Gunshots at a promo shoot in Staten Island. Five-figure phone bills in hotels. Plus an offer by ODB to wipe out a shady Swiss promoter for her: Eva Ries‘ autobiography Wu-Tang Is Forever is full of crazy stories about her 20+ years as the international marketing manager in charge of the Wu-Tang Clan. What makes it even more interesting: Eva stems from Mannheim, Germany, is white and had no idea about hip hop when she took the job – before meeting the Clan, she had only worked with rock groups like Nirvana and Guns ‘n Roses. We caught up with the music manager and psychology university teacher for an exclusive interview about the mysticism of the Wu-Tang Clan, “white devils”, timeless music, and more.
I just have to ask you right at the beginning: How many martial arts movies have you seen since 1994? Or how many could you not escape from?
Eva Ries: The latter! How can I put this? [smirks] I have always been bombarded with countless kung-fu movies in the tour bus, but I have only watched them sporadically. The constant clacking of swords [mimicks knife hand strike] and the kicks and people yelling “ah” and “oh”: I don’t know. After some time, I just stuffed earplugs in my ears and tried to sleep [laughs]. I love martial arts, don’t get me wrong. But I just don’t like watching those movies. Thank God, sometimes the TV broke in our tour bus. Then the guys watched it on their computers.
Many readers of your “Wu-Tang Is Forever” book were probably surprised to find out that a German woman was the international marketing manager of the Wu-Tang Clan for over 20 years. Can you tell us once again how your connection from Mannheim to Staten Island came about?
Eva Ries: I came in early in the group’s record career to professionalize it because the label-side needed results. After I had gained the band’s trust, I tried working together with these other ‘personal’ managers surrounding them. But that was not so easy. It’s not just the band: The band was already complicated enough with nine people. Nine different people, nine different personalities. And everyone has an ego problem. Everyone is basically trying to be the best. It wasn’t yet this unity that you might imagine. To onlookers, they always appeared as a unit. Outsiders were often afraid of the Clan. But the Clan was pretty shattered internally, given that there were these very different personalities, who didn’t always get along.
Why did the record company choose you for that job?
Eva Ries: That was pure coincidence. I was sort of put in front of the Clan [laughs]. It wasn’t that the band could have said anything against it. I was chosen by their record company RCA, probably out of several candidates. And I was just sent there, kind of “It’s sink or swim”. Naturally, the Clan looked at me with great suspicion at first because I entered their universe like an alien from another planet. They definitely didn’t open their arms and shout “Hi Eva, we’re so glad you’re here!” Far from it! I was eyed very suspiciously. And everyone was a conspiracy theorist and they said all kinds of things about me.
In your book, you vividly describe your first encounter with the Clan at a photo session. To what extent were any worries of yours confirmed there? And how did the first meeting go?
Eva Ries: I actually had few worries. I was just creeped out when I heard the first songs, more or less. That’s what I described in my book: I was on my honey moon, I heard the pre-release tape of the “36 Chambers” album and I was anything but thrilled. I heard that and thought “For God’s sake! First of all, who listens to and buys something like that? And secondly, what kind of animals are talking on these torture skits?” The brutality of the lyrics really turned me off. Whereas I have to admit that I only understood 20% of the lyrics back then. But I still went into that first meeting with an open mind. Because I thought “My God. Wait and see!”. From a personal point of view, I had no fear or special concerns. I just thought that maybe my record company BMG would set me up for failure with this band. That was my fear. I wanted to prove myself. That’s why I was so disillusioned when I heard this music, this minimalist production, which is considered very good today, of course. But I was not a friend of RZA’s production at that time and I asked myself “Who will buy this, who is our target group?”
The first meeting was … It’s hard to remember. I didn’t really know who was who then, either. I was told the names, I looked at these nine guys. All of them were tall, Black men. And they were always standing together. That’s why I didn’t really recognize their names – which is the result of the fact that I only addressed the guys as “you” during this first photo session. So no “Hey RZA, stand over here” or “Raekwon, do this and that”. I just didn’t know who was who anymore. Out of pure confusion and desperation, I just grabbed them and sort of moved them to where they were supposed to be for this photo – which ended up being the only press photo with all nine members in it.
Last month, “Wu-Tang Forever” celebrated its 25th anniversary. In 1997, you had already been the Clan’s manager for three years and were responsible for the international promo: What was the atmosphere like during the recordings?
Eva Ries: It was also very chaotic. A lot of this album was recorded in L.A., on purpose. I think that was the idea of Steve Rifkin [Founder of Loud Records; editor’s note] because he wanted to keep the so-called ‘distractions’ of New York away from them: Families, girlfriends, all the drug dealers from the neighborhood and their friends. There’s always 40 people per person. Steve wanted to isolate and seal off the Clan. And the best way to do that is in a city where they hardly know anyone.
The idea with L.A. was actually good. They were a little bit out of their comfort zone and a little bit more united. But it wasn’t much easier for me to get my interviews done. Because they were still all over the city. And of course, everyone had a car and then they were on the freeways for ages and went from one place to another. It was basically an even worse radius to catch them, and I was constantly just on the hunt with my own rental car and a horde of journalists in tow, chasing the Clan [laughs].
There were huge expectations for the second album at that time: Were RZA and the rest under pressure as a result?
Eva Ries: RZA was definitely under pressure, that’s for sure. I mean, he has to take the fall at the end of the day. If his production is not good, then we all have a problem. In that sense, the pressure was on RZA the most, but he let it show the least. The others were pretty relaxed about it. Then at some point, a totally crazy villa was rented on Mullholland Drive in the Canyons. Steve always had ideas about how to optimize everything even more. It was a magnificent three-story villa built right into the hillside. Downstairs, there was a big swimming pool and everyone had a suite. It was a huge house where you could get lost. It was what I imagine Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion to be like. Absurd. I also don’t know what the good man ended up paying in cleaning and renovation costs. Because that beautiful sand-colored carpet that was in there was completely destroyed after two weeks when the guys moved out.
Probably including some cigarette burns.
Eva Ries: Exactly, cigarette burns. Exactly.
The Wu-Tang Clan went through a lot since the 90s. Their group albums came out in greater intervals. There were a lot of solo projects and collabos. The sound of hip hop has changed completely several times already. But the Clan is still doing successful tours after 30 years of band history. RZA is in Hollywood. The Wu logo is still everywhere. Their HULU series is super popular. All that said, how would you explain the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan is still relevant today?
Eva Ries: I think on the one hand their music is relatively timeless. They stayed true to themselves, so they haven’t adapted to any new trends. You won’t hear autotune, trap, or I-don’t-know-what. It’s still basically this New York hardcore hip hop that people love. And that’s the way it needs to continue. And I think a lot of that longevity is due to the fact that there’s a certain mystique around this band. There are a lot of things that people don’t know about the Clan. The Clan is not a band that puts itself in the limelight and strips down to its underpants. They basically try to protect their privacy. I mean, what they don’t protect are their eternal quarrels with each other. Everybody knows about those, they’re all over the place. But still: It’s basically unknown what each one of them does in private or in his family environment. For example, if you look at A$AP Rocky and Rihanna. She shows her baby bump everywhere and everyone knows everything about them. It’s all so boring. The Clan never did that. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that there are still some stories and mysteries surrounding this band, and there’s a mysterious aura around the band.
I also think that their iconic logo contributes to that a lot. It has such a symbolic character. Jan Wehn [German hip hop journalist, editor’s note] explained that quite nicely: He started painting this logo at school when he was eight years old. He didn’t even know what it was. But he always thought it was a mysterious bat. Those are the kinds of things that play into it. I’ve heard that from so many people who are in this generation now. Let’s say, those who are 40 now, who grew up with the Clan as children or teenagers, but still couldn’t grasp yet, at 8 or 9 years old, what Wu-Tang is. Nevertheless, they were fascinated by it.
I can’t tell you exactly what it is. But I think it’s also this mixture of their influences in the lyrics that fascinates people. And every single journalist gets out something different from their songs. Because they’re ambiguous.
Especially with Ghostface Killah, for example.
Eva Ries: Exactly. Ghostface is a great example of someone who has such enigmatic lyrics up to the point that whatever you think they superficially mean, is just not the meaning. It’s not his message. And he basically has three potential meanings for most of his verses.
Your book also explains the teachings of the 5 Percent Nation that the Clan practices. Along with that goes their view of the ‘white devils’. How did you, especially as a white woman, gain the trust of the Clan in the beginning?
Eva Ries: I had no real strategy. I think I instinctively took a divide and conquer approach: I gradually won over small groups within the Clan or individual members. You can’t convince them all as a group at the same time. That was clear to me. So I usually took a group of two for my interview purposes: ODB and Raekwon, for example. I didn’t put myself into additional trouble by calling in the entire Clan, just to play the ringmaster then.
In the beginning, I worked with Method Man a lot, because he … I think he just felt sorry for me. But he cooperated very well from the beginning. We sometimes did the interviews in the park in Staten Island or in a restaurant, because he didn’t want press people to come to his house. And then he really gained confidence little by little.
I‘ll never forget that: At one point, Method Man said to me “Eva, you’re my [n-word] ’cause you’re so cool!” That was the first breakthrough after maybe three, four weeks. And I was so unaware of this hip hop culture and this language that I was really shocked in the first moment when he said that. I was like, “What does that mean, is that good or bad?” [smirks]. And then he said “It’s good. Cause you’re my friend!” And then I said “Oh, ok.” I was neither a hip hop fan nor a connoisseur, I was really behaving like a peasant. After that, he surely told the others “Hey, she’s not so bad”.
So they saw that professionally, you wanted the best for them and had no ‘devilish plans’ on your mind.
Eva Ries: Well, I often teased them with the “devilish” thing. When I understood the 5 Percent Nation doctrine a bit, I often joked about it. I’m a person who likes to taunt people and I can be be very sarcastic sometimes. At one point, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Poppa Wu [RZA’s uncle, editor’s note] showed up at my office to invite me to a 5 Percent Nation meeting in Harlem. I remember pointing to the skin on my arms and asking “Look, what color am I?” And then Dirty said “How? Why?” I replied “Look, I’m white. You guys are Black. We are the white devils with the blue eyes, according to…” And then he said “No. To me, you’re Black!” They were already colorblind basically. “You got Black blood in you!” But I said “Still. Other black people at that meeting, they don’t see it that way. And I’m not going to put myself in a situation where they’re all against me.” And Dirty’s like “Yeah, but we’re with you and we’re protecting you!” But I was like “Nah, that could lead to chaos.” And that’s why I didn’t go with them.
To be honest, some parts of your book kind of stressed me out when I read it. For example, when the Clan members accumulated five-figure phone bills in hotels and you had to take care of those. What made you think “I’m not going to quit everything. I love this job.”?
Eva Ries: I wouldn’t have quit because we were already on a good way. I knew what I was doing it for. And there was success too. If the Clan had remained unsuccessful and still produced high telephone bills and caused all that stress, then I would have said “No, I have to look for something else. This is going nowhere; there’s no return on investment.” But on the other hand, I knew this band could be huge.
Your book is full of many other crazy stories and huge successes: What were your personal highlights in 20 years with the Clan?
Eva Ries: That despite all the narrow-mindedness and the somewhat ignorant attitude with which they went on that first international tour, they have opened up a lot in all these years. I have seen a very big development in the Clan. In everyone. They opened up to new things, to new chances and to new opportunities. And especially to new cultures and new people. In the beginning, they really were taken out of their comfort zone completely and were surrounded only by white people, who they thought were enemies. And in regard to that, they obviously opened up completely. Now it’s completely normal for them. They’ve sort of gone from being narrow-minded Staten Island kids to citizens of the world, in the broadest sense. That’s basically what pleased me the most.
Despite the book and the retrospective: Your story with the Wu-Tang Clan isn’t over yet, right?
Eva Ries: Yes. Specifically, I’m working on two projects with RZA right now. I’m still in contact with the others as well, but not in terms of a project or on a business level. With RZA, I’m doing a documentary series for Showtime called “The World according to RZA”. He had an album of the same name in 2004 and I was involved in that too. And now we’re doing another album with this TV show. We just recently started that in Japan. We went to Okinawa and met with a very good Japanese hip hop artist named Awich. She did songs with RZA and introduced us to Japanese hip hop.
This show will take us to eight other countries. From Brazil to Germany to France and Vietnam. RZA is the host and will take the viewer through a journey of how this music that started as an African-American art form has spread all over the world now, with distinct local characteristics.
The “Wu-Tang Is Forever” book by Eva Ries is available at BSTN now. The first edition sold out already, so better grab your copy via the button below!