people that you have in certain positions to do things for you. And if you’re not as serious as you should be about your own stuff, someone else might not be as serious about your business as you might think they should.
Don’t just take for granted that someone else is handling something for you. Be involved with it. Know what things are. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask questions to know everything you need to know. There is a book called All You Need to Know About the Music Business [by Donald Passman]. That’s a great book to have. Read it, study it. Having knowledge of everything that you are involved in is the greatest advice I can give to anyone.
I thought the PETA look you brought up was really fascinating too because I remember seeing those ads with you on the subway, or in a magazine or a bus stop. It was the first time I remember just seeing you by yourself, and it was for something that was very true about your lifestyle. How do you and Devin game plan for certain situations that aren’t always connected specifically to the lore of Wu-Tang?
Masta Killa: It doesn’t take us long to lock in on something that we think is a great idea to try to do. You know with the PETA thing, he knows I’m a vegan or vegetarian and we have a conversation. We’re talking about different things and he might throw something at me and I’m like, ‘That sounds good.’ We throw it back and forth and we get there. It’s not a tug of war. It’s not like pulling teeth. It’s a flow. And it’s great. You know it is very creative.
And so what about the industry is now, where it’s more about streaming and it’s more about people just flooding the market with tons of free stuff constantly to get people’s attention? Do you still value the model you came up under or do you like how you have to navigate today where people are putting out 50 new songs a month?
Masta Killa: The game has totally changed from then to now. There’s more being done outside of making music than actually making music. A lot of artists today are known more for the things that they’re doing in social media. There is so much more that artists today are actually being known for than the music. I think whoever still loves music, there’s always going to be a lane for that.
Now you have to be more visible, but it’s what you show when you’re being visible. Quality over quantity with me. Someone can put out 15 albums tomorrow. If I drop one today, my one [album] might be equivalent to your 15. When you think about it, the attention span with music today, I mean it’s here today and gone tomorrow. I can put on Rakim or Big Daddy Kane and still hear and feel something that was in the music at that time that gave me that inspiration to even want to be an MC one day.
For twenty years and counting, the Wu-Tang logo is still ubiquitous. Business wise, from a licensing standpoint, that logo is still relevant. Kids are buying it on t-shirts at Urban Outfitters. That W has shaped your life. What does that logo mean to you 20 some years later?
Masta Killa: That’s still so humbling to me 25 years later, to still be relevant, because if there’s no one listening, there is no Wu-Tang. I’m always humbled to be listened to. I’m humbled and thankful that someone was listening. Someone is still wearing that T-shirt and it feels great man. And it has let me know there is still work to do. There’s someone out there still hungry for quality, nourishment. Everything that I’m serving over here is vegan, brother.
I’ve always been fascinated as a fan of yours…How do you write? Because my guess is, listening to your flow over the years, sometimes it felt like you would write in paragraphs. You never stuck to a strict rhyme scheme of A-A, B-B, C-C. So I’m curious how you actually write verses.
Masta Killa: Verses come to me in different kinds of ways. I really write a verse to the beat to the music. I can be driving and I get a little thought. And while I’m driving I’ve got to find a way to grab something and write it down, scribble it down. I didn’t understand something that Rakim said years ago. He said it like, “Pieces of puzzle…complicated.”
All the little pieces sometimes come together to be that particular verse that you may hear. Sometimes you can go in the studio or sometimes the music is so beautiful and you get inspired and you can just come out with it right there. But it comes to me in all different kinds of ways, just the thoughts come in. You’ve got to jot it down because if you don’t, they’ll be evaporated. And sometimes it’s hard to ever get that flow back.
I’ve also been an MC and producer for years and years and my beginning point was Wu-Tang Forever. That’s when I was like, ”Okay, now I want to try this out and that’s it.”
Masta Killa: Wow.
I’d write all my little raps and number then like “Rap #4” or “Rap #5.” I had a Wu-Tang Forever folder, like a stationary folder for school I got from Sam Goody and I would put all my little raps in there. So with your writing, how have you made the transition from being in a room full of guys that are amongst the greatest rappers ever, where you maybe only get 12 bars, versus you being solo and having to carry a whole song?
Masta Killa: My approach is always to give it at least 16 bars. Now if I’m doing a solo song, I know I have to come up with at least 32 to 48 bars or whatever it has to be. But in a group like Wu-Tang, it’s like being in an all-star game and you just want to be able to contribute and complement the things around you. If you’re not on the level of what’s being shown around you, or the production around you, you don’t fit. Oh man, not easy to do!
I like how you said it’s like an all-star team. What’s your favorite sport to play or watch?
Masta Killa: I’m a fan of basketball, football, boxing, track and field. Those are my favorites. I love sports.
I’m a diehard sports guy. Was there an athlete growing up that you related to? You’ve always been honored for being the guy in the group that was very willing, like you said, to play your part.
Masta Killa: I learned something from Michael Jordan early. You think about Jordan, he does it all, right? But when he won one of his championships, I didn’t even understand why he was driving to the basket because he had about three people on him playing defense. And I’m thinking he’s gonna take the shot, and he passes it to the corner to Steve Kerr and when he hit the shot, it just made him that much greater to be able to trust the players around him.
Team building wins games. That made him a better player because I also saw him score 60 points against the Celtics and lose. So understand, the principle of team ball wins games. It’s all about winning a championship and bringing home the ring. You don’t have to be MVP. That’s the greatest glory: to get what you came for.
Have you noticed how your environment affects your writing? You’re an East New York guy, but I imagine, like my town of Philly, it’s pretty sanitized compared to twenty years ago with gentrification.
Masta Killa: No. I mean my writing is always from within. You know, sometimes it can be inspired from the external as well. A lot of my experiences growing up in Brooklyn, New York…man, I mean those memories are kind of already embedded, you know? I remember what it was like to just not be able to keep a pair of Pumas on your feet going to school. That’s something you can never forget, you’re traumatized.
You go to school and someone is taking your sneakers off your feet. I mean, these things you never forget. So I’m always happy if there’s gonna be a change, if it’s a change for the better. And children can go to school and don’t have to worry about the things that I had [to worry about]. I had to take the long way home a lot of the days, brother. Certain streets and certain blocks you didn’t even wanna walk down.
If change comes to any neighborhood, if it’s for the betterment that some young child is growing up and he can get a better education, he doesn’t have to worry about his coat being stolen, he doesn’t have to worry about his house being a robbed…you know, just the things that come with poverty stricken neighborhoods. If it’s for the betterment of that, brother I’m for it. I’m for it because you know there are so many things to write about other than the struggles of things that you have to see growing up, unfortunately.
You’ve kind of made that left turn to where you said, you’re not just centered on the trials and tribulations of an inner city person anymore. So when you make those choices and make those records do you feel nervous at all?
Masta Killa: One thing that I know is that the world doesn’t know everything about Masta Killa. Man, there’s so much more to me than the world may have gotten from me. You know, being in the group that I’m in, if I’m getting on a song like “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” if you listen to the other verses that are on that song, it’s going to have to equal the level of potency of the other MCs that are actually competing to be on this song. If you listen to those other verses on that song, I cannot come on this song singing about what a beautiful time I had at Disney World with my mother when I was seven years old.
I’ve had experiences besides just the hardship of growing up in Brooklyn, New York. My mother did an excellent job of always trying to make sure that I had a different outlook of just seeing more than what the streets had to offer. My mother is from the south, so every summer I had a different look. You know, I was going down south for the summer to live with my grandparents. I went to school down there for a little while. I come from a great family, a supportive family. I’m blessed to say I’m a person who had both sets of his grandparents growing up. I mean, not everybody can say that, so I’ve been blessed even though times were hard. But I was very blessed.
And sometimes those good things, you don’t actually get to tap into all that because there’s so much to be said. That’s really a part of who I am as well, you just haven’t gotten there yet so I’m never nervous about displaying that. I was in church. My mother had me in church at one point singing in the choir. And you know I was actually on a gospel album before I even did a hip hop album. So I’ve been captivated to those experiences to give that to the world. But those are part of my experience. So whenever I’m tapping into something I’m never nervous about it because I can say I know someone or that’s part of my family that experienced that. So it’s not that far away from me that I can identify with it.
So what’s one of the classic Clan songs or beats that you were like, ‘Damn I wish I would’ve got on THAT one.’
Masta Killa: “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With.” I didn’t even have a rhyme, I was still constructing a rhyme. And by the time they were finishing in the studio to make that last song that was going to make it in the album, I had that verse from “Mystery of Chessboxing” constructed and practiced good enough that I learned how to say it with the coaching from GZA. When I first wrote the verse, I went to him first and gave it to him on paper with no form. I just asked him what his opinion on the thoughts that he was reading, and he gave me his blessing once he read it and that’s when I started practicing on how to perfect the flow, how to say it. So when I hear those other beats and stuff coming on in the studio I wish I had something to say.
Another one of my favorite moments from you was on No Said Date. the song “School.” I love that record, how the beat just switches. It gets really hectic with you and RZA going back and forth. How did that song come to pass? I’m fascinated by it.
Masta Killa: When I first heard that “boom bap boom bap,” it took me right to the lunchroom. I was listening to an engineer at that time, his name was Choco [Jose “Choco” Reynoso]. And I’m in the studio that night, he’s playing me some beats and he threw that on. And I was like shit, [begins his verse from “School”] “Banging on lunchroom tables…,” because that was really my life back in high school. Oh man, there was so much talent.
When I was in high school, the lunchroom was like the stage and I used to see different MCs. They were so great. And I used to just watch them going back and forth. I didn’t have the heart to step up. It was reality. Now that song—that verse came right away. I didn’t have to think. It came right away as soon as I heard the beat. I tapped right into it. I wrote it right there and it was what it was. When RZA heard what I said, he came back and went right into the fast part, and then we just continued to build from there. But that’s how it actually started.
With Wu-Tang Forever turning 20 a couple of months back, I was revisiting it and I was talking to friends of mine asking about the best song on the entire album. My vote was for “Scary Hours.” My one friend said the best song is “Deadly Melody.” What’s your best song on Wu-Tang Forever?
Masta Killa: I would have to say “Triumph” ’cause it has everyone. That’s gonna be hard to top right there.
When you guys now make stuff collectively, whether you’re featuring on each other’s records or do proper Clan songs, how is it when you’ve been with a bunch of guys in the same room trying to smash everyone else on the song?
Masta Killa: It’s all very friendly competition. Kool Moe Dee is one of my favorite MCs. He said “Rapping is a competitive sport, and we’re all enemies on the court, but when the game is over I shake your hand, give me a pound cause you’re still my man.” All these lessons that I absorbed just being a fan of hip hop came into play. That’s how I approach it—when we are in that creative space that we are all in, in that studio, and I’m writing, I’m also looking at everyone. These are my Clan brothers. But I also want to say something equivalent that’s competitive, that he can also respect as an MC and the world can respect as listeners; that everyone on this song held their weight.
Chess is a big part of the iconography of Wu, from the cover of Liquid Swords, to the bragging rights you guys actually have in the studio when you have played each other. Have you noticed the way it changes your approach to things, whether it’s business or composing albums? You’ve now been a lifelong player.
Masta Killa: It teaches you patience, brother. Always think before you move. I try to keep that principle with everything that I do. Before I even speak, before I do anything, I want to think ten times before I speak once. So this is that principle in chess. Before you make any move in life, take another day to think about it. Take as much time as you may need before you make one step because the choices that we make actually shape and mold our lives.
We’ve talking about your solo albums, the first wave of Wu albums, and Wu-Tang Forever, but to me, The W was the jewel of the catalog that people don’t always acknowledge. 36 Chambers was the bomb that went off and Forever was like a blockbuster movie opening. What do you remember about that particular album, The W?
Masta Killa: With that album, I really wanted “One Blood” to be highlighted as a single. I thought that track deserved it. And I wish I had the support of my Wu family to highlight that as a single. Even Steve Rifkin actually came to me and he said, “Man I love this album but ‘One Blood’ needs to be a single.” Now that came from Steve Rifkin. Now I’m saying to myself how can Steve Rifkin say that to me? But my establishment doesn’t see the same.
When we didn’t make that a single or didn’t highlight that particular song what happened? A month later or maybe not even that long, Puffy and Shyne come with “Bad Boyz” [with Barrington Levy]. It was the biggest song. Like I said in the beginning, your vision might not be seen by the people that you’re walking with. No one in my Clan has tapped into the reggae source like that. Meth did stuff with Super Cat early in the ‘90s but I didn’t think that was a great fit. Because I know personally that’s my chamber. So when I think of that album, I wish that particular song was highlighted as a single and I think that it would have been through the roof.
Remember The Game flipped that five years after that on that song “One Blood?”
Masta Killa: That’s how great that song is! Junior Reid came into the studio and actually did it with me. I mean, I was honored to have him come do that. Now that tells you the potency of a song. The Game comes back and does it again and it’s still a great song.
I’ve noticed your single “Therapy,” with Red and Meth, is such a great song because it’s just guys hanging out. That’s what it sounded like. And I feel like the best stuff you guys tend to make, just as a fan, are the songs that just sound like camaraderie. It’s like, ‘You’re my friend, I’ve known you 30 years or whatever, this beat is on, let’s react to it and whoever can say the slickest stuff wins.’ The camaraderie and the friendship and the history—no one really has that anymore because there are no groups anymore. You guys had this going on for years and years and years before there was even an industry. You guys knew each other and you have this thing that translates that you can’t even fully articulate.
Masta Killa: Right. And that’s exactly how we did it. I mean when you recycle that, the magic is gone. Forget it. Hang it up. Because now you’re trying to do something that you did effortlessly. You’re forcing it, brother. Things that are supposed to be natural, man…you’re thinking too hard about it. Now you’re trying to make a song like this and you’re trying to make a song like that when those things never mattered to you because you were making songs and making music because that’s what love to do.
That’s what I love about being with Devin and Nature Sounds and being in the creative space that I’m in: I’m still able to be just that and do what I love to do without the pressures of any outside forces making me feel like I have to conform to be a certain way. That’s not the recipe, brother. When you lose sight of that, hang it up man.