Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA: “Hip-hop has become one-sided”
It’s noon in Los Angeles. RZA, a 52-year-old man, sports a pair of aviator-style sunglasses, a usual accessory. “Are you cool with sunglasses and all that?” he asks, to which I answer in the affirmative. I thank him for his time. “My time is ready to be given,” he replies, zen.
RZA is one of the most important figures in the history of rap music. His real name is Robert Diggs. Thirty years ago, he founded arguably the biggest hip-hop group, Wu-Tang Clan. Originally made up of nine rappers, including RZA, who also acted as a producer and impresario, their origins lie nearly 2,500 miles from their current California base – in the Staten Island neighborhood of New York.
The Wu-Tang Clan emerged from its island solidity with its debut in 1993, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 rooms). A harsh masterpiece that often tops lists of the best rap albums of all time, it opened a portal to a richly imagined Wu-Tang world. Their vision was quirky and encyclopedic, drawing on esoteric lore, comic books, street lore, chopsocky movies, crime stories, black nationalism, martial arts, and chess.
They are still active, despite periodic disputes over musical direction and money. (Days after speaking with RZA, Icelene Jones, the widow of original member Russell Tyrone Jones, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard, filed a lawsuit against RZA-run Wu-Tang Clan Productions for allegedly unpaid royalties.)
Their last studio album dates from 2015. Once upon a time in Shaolin, which RZA limited to a single pressed copy to be sold to the highest bidder, who would have exclusive listening rights. The ingenious scheme was controversial within the band, and became even more so when the album was bought for $2 million by “Pharma Bro” fraudster Martin Shkreli. Seized later by the US Department of Justice, it was bought last year by a crypto-art investment collective. Is the tantalizing day when the album will be released to the public approaching? “There is some hope,” RZA says teasingly.
In the meantime, he has a solo release on the way. Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater is a mini-album that reactivates his rapper alter ego Bobby Digital after more than a decade of inactivity. Named after the kung fu movies that inspired the Wu-Tang Clan, its no-frills old-school beats and dense talkativeness aim to rectify what RZA sees as the troubled state of contemporary rap.
“We’ve lost more hip-hop artists in recent years than ever before,” he says. “Growing up in the golden age of hip-hop, we may have lost a few artists, but not a dozen artists or more.” The East Coast versus West Coast rap feud that was blamed for the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the 1990s was followed by an ever-increasing number of rappers killed: Nipsey Hussle, shot in 2019; Smoke Pop, 2020; Young Dolphin, 2021; And so on.
“No one knows for whom the death knell tolls,” RZA intones on one of his new songs, “Fisherman,” in which he also takes a grim look at the high rates of incarceration of young African-American men. “So many young black people lost in the box for life.”
“Sometimes hip-hop music glamorizes certain things,” he says. “It glamorizes prison life, it glamorizes gangsters and thugs. I understand that, because I grew from that. But that doesn’t give you the utter tragedy of what it can end up being, nor are we represented with many alternatives. He rolls out a list of acts from the era, from Eric B & Rakim to Queen Latifah, some of whom specialized in rapping about street life, others who looked beyond that. “The thing is, there was more bounce, there was more substance. Hip-hop became one-sided.
The first time he heard someone rap was when he was eight. It was the summer of 1976 and he was at a block party at a housing project on Staten Island. At this early stage in the genre’s development, it consisted of an MC at the microphone reciting a few rhymes over and over. Yet young Robert Diggs was stunned by the new sound of someone speaking to a beat. He sings to me the words he heard that night: “Dip, dip, dive, so-socialize, clean out your Ears and open your eyes.”
He grew up in difficult circumstances. His parents separated when he was three years old. In his memoirs, The Tao of Wu, he describes his last memory of his father: “He holds me in one hand and a hammer in the other, smashing the furniture. At one point, 19 of her extended family lived in a two-bedroom apartment. He and his brother, Divine, used to lie in bed at night, performing imaginary acts of escape with miniature racing cars.
“We were actually going into these with our minds and driving places,” he recalls with a laugh, “because really someone is sleeping there and someone else is here. In that space , we imagine going to the burger shop, we go to the movies.”
His appetite for scholarship was not whetted in school but by the Five Percent Nation, a black nationalist offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Initiated into his teachings by his cousin Gary Grice, aka GZA, later a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA had his own students by the age of 18. But he also got involved in crime, culminating in his arrest in an Ohio town for participating in a shooting. Accused of attempted murder, he was found not guilty in 1992. The experience convinced him to focus on music. He formed the Wu-Tang Clan that year.
His output set a new threshold for 1990s rapping. He used different vocal compressors for each Wu-Tang rapper and beats to suit their personalities. The sound was raw and rough, but also shaped with a keen ear for mood and tension, enhanced by samples of old soulful songs and choppy dialogue. He had a master plan to franchise the Wu-Tang Clan with a mix of joint releases and spin-off solo albums from the various rappers, mostly also produced by him. In the 2000s, when he moved to Los Angeles, he turned to the music of films, including that of Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill movies.
“When you’re young you think you can do anything,” he says. He did not produce the songs on Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater; that role was played by DJ Scratch, a New York rap veteran who effectively mimics the classic Wu-Tang sound.
RZA has an idiosyncratic, wordy style with catchy riffs and didactic messages. “People say, ‘Why are you rhyming? You are a triple OG [original gangster],'” he laughs. “I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing it to get it done, that’s all. can hear a world that could inspire you.
He seeks an analogy with particle physics to sum up the current condition of rap. The positive mass of the proton, he explains, is much greater than the negative mass of the electron. Likewise, the positivity of hip-hop goes beyond the current shift towards what it interprets as negativity.
“If it wasn’t for hip-hop, you wouldn’t have had a black president,” he says. “Hip-hop negates the reality of what a racist can argue.” He cites a 2017 study showing some rappers with a broader vocabulary than Shakespeare. “And if you go back and find out about these artists, they didn’t even have a high school diploma. For me, the positive grows and grows. The negative tries to come back, but the weight of the positive is too much. big.
“Saturday Night Kung Fu Theater” premieres March 4 on 36 Chambers/MNRK Music Group
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