RZA: Beyond Shaolin

Publish date:

It’s mid-afternoon in Los Angeles on an unusually cool Saturday in June. Robert Diggs, the RZA, is darting around town, cell phone pressed to his ear, running numerous errands before he sets off next week on a North American tour that will take him through 20 cities in about as many days. The tall and wiry MC/producer, whose lauded and often-imitated production style helped to redefine hip-hop in the early 1990s, has overseen the Wu-Tang Clan dynasty for over 15 years–through success, tragedy, and its fair share of tribulation.

Snacks & Attacks
On tour, RZA will unveil the latest incarnation of his storied Bobby Digital character, an alter ego he introduced to listeners a decade ago with Bobby Digital in Stereo. Approached as a concept album–one that found the Staten Island rapper espousing lurid tales of sex, violence, and ghetto life from the perspective of a devious and somewhat misogynistic hero–In Stereo was released at a time when the Wu-Tang brand was still fairly untarnished. Once-smitten critics hadn’t yet begun leveling claims that the nine-member crew and its extended family were over-saturating the market with releases. It was a different era.

Since then much has changed in the 39-year-old RZA’s personal and professional life. In 2000, his mother passed away. Four years later his cousin and founding Wu-Tang Clan member Russell Jones–Ol’ Dirty Bastard–died of an apparent drug overdose in a New York City recording studio. And late last year, rumors of internal strife among Wu-Tang Clan members surfaced while promoting 8 Diagrams–the group’s first album since 2001’s
Iron Flag.

“The 8 Diagrams campaign was kinda sour,” RZA admits, the sound of L.A. traffic swelling in the background. “I was called a few bad names by my own crew. So I felt like, ‘Hold on, man, I’m a master of hip-hop. I helped bring this hip-hop generation to where it is.’ And for people to just put me to the side like that, I’m not going for that shit.”

That shit is complicated. Last year, during a video interview, Raekwon claimed that RZA was withholding money from the group–a charge that RZA categorically denied when questioned about it several days later on Tim Westwood’s U.K.-based radio show. Adding to the drama, Raekwon criticized RZA’s production on 8 Diagrams. In a separate interview, Ghostface Killah then voiced his disapproval of the production on the album, suggesting that the Clan should have enlisted Pharrell or perhaps Timbaland to produce a couple tracks. Official word is that no lingering rift exists. But today, as RZA recounts the episode, it still seems to weigh heavily on his mind.

When the conversation shifts to the topic of Digi Snacks–the third Bobby Digital album–RZA’s mood lightens. He reports that last night he completed mastering the album and that, when the tour is over, he’ll begin work on scoring the second season of Afro-Samurai. The latter pursuit, RZA’s burgeoning career as a film composer, is what initially prompted his relocation to Los Angeles back in 2000. While he still maintains residence in New York, Hollywood has been demanding more of his time–both as a composer and, more recently, as an actor. With supporting roles in films like American Gangster and Derailed, as well as the forthcoming Repossession Mambo and Life Is Hot in Cracktown, RZA has continued to expand the scope of his creative work.

Beat Street
“I started hip-hop as an MC first, taught by the GZA,” RZA says. “But when it came to producing, we used to always have to go to different producers’ houses, whether we were trying to catch up with Marley Marl, D/R Period, or EZ Moe Bee. They all was good producers, but I felt like they wasn’t MCs, so they wasn’t making a beat you can rap to. They was making beats you could party to and dance to.”

After his first hip-hop group, Force of the Imperial Master (with GZA and ODB), disbanded in the late 1980s, RZA says he was determined to learn production. “My manager at the time didn’t really believe me when I told him I wanted to make beats,” he says. “So I gave him $500 and was like, ‘Yo, can you help me get a machine?’ He was like, ‘Well, that’s not enough to buy a machine, but you can rent one.’ So I rented an SP1200 [sampler and] a Yamaha four-track and started making my own beats.”

While learning production, RZA landed a deal with Tommy Boy Records. The resulting EP, 1991’s Ooh I Love You Rakeem, was released under the name Prince Rakeem. In the video for the single “Ooh We Love You Rakeem,” a fresh-faced 22-year-old RZA is surrounded by women vying for his love and attention. Produced with the help of Prince Paul, the track channeled the tongue-in-cheek vibe of Biz Markie or Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s I Wish My Brother George Was Here. But there was also a darker, more theatrical undercurrent at play.

“[Then] I wound up getting into trouble,” RZA says, referring to a brief jail sentence for a felony. “I had to go stay in the streets [for awhile] to survive and shit, and I was going back and forth between Pittsburgh, Ohio, and New York.” Poverty in New York was taking its toll on his mother, RZA recounts. So she relocated with the family to Steubenville, Ohio, where his brothers and sisters lived with his stepdad. RZA was already on his own by this time, but he and Ghostface and ODB kept an apartment in the projects in Steubenville. This is when RZA was cutting his teeth in production, accumulating more gear and learning to use it. Already versed in the SP1200, RZA soon discovered the Ensoniq EPS keyboard and then the ASR-10.

“That was the Wu foundation,” he says of the EPS and ASR-10. “We started making a lot more demos, just the three of us in Ohio. Then in 1992, we moved back to New York, got with the rest of our [Brownsville] crew that we grew up with. Then the Wu-Tang style was born.”

Hip-Hop & Beyond
"What keeps me interested now is the power of a musician,” says RZA. “Before, especially the style of music on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), I had no musical knowledge of what I was doing. I just had sound and DJ rhythm–cuttin’ up this and puttin’ a scratch here and takin’ a break there. Now, what keeps me interested in [production] is that I know all the DJ techniques but now I’m [also] a musician.”

RZA’s experience and background in music theory has become evident in his work. Take the much-hyped Beatles interpolation, “The Heart Gently Weeps,” from 8 Diagrams. The production is polished, sophisticated, even melodic–worlds apart from the raw aesthetic RZA captured on 36 Chambers. Raekwon’s and Ghostface’s opening verses on the track still evoke the classic Wu-Tang vocal cadence, but the backdrop has changed dramatically. Maybe it’s here that the creative rift is most striking. RZA views his production as an evolutionary process, whether it’s a film composition or the latest Wu-Tang album. But perhaps the most vocal dissenters in his crew–Raekwon and Ghostface–believe the Clan should remain true to its original vision. It’s a crossroads that so many musical collaborators have faced. And while all the remaining Wu members are legendary MCs, RZA is the only one who seems intent on finding something greater than what hip-hop can offer.

“When you [listen] to the new Bobby Digital album, you hear this hip-hop sound but it also seems elevated,” RZA explains. “You hear live guitar, guitar solos coming in at the end, different things that I incorporated into my production that I probably wouldn’t’a did years ago. Then I wasn’t a musician. I didn’t understand the progression of music and how it should be. I actually was against the progression of music. And now it’s like, man, sometimes I be making some real unique-sounding shit. Whether the world hears it or not, I know that when I be in my crib sometimes I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”