LSD Magazine interviews Cilvaringz (Wu Tang)

Scion of the legendary Wu Tang Clan, Cilvaringz overcame astonishing odds to take his place in one of the most influential hip hop collectives in history. Hitting the heady heights of international stardom with a magnetic cocktail of sublime lyrical flow, heaving beats, and a conscious, politically engaged lyrical canvas, Ringz is now a universally respected artist, manager and producer. Conquering his dream, he rolled the geopolitical and cultural maelstrom of the post 9/11 world radically across the beat, the street and the international heat, opening up debate and a fiercely dynamic dialogue with power, policy and identity.  He took a moment out from strategising his upcoming tour to tell us his story and have a remarkably free exchange of ideas with LSD

How the hell did a Moroccan guy from a small town in Holland end up part of the Wu Tang Clan?

I was playing a lot of basketball in my teens for the South Dutch team, and with the initial passion for the game and the culture within it, the hip hop just fell into place. We had begun listening to hip hop on and off the court and one day, a friend of mine comes up to me with a tape that he had done, I took one listen, and thought to myself…’let me see if I can do that myself!’ I pulled in one of my teammates from the basketball courts to see if we could lay down a rap, and we had so much fun doing it that it became almost addictive as we kept nailing one and trying another and over time it started sounding better and better. At that point you start dreaming about going pro and looking at your idols like Snoop, Dr Dre and the Wu Tang in a different light, wondering if it might actually be possible to finish up on stage with them one day. My journey into hip hop started around the same time that the Wu Tang Clan put their first album out, and I became a super big fan, going to all their gigs and snapping up all their records until one day I heard that group was expanding to take on new members and I was basically crazy enough to believe that that might just be me.

In 1997 when they were Grammy nominated and at their peak, they announced a May show in Amsterdam and while I bought my tickets the second they went on sale, I went off to New York in February. Standing in Times Square with all these huge ‘W’ ‘s everywhere, the sheer enormity of the Clan hit me and I’ve got to say, definitely discouraged me. No matter where I went – billboards, Virgin Megastore displays completely decked out in the colours, 20 foot banners – the Wu was EVERYWHERE and I was awestruck into thinking ‘Fuck…there’s just no way I can crack this’ The dream took a bit of a battering at that point and in the time leading up to the May gig, my visions of a future with the Wu certainly calmed right down. But May came and they hit town riding the phenomenal success of their second record. We were right up front for the whole 3 hour show when they suddenly launched a freestyle session for local talent to jump up. Now I was a bit shy, but my cousin who was with me literally pushed me toward the stage making it look like I was pushing my way through, and before I knew it, Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were pulling me up and putting the mic in my hands. A total blur descended on me and I just started rapping. There was no getting into it, no letting it sink in….I just launched straight into my rap with Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard flanking me. RZA, the leader of the Wu Tang was standing over by the DJ table, not really participating, but as I started to settle into my panicked flow, I noticed that they were all getting into it. Ol’ Dirty had this big smile plastered across his face and was looking back at RZA as if to say ‘This is pretty cool’. What RZA told me years later was that it wasn’t that they were blown away by my raw talent, but that I looked like such a nerd with my glasses and retro haircut rapping away on stage in all my hip hop clothes! For him, the impressive aspect was less my rapping, but this kind of Clark Kent persona I had going on – this nerd that suddenly turns into Superman when he gets on stage.

So as I finished to a cheering crowd and I’m getting back pats from all the members, RZA pulls me over to the back of the stage. He told me that he liked what he’d heard and what he’d seen, that he was starting a Wu international label and would I maybe want to be a part of that!! The very moment he said it and I was trying to savour the golden glow washing over me, Ol’ Dirty was on stage touching some girl’s boobs. Well her boyfriend was not only in the audience, but he took it pretty bad, he and his crew jumped on stage and suddenly this massive fight broke out. Security grabbed everyone who wasn’t part of the group and threw them off the stage including me with the words ‘Fuck Yeah RZA’ still on my lips. So I lost contact, but you know – I was happy and I had one serious story to brag to all my friends with – and boy did I milk it for a while. As I got back from Amsterdam to my home town – the full weight of what I had done began to sink in. Inevitably you start thinking – what if that fight had never happened??? Would I have gone back to the hotel with them and been flown into New York to sign a contract for millions…you know all these crazy thoughts and finally, I decided I was going to go look for him in New York.

Now I was going to New York anyway for the February sales. My friends and I went every year for the latest clothes, official Wu Wear, music, vinyl, merchandise – you name it, we would buy it and then show off like crazy once we got back to Holland. But while the first time was with my friends on the scheduled trip, I went back another 5 times in 18 months….all to look for RZA. Now that’s madness….I mean where the hell do you even start looking for the Wu Tang Clan?  Me – I started by asking random people on the street who just looked at you like you were fucking crazy. But funnily enough, every trip, I would meet someone from Wu Tang whether it be a member, his mother, his brother or his uncle, and I started to get closer and closer…just VERY gradually! Eventually, on one of these lunatic trips, I ended up at the Wu Wear store in Staten Island and RZA’s sister had just opened Wu Nails…yep a nail salon – no joke and it was really big – don’t forget, at this point, the Wu Tang brand was so all encompassing that they were about to open a theme park in Fort Lauderdale. Anyway, I hit the nail salon and there was RZA’s mother and sister. I gave them my demos, my letters and my lyrics, and even then it was still a pipe dream because you never thought that they would ever actually make it into his hands. But amazingly enough, his sister gave me her phone number and it turned out much later that she’d been passing on everything I gave her all along and he’d been checking it. It’s fucking unbelievable – just pure unadulterated luck with a little push from some insane dreaming on my part.

On my fifth trip, I found out where the record label was, and decided to basically camp outside the building from an hour before it opened to an hour after it closed. He had to come through at SOME point. First day dug in outside the label I meet the entire fucking Wu Tang Clan……..but him. I had 10 demos on me and after laying a copy on each of them, I was left with just one. It was 6 pm, the building was closing, but as the group was leaving, RZA’s sister comes by, recognises me, asks me what fresh level of weird stalking I’ve reached now, and with this really warm smile on her face, invites me upstairs. Her and his uncle had been incredibly kind to me throughout, pre-warning me about events RZA might be at. Then I’d fly to NY just for that and somehow never managed to pin him down…although one episode that had me kicking myself in hindsight  was a launch party a few doors down from the studio where RZA’s uncle conspiratorially said to me, ‘he’s not far from here’ and it never clicked that he meant the studio!!

So we get upstairs and the place is flooded with Tarantino’s people who had come to talk about the music for Kill Bill (way back in 1999) and RZA’s sister strides over to the tape deck , puts my demo on and cranks it really loud to see how people react to it. Now all I was doing was systematically scanning the walls, because there were all kinds of phone numbers up there and I was just looking for RZA’s. The logic was – there’s no WAY this is going to work , so just mine it for all the information you can get. I finally saw RZA’s number and was trying to edge close enough to read it clearly without giving the game away when people started going ‘Yo – who’s this’ and RZA’s sister is doing this totally priceless PR for me and bigging me up. Suddenly, Ghostface Killa calls from jail (he was doing time for beating up MASE – one of Puff Daddy’s artists) and she gets on the phone saying ‘Ghost – I’m going to play you something down the phone – see what you think’. She plays him the demo over the phone, and he liked it and again, that for me was already enough. As long as I knew that I had what it took to enter the Wu Tang world, then I’m good. I started to perceive it in a different way – you know, I might not join the Clan in the end, but you got this far, people at this level like it, and that is already fucking amazing. But my fairy godmother wasn’t done yet. When she heard Ghost’s reaction, she called RZA and basically said ‘You HAVE to get down here right now, because that guy who’s been sending you shit for years…well he’s here, everyone’s  loving it, and you have to be right here right now.

He came in, said a quick ‘Peace, what up’ to everyone, went straight into the office and 30 seconds later I could hear my demo pounding through the walls of his office. He listened to about half of it, came out and called me into his office. I mean – this is just something that doesn’t happen – some real Hollywood shit and there’s all of Tarantino’s people waiting their turn patiently. His office was tiny, and he’s sat in this chair with his fingertips together looking at me and my friend. One seriously long uncomfortable silence later, he says ‘look..I’ve got all your demos and your letters, and here it is. I don’t think you’re that great a rapper just yet but under the guidance of the Wu Tang Generals (he spoke in this total Shaolin style) I think we may have something. I’m going to assign you to the label just because your motivation and determination shines through so clearly.’ I just felt my friend’s hand tightening on my shoulder as he said ‘here’s my phone number and my address – come over to the house later and we’ll talk.’ Well as soon as I had that, I was fine because I was going to stalk the fuck out of him if he changed his mind…. ‘Remember what you said that day!!’ And suddenly you’re hanging with the Wu Tang.

He gave me some beats and told me that he was coming over to the Wu Villa in Paris later that year and that we would seal the contract there. I would call him every now and again, and he would…you know…pick up and I started to record. After that I started to realise that even now, it wasn’t all going to drop on my lap. You had to chase him up for studio time and I learned enough in those months to book things myself, get producers in, get Wu Tang members in to guest, book hotels and basically take the initiative for my own project. I was all over the Dutch press at the time – this kid from the nationally irrelevant town of Tilburg who had made it to the Wu Tang – I was everywhere and a friend of mine in a band gave me an invaluable piece of advice. He told me to use this wave of national fame to go shopping for a really favourable publishing deal and I landed this huge advance from EMI with an incredible split of 85% to 15% which was known as the Springsteen Split at the time because you had to have that level of solid gold bankability to be able to get a deal like that. Not for the first time, I had this amazing luck, landing on all the right lawyers and advisors, and with that advance from EMI, I produced my own album rather than languish in the queue for Wu Tang studio time. The main Wu Tang members did it all for free too – and that was not a given, because if there was a budget – brother or not – you gonna pay up.

You weren’t black. You wore glasses. You had a different history.  How important was it for you to carve your own identity.

It wasn’t in the beginning because I was copying everything they did. I was a total wannabe. If they came in with 2 different colour shoes they’d had customised by their guy in SoHo, I’d have a pair the next day. Their slang? I copied it. So in the beginning I was rapping about swinging swords and cutting heads off – all that Shaolin kung fu shit. I didn’t even know what I was talking about – it just sounded like some cool shit. All the newest slang – I was with it straight away even though I had no idea what the fuck it meant. Shit, I ended up talking about shooting people and how the black man was superior to the white man. ‘Kill the white devil???’ I would say all of that. My album was wrapped just before 9/11, and as 9/11 happened, my outlook on the world took a radical shift. Politics and religion came into play and I started looking within and exploring my own thoughts and my own identity. So when I listened back to my album it just hit me…’That there…..that’s some bullshit’ Certain songs had been leaked, and all the Wu Tang and wider hip hop forums were analysing it wondering why the fuck this guy was talking about monks with swords. And that was superb criticism because it reinforced the growing feeling within myself that this was not representative self expression. And I realised that I already had the Wu logo on my CD, that I was part of this group, and that in itself would open doors and ensure acceptance by a loyal fan base. Why not weave a message into the music or at the very least, look within and come out rapping from the heart. I re wrote the whole record from that moment. But it was a difficult journey to reach that point, because you don’t want to be that nerd, and it takes a degree of security within yourself to explore your own ideas and build your own creative identity.

Where is the balance between rhythm, voice and story that makes a great rapper.

There’s no formula. I can only give you my personal perspective on what makes a great rapper. Take Eminem on his first 3 records for example. He had beats that were alright, but he would have my attention for the entire 4 minutes – even for the 6 minutes of Stan. That beat never changed once, but he made the song so picturesque that he held me for the duration, painting a picture that I could see clearly. That’s what makes a rapper great to me – keep my attention. Because it does just boil down to rap – chorus – rap – chorus. There’s not going to be any bridges in there, no sophisticated song structure – this is hip hop. Look at Method Man…. he can be talking about farting, but he’ll do it in a flow where he plays with his voice, plays with melodies, works together different flows and the way he puts it down is so incredible that it makes him an interesting rapper. Other rappers have a very dark or gravelly voice that infuses everything they do and sets them apart. Then you have guys like Jay Z, who I never got, but New Yorkers were all over because he spoke directly to their issues and they could relate to him. He’s a great rapper, but it’s only now that I’ve started to get him, and it took a long time. Tupac’s another one that I never understood – still to this day. It was all the same fucking song about drive by’s, bitches and police.

There is this stereotype about hip hop, and while many of them did come from the street, do stories evolve as success changes their circumstances?

Absolutely. If you listen to Jay Z, he’s not talking about crack and hustling anymore. Neither is Puff Daddy or Lil Wayne. The problem is, now you’re going to hear about the bling, the bitches and the cars. Just yesterday I was looking at some of Lil Wayne’s videos and it’s all the same shit… ‘I make this much money and I’ve got this many girls. As soon as she sees me she wants to do this to me, then I drive away in my Lamborghini to my big fat house.’ It’s still the personal story that was always at the heart of hip hop but now it’s just fucking boring to me. I’m deeply disillusioned with rap right now. Even Eminem, once he was done telling the story about his mother, his childhood, the ecstasy pills he takes and all the craziness he tells so vividly, he’s at a point now where he’s said it all. This is someone who on a storytelling level was possibly the greatest rapper of all time, and now that we’ve heard the driving passions of his identity, the stuff he’s rapping about now, is not only uninteresting, but actually quite irritating. Now he doubles his voice everywhere and is doing all this horror movie shit. It’s no Stan. So yes, they evolve, but it was much more interesting to me when they were going through all these harsh internal and external realities. Even if I couldn’t relate to the gangster shit and I can’t relate to this private jet shit, at least on a gangster level sounded a bit more vibrant and real.

Is hip hop a victim of its own commercial success?

Yeah. I mean some of these rappers are now so powerful that they don’t need to listen to the record label. They used to be to blame, because they would come in and say right – you’re going to talk about the big screen TV, this brand, this car and these rings. Now there’s no record label that can tell someone like Lil Wayne what to do.

But you explored religion, politics and American power in your work. If you have run out of personal stories as a rapper, isn’t it time to start developing wider themes and rap as an author for the street?

It depends if you’re a storytelling type of rapper. That’s the problem. A lot of these artists, like DMX for example, were so successful with their first record that the label forced a second out in the same year. Now how much can he go through in those months for him to sound different or come with a new story. He can’t. Artists like Michael Jackson or Sade would leave 6 or 7 years between records, and in that time you’ve almost forgotten about them, but when they do come back, they come back strong with new experiences and a fresh angle. Dr Dre in a whole career from NWA to the present only put out 2 solo albums – The Chronic and The Chronic 2. Not only is it interesting every time, but when he does come back, the instinctive respect makes you open to what he has to say now, and that gives longevity to their careers. But DMX put out 6 albums in 3 years and now he’s a nobody. 50 Cent sold 11 million copies of his first album, but his second record came through so fast that it dropped to 3 million. Why? Because it was all too fast, too saturated – he was every fucking where. His most recent record only sold 500,000. You’d heard it all, how he grew up, how his mother was shot, how his father was shot, how he was shot. But you do have to respect these artists on a business level. 50 Cent did a commercial for Vitamin Water and took a stake in the company rather than a fee, so when Coca Cola bought the brand for $4 billion, he cleared 10%. Jay Z’s rich – why??? Because of music?? No, because of his Rocawear that he sold for $200 million. Diddy the same with his Sean John fashion label. It’s the clothing lines that took them to the big leagues, not the few records they sell.

Has an art form that was once the perfect mirror to the street become a perfect mirror to the worst excesses of capitalism, and shouldn’t there be some form of social responsibility toward all the kids out there that idolise these rappers?

Yeah, but in the end the effect on the individual teenager comes down to how you were raised and the values your outlook is based on. I knew the gold and the diamonds were all bullshit when I was 15, and so did you.  But American kids just don’t. Method Man summed it up perfectly in an interview recently. ‘If a guy comes up to a kid and says I’m a rapper, the kid will not say – OK rap something for me and let’s see what you got lyrically, he’ll say where’s your gold chain.’ That’s what defines a rapper these days. And the kids see wealth as a means to freedom rather than creativity as a means to a deeper freedom.

And what happens when a rapper tries to critique this status quo?? They get dismissed as old school – and that ain’t no compliment. How is someone like KRS 1 or Chuck D going to attract some young kid these days over Lil Wayne. The videos, the MTV presence, Lil Wayne is everywhere and sells 3 million an album. Chuck D for all his conscious lyrics and social awareness has a hard time selling 40,000. The time when rap was an active window onto social reality is gone. Jay Z is getting phonecalls from Obama who says his favourite album is Blueprint 3 (by Jay Z) which is full of the N word. It’s changed beyond recognition and in today’s society, it really is that big. Which in a way is positive because it does encourage people to leave a life of violent crime to try and make their fortune with a microphone. If money, gold and bitches can be acquired through singing rather than at gunpoint, surely that is at least one positive aspect of the commercial phenomenon behind hip hop. Ultimately, morality in wider society comes down to the individual and how they were raised. You can’t blame everything on Lil Wayne.

You moved behind the scenes to study entertainment law and began organising tours. How did that come about.

I was initially motivated by the potential for travel. I wanted to visit as many countries as possible and this was the way to do it. It then dawned on me that I could get a bit of self promotion in and that added in an artistic motivation. I was set to go on my first European tour in 2003 as I was finishing off my entertainment law course, and I decided to make the tour itself my graduation project. I had no idea what the organisation behind a tour actually entailed and I started about 6 months before the opening gig. I had no clue that you needed to book tour buses well in advance, no clue about the logistics, and it was very stressful and not enjoyable at all AND it ended up costing me about 2000 Euros, let alone making any money. But on tour itself was great – luxury hotels, a new crowd loving it every night, on stage with RZA, those were all the really cool parts. Before long I began to get my head around the possibility of making a lot of money, and I found myself with an address book full of connections and having organised the RZA tour, all of them were now taking me seriously. RZA spread the word that I was the man to speak to about organising world tours because out of all the crew, I was willing and super organised. The logic of how to put it together very quickly snapped into place for me – it just made sense. Once I’d seen the world though, in about 2006, it became all about the money. I had to assess my position as an artist and affiliated with the Wu Tang, whose own name was declining after 17 years in the game. None of us were going to be popular forever, and I was now married, we’d moved to Morocco with the ambition to build our dream house and try for kids. No- one was going to give an artist that lived on royalties rather than a salary a mortgage, so if we were going to make it, I was going to have to make a shitload of money. This upcoming tour with Method Man, one of the greatest Wu Tang artists is the perfect way to hone my organisational skills, book my brother a killer tour and put some money aside for my house. There’s worse ways to make a living!

You now manage a small stable of Moroccan hip hop artists . How do you see the evolution of Moroccan hip hop both within the national psyche and in the international arena and what future do you see for these artists in a changing world.

I have no idea. I work with all these great artists here, and they rap well, they put out albums, but what is there in the end for them? After a few years, someone is going to come along who is going to outdo them, because that’s how it always goes…..and what are they going to do with their lives then? Start a job? After all the adulation and stretch Hummers of their early twenties? So I’m starting to ask myself, what the fuck is it for. Clichés aside, it’s not like it was when I started. I still experienced the final moments of that heyday when record sales were through the roof, and you could put a record in a store and it would be out there. Today, artists survive on touring and spinoff businesses rather than record sales, and there are no venues for these guys in Morocco. There are festivals, maybe 4 or 5 of them, all in the summer, and any fees for a group like H-Kayne or Fnaire get split across all the members and you as an individual end up with maybe 5000 Euros for the year, a limited lifespan on your career and huge adjustment problems once your star begins to wane. Even the groups themselves…they may get creative fulfilment from the first album, but they are increasingly starting to see it from my point of view. There was a lot of crossover work in Fnaire’s first album, the use of the Arabic language alongside traditional instruments and there is no doubt that it was a creatively spectacular album. Then they got every single 24 carat aspect of their fifteen minutes in the spotlight, but now…they’re saying, what’s next. And sadly there is no next.

All these big stars we see today are fucking lucky that they came up at a time when you could still sell records. What do you do today as a new artist? Everyone says independent is the way forward, but how the fuck am I even supposed to know you exist. Before, you had MTV that would showcase new artists, new singles and help generate a brand. Now it’s reality soap and there’s no music videos on it at all. Yes there’s Youtube, but I would have to search specifically for your artist name. They say there’s more possibility now, but I think that’s made it even more difficult, because now everybody’s making music on their laptop and will never have to master or sound engineer, or invest in top of the range mic because it’s all for Youtube and Limewire anyway. The market is saturated across the board, but it’s especially flooded in hip hop. Shit, you go to any classroom and half the kids are rappers. All these big artists either came up right before it crashed, or they came up under a superstar. Kanye West came up under Jay Z and Drake, who’s been nominated for a Grammy without even having put out an album came up under Lil Wayne.

So you either emerge under the patronage of a superstar, or you’re on your fucking own. Record labels are all going out of business, and the ones that are still afloat aren’t signing anyone new. You can forget artist development deals at a label – there just isn’t the money. So you either put out a clone of a current hit single and accept you’re going to be a one day fly, or you try your luck on the internet. And if the public are just downloading the records in shitty mp3 format from itunes, why would anyone bother to get it mixed and mastered? I pay $99 a year to have my album for sale on itunes. Distributors are gone, labels are gone, and where is the reinvestment ever going to come from to break new frontiers of creativity and sonic excellence. It’s not. What used to be a treasured product that supported the development of the whole industry is now a disposable commodity off some download site. How is that ever going to change? You may get 3 million hits on Youtube with a quirky video, but you’ll probably only sell 10 records, because you can listen to it whenever you want on Youtube for free. I have artists in Holland where one gets 60,000 views and sells 20,000 records, while another gets 5 million hits in Holland alone, and sells 2000 records. What is wrong with this picture.

So the answer is, that I just don’t know what the future holds for any of us. It’s not like dance music where the end user is a DJ who will pay for quality. The end user in hip hop and wider pop music is a kid with a terrifyingly thorough knowledge of download sites. And it’s not even something that you can put down to being a phase, because who is going to volunteer more money out of their own pockets to resurrect an industry whose expertise and infrastructure is falling away. Would you?

Cilvaringz Website