RZA and Paul Banks’ “Love + War” is an early candidate for Video Of The Year. The cinematic first look from the collaborative project, Anything But Words (as Banks & Steelz) feels inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s classic Reservoir Dogs. There’s comedy, blood and gore. There’s a dance sequence. There’s a great escape. It’s the perfect intro to a formidable foray into love and life through the eyes of two of music’s most prolific artists.
“I was kind of into the idea of something with Yakuza,” Banks tells HipHopDX in this exclusive conversation. “I think it was just one of those things where we had some good ideas and they came out better than we could’ve hoped. The director and actors really came through. RZA’s improvising killed it. It’s genuinely funny. It came out well.”
Anything But Words began in 2013, an incredibly productive year for RZA. Also that year, Bricks Mansions was released, the maligned A Better Tomorrow began, as well as the now notorious Wu-Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. In many ways, Banks & Steelz embodies the energy The Abbott hoped to capture through A Better Tomorrow—positivity, hope and inspiration. He even took a breather from the reefer when recording the project.
“I could say that I’m at peace with myself,” RZA explains. “If that’s reflected in my output, then maybe. I’m very cool and confident. I recognize that it’s me. It’s not the drugs. It’s not the money. It’s not this girl or that girl. It’s not the house or the cars. It’s me. I think recognizing that is it. I’m very comfortable.”
But with all of the publicized conflict surrounding The Wu—from popularity based pay tiers between members, to disagreements on artistic direction to Martin Shkreli—is it possible that RZA will ever again be available for another Wu-Tang Clan group album? Bobby Digital answers that question in the conversation below.
The Banks & Steelz Origin Story
HipHopDX: The bio released was about how the two of you play chess often. The way it sounded was that, Paul you lose all the time, but you’re a good opponent. What’s it like playing against someone you lose to all the time?
Paul Banks: That’s kind of how it is if you go online and play someone of a higher ranking. It just sort of feels like an army that’s bigger than yours crossing the border. It feels like it’s inevitable pretty early in the game. I’m not gonna come out of this one on top. That’s the game. I don’t mind losing. I think I always learn when we play. We haven’t gotten to play that often to where it feels like, “What’s going on?” But I haven’t won yet.
RZA: You’re looking at two musicians here that are both accomplished in their own right. The chess was really the leisure time we spent together. It was before we even talked about making music together. My manager Tyler Childs, who’s our manager, thought two cool New York musicians should hang out. He told me to check out Paul at a tequila bar in New York because he’s a good dude. I checked him out. He’s a good dude. We made a night of it, from tequila to noodles to The Park. We ended up having a good time and through our conversation I learned that he’s a chess player. We hooked up and played chess. That was just more of the friendship connection between two musicians having their down time and just chilling. When the idea came to make music, that was almost a year later. That energy was two musicians coming together with no expectations.
DX: That was in 2013, correct?
DX: What was the first track that you completed?
Paul Banks: The first track that we completed that you can hear on the album is probably “Can’t Hardly Feel.” That was one of two demos that got us in talks with Warner Music. We probably made 10 or 12 songs in the first couple of days that we got together. That showed us that there’s something here; that we could work together. But out of those tracks, only two are actually on the record.
DX: What was the other track?
Paul Banks: “Concealed”
RZA: Those two made the record. I remember in the beginning, I have this old drum machine that Sly & The Family Stone used. I never used it yet on none of my productions. I was like, “Maybe this is the sound of ours.” We did a demo on that. Then I was like, “I got all these beats in the MPC.” We was just going through a lot of different music. One song that I liked that we never got to finish was “Love Life.” Even though that song didn’t make our record, the idea of that song is in the spirit of our music: “love and life.”
DX: There are a range of emotions that come through on the project. Sometimes it’s serious and loaded with heartbreak. Sometimes it seems like it’s giving advice or perspective on life. It reminds me of a lot of the stuff you were talking about with A Better Tomorrow. This feels more cohesive.
RZA: I think as far as my energy is concerned, I’m definitely at the level of life where I kind of take it seriously but don’t take it so seriously. I’ve definitely had fun in my day. It’s gonna be sunny days. It’s gonna be cloudy days. You look at a song like “Ana Electronic.” To me, you’ll never find a song like that on a Wu-Tang album. As far as my performance on it, it’s very quirky. I wouldn’t even say it’s lyrical. It’s not like I’m conscious of my lyrical content. I didn’t care about my lyrical content. Sometimes when an artist writes his lyrics, he’s trying to write the best as if he wants everybody to praise him. In the particular song, I was just having fun. It goes along with the fun in the music and the fun that his voice was bringing. It has not gravitas to it. It’s like listening to a Beach Boys’ song.
“Love + War”
DX: “If all is fair in love and war… what are you keeping score for?… Better secure your borders.” That reminds me of when Andre 3000 said “If what they say is nothing is forever, then what makes love the exception… Y’all don’t hear me, you just wanna dance.”
Paul Banks: I’m glad you caught that. That’s kind of at the end, almost in the fade. That’s just the themes of that song, the battles that are waged between the sexes. I don’t know man, that’s my lyrical style. I like things that can be taken on a surface level and a level beneath that. Sometimes it can be fun and silly and then you think about it and it gets a little heavier. In that case, it felt like an appropriate end to the song.
DX: How did Ghostface get on the track?
RZA: He came in the studio. I told him I’m doing this special project. I got this song that I think he could set off. He had his verse before me.
Paul Banks: “Love + War” goes all the way back to that first session. That’s where I first wrote the hook. Then I came back to it. We had 40 songs in different stages of completion since we started. That’s one that I found on an iPod. I was like, “This is one of the best beats that we’ve worked on.” The track almost got lost.
RZA: Ghost came to Electric Lady Studios and laid it down. I remember when he dropped that Cosby line and everyone was like, “That sums it all up.” Imagine a relationship that was that tight that’s now she’s keying up his car. That inspired me. That’s where “She’s bitchin’ / I’m bitchin’ / She’s switchin’ / I’m switchin’ / She’s talkin’ / I’m not listenin’ / I’m bitchin’ about her in the kitchen” came from. I don’t have that in my life right now, fortunately. I’m going to say that out loud. My life is good right now. I’ve definitely been through bad relationships. Sometimes I think that those are the things that teach you and probably make you better for the next relationship. I said “She lacks patience and she’s high maintenance, but for her love, there’s no replacement.” I’d do it all again just to touch her skin.
Paul Banks: That’s “Ana Electronica.”
RZA: That concept of going through pain, but would you do it again? Most likely most of us will. You ever break up with a girl before?
DX: I have broken up with a girl before.
RZA: And when you see her, you’re kind of angry with her, right?
DX: It depends on how we broke up.
RZA: But if she was to give you some more, would you kind of let it slide that day?
DX: I might not be the best example. I haven’t had a relationship end for a reason that I regretted. But I understand the sentiment.
DX: “Love & War” is the leadoff track from the album. The video is cinematic. It’s reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. In my opinion, it’s the best video of the first half of 2016. It’s dark. It’s hilarious. There’s a great escape. Did you know guys know it was going to be the single, and how long did it take you to put the visual together?
Paul Banks: I don’t think we necessarily think of it as a single. It’s just an album track that we thought was representative of this project and good first look for people to get used to the idea. I don’t know if I need to make that distinction. As far as the visuals, that was just the process of developing the concept with the director. I was kind of into the idea of something with Yakuza. I think it was just one of those things where we had some good ideas and they came out better than we could’ve hoped. The director and actors really came through. RZA’s improvising killed it. It’s genuinely funny. It came out well.
DX: You’re pretty quiet in the video. I don’t think you have a line.
Paul Banks: I don’t say shit.
DX: What have you learned from each other in the studio?
Paul Banks: I’ve learned a lot mixing, a lot about being an artist, about being a musician. I’ve learned a lot about being a person. It’s been a very fulfilling collaboration creatively and personally.
RZA: Vice versa. One of the coolest things for me is that Paul is a very capable man. He’s very capable of doing and handling himself. It’s not long goodbyes. He’s dependable. When we’re making our music, there’s times where I could burn out, but he’s not burnt. It could be times where I’m taking a chill and I’m like, “Cool.” It’s like two pilots and no matter what, the plane’s gonna stay in the air. That’s how this album’s been recorded. He knows how to use Pro Tools. If this engineer’s missing my punch, he’s sitting right there to catch my punch. Same thing vice versa. That kind of energy comes across in our music. It definitely was a great experience collaborating in the studio where the pressure wasn’t all on me.
Paul Banks: The Reservoir Dogs [comparison] wasn’t conscious. We didn’t say “Let’s make a Tarantino-esque video.” But the film connection, we have a lot in common as far as being very passionate about film. I think that’s speaks to what we do with our video stuff and just as far as being in the studio and having good banter. There’s a lot for us to talk about.
DX: It does look like that classic scene is Reservoir Dogs. My favorite line on the album is “History’s irrelevant / Knowledge is relevant.”
RZA: That’s right. That’s something that to me, is an accurate statement. Anytime anyone says anything it’s objective or subjective. History can be irrelevant, but knowledge is always relevant. What inspired that lyric was the idea that you always hear people saying “Are you relevant?” Knowledge is always going to be relevant. I don’t care if you’re Lee Scratch Perry at the age of 60 on tour, if you have something that’s unique, you’re always gonna be relevant. Don’t let nobody take that out of you. There are certain things that I’ve been through that a lot of people haven’t been through. They could go through it or they could skip going through it and do something stupid. You can take my knowledge and experience it through that. No need for you to touch the stove, kid. I’m letting you know it’s hot. Knowledge is always relevant. I’m glad you caught that line.
DX: It’s an extremely well written project. It doesn’t sound forced.
Paul Banks: I think we had a good range because, as RZA was talking about on “Ana Electronic,” some of the stuff is more looser and more playful. There’s say what’s fun. Say what’s in the moment. Then we have stuff that’s a little more studied and RZA’s bringing science. The record has a good balance between action, drama, romance and goofiness at times.
RZA: What’s that line you have? “Time will take your place in no time.” You hear that? That’s a big line to meditate on. A lot of people put things off. Just because you put it off, doesn’t mean it ain’t gonna happen by somebody else. Your vision, your dream, your ideas will come from someone else. That line was hitting me the other day when we were shooting a video. I was like, “I know what I gotta do tomorrow.” [Laughs]
RZA & Kool Keith’s First Collaboration
DX: “Sword & The Stone” features Kool Keith. I think that may surprise some people. I’ve never known Kool Keith to stop rapping. I get a new Kool Keith song weekly. Why’d he make sense for this project?
RZA: Paul Banks knows Hip Hop. He’s a fan of the genre. Even me being Hip Hop, I probably missed some of the years of the genre because I’m doing it, so I’m not paying attention to what’s behind me. He schooled me on some of the acts I missed. I didn’t miss Kool Keith. I remember buying two copies of Ultramagnetic MCs. Me and Ghost, that’s our joint. Paul’s the one that brought up Kool Keith.
Paul Banks: He’s one of my favorite MCs. I still buy his music. He’s a big inspiration for me as an artist because I feel like he’s always fresh. He’s found a way to tap into creativity that’s always authentic. I’m just a big, big fan. We were just talking about rappers that I like and I guess it just came up. I wanted him on a song. I think it’s interesting that RZA and Kool Keith hadn’t worked together before. So this is the first time that you’re getting a Kool Keith on a RZA beat.
RZA: We had kind of talked about it before. He would be like, “Yo, we gotta do one together.” I’d say, “Yeah, we gotta do one.” And we never did it but now we’ve done it. Bong Bong. We made history.
Paul Banks: As a rapper, he did something in the studio I’m not used to. He mapped out his verse one way, then from one take to the next, he shifted the entire verse back a beat. I was listening to it at first like, “Ok, this is dope, but it’s not exactly what I know and love about Kool Keith.” Then he shifted the whole verse back one beat and then it sounds like Keith. Then all of his punctuation was sitting in weird places but he didn’t mess up the take. He knocked it out top to bottom.
DX: Method Man and Masta Killa appear on “Point of View,” which feels sort of like a solemn ending to me.
RZA: They popped in on a late night. We was at Electric Lady Studios in New York. I told them I was working on a new project. Wu brothers: we love eating up the mic. I told Meth I’d take eight bars. I think it was the right energy because the song itself is already unpredictable. You’re not expecting it to go there. I love how the song continues to play out. It’s the last song on the album and the last song we chose to put on the album. We wasn’t sure if we were gonna have an 11 song album. We talked about 11 songs for months. It was like, “Point of View” would make it 12. One of my favorite songs is “Can’t Hardly Feel.” I thought about cutting it because it’s so soft. The rest of the team was like, “Nah, you can’t cut ‘Can’t Hardly Feel.’” So if not that, which one? I’m glad we did go 12 songs and I’m glad Meth and Masta Killa were able to participate with [the] Banks & Steelz vision. We recorded three songs with Ghostface for the project, but that was the most uptempo and the most dynamic. There’s another one where he said some shit about Slick Rick. It’s called “The Whole Way.” That’s kind of talking about going from 1987 and the dream of trying to be what we are now using an old school style of cadence.
Paul Banks: That’s gonna come out, though. That’s gotta come out. That song’s awful. “Point of View,” you said that song’s solemn. I think it shows how weird it is structurally and all over the place. Some of the music is very polished. That song is just kind of fun and spontaneous and wacky. I think it kind of shows people that behind the scenes of the studio experience and that it’s like this sometimes. No parameters. I don’t see it as solemn, but more like, “where are you gonna go from there?”
DX: This next question is from one our interns, Aaron Marshall. He was really impressed with the flows you used on the album, RZA and wants to know how they were chosen.
RZA: It wasn’t intentional. I’ll make a small confession to him. At least 75% of the final performances is actually a sober RZA. I think that that allowed me to consciously do it rather than subconsciously do it. A lot of my songs, especially my solo projects, I’m smoking, get high and go. Fuck it. Bobby Steelz, the name comes from when we were doing Cuban Linx. That’s a very focused character. I strived to let that spirit bleed into a lot of my performances on this record. I did one thing in the studio as well. Some MCs scat their verse and then write their rhymes. I applied that. I didn’t do that a lot in the past. I would just do the rhyme. This time I just did whatever I was feeling and then did the rhyme.
Will There Be Another Wu-Tang Group Album?
DX: I keep looking at 2013 as a really interesting year for you. Bricks Mansions was released in 2013. A Better Tomorrow was being worked on in 2013. You went live instrumentation and analog for that project. The initial idea for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin came around at that time. This project came around at that time. What was happening with you in your life at that time creatively?
RZA: I don’t know, to be honest with you. I could say that I’m at peace with myself. If that’s reflected in my output, then may be. I’m very cool and confident. I recognize that it’s me. It’s not the drugs. It’s not the money. It’s not this girl or that girl. It’s not the house or the cars. It’s me. I think recognizing that is it. I’m very comfortable.
DX: With some of the challenges that were around A Better Tomorrow with getting Wu-Tang back together again or getting them to experiment with a new perspective and sound. I wonder whether we’ll see another Wu-Tang group album again. It’s mostly where you seem to be going versus the rest of the Clan, because many of them are having great success, too.
RZA: To be honest, I don’t even worry. It’s like, if a signal goes up, we all respond to the signal. The cool thing about Banks & Steelz is the conscious effort of independent energy joining. It’ll take that energy for me to do almost anything nowadays. I’m a collaborative person. But when you’re working on a film, the DP can get any job. The grip can get any job. But when you’re bringing people to a job who are independently who they are coming together to fulfill that job, that to me is what we have here. And if that energy comes from other places, and it’s within the timeframe of my creative energy, I’m with that. But now, as I see it, this is a very comfortable way to create. It’s a long trip. I might fall to rest. But at least I got another driver.