Acclaimed rapper and producer RZA, most notably of the iconic New York group the Wu-Tang Clan, has long been a fan of Chinese culture. Anyone who has followed his more than two decades' worth of music knows that fight sounds and dialogue from kung fu films have peppered portions of his albums.
Lately, Robert "RZA" Diggs and partner Mustafa Shaikh have taken that love of Asian philosophy and history and created 36 Chambers, a contemporary menswear line that recalls the name of the Clan's 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The line, which ranges from jackets to wallets and pins, with prices starting at just $5, is available for purchase this Friday via 36Chambers.com.
Billboard spent some time with the pair to talk about why they came back to the Chambers name, where RZA's love for Asian culture comes from and the pieces in the line they are most proud of.
Naming the line 36 Chambers clearly connects it to the Wu-Tang and that classic album. Why was naming it that important to you two?
RZA: It took some time to get to that.
Mustafa Shaikh: We were going to call it Chambers Collection or Wu-Tang Private Label. [RZA,] you're the one that had the breakthrough. I think we wanted to harken back to that first album and what inspired the Wu-Tang Clan. Kung fu. Eastern philosophy. Eastern art. Those are the underpinnings of both the album and the brand.
The golden dragon is featured on some of the pieces. What's the significance of it to you?
RZA: The Chinese interpretation of the dragon is different from the American's. It's actually a very powerful and spiritual being. It's more helpful than it is destructive. Parts of the dragon can be graceful, but then also destructive to the enemy.
Jin Long, which is basically the golden dragon, was the name given to my first godson. When he was first born, I went down to Canal Street and I got a gold dragon to symbolize his birth. He was born in the year of the dragon. The dragon Jin Long is also a picture that I have up in my family room. And it inspired what I brought to 36 Chambers. So my contribution to it had a personal element to it as well.
Chinese calligrapher Mak Ming Chan's poetry is featured on the hang tags. It's a subtlety that must have been very important to you guys.
Mustafa: I did a lot of research on Chinese art and went to the library and borrowed a bunch of books. I read this 320-page book, and what came out of it was that back in the sixth and seventh centuries, Chinese culture, to be a true Chinese scholar and artist, you had to master three things, and one of them is calligraphy. Most people don't know that calligraphy is a poetry. So the tags have a dragon on it and we went to [Mak Ming] in San Francisco. He created beautiful poems for us in calligraphy.
We were able to transpose that and put it on our name tags. We put so much time and effort into the small things. All that was just for our name tags and it was worth it! Everything is a collectible and everything should appreciate. Hopefully, we can put a line out every season and educate people about Chinese culture, because we're telling an interesting story.
RZA, when the Wu-Tang Clan first dropped the 36 Chambers album, most thought the kung fu and Chinese influences wouldn't be something you'd pull inspiration from decades later. What about that culture is so important to you?
RZA: When you think about the Asian culture, it's one of the few that actually preserved its history in more detail than a lot of other cultures. Their principles of righteousness, physicality, spiritual growth, enlightenment… the poetry, chivalry, swordsmanship, all of those are great qualities for any human, whether you're Asian, Caucasian, black American, Native American. They're useful. During my period of development, I had to find those things in Asian culture, because they were buried in other cultures. And it hasn't been tampered with or diluted. It has a universal message.
What are your favorite pieces from the line?
Mustafa: My favorite piece is the velour mandarin jacket. It's a cut that's traditional in Chinese culture. It has a high collar. I finally got my own in my size. [RZA] is a large and has everything at his disposal.
RZA: All of my cousins have been hitting me up about that souvenir jacket. You're not alone. But the one that I'm most proud of is the wallet. When you're conscious, you want to try to live up to your consciousness. You're not going to throw a plastic bottle in the ocean because you're conscious of what plastic does. So for us, it was important to make a wallet that stays away from animal skins. I was very proud that we were able to do that. No animal had to die.
Mustafa: That sold out in about [two days]. I think people are looking for products that don't involve harming the environment or animals.
What type of person wears 36 Chambers?
Mustafa: I want to wear fresh clothes. I didn't really feel like there were too many lines out there that were speaking to me or people like me -- someone who was influenced by hip-hop. Someone who maybe years ago would have bought an LRG jacket. And when I go out, I want something that's a little nicer. I don't want to go to a bar and see someone else wearing my jacket. I want people to come up to me and be like, "What's up with that jacket?" That's who I envision wearing it.