The RZA on The Tao of Wu

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Anil Sharma / Retna / Corbis

RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan performs at the Rock the Bells Festival at Deer Lake Park in Vancouver

Emerging in the mid-1990s, New York City's Wu-Tang Clan proved to be one of the decade's most intense, wacky and essential rap groups. The nine-MC Clan was led by the RZA, who in recent years has gone on to release several solo albums and film scores (Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill). His latest project, a book released this month called The Tao of Wu, is half-memoir, half-spiritual guide. The rapper and entrepreneur, whose real name is Robert Diggs, talked to TIME about the history of hip-hop, cult films and his love of Broadway.

In The Tao of Wu, you lay out your very unique worldview. I lost track of all the elements involved, which include traditional Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, chess and numerology. If you had only a minute to tell someone about your beliefs, what would you say?
First of all, the tao means the way. And there are many ways to get to a place as long as you stay on the path. So if you want to travel the way of Jesus, the way of the Prophet Muhammad, if you want to travel the way of Buddha or Bodhi Dharma, if you want to travel the way of a great chess master like Kasparov or Fisher — any way you can reach self-enlightenment or self-worth works. Many great men have left paths for us. In the end, we are all searching for the same thing. We're just taking different routes to the same location.

You turned 40 this summer, and you've witnessed essentially the entire history of hip-hop. What stands out?
When I first heard hip-hop, in 1976, there were maybe only 500 people that could do it. Now you got 5 million people. First it was about partying and fun. Then it went to a way to express oneself without having to physically express it. Then after a while, hip-hop became more socially conscious. Then it went to the celebrity [phase]. And now we're in a state where it's unbalanced. A lot of artists don't necessarily have the same substance as they once did. I'm 40, and I went through hip-hop. I lived it. These kids just learned it. They learned it from TV. Their neighborhoods aren't the same as our neighborhoods were. Their problems aren't the same as our problems were. They have a black President! The whole concept of hip-hop has changed. It's become a commodity.

One of the passages in your book talks about the anime movie Dragon Ball Z and how it represents the journey of the black man in America. And it struck me because in Inglourious Basterds, there's a scene about how King Kong represents the plight of the black man in America. Is there another movie or book or piece of art that you think represents what African Americans have had to go through?
Tarantino and I agree on King Kong. I'll give you another movie: John Carpenter's They Live. That's perfect for our times right now. That's where we're at. I saw that movie, and it really made me think. I started bugging out in the mall. I just felt like, wow, there was something about that movie that was real. I got locked up like two hours [after watching it]; I was drunk and acting crazy.

Who are some musicians that you listen to whom your fans probably wouldn't expect?
You know who I love? I love the Bee Gees, and I love Barry Gibb and Andy Gibb. I listen to them almost every day. The arrangements were so simple, right? But they had a taste of complication about them. Grease? I watch that film over and over. The hard-core part of me, people know. But the corny side of me is what they wouldn't know. They wouldn't know that I would go by myself to watch a movie like — what's that one with John Travolta where he dresses like a woman?

Hairspray, yeah. Can you imagine me in a theater watching Hairspray? But I really appreciate choreographed music.

Is there a certain scene in the movie you love?
Every musical performance in there was great. The only one I didn't like was where John Travolta danced with Christopher Walken. That's the only scene that was a little shaky, with the two guys dancing. But to me, every scene, every dance, every lyric resonated. That and Dreamgirls — those movies are modern masterpieces. A lot of people don't recognize the power of Broadway. When I was first successful, about 1998, when I was living very wealthy, I was always going to Broadway shows. From Chicago to Rent to Ragtime.

Would you ever do a Broadway show?
Oh, yeah. I got one ready! That's one of my dreams, to get Wu-Tang on Broadway. I have two entertainment dreams I have to live out. One is to play Carnegie Hall with an orchestra and me on piano. The other is to have a play based on Wu-Tang music. The 36 Chambers needs to be on Broadway, baby!