July 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s been six years since the verbally acrobatic rappers of the Wu-Tang Clan waved their Iron Flag —the kung fu enthusiasts’ last paean to ancient Chinese secrets. And if recent recordings posted to XXLmag.com are to be believed, they’ve spent that time holed up in a studio fighting over coffee breaks. But de facto frontman RZA, who says he hasn’t heard the audio tracks, has a different tale to tell. And what you actually might’ve witnessed was the 14-year-old group finishing their latest, The 8 Diagrams — set to drop this fall.

”It was difficult getting everybody together!” explains RZA from Europe, where the Clan are now touring. With nine or so members parting ways — to release a stellar solo CD (Ghostface Killah), score the Kill Bill movies (RZA), and even join the cast of HBO’s The Wire (Method Man) — reassembling Staten Island’s favorite Shaolin showmen proved an epic feat. In 2004, the prodigious crew was dealt a blow with the passing of founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard from a drug overdose. ”It’s not been easy,” RZA says. ”Every night we do at least two of his songs, give him respect.” But last April — eschewing their respective lawyers’ concerns (”Mine was saying, ‘Don’t go into the studio till you get paid!”’) — the Clan started to record, creating ”rough beats [and cuts] that’ll make you want to jump around. Brothers put in really good energy this time.”

So did RZA ever doubt this day would come? No way, he says. ”It’s like the old Luke Skywalker story. We [just] needed to bring balance to the Force.”

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