Even the hardest of rappers — members of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan — underwent a range of emotions when it came time to record songs for their fifth studio album, “8 Diagrams.”
For emcee Masta Killa, there was the joy of working with funk icon George Clinton on the track “Wolves,” which also includes verses from Clan members U-God and Method Man. Masta Killa called his mother to share the news that he’d be collaborating with Clinton, whose music his mother used to play at home when he was growing up.
Then came “Life Changes,” a tribute to late Wu-Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who will be noticeably absent when the group headlines Jan. 13 at Toad’s Place in New Haven.
“That track (messed) me up,” Masta Killa said in a Jan. 3 interview from a Las Vegas hotel room. “It still kind of (messes) me up every time I hear it because I miss my brother, you know? I’m not even the type of dude that distills too much. When I say distills, I mean cry. I’m one for sucking it up and turning it into positive energy. But even when I was writing that, I had a shed a tear or two. It was hard. And I did it in the studio where he expired at. It was kind of tough.”
So was hearing the final version of “Windmill,” a song that left Masta Killa puzzled. You see, super-producer RZA — the lone Clan member who has yet to appear on stage on this tour — seemed to have confused two of Masta Killa’s verses. He used one that previously appeared on “Older Gods Part 2” from the emcee’s “Made In Brooklyn” solo LP.
“It was a misunderstanding between me and RZA as to which lyric I told him I used,” Masta Killa said. “I would have never been on the song, especially coming after GZA with how he said that (stuff) about the chess concept and all of that. It’s like he killed that. I’m still disciplined enough to know if one emcee murders a track, you don’t get on behind him with no (garbage) or some (stuff) you already said. You’ve gotta come at a level of play of originality, wittiness, flow — everything that should be right to match the level of play that’s already said. Or get the (heck) up off the track.”
Born Aug. 18, 1969 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Masta Killa was given the name Elgin Turner after former L.A. Lakers star Elgin Baylor, one of his heroes growing up. Later on, the basketball and boxing fan liked the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.
Masta Killa’s father exposed him to soul music by the Delfonics and Blue Magic, while his mother played albums by Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, the Manhattans — and funk stars George Clinton and Rick James. Both parents were singers.
An only child, Masta Killa got into kung-fu movies early on. As it turned out, so did his future Wu-Tang Clan brethren.
“Oh, man, I can remember my first kung-fu encounter was probably seeing some Bruce Lee (film),” Masta Killa said. “And from there, there was something that came on Saturday afternoons at 3 o’clock sharp called the ‘Channel 5 Movies.’ They would show these different kung-fu movies every Saturday at 3 o’clock, Channel 5. They became like superheroes, like if you were watching the SuperFriends. It was some new (stuff), but they were sort of in a way super-powered.
“You really didn’t even understand the principle of what they lived at that time, but you knew it was basically on some SuperFriend (level) — the righteous against evil,” he said. “And you knew the righteous always prevailed. It was just an attraction. And then, from there, it became the Deuce. Deuce was 42nd Street, and along 42nd Street, there were many kung-fu theaters. You could go up there and see classics. That’s how it began for me.”
In terms of rapping, Masta Killa started out in school, banging on lunchroom tables and spitting rhymes in the hallways and on back staircases.
He started taking the craft seriously after meeting GZA, who would form Wu-Tang Clan in 1992. (In addition to the aforementioned rappers, the group includes Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck.)
“GZA was actually the first one to introduce to me the Wu-Tang sword style of rap, definitely,” Masta Killa said. “When me and GZA hooked up, he was doing it for real. He was doing it serious and he was putting the (lyrics) on paper and it became compositions. There was a different level of play.”
In November 1993, when Wu-Tang released their debut album, “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” eight members had already established their rap styles and identities. Masta Killa, still a student of the game, appeared on just one track, “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin.”
“That rhyme was the only rhyme that I had written at that time — which I call it the birth of me — that actually held the weight of the stature of everything else that was there,” Masta Killa explained.
But by the time Wu-Tang Clan released their next album, 1997’s “Wu-Tang Forever” — which charted at No. 1 and sold more than 8.3 million copies worldwide — Masta Killa was up to speed and then some.
“It’s just like Jordan was in the league many years before he took a championship,” Masta Killa said. “But on his off-season, if he didn’t work to be the perfectionist that he is, then he might have just been a Charles Barkley. I’m not saying Charles Barkley isn’t a great player, but if you want perfection you have to work toward it hard and you’ve gotta work when everybody else is not working. Those styles and those other brothers were perfected already. I was just coming. So if I wanted to even match up or be able to hang or be able to still enhance my style as their styles progressed, I had to work.”
With a catalog of hits that include “Method Man,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Ya Neck,” “It’s Yourz” and “Triumph,” the Clan released their third and fourth albums, “The W” and “Iron Flag,” in 2000 and 2001, respectively. With more gold and platinum under their belts, the members delivered the additional hits “Gravel Pit,” “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” and “Uzi (Pinky Ring).”
Meanwhile, Masta Killa finally released his first two solo albums, 2004’s “No Said Date” and 2006’s “Made In Brooklyn,” both featuring guest appearances by his fellow Clan members and holding closely to the Wu-Tang sound and style.
Seeing fans leave shows on a positive note and wanting more is rewarding for Masta Killa, who said the Clan is sticking to classic material so far on tour.
And what about the group’s lineup, which has remained consistent for 16 years now?
“I mean, that’s what made you love it,” Masta Killa said. “You heard everything. It’s never that you heard three people. You didn’t have the papaya, the mango and the pineapple. You had assorted and you didn’t know what to do! You wanted a little bit of everything, so that was Wu-Tang. If it’s not broke, why fix it? You want to keep the same nucleus of things working as long as you can.”