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RZA’s Constant Elevation: From Wu-Tang to 'Kill Bill,' The Rapper/Producer Discusses His Creative Process And History Ahead Of Bobby Digital Reprise
“RZA has a certain responsibility ... Bobby Digital offered escapism,” rapper/producer RZA tells GRAMMY.com. Ahead of his new album as Bobby Digital, 'Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater,' the multi-hyphenate discusses his artistic evolution.
Artists who’ve stretched their careers past the unimaginable often come full circle; at no point do they ever really lose the foundations that moved them to begin with. Robert Diggs — known as the RZA — is having one of those full-circle moments. After founding a record label and clothing brand, creating comic books and soundtracking Hollywood hits, today he admits: “Now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be, hip-hop.”
Diggs’ — a.k.a. Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, a.k.a. Prince Rakeem, a.k.a. the RZArector (among his many monikers through the decades) — career began through homespun demos with cousins and neighborhood friends in Staten Island. RZA’s supreme mathematics with the Wu-Tang Clan were well known by 1994, when Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) forever changed rap with uncanny ballistics not seen before or since. As Wu-Tang’s visionary, RZA famously masterminded their record deals and single-handedly produced all the vaunted material; his group mentality aiding everyone’s collective ascension.
RZA then transcended Shaolin, landing in Hollywood to oohs and ahs in the late ‘90s, where he scored Jim Jarmusch’s meditative film Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai. Yet it wasn’t until 2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists — a film produced by Quentin Tarantino starring Russell Crowe which RZA co-wrote and directed — that he felt he’d finally arrived. “My evolution to manhood began with that film,” he tells GRAMMY.com.
“At that point I became a master. It took me many years but I really felt like I evolved into the artist I am today after that project.” His voice now a bit dustier, but RZA’s energy and enunciation rings familiar. “I felt like I could run a small country after that.”
In 1998 he once again emerged solo, this time as Bobby Digital — a character and concept album woven with fantastical tales over fewer sampled beats, creating an atmosphere that was equal parts Blaxploitation and futuristic street narrative. Hearsay tells us that a Bobby Digital film was even in the works, though it never materialized and remained the final word regarding the Digital persona — until recently.
After 20 years, RZA has boomeranged to Bobby Digital with Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater, out March 4. Bobby Digital’s return pays homage to the Shaw Brothers — Hong Kong’s largest film company, operating for an astounding 86 years, with almost every notable kung fu ever made film under their banner — while evolving the album’s namesake character. GRAMMY-nominated producer DJ Scratch nails the sample palette, creating an epic undertone of kung fu dialogue and sound effects.
Reprising the Digital the character gave RZA a sense of liberation. “It was freeing just rapping and spitting verses all over,” he says. “It was fun trying to match my words to the vibe of the beats and just using all kinds of different cadences again.”
From his pre-Wu days, to the making of “C.R.E.A.M.”, to his production epoch, and his celebrated film work, GRAMMY.com demystifies and unpacks the many histories that orbit one Robert Diggs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to start at the beginning and move forward: While “Protect Ya Neck” was the first single, “C.R.E.A.M.” likely introduced Wu-Tang to many and still resonates. What comes to mind when you think of it today?
“C.R.E.A.M.” was a song that actually took three four different evolutions before it became final. At one time it was called “I’m On Some S**t.” And later on, there was a version with just me and Ghostface. Then, later there was a version with just Raekwon and [Inspectah] Deck. That one was called “Lifestyles Of The Mega Rich” and it was 12 minutes long. [Laughs]
When we got the deal to make [36 Chambers], I wanted to use it because I knew that the beat was special. I knew that the vibe between Raekwon’s voice and Deck’s voice was the best. But as we was doing it, it just seemed like something else had to happen.
We needed a hook. And so at the time, the best person to do hooks was Method Man. He was a melodic member of the crew and was always very witty with his hooks. I was like, “Yo, I need a hook for this” and he was casual about everything and came back with “C.R.E.A.M. get the money. Dolla dolla bill.”
We touched on “C.R.E.A.M.” but does RZA have a favorite Wu-Tang song?
I don't know, my favorite changes. But recently I've just been really impressed with the way I did “Bring Da Ruckus.” I used a CD skipping as my horn. Even to me, that sounds like I really was innovative back then.
I was trying to complete a story…and it made sense to me that I needed a horn. While I was looking for samples, the CD started skipping so I sampled that sound. Then I slowed it down and it became the tata tata tata tata tata that you hear. So the orchestration of this song and how it came together finally means a lot to me. I’m just really impressed to think of my young mind being able to compose that without even knowing what a C chord was.
As the producer of Wu-Tang Clan, what an embarrassment of riches to have those MCs to produce for.
Each member had something unique and I knew them all. They all knew each other but I was the denominator; I did demos with all of them. There’s a demo with just me and Ghostface. There’s a demo of Dirty and GZA and so on. Some of these tapes go back to when I was 12.
When [my debut solo project] Prince Rakeem happened, I had a little record deal and felt like I understood the industry a little bit. Even then I was like, “The best talent my ears have heard are homies that I've been doing demos with my whole f***ing life!” So I went and told execs that we got something different and that we had that Wu-Tang slang. Bong bong.
Do you mind sharing your decision to leave high school? What was your family’s reaction?
To keep myself motivated, I just wanted to record and record. That's why I dropped out of school.
I don't think I ever made this public, but it was my mom that actually signed me out of school. At first I was just absent so much that they’d send people to our house. And my mother said she was gonna do whatever I wanted; I told her I just wanted to do music. So she drove me up to the school and the lady asked us, “You sure you want to do this?” I was 16 years old at the time and my mom signed me out, and I went for it.
Thanks for that. What strikes you now looking back on that transitional stage in life?
I came in as this young man that had his heart and energy focused on writing songs and making music. The problem that I had, though, was nobody believed in me as a producer.
Acclaimed producer Easy Mo Bee produced your first released material during your Prince Rakeem era. Tell us about your early development and how that impacted you as a young producer.
I may have had like a hundred beats at that point. And a hundred ain't enough to be at the master level. I was making these beats with the Roland and a 4-track Yamaha. I didn’t even have a sampler; I would just scratch in samples live. I met Easy Mo Bee with his brother and they had an SP 1200 and were killing it. I was just enamored by that. I saw that machine and didn’t know what it did and Mo Bee would just make a beat right in front of me. Mo was dope. I would to go to his house a lot. I wanted him to produce my whole album, and he gave me a couple tracks. I couldn't afford him at the time. [Laughs]
We’d be remiss to not mention your Gravediggaz project with Prince Paul, 1994’s 6 Feet Deep. Looking back, do you think you guys invented “horrorcore?” And please touch on Paul’s importance for us.
We never wanted to call it “horrorcore.” That was a title that the writers started calling it. But I do think we definitely pioneered it. Nobody else was doing it in front of us. You could give credit to The Geto Boys too, like “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” or “Mind Of A Lunatic.” They were pretty dark, but it wasn't spiritually dark like us.
Prince Paul is a producer who brought skits to the whole album format for hip-hop. His creativity was there before all of us. Paul was definitely a pioneer on interludes and being able to add abstractness. He made Gravediggaz happen. His choices were just different.
You have a new Bobby Digital project out soon, but I want to talk about the first one, Bobby Digital In Stereo. What did this allow you to do that was different from the RZA?
RZA has a certain responsibility, so I had to protect that persona. Bobby Digital offered escapism for me. I was in the studio smoking and drinking and I just had this insight that the whole world's gonna be digital. I felt like I became a digital being around that time. Whatever combination of drugs I had that night, I did more. And did it again. I remember I couldn’t feel my hands! And then I thought of my birth name, which is Robert Diggs, Bobby Digs. So I knew I had to be Bobby Digital.
Production wise, it had less samples, more strings and keys. What are your thoughts when you look back on that era of your production?
I didn’t want to do RZA anymore. Thinking back, I think it helped open up the fact that hip-hop could be electronic music and not only sample based. Maybe more kids got Triton keyboards after that instead of samplers. I still wasn't musically trained like I am now. What I love about the album in particular and its vibe, is that I was bold and tried weird s***. With the new Bobby Digital, I wanted to bring it back and be positive about everything.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, you worked with Kanye, who like yourself both raps and produces. What was that experience like and did you have any takeaways?
Working with him was great because Ye has the ability to bring a lot of energy and people together to create. He was the first artist that I met personally that treated his project like how a boxer prepares for a fight. The regimen of him and his crew and all the dedication to that moment of creativity. I had never seen that before.
When Wu did it, we were all sort of at the studio and we were all dedicated, but it wasn't scheduled. For us, the studio was like a clubhouse, it’s where you’re going. But with Kanye, the scenario was that the team would get up and eat breakfast together. Then do something recreational together and another activity. But at 4 o'clock we’re all going to be at the studio.
I want to move to your film work. There’s Afro Samurai and of course the scores for both Kill Bills. Touch on Tarantino and describe your mind state when scoring a film versus production.
Artists sometimes come together and I think it’s destiny. Our relationships come out of a love for art. With Tarantino, we’re just both big kung fu heads and our friendship started by watching movies. He’d call and say, “I'm in town, come over. I got this film.”
With scoring a movie, you lose your freedom. You’re there to complement the story and as well as have a story to tell through music. It’s more trial and error. Once your brain gets the process, it all makes sense. I had a scene where the music started right when the girl in the scene opened her eyes. It was very subtle. It was magic. You need to communicate to the audience as the composer.
Let’s touch on directing The Man with Iron Fists. You grew up on kung fu films. Was it hard to take all your influences and not make a 5-hour kung fu epic?
The first cut of the film was over three hours! But to be real with you, Dave, and to be real with your readers, I’ll tell you how I put out art. You need three things: inspiration, imagination and aspiration. All of those words, there's an action to it. There's an internal spirit and movement. All these things are important.
I was just so happy that I was able to share this with the world. It was the most difficult artistic expression I had ever done to date. It was the greatest challenge of my life. And when I finished it, I became a full-blown artist and a full-blown man. I truly believe that.
When it comes to films, what inspires you most: scoring, acting or directing? And what do you exactly mean by it helped you “evolve?"
Directing is the greatest because as a director, you have all the control. I wrote, directed, acted and scored it. My signatures were on everything. Moviemaking is the most expensive form of art creation. It is your responsibility to protect everybody's interest and money and time and still tell a story while doing it. And that's why I said I became a full-blown man because after that. To me, it was almost the epitome of artistic creation. But now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be hip-hop.
Watch Shawn Colvin Win Song Of The Year (And Get Interrupted) At The 40th GRAMMY Awards | GRAMMY Rewind
In an unexpected twist, Colvin's Song Of The Year acceptance got a Wu-Tang remix as Ol' Dirty Bastard slid in with some unexpected self-promotion
Back in 1998, Shawn Colvin's radio behemoth "Sunny Came Home" won two GRAMMYs: Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. When she walked onstage to accept the award at the 40th GRAMMY Awards, alongside her co-writer John Leventhal, she was in for a bit of a surprise.
In an unexpected twist, Colvin's Song Of The Year acceptance got a Wu-Tang remix as Ol' Dirty Bastard slid in with some unexpected self-promotion ("Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best").
Watch the moment play out in our latest edition of GRAMMY Rewind above.
Popa Wu performs in New York City in 2017
Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images
Popa Wu, Wu-Tang Clan Affiliate and Mentor, Dies at 63
Considered the group's longtime "spiritual mentor," Popa Wu featured on numerous Wu-Tang Clan tracks
Popa Wu, a longtime affiliate of and mentor to legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, died Dec. 16. He was 63.
Reports of Popa Wu's death hit the internet earlier this week when various members and associates of Wu-Tang Clan, as well as other artists and representatives from the wider hip-hop community, began posting tributes to him on social media. Wu-Tang member U-God wrote on Twitter, "RIP to the one and only PAPA WU our sincerest condolences go out to the entire family," while DJ/rapper Pete Rock, who's produced for various Wu-Tang members, lamented, "the angels got you."
Popa Wu, who also went by Freedum Allah, was largely considered a "spiritual mentor" to Wu-Tang Clan. He was a staunch supporter of the Five-Percent Nation, a cultural movement and an offshoot of the Nation of Islam rooted in 1960s America, and preached its philosophies and beliefs on several Wu-Tang Clan songs.
While never an official member of Wu-Tang Clan, Popa Wu was involved in the group's original formation in the early '90s. In addition to being the father of Wu-Tang-affiliated rappers ShaCronz and Free Murda, Popa Wu was also a cousin of the band's de facto leader, RZA, and was related to original members GZA and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Popa Wu's credits alongside Wu-Tang Clan and its various members include: "Wu-Revolution," the opening track of the group's 1997 GRAMMY-nominated (Best Rap Album) double album, Wu-Tang Forever; "Black Jesus" and "All That I Got Is You" from Ghostface Killah; and "North Star" from Raekwon. Popa Wu was also behind a two-part compilation series comprising a number of tracks from various Wu-Tang Clan members and associated artists: Visions Of The 10th Chamber in 2000 and the coinciding Visions Of The 10th Chamber Part II in 2008.
Most recently, Popa Wu appeared in the newly launched Hulu web TV miniseries "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," which is based on the early years and formation of Wu-Tang Clan.
Following the news of Popa Wu's death, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the larger hip-hop community commemorated his legacy and his influence on the scene.
Huey Lewis & The News, RZA And Boz Scaggs Pay Tribute To Memphis
Artists are keeping the magic of Memphis' musical legacy alive with spirited tribute albums
(Editor's Note: Founded in 1973, The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. In the coming weeks, GRAMMY.com will publish a special content series paying tribute to the Chapter and the surrounding region's rich musical legacy, which encompasses the deepest roots of American music and the birthplaces of blues, jazz, ragtime, Cajun, zydeco, and rock and roll. The Chapter will host a 40th anniversary celebration featuring musical performances on July 13.)
It's the U.S. city that has produced countless music legends and transformed rock and roll into a culture-shifting force. Now, in the technology-crazed 21st century, Memphis is inspiring yet another musical trend — tribute albums and hits compilations dedicated to the classic R&B of the fabled Tennessee town.
In March Wu-Tang Clan rapper/producer RZA released The RZA Presents Shaolin Soul Selection: Volume 1, a compilation of legendary soul tracks from the vaults of Memphis' legendary Stax Records label. Featuring tracks by Booker T. And The MG's, Isaac Hayes and Albert King, The RZA Presents… underscores the crucial role Memphis R&B has played in the evolution of rap music.
The album is one of the latest releases in a string of Memphis-related soul recordings. In 2011 British pop legend Cliff Richard issued Soulicious, a compilation of R&B interpretations that was partially recorded at the renowned Royal Studios in Memphis. Meanwhile, Huey Lewis & The News have earned rave reviews for Soulsville, their 2010 collection of covers commemorating the Stax sound. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, the album features interpretations of Memphis R&B classics by Otis Redding ("Just One More Day") and the Staple Singers ("Respect Yourself"), among others.
A more recent indicator of Memphis' lasting musical influence is Boz Scaggs' 2013 release Memphis. Featuring deep soul interpretations of pop, rock and R&B songs by artists including Steely Dan, Al Green and Moon Martin, the album takes its title from the city in which it was recorded (and the birthplace of Scaggs' grandfather, father and wife) and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200.
Growing up in Texas in the late '50s, Scaggs' influences include pioneering Memphis R&B artists such as Syl Johnson and Mable John, and Stax staples Booker T. & The MG's, Sam & Dave, and Redding, among others. In sharp contrast to the smoother jazz-influenced songs of Motown, the appeal of Memphis soul for Scaggs lies in the music's rawer sensibilities.
"Memphis music has more of the deep South/Delta blues feel," says Scaggs. "Stax grew more out of a tradition that incorporated horn bands from juke joints. It's a little more roots, a little more of a roadhouse tradition."
Scaggs discovered that the bluesy Memphis sound can still be tapped in the right atmosphere. He and producer Steve Jordan chose to record Memphis at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, the same facility where Green recorded timeless hits for Hi Records.
"That room was once used by a specific producer, a specific group of musicians, and just a couple of engineers," Scaggs says. "They got a sound. If you go into that room now, they haven't changed it."
Royal Studios hasn't changed much since its '70s heyday because the studio is a family enterprise. When Mitchell died in 2010, the studio was inherited by sons Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell and Archie Mitchell. The family has retained many of the studio's original instruments, and much of the vintage analog recording gear. Under the Mitchell brothers' guidance, Royal has hosted sessions by notable contemporary artists such as Cody Chesnutt, John Mayer and My Morning Jacket. When asked to speculate about the studio's enduring mystique, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell could only hazard a likely guess.
"I think most of them know that Royal is a legendary place where a lot of hit records were made," says Mitchell, who is currently President of The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter. "So not only are they trying to achieve that Memphis sound, but also get some of that hit-making vibe that was around back in the '60s and '70s, but is apparently still there today.
"Most times that you go to a studio, you have to take your inspiration with you. But when people come to Royal, they get inspired because the room hasn't changed in 40-something years. When you come here, it just gives you this magical feeling."
A similar magical feeling that resonates through much of the classic blues, soul, jazz, and rock and roll emanated from Memphis. The city's tremendous contribution to music cannot be overstated. A staggering number of performing legends got their start in Memphis, including greats such Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Jimmie Lunceford, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Green, and rock icon Alex Chilton, among others.
Akin to Hi Records and Royal Studios, the Stax Records label and its studio cast a long shadow in Memphis musical lore. Initially founded in 1957 as Satellite Records by Jon Stewart, Stax formally emerged in 1959 with assistance from Stewart's sister, Estelle Acton. The label earned mythic status for maintaining a roster of integrated R&B acts in the racially charged Jim Crow South.
Stax holds special meaning for Lewis, who attributes the timeless appeal of Memphis soul to the excellence of the songs and the conviction of the performers.
"They're all great singers, but there's something about when they're singing," Lewis says. "Their life story is infused in those songs. You know they're serious. It's, 'I'm not kidding. I'm a soul man.'"
Lewis describes Stax music as "an American treasure" because of the way the songs unwittingly chronicled Memphis' own evolution. "Memphis was like a melting pot of people, this weird combination of Celtic people from the hills of Kentucky, and blacks coming up from places like New Orleans, Western Arkansas and Tunica, Mississippi," he says. "[Stax music] came together through this wonderful mélange of immigrants getting together [and] playing in the neighborhood."
In the 50 years that have passed since its inception, Stax songs have been covered by a vast number of musical artists, including Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Aerosmith. Owned today by Los Angeles-based Concord Music Group, Stax remains true to its Memphis music roots, releasing recordings by contemporary blues artists such as Angie Stone, Ben Harper and Warren Haynes. The label recently came full circle when it re-signed legendary Stax organist and bandleader Booker T. Jones.
"We have two big initiatives when it comes [to] Stax," said Joel Amsterdam, senior vice president of publicity for Concord Music Group. "Number one is maintaining and burnishing this amazing catalog, and number two is the new artists [who] we've signed to Stax. There is a desire to embrace the legacy and bring it forward."
Concord's efforts notwithstanding, famed performers such as Scaggs, Lewis and RZA are drawing the Memphis R&B tradition into the 21st century. Legendary rock vocalist Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company) recently announced that he is recording an album of Memphis soul classics at Royal Studios. The as-yet untitled album is expected this fall and will feature Rodgers applying his soulful shout to Memphis classics by Sam & Dave, Ann Peebles and Redding, among others.
Lewis believes there's a simple reason why Memphis soul continues to inspire musicians and spawn interpretative albums.
"There's an urgency and a commitment in those records," he says. "Will they be around forever? Absolutely."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)
Ryman Auditorium in 2003
Photo: Frank Mullen/WireImage/Getty Images
History Of: Nashville's Beloved Ryman Auditorium
Ever wondered what makes the beloved venue so special? This week's History Of episode has you covered
Back in 1892, Nashville businessman Thomas G. Ryman built the Union Gospel Tabernacle church. After his death in 1904, the church's name was changed to Ryman Auditorium to honor him. In the 1920s, promoter Lula C. Naff rented the building and booked talent, including Marian Anderson, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, and Doris Day, who made the city a cultural destination.
The church was also home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show for 31 years, beginning in 1943, which brought in more great artists and shows.
While the beloved, intimate venue—it seats 2,362 people—sat dormant for almost 30 years when the Opry left, it was renovated and revived in the early '90s; it has since hosted many more star-studded shows from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Dolly Parton, Kane Brown, Kelsea Ballerini, and the Wu-Tang Clan, who made history in 2019 as the first hip-hop act to ever headline the space known as "The Mother Church Of Country Music."
Watch the latest episode of GRAMMY.com's History Of video series above to learn more about the iconic Nashville venue.