Rapper, producer, actor, composer, martial-arts enthusiast, chess aficionado, author, businessman — RZA wears many hats, all of which fit. It's hard to think of a more ubiquitously iconic figure in hip-hop, or a more visionary individual: RZA doesn't just make beats and spit rhymes, he captures moods, drops depth-charge metaphors, and creates epic mythologies.
"I did start with nothing and I made something," says the man also known as Bobby Digital, who grew up in Park Hill, a notorious Staten Island housing project. "When you're living in the projects, with felons and criminals, you have to learn knowledge of self."
RZA relates that he grew up with true hip-hop culture, unlike the current generation. "A lot of people that's doing hip-hop right now, they learned it from TV," he says. "They don't really know. When I spit my first lyric, there must have been 100 MCs in the world. Now there's a million."
A powerful force both as a solo artist and as the self-styled "Abbot" of Wu-Tang Clan, RZA notes the group's impact has been felt throughout the pop-culture spectrum. "So many people say the first hip-hop they ever bought was Wu-Tang. ... We opened that world up."
In addition to the motherfuckin' ruckus, RZA feels Wu-Tang brought "a certain sense of mysticism" to the music scene: "We're not only hip-hop artists, but we also appeared to be superheroes. It made kids wanna be that."
Despite his lack of musical training, RZA's first album as producer — 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers — went platinum. "That was a time I took sound and pulses, whereas music is supposed to be harmony and melody," he explains. "Nobody ever looked at music as being a pulse. That's why I was able to take a sound like 'wa-wa-wa' and put drums on it and make it something totally new and different." Digital technology can result in a too-clean sound, yet, he says, "My shit sounded gritty because of the grit that I sampled."
RZA's technique has been emulated not just by other producers, but also by programs like Motif, which offer "lo-fi" drums. "Now, there's a button on your computer," he says. "Even software has mimicked my way of production. So I think I opened up the minds of technology people."
He also inspired director Jim Jarmusch, who, in turn, "opened me up to a world I was itching to get into" by asking RZA to score his 1998 film Ghost Dog. RZA then met Quentin Tarantino, also a Wu fan. "He never used a composer in none of his movies before," RZA says. Working with the likes of Ridley Scott — RZA plays a detective in Scott's American Gangster — Giancarlo Esposito, and Danny Glover additionally pushed the musician-turned-actor into further pursuing his silver-screen ambitions.
Though he's moved to Los Angeles, RZA hasn't gone completely Hollywood. He's still very much a hip-hopper at heart, and his fervent hope is that the new Wu-Tang album 8 Diagrams (slated for Dec. 11 release; see review online this week) will return "balance" to the genre. "When 8 Diagrams comes out, it's not gonna sound like anything else that's out there," he says. "It's gonna be up to the fans, and the hip-hop community, to accept that difference and to force hip-hop to grow. If they don't accept that difference, it'll still be stuck in the stalemate point that we're in."
It's fitting that this maverick grandmaster would use a chess reference to describe today's rap game. It would be foolish to doubt the accuracy of his statement; RZA has already altered the course of music history. There's no reason to believe he can't do it again.