Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA: ‘Hip-hop has become one-sided’

It is noon in Los Angeles. RZA, a trim 52-year-old, sports a pair of aviator-style sunglasses, a customary accessory. “You cool with the shades 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-like.

RZA is among the most significant figures in the history of rap music. His real name is Robert Diggs. Thirty years ago he founded arguably hip-hop’s greatest group, Wu-Tang Clan. Originally comprising nine rappers, including RZA, who also acted as their producer and impresario, their origins lie almost 2,500 miles away from his current Californian base — in New York City’s Staten Island borough.

Wu-Tang Clan emerged from their island fastness with their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). A hard-boiled masterpiece that often tops lists of the best rap albums ever, it opened a portal into a richly imagined Wu-Tang world. Their outlook was eccentric and encyclopedic, drawing on esoteric knowledge, comic books, street lore, chopsocky films, crime stories, black nationalism, martial arts and chess.

Wu-Tang Clan in their heyday © Alamy

They are still active, despite periodic disputes about musical direction and money. (A few days after I speak with RZA, Icelene Jones, the widow of original member Russell Tyrone Jones, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard, served a lawsuit on the RZA-run Wu-Tang Clan Productions for allegedly unpaid royalties.)

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Their last studio album was 2015’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which RZA limited to a single pressed copy to be sold to the highest bidder, who would have sole listening rights to it. The ingenious scheme was controversial within the group, and became more so when the album was purchased for $2mn by “Pharma Bro” fraudster Martin Shkreli. Subsequently seized by the US Department of Justice, it was bought by a crypto art investment collective last year. Might the tantalising day when the album is made public be drawing near? “There is some hope,” RZA says, teasingly.

Meanwhile, he has a solo release on the way. Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater is a mini-album that reactivates his rapping alter ego Bobby Digital after more than a decade of dormancy. Named in tribute to the kung-fu films that inspired the Wu-Tang Clan, its no-nonsense old-school beats and dense loquacity aim to rectify what RZA views as the troubled state of contemporary rap.

“We’ve lost more hip-hop artists in the last few years than ever before,” he says. “Growing up in the golden age of hip-hop, we lost maybe like a couple of artists, but not a dozen artists or more.” The feud between East and West Coast rap that was blamed for the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the 1990s has been followed a constantly rising toll of slain rappers: Nipsey Hussle, gunned down in 2019; Pop Smoke, 2020; Young Dolph, 2021; and so it goes on.

Black and white photo of a man smiling with an elaborate metal grill on his top teeth
RZA poses for a portrait in New York, 1994 © David Corio/Redferns

“No one knows for whom the bell tolls,” RZA intones on one of his new songs, “Fisherman”, in which he also casts a baleful eye at the high rates of incarceration for African-American young men. “So many black youths lost in the box for life.”

“Sometimes hip-hop music glamorises certain things,” he says. “It glamorises prison life, it glamorises gangsters and thugs. I understand that, because I grew out of that. But it doesn’t give you the total tragedy of what that can end up being, nor are we being represented with a lot of alternatives.” He reels off a list of back-in-the-day acts, from Eric B & Rakim to Queen Latifah, some of whom specialised in rapping about street life, others who looked beyond it. “The point being made is there was more bounce, there was more substance. Hip-hop has become one-sided.”

The first time he heard a person rap was when he was eight years old. It was the summer of 1976 and he was at a block party at a housing project in Staten Island. At this early stage of the genre’s development, it consisted of an MC at the microphone reciting a couple of rhymes repeatedly. Yet the young Robert Diggs was thunderstruck by the novel sound of someone speaking over a beat. He chants the words that he heard that night to me: “Dip, dip, dive, so-socialise, clean out your ears and open your eyes.” 

He grew up in challenging circumstances. His parents broke up when he was three. In his memoir, The Tao of Wu, he describes his last memory of his father: “He’s holding me in one hand and a hammer in the other, smashing up the furniture.” At one point there were 19 members of his extended family living in a two-bedroom apartment. He and his brother, Divine, used to lie in bed at night conducting imaginary acts of escapism with toy racing cars.

“We would actually get into those with our minds and drive places,” he remembers, laughing, “because really somebody is sleeping over there and somebody else is over here. In that space, we’re imagining going to the burger shop, we’re going to the movies.”

Photo of a man performing on stage
RZA live with the Wu-Tang Clan in Oslo, 2019 © Terje Dokken/Alamy

His appetite for scholarship was honed not at school but by the Five-Percent Nation, a black nationalist offshoot from the Nation of Islam. Introduced to its teachings by his cousin Gary Grice, aka GZA, later a fellow member of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA had students of his own by the time he was 18. But he also became involved in crime, culminating in his arrest in an Ohio town for taking part in a shootout. Charged with attempted murder, he was found not guilty in 1992. The experience convinced him to concentrate on music. He formed the Wu-Tang Clan that year.

His production set a new threshold for 1990s rap. He used different vocal compressors for each Wu-Tang rapper and tailored beats to their personalities. The sound was raw and rough but also shaped with an acute ear for mood and tension, enhanced by samples of old soul songs and chopsocky dialogue. He had a master plan to franchise the Wu-Tang Clan with a mix of joint releases and spin-off solo albums by the various rappers, mostly also produced by him. In the 2000s, when he moved to LA, he turned his attention to scoring movies, including Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

“When you’re young you think you can do it all,” he says. He hasn’t produced the songs on Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater; that role has been taken by DJ Scratch, a New York rap veteran who efficiently mimics the classic Wu-Tang sound.

RZA has an idiosyncratic, wordy style with high-wire riffs and didactic messaging. “People say: ‘Why are you rhyming? You’re a triple OG [original gangster],’” he laughs. “I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it so that it’s done, that’s all. So that the option is there. So that you can open up an RZA song and you can hear a world that may inspire you.”

He reaches for an analogy from particle physics to sum up the present condition of rap. The positive mass of the proton, he explains, is much bigger than the negative mass of the electron. Similarly, hip-hop’s positivity exceeds the present turn towards what he construes as negativity.

“If it wasn’t for hip-hop you wouldn’t have had a black president,” he says. “Hip-hop cancels out the reality of what a racist can argue.” He cites a 2017 study showing some rappers having a wider vocabulary than Shakespeare. “And if you go back and check about these artists, they didn’t even have a 12th-grade graduation from academia. To me the positive is growing and growing. The negative is trying to make a comeback, but the positive’s weight is too big.”

‘Saturday Night Kung Fu Theater’ is out March 4 on 36 Chambers/MNRK Music Group

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