RZA a.k.a. Bobby Digital is known as one of hip hop’s most influential producers, and as an American original in his own right. Here he talks about directing his first kung-fu film, the genius of Mozart, and what’s on his iPod.
What does it mean to you to tour with the boys from Wu-Tang?
Well, I made music, entertainment, and art my career. When you do that for so long, it is a joy to know that there are people out there who enjoy what you do and respect what you say. There is an old saying: “We worked so hard, so that the children who come after us can become doctors and lawyers. And then the doctors and lawyers work hard, so that the next generation can become artists!” We need more artists in the world, baby!
When you started out as a band with GZA and ODB in 1991, did you consider your approach to hip-hop as art or was it just the youth culture you grew up with?
You know, I grew up in New York City, man, and growing up in a ghetto or in any oppressed situation, you always look for ways to escape: First I would get my graffiti equipment, I’d be writing on walls around the city, y’know what I mean, and the police would chase me home (laughs).
What was your tag-pseudonym?
My name was Asley Raze. After my graffiti-period, I started selling newspapers and we’d be buying turntables, microphones, and echo boxes. But nobody would have called that art back then, not even hip-hop. Mind you: around that time (ca. 1979) I was only 10 years old. That was all way before Wu-Tang.
What else happened in your life before Wu-Tang?
I got signed to Tommy Boy Records around 1987, `88, but during that time I was already part of the All In Together Now Crew (of which the Wu-Tang Clan would evolve). That was when Will Smith (a.k.a. The Fresh Prince), Young MC or MC Hammer were the biggest names in the bizz. So, around that time hiphop was pop and I hated it. But when I was signed to Tommy Boy, they tried to make me pop (laughs). The record company was controlling their artists’ output – nowadays it’s the same way.
So I put all these guys, that I grew up with, together and we came out to attack the industry.
What sort of tracks did you put out on your Tommy Boy releases?
There were tracks on it like Wu-Tang Master, Ras Ill, Take Your Heads Off. Of course they wouldn’t settle for any of those but chose Ooh I Love You Rakeem with all the girls on it, you know? (Fellow Wu-Tang founding member) GZA faced the same policy: He had a whole album of hard core hip hop, but the record label made him go back to the studio, sat an R&B producer next to him and made him do a song called Girl, Do Me (sniggers along).
So did Wu-Tang get started after that?
After my interlude with Tommy Boy, where there was no way to get myself expressed, I was forced to go back to the hood. I was trying to make money some way, even carrying guns and drugs and all that stupid shit, but eventually I formed my own record company Wu-Tang Productions and I went to all the dope MCs I knew: During that time, KRS One was dope, but no one had ever heard of Method Man before, or Ol’ Dirty Bastard or Inspectah Deck or Raekwon the Chef. So I put all these guys, that I grew up with, together and we came out to attack the industry.
Was it you who matched all the different Wu-personas together?
None of the original members knew each other but they all knew me: There was the Method Man, named after our code for weed, he was also known as the “Panty Raider” (laughs). Then there was Raekwon, who had that slinky quality about him: everything he did was slinky and full of flavor, so I called him Raekwon the Chef. ODB, who ran by the name of Arson Unique was renamed Ol’ Dirty Bastard and I also started calling the Genius GZA. So I realized their styles and I put a name to it.
So, it does sound like you had your master plan together right from the beginning.
I don’t want it to sound egotistically, but I just knew that Wu-Tang would fuck the world up, you know! When you’re young you’re very conceited, you’ve got your ego – and that’s good, you know what I’m sayin’? Because you gotta have your ego and your energy that drives you. If you look at somebody like Mozart for example: all the other pianists thought he was crazy. But he wasn’t crazy, he just was the best and he didn’t give a fuck – and that’s how we felt about ourselves.
Could Wu-Tang have happened somewhere else than in New York?
That’s a good question but I would say yes, although not at that time: Back then it had to happen with us. Nowadays it could happen anywhere. When we came to Germany the first time there wasn’t any hiphop around, seven years later they had all these different rappers like Kool Savas or Curse. I have realised, travelling the world, everything develops itself in time. So, hiphop belongs to our generation and it blossomed now to the next generation.
Were you aware of what was happening on the West Coast when you began producing hip-hop?
To be honest with you, it was Raekwon who mentioned Dr.Dre to me well after he was popular. We were so much onto our own but we respected the quality and the sound of those guys’ music which was unique as well. But hip-hop to me is gritty, raw, you don’t have to polish it up, it’s like graffiti on the wall. Dre, by the time he knew his craft, was already making “songs.” Me, I was trying to make hip-hop that, when you hear it, you drive faster, you break out of prison if you want to. Most producers make hip-hop for you to dance to, looking for James-Brown-breaks, I was making music to fight. I wanted to make kung-fu films to listen to – that was the landscape I was trying to create.
I don’t want it to sound egotistically, but I just knew that Wu-Tang would fuck the world up, you know!
What’s on RZA’s iPod these days – if you have one of those at all?
I have a couple of iPods and I got all kind of different things on them. You know, when I was growing up in the projects, we thought that guitars was only for Rock – and of course we thought that Rock was not cool, so to say. It wasn’t until I moved to California and had some buddies like System Of A Down or John Frusciante that I was starting to learn about Rock’N’Roll and all the great riffs of Led Zeppelin, Metallica and even to bands that are not popular, like Clutch or Bad Brains and shit like that, you know. So my buddy Shovel gave me an iPod with about 30,000 songs on it, you know, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and so on. I listen to a wide range of songs from around the world. There’s one called Mother Russia by Iron Maiden: It’s a song about how great Russia should be. I also learned a lot listening to the Beatles.
You said that kung-fu flicks always had a big influence on your music sample- and topicwise. These days you’re about to direct your first film. How does that come about?
My idea is to blend picture and sound the same way I am used to blend sound and picture. When you listen to albums like 36 Chambers or Liquid Swords, these albums are like movies and I want to make a movie that is inspiring the same way as an album (The Man With The Iron Fist; starring Russell Crowe and Gano Grills is going through preproduction in Hong Kong to be released in 2011). So you’ll have scenes that are like a song.
I studied with directors like Quentin Tarantino, John Woo and Jim Jarmusch for years – they gave me a lot of knowledge. You can take any scene out of any movie by any of these guys and you could watch it separately – you’d still be sucked into the movie, just like with music. I want to carry on this tradition and put a hip-hop style to it. I’d like it to be successfull financially and at the same time I want it to be a piece of art that can stand the test of time.
Throughout your career you have been approaching different fields of knowledge like music business, production skills, digital technology and now film. Where does this curiosity come from?
Well, I think it’s very healthy to study. Salomon said we should see “wisdom from the cradle to the grave.” So, never let yourself be stuck. I like to learn new things by myself. So, where ever I go, I pick up things from the cultures and the technology around me. At the same time, don’t overestimate technology.
Even if the new iPad has got a piano and a guitar function on it, which is fun to play around with, there is nothing like touching a real guitar. That’s why I carry a guitar around these days – it keeps me busy when I’m bored in my hotel room and it keeps me from thinking too much about pussy (laughs).
Editor's Note: The following is my all-time favorite song from 36 Chambers: