With his new album, <i>Keynote Speaker</i>, out today, we caught up with U-God to talk about the state of rap, the paradigm shift that the record industry is undergoing, squashed beefs, life on the streets, and what the future holds for him and the Wu...
U-God is a tried-and-true veteran of the rap game. Unlike quasi-members Redman and Cappadonna, U-God is one of the original nine brothers of the Wu-Tang Clan. Over the past 20 years, he's played a part that's been a bit bittersweet and understated due to some stints in prison that pulled him out of the spotlight. But on his new record, Keynote Speaker, he's finally at the podium speaking his piece.
He stopped by the VICE offices and shot the shit with us about the state of rap, the paradigm shift that the record industry is undergoing, squashed beefs, life on the streets, and what the future holds for himself and the Wu-Tang Clan. We even got into the subject of gun violence in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal, which was a deep subject for him, considering his own son was the victim of a senseless shooting.
VICE: Wu-Tang Clan sold millions of records, yet artists today are relying on YouTube hits and car-commercial features to get paid. What do you think about that?
U-God: You have to understand something. The system is re-adjusting and we don't know where it's going. A new system is coming into play. In five years they could shut down YouTube. You might have to pay to get on there, and all that sly shit. It's already set up to where the government can come in and say, "You know what? No more illegal downloading." In France, they'll throw you in jail for an illegal download. The game is in reconstruction. Adele was the last artist to put out serious numbers, so that tells you that real music always prevails.
It seems as if this generation of rappers aren't selling drugs, but taking them. How do you feel about that?
I'm glad you asked me that. The problem right now is that street raps are trying to come back because that's what's missing in the game. Everyone right now is bougie and on mollies. That's not street. Either the streets take you out of the game or they make you into a crazy ill legend. Allen Iverson was a street baller and Basquiat was a street artist. Mobb Deep were street dudes. That element has to come back in the music and that's a reason that sales are down. These dudes who are coming out can't fake it. I can see it in their eyes, how they walk and how they talk. No disrespect to J. Cole and them little niggas, but they don't have that experience. I got a little upset when Cole said that he let Nas down. You've got to earn a little more street cred before you name drop the god. You need to get your weight up a little more because you're still a little youngster and you are trying to fuck with a triple triple triple triple quadraple OG and that's not a good look. He kind of lost some fans with that. A lot of dudes make songs that I call "star sandwiches." You put a star on the hook, a star on the verses, and a star on production, and you got a whole star sandwich. They expect people to eat it right up.
Yeah, I thought that was pretty embarrassing.
You're never supposed to go up against the grand master. He's a dragon. Even in the kung-fu flicks you don't go up against the guy with the white beard. He just touches you and BLAOW. I've been in the temple studying for years. I'm a Venom and also a Grand Master. They shouldn't even be fucking with a Venom.
We're not talking about any real martial arts. I assume these are Shaolin rules?
I'm speaking on hierarchy within the Shaolin infrastructure. Dudes like Nas and Jay-Z are Grand Masters. Those are the dudes with the white beards. Some of these new guys think you can just come up and talk to a Grand Master? They're not even in the building yet. They're just getting at the door.
One of my favorite tracks on Wu-Tang Forever was "Black Shampoo," yet you're always catching shade because of it. Why is that?
To me, the whole album was a rugged Yin, and I wanted to put a Yang in there. Queen Latifah actually loved that song, she approached me and said "U-God, 'Black Shampoo'... Mmmmm." That was a RZA beat too.
Let's talk beef. Nas talked about a beef Raekwon and Biggie had around the time Ready to Die dropped. Did that beef involve the rest of the Clan members?
Nah, you know what that was? Back then, he was a hood nigga and we were hood dudes. We started a little ruckus with each other but it was nothing. If B.I.G. were still around we would have kept doing songs with him. I'm mad we never got a chance to do that. Meth was the only one in the crew who did a song with both Biggie and Pac. When I said "Put a Ruff Rider on my dick, and bust right through em" that was directed at The LOX when they were down with Ruff Ryders. I didn't mean anything by it, it's just what it was. But see how times change? I had Sheek on my last album, and I have Styles on this one, and I'll probably get Jada on the next album.
On "A Better Tomorrow" you imply that your son was hit by a stray bullet. Can you shed some light as to what happened that day?
Yeah, he was hit by two stray bullets. He lost his kidney and dislocated two of his fingers. I wasn't there since I was in California at the time. He was with his babysitter. That's how the Stapleton Housing Projects are. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He's making music under the name INTell. Are you glad he's following in your footsteps?
He's gonna do what he wants at the end of the day. I tell my son he could do anything he's wants to do, as long as it's to the best of his ability. I just tell him that this rap game is rough and that what his father achieved and what his uncle Meth achieved might not happen to him. So I make sure that he has a back-up plan just in case.
Speaking of stray bullets, Zimmerman was acquitted and got off scot-free. What's the U-God verdict on him?
He made a bad decision. If he went to jail he was going to get torn up. Now that he's out on the streets, he better change his identity because motherfuckers are gonna get him. Any which way, he's fucked. When I'm in a situation like him I do the Ghandi. You should let people cross the line first and provoke you, and then do something about it. In my career I've mastered the Ghandi. I've had to. I'm not going back to jail. I had anger issues and went through a lot of shit in these past 20 years and I never had therapy or any of that. Black people don't do therapy. We just smoke a little weed and handle it.
You released your last album under the moniker U-Godzilla, is that more of a permanent name change or just an alter ego like Tony Starks or Bobby Digital?
My nickname is Zilla because I'm a beast on the mic. I have a whole bunch of names now. I've got Billy Gramz, and I had Hammer Jack back when I was on my gun shit.
What gun shit?
You don't wanna talk about that. When I was your age, boy, I was a terror. I was a totally different person. I come from a time when New York City was so wild you couldn't wear your chain out. Just tell Guiliani thanks. They cleaned this shit up. It was a pig-sty. I carried a gun on me since I was 14 until I was 22 years old and thought nothing of it. When crack hit, it made it even worse. It was a crazy time. I'm just glad this shit is behind us. The streets will always be there and depending on how you're taking it and how you're moving, it could wipe you out or elevate you to a higher plane.
And you prevailed through that?
I had to. I've got bullet wounds and war scars, but now I'm a civilized man. I've grown a lot. When I was growing up, I thought everything was whatever. I thought it was OK to have a gun, and I didn't realize I was a menace to society. That's the mentality of the poor, deprived, and disenfranchised neighborhoods. You don't realize how fucked up you are until you leave. It's impressive to see how VICE moves in one unit, and for one common cause. And Wu-Tang is the same shit. But if I came in here back in the day I would of probably been like, what the fuck is all this bougie shit and all these white people. I was ignorant, man. Super ignorant. I was in the dug out for three years. Know what I mean?
You took a trip up north?
Shit, I've been everywhere, man. I've been in Brooklyn House, Rikers, Manhattan House, Bare Hill, Franklin, up-state, and down state. I've been all over. It ain't nothing.
This was around the time that 36 Chambers was being produced. Were you afraid you missed the boat in terms of production?
Oh I missed a lot of production. I fucked up. I'm kind of mad I didn't get on a lot of beats. If I was around I would have been on a lot more joints. I haven't been in the spotlight. My brothers were in the spotlight. There's only room for one at a time and there's too much artistry among us to always keep it together. We all have to let it out through other outlets. When I'm with my brothers, all I have do is 16 bars. No matter how much exposure each of us are getting, every time we're up next, we make it count.
And you're OK with that?
Hell yeah. I'm a team player. I win. If my jump shot is off but your jump shot is on, I'm gonna pass you the ball, ten out of ten times, but you better make it. Right now, they're passing me the ball. They know I'm nice, and they see me open.
You're all winning at the end of the day.
Exactly, my G.