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Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) had an immediate and profound impact on both the business and the art of hip-hop. The album's pastiche of haunted-house atmosphere, kung-fu samples, cinematic imagery, Wu-mythology, and hard-boiled narratives inspired scores of imitators (some Wu-sanctioned) and helped resurrect East Coast hip-hop. Charismatic rappers Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and Ol' Dirty Bastard quickly emerged as breakout stars, but the collective's most vital member was producer, rapper, and mastermind RZA, who only a few years earlier had made an inauspicious debut as radio-friendly rapper Prince Rakeem. In the years immediately following Enter The Wu-Tang, RZA oversaw the Wu-Tang marketing juggernaut, produced and rapped for the horror-core supergroup Gravediggaz, and produced most of the Wu-Tang members' solo albums, cranking out one classic release after another while maintaining shockingly high standards. Though Wu-Tang Clan's follow-up, 1997's Wu-Tang Forever, contained moments of brilliance, it failed to live up to fans' sky-high expectations. Around that time, RZA began handing off Wu-Tang production duties to a team of soundalike producers. Not surprisingly, the albums suffered, and RZA's once-vaunted quality control seemed headed for a permanent free fall. But while RZA's prestige as a producer was slipping, he entered into a new and enormously promising second career as a film composer: He made his debut in 1999 with the unforgettable score for Jim Jarmusch's instant cult classic Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, and followed it with the score for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1. He also began releasing solo albums, first as comic-book alter ego Bobby Digital, and finally as RZA. While touring to support his new album Birth Of A Prince, RZA spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about Wu-Tang Clan, filmmaking, stand-up comedy, feeling forsaken, and his affection for Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope.
The Onion: Why did it take you so long to record as RZA instead of as Bobby Digital?
RZA: Basically, it's for me to kind of lead my fans through my life. RZA isn't an overnight thing. Even though when I came out with the Wu-Tang Clan, I was known as The RZA, there was, "Who is this guy? Where did he come from?" Bobby Digital was the medium I used to kind of explain where I come from, and some of the ideas I had in my head at first.
O: Where did the idea for Bobby Digital come from?
RZA: It came from a really good bag of weed one day, right? I was in my studio. My birth name is Bobby Diggs. So at the time, creatively, I felt like I was in a digital frame. I felt like I was in high-speed, where everything was digital, in numbers, mathematics. I said to myself at the same time that as Bobby Digital, I could use a character to describe some of the earlier days of my own life–partying, bullshitting, going crazy, chasing women, taking drugs. At the same time, I would mix in my love for comic books. It was a mixture of fiction and reality together to make a character I thought would be entertaining, and I could utilize that character to get fans into me as an MC, as a lyricist, and also following the path of my life.
O: Bobby Digital represents your dark side?
RZA: Yeah, you could say that. It's like pre-RZA. It's what The RZA struggles not to be, in a way, you know what I mean?
O: Your new album is called Birth Of A Prince. Is that a reference to your days as Prince Rakeem?
RZA: Yeah, it's Prince Rakeem, exactly.
O: What were your early days as Prince Rakeem like?
RZA: Growing up in New York, there are a lot of tenement buildings and a lot of projects. You don't leave your projects too much. The laundry's there, the grocery store is there. Everything takes place right there. When I got knowledge of myself and thought about moving around the city, hip-hop was something that helped me. With hip-hop, I had to move around just to hear it, because it wasn't everywhere. You had to go to the Bronx or you had to go straight to the hood. It was the same thing for B-boyism, for knowledge, street education, all the books we couldn't get at school. They started selling them on the streets again, these books that are out of print. I became a student. I had to start my life over. I had to rethink everything I knew. I read the Bible as a kid, but I had to reread it and not take it at face value anymore. I had to think about what it really means to me in my life. It's kind of complex when you talk about the reality of it, but on the creative side of it, it ain't that complex. Still, when you want to know the reality and the mentality behind it, there's a few layers there.
O: Were you happy with the Prince Rakeem single "Ooh I Love You Rakeem"? It's very different from what you did with Wu-Tang Clan.
RZA: That was more label-directed. I did it, but it wasn't like me being me. I definitely love women, and that rap was a true story, too. Every girl I named was a girlfriend at one point, and some of them were my girlfriend at the same time when I did that song. I probably had three girlfriends when I made that song. When I was writing it, I was like, "I got too many ladies, I got to learn to say no to these motherfuckers, I don't need all these girls." That was just one song on an album full of hardcore stuff. In those days, hip-hop albums always had one R&B song or one reggae song or one love song. My album was like that, too. I had a lot of hardcore stuff. I had stories. Basically, what happened was, "Ooh I Love You Rakeem" was the single that I got signed for to Tommy Boy, but they weren't sure they were going to do an album. I had a single deal with an album option. Even though the single wasn't exactly in my vein, I thought, "Okay, let me do the single, but let me pen two or three songs on the B-side." So for the same price, they got all that music, which made it basically an EP, but it was only a single deal. The reason I did that was because I didn't want "Ooh I Love You Rakeem" to be the only portrayal of me. It's funny: When I did my first photo shoot, I had on Timberlands and all that shit. I was a B-boy. I also wore Tommy Hilfiger and that sort of thing, but I was on some B-boy shit. When I saw Naughty By Nature, I was like, "Hold on, even though Treach is a wild nigga, that's my nigga." I knew him from back then, too. That's the kind of pictures I was taking. I had braids. I was a rough-type motherfucker with it, you know what I mean? They gave me some pretty-boy shit because ladies in the office thought that I was charming. They'd go, "Isn't that Rakeem so charming?" and that bullshit. It wasn't where my mind was at. So when Wu-Tang Clan came out, when that first video came out, what do you see? You see a 40 in my hand. It's rugged. That's what I was all about.
O: What did you do between Prince Rakeem and Wu-Tang Clan?
RZA: I done been to jail, I done been to trial. I done had done so much stuff in that period of time, man. I had my house shot up. I got kicked out of projects, gang wars. Forget it, man.
O: What did you go to jail for?
RZA: Man, you know how it is, growing up in the hood. I went to jail for–I don't like to talk about it–violence, gun violence.
O: Did you learn a lot about the business from your experiences with Tommy Boy?
RZA: Super a lot, you know what I mean? I learned a lot from Tommy Boy. I learned a lot from my management company. I learned how they did things, how they move things. I met some lawyers in the process. I had a preliminary education at the time. I'm the kind of kid who would listen.
O: A few years back, you were going to do a Bobby Digital movie. What happened with that?
RZA: I still got it. I made it. Actually, I did like two 45-minute episodes. The Bobby Digital character, he's a superhero at one point, right. But then he's also just this fucking guy in the streets at another point. I did one episode based on, like, '89. I did one episode that was supposed to be like 10 years later. I've still got a lot of faith in the character. I'm hoping to maybe get a comic-book deal or something. I have these people talking to me, stuff like that.
O: Have you always loved movies?
RZA: Yeah, I'm a movie buff, man. Movie buff, comic-book buff, music. I have love for the entertainment side of the world.
O: What are some of your favorite movies?
RZA: In what vein? I've got my genres, you know? The Godfather I and II, those were real straight movies in my life. At the same time, so is Five Deadly Venoms, if we go into kung-fu movies. I love great comedy. I just collected some old Bob Hope. That's how much I love comedy.
O: You like Bob Hope?
RZA: Yeah, man. Bob Hope is crazy.
O: Who are some other comics you like?
RZA: I love many comedians. We all know the popular ones, like the popular black comedians, from Eddie all the way to Bernie. I also like Jerry Lewis. I loved Dean Martin when he was playing Matt Helm. Remember Matt Helm? I love Bob Hope. I love W.C. Fields. I can watch all the Laurel & Hardys. I watch all the Abbott & Costellos, all the Stooges. Then I came up to, fuck it, what's his name? Jeni, Richard Jeni. That's my nigga. All the way to fucking–when stand-up was big in the '80s, before Coach was on TV, and before Home Improvement was on TV, and before all these people got their TV shows? Remember, there were all these HBO specials where they're doing stand-up, like George Carlin. That's back when Whoopi and–you know the guy I'm talking about, Whoopi's partner–Robert, Robin...
O: Robin Williams?
RZA: Yeah, and that other kid, Billy Crystal, back in the '80s and the early '90s, they was killing it, yo. As far as comedians. I could keep going. I love entertainment. I'm not prejudiced about it. I could sit there and watch Cleopatra one night... I'll watch it and have my children watch it and my girl watch it. The next week, we could watch Terminator, no problem.
O: Do you think you'd be a good stand-up comedian?
RZA: One of my dreams is to do one stand-up comic performance before I leave the Earth. Listen, I think I'd fuck y'all up, though. I got a couple of stories in my life, yo. That shit is like, you think it can't be true, but it is true, and it's funny as shit. When I describe it, when I tell people about it, it makes it sound like a fucking comedy skit, but I'm trying to tell these motherfuckers what happened. That's the best kind of comedy, the real shit. One that I've got stored up is about me going to Africa. My trip to Africa is crazy. My trip to China is crazy. My Third World trips, that'd be one segment of my shit, you know what I mean? My grandpa, that's a real black man. He's a great man. I love him. He's not here no more. He's the type of motherfucker that come home and curse the whole fucking house out. He's probably like 5'10", but he seems like he's 6'10". He's like, "I'm going to whip your ass. I don't give a fuck who it is. You can sit there and bite your lip until your dick gets hard, but boy, I'll beat your ass." He's like, "I know where to hit you at. I'll hit you so hard that it'll make you fart. When I hit you, it'll make your ears bleed." But he was serious about this. I think if I get into a zone, I can kind of bring his character out, with his voice and everything. He had a crazy voice. His whole walk, his whole vibe was different. He used to terrorize me, but as I grew older, he became funny to me.
O: What was it like composing the soundtrack for Ghost Dog?
RZA: Jim Jarmusch was real cool, real laid-back, real smooth. He's a big Wu-Tang fan. Jim actually had me in mind before he started the script. Quentin [Tarantino] got me in mind to do what I did maybe a year and a half in. I was originally just supposed to do something [for Kill Bill], but he didn't know what the fuck that was going to be. For the first year, we'd be at dinner with everybody involved with the movie, and he'd go, "Everybody, this is RZA. We don't know what the fuck RZA's doing, but this is RZA." The main reason I was hanging around so much was because I asked him if I could be a student of his, so I could pick up how to direct. I developed my own movies and my Wu-Tang videos. John Woo gave me three years of good conversation. John gave me a super education, so I wanted to see if Quentin could add to that, and he said it would be an honor. I was like, "Let me look behind the lens sometime." Or "Why is the dolly set up like this?" I met the steadicam guy, who was one of the best steadicam guys in the country–he did all of the Brian De Palma stuff. Robert Richardson was there, one of the best DPs. He did all of Oliver Stone's stuff. I was watching these people work and seeing it with my own eyes, and I'm thinking of doing it on my own someday. I know what it takes. That was my initial approach, and as time went on, one weekend Quentin came into the editing room, and he was like, "Hey, man, I fucking listened to Wu-Tang all weekend, man. I fucking fell asleep with this shit in my CD changer, woke up to it, ate breakfast to it, fell asleep to it again. After that shit, man, I totally trust you." And that was the first time I really knew that that was my job right here. It put an anchor on me, and I've got to carry his weight. I just tried to stay focused and deliver his vision and add a little flavor that'd make the movie stick out.
O: Do you want to do more acting in the future?
RZA: Yeah. I took at least a half-dozen classes. I took classes with good coaches. I did private ones, as well. They say I've got it. But who wouldn't want to be an actor? That's more pussy and money, man. You can't beat that.
O: You don't get enough of that as a rap star?
RZA: Yeah, of course. That's cool, but every rapper wants to be an actor, because an actor can make a girl really cry without having to jump around in front of a crowd onstage. I would love to be able to have some girls crying and shit. That's ego like a motherfucker. I see a lot of actors go through the struggle. Even on Kill Bill, watching Uma [Thurman] and all that stuff, it's not an easy job.
O: Wu-Tang Clan was one of the first hip-hop acts to have a clothing line. Now, it seems like everyone has one. Do you feel like the market is oversaturated?
RZA: Yeah. That's what happens. It's good and it's bad. It's helped a lot of hip-hop artists. It's fed them more than the record business, in some cases. It's bad, too, because you have companies like Mecca, Akademiks, Karl Kani, FUBU. FUBU's almost gone already, it feels like. You got a lot of these other companies disappearing because of hip-hop. It's a really strange thing. But I think it's good for hip-hop, because one thing that's better–don't take this politically, or no shit like that–we all grew up with Polo and Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger and all that. I can respect Andy Hilfiger, because he did reach out to the hip-hop community, but Tommy, the most he ever did for hip-hop was send some free clothes to Grand Puba. But now blacks have a choice, and we design our own styles. And they're copying us, so it's ironic.
O: You were in the Gravediggaz with Prince Paul.
RZA: Actually, Prince Paul was one of the first producers and people who helped me in the whole music industry. Back when I did "Ooh I Love You Rakeem," he did the drums in it. The high-hats. He schooled me on that. He schooled me on a lot of things. I did a lot of demos with him in those days. He told me I'm one of his favorite MCs of all time, and he knows a lot of MCs. When it came time for the Gravediggaz, Prince Paul was thinking about putting a group together. He wanted to get some good MCs. Poetic was another dope MC who was underrated out in Long Island. He had one single out on Tommy Boy that didn't take off, but he was a dope MC. As the Grym Reaper, you know how many dope lyrics he dropped. Frukwan, one of the top lyricists out of Stetsasonic. He and Paul were friends already. He told him about me. He said, "I know this one guy who is super-dope." At the same time, I was also trying to do Wu-Tang. I was trying to start my own company and stuff, so when Paul called me up and invited me to his crib in Long Island and told me his idea for forming this group, I thought it would be an honor to be in a group with him. But I told him, "I'm also producing a group, and I'm also part of a family that I'm building." He said, "Yo, that's crazy." We would talk a lot of times. ODB came to his house a lot of times with me. Meth, too. We all would just go there and try to find ways to get out of the streets. Me, I was trying to get out of the ghetto. Paul had a lot of respect for me, so he helped me break out of it. I think he liked that I was so dark, but I didn't know I was dark.
O: What was ODB like before the Wu-Tang Clan?
RZA: He was similar, without the money and without the name. I've been involved in a lot of things in my life, and I'd always count him in. Like if I wanted to see some girls, I'd call him and say, "Yo, I've got these girls. These girls are going to steal some shit for us, and all we have to do is hang out with them, spit right with 'em, fuck 'em, and then they'll do that for us." He'd come over, and then the next day, the girls would be ready, and he'd do something to fuck up the whole shit, or get the dough and spend it in one day, or something that's real fucked-up. Like if he got hold of a car, he'd crash it. He was always like that. One thing that was different about him then was, he had one phase in his life where his name was Hasaan, when he got knowledge of himself. That was when I was Prince Rakeem. He became a real special kind of person. That was the pride of his life, and that's what's keeping him surviving to this day.
O: Why do you think people are so fascinated by ODB?
RZA: I think he represents a true free spirit. He's freedom. He don't give a fuck. He'll pull his car over in the middle of an expressway, stop traffic, and get out and take a piss. Is that American, or what? He scares some people, but some people just love him, because he'll do what you want to do but are scared to do.
O: You produced nearly all of the early Wu-Tang Clan solo albums. How were you able to be so prolific?
RZA: I stayed in the basement for years. I didn't even come outside. I didn't know I was wealthy until 1997. Honestly. I didn't even have sex with no other girls for years–I had one girl, and it was just me and her. I was really snowed in. I broke loose in '97, after I was forsaken. After I was forsaken, I realized, "You know what? People are not always going to be good, no matter how good I am." I started being good only for selected people. I started thinking about myself, yo. I bought my first car in '97, my first fucking land cruiser, fuck it. A Lexus and a Range Rover. I bought two the same day. Fuck that. I was helping so many people, and nobody was helping me. People was trying to hurt me, it just slipped out. I was like, "Let me show these motherfuckers."
O: What do you mean by "forsaken"?
RZA: People you put your trust in, from women to partners, and then they forsake you. Even the Wu-Tang Clan, when Wu-Tang Clan pulled out of the Rage Against The Machine tour, it broke my heart, because I recorded the Wu-Tang Forever album with democracy. I let everybody do what they wanted to do. The other albums were more like how I wanted it, and it came out better, people say. The other shit was more like drama. Not only that, but I told everybody that this was a very important tour for our careers. I said, "We do this tour right, and first of all, it's going to be trend-setting. We can embed ourselves deeply into American culture. We can go back and do more tours with all the colleges," because they just wanted to go out and get the black bitches, and get pussy, and get it popping. I'm like, "Fuck that. Let's rock the world. Let's spread our message to the world." And everybody wasn't understanding that. They wasn't taking it as serious as I was taking it at that point. When they started backing out, it really hurt me and shit, so I backed out. I feel like I did everything for Wu-Tang. Like I said, I didn't go outside for years. At that time, I looked like a fucking ugly hermit. That's why, when Bobby Digital came out, I started chilling. I started having a good time. But then when they forsake me–and some brothers did, some brothers didn't–if you have four people who aren't into it, it's not going to work. I went back to the Wu mansion in New Jersey, and nobody was up-keeping it. I paid a lot of money down for that shit, and they were treating it like a big clubhouse. They treated it like they were still in the hood, and I had to let them know that we weren't in the hood anymore. We got to live elegant. We need to live where our feelings lead us. Fuck all y'all. Like, I got a studio, right? I paid for it. I put my money into it while other niggas bought what they bought. My studio belongs to all of us. Why would you come to your own studio and drop ashes on the fucking rug? It's your own place. Why would you spit on your own floor? It's just the hood mentality. Those things made me feel like I better start enjoying things, too.
O: Of the early Wu-Tang solo albums, which do you think are the best?
RZA: To me, [Raekwon's Only Built 4] Cuban Linx really stands out. And [Method Man's] Tical and the first Gravediggaz album, it's like a Richard Pryor album, yo. It's hip-hop, and it's so much fun. To me, [GZA's] Liquid Swords is a continuation of Cuban Linx. I was on fire. That was like a one-two punch. All those albums, I was just living that shit at the time. I wanted to take over the world with music.
O: Are you working on the new ODB and Ghostface Killah albums?
RZA: Yeah, the new single right now from Ghostface's album, I produced. ODB, so far we've done about seven songs together. We're probably going to do about 10, and he's probably going to choose about five. It's good, 'cause you get a dose of me and a dose of all the modern things going on.
O: You've worked with Shaquille O'Neal. What was that like?
RZA: That was real beautiful there, but I think I'm older than him, right? Basically, Shaq was looking up at me, yo! He was looking at me like his big brother. He really had a lot of love and respect for me and shit. We're still friends. Any time we get a chance, we hook up. Like he had a party at his crib, and I came up. I wasn't invited, but I thought it might be good. He's a good guy.
O: How do you feel about Kobe Bryant rapping?
RZA: I like Kobe, too, because Kobe was there at some of the early Wu-Tang concerts. He was there, yo, so I've got to give him respect. He was a listener. If you were at a Wu-Tang concert, you were a listener. It's not a radio thing. You might see the video, but we were never about radio–it was always word-of-mouth and video. Kobe's up in there. Chris Rock knows all the lyrics to GZA's album.
O: Who surprised you by being a Wu-Tang Clan fan?
RZA: It surprised me when Chris Rock knew the lyrics, when Pootie Tang knew the lyrics. Who else? Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, man, this nigga knew all my shit. That fucked my head up. There are a few other actors like that. There's a lot of Hollywood actors, in fact, that I be meeting and shit. The Baldwins, I'm real cool with them. It was kind of funny to see that Hollywood knew about us. That shit was crazy.