Just about every hip-hop star wants to work in Hollywood, but none has received better training for the filmmaking life than RZA, leader of New York City’s notoriously turbulent Wu-Tang Clan. As the group’s instigator and primary beatmaker, the man born Robert Diggs has witnessed enough drama to fill a half-dozen screenplays, but has somehow reined in his comrades long enough to record five genre-defining albums, including the 1993 classic, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
If RZA can get legendary eccentrics like Ghostface Killah and Method Man singing from the same hymnal, his plans to write, produce, and direct his first film—a martial-arts feature called The Man With the Iron Fist—later this year shouldn’t seem far-fetched. The Staten Island native already has a foothold in the movie industry, having composed scores for several films including Ghost Dog (1999) and both volumes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series (2003–2004), as well as playing small roles for Jim Jarmusch (as himself in 2004’s Coffee & Cigarettes) and Ridley Scott (as a cop in last year’s American Gangster).
The list of rappers-turned-thespians is long and largely ignoble, dominated by the likes of Ludacris and 50 Cent, men whose best acting comes when they’re playing their cartoonish real-life selves. When Samuel L. Jackson pilloried the hip-hop–gone–Hollywood trend in an infamous 2002 interview, RZA took the actor’s comments to heart.
“I understood him exactly because in some cases we do make a mockery of it,” says the 38-year-old producer, reached at his home in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 2007.
“Acting is a craft. For a rapper to get a part just because he’s got a name—I could see how that’s not healthy for the acting community. But at the same time, you’re talking about hip-hop artists; some of us are true artists. I think I have the talent to act; I’ve been told that I’m a natural, but I still took lessons to perfect it.”
The New Yorker’s work as an actor offers a welcome respite from the tumult he’s been facing on the Wu-Tang front. Since the release of last year’s 8 Diagrams, the group’s first album since the 2004 passing of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA has been sharply criticized by his fellow Clansmen, many of whom feel the spacy record betrays their reputation as rap’s preeminent underworld nihilists. Ghostface, for instance, has accused him of “dropping the ball”, while Raekwon derisively labelled the producer a “hip-hop hippie”.
“Hearing that talk, I ain’t felt that bad since ODB died, and I told my brothers that,” he says. “I felt like a part of me died because it wasn’t justifiable chastisement. When I finished the record, I told everybody, ”˜Take three weeks, listen to it, and give it some time to grow on you, [because] it ain’t no overnight thing like that.’ You can’t put records out there and expect people to get it right away. They’re not catching on like that anymore.”
RZA admits it could take listeners years, not just weeks, to catch up to 8 Diagrams, a spooky, deliberately inner-focused recording in which silence and echoes figure just as prominently as the beats, rhymes, and bass lines. Tellingly, when the group, touring without RZA, played a series of concerts it didn’t perform a single song from 8 Diagrams.
In + out
RZA sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On his apprenticeship as a filmmaker: “I didn’t take no classes, but I’ve been mentored by one of the best of our generation, Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s created a good student who can represent what he’s taught me. About two months ago, he gave me my blessings and told me I’m ready to start directing. That’s after six years of knowing him and learning from him.”
On his fashion sense: “When hip-hop first started, you couldn’t just wear Kangol. If you had it, you had to defend your life for that shit. You couldn’t just have it. But I’m one of those hard-rock niggers. I had a Kangol when nobody could wear Kangols; I had Pumas when they was shooting niggers with Pumas.
"I was wearing braids when nobody had braids in New York. I remember girls were snapping on me, making jokes on me, saying, ”˜You look like an ugly girl with your braids.’ But I kept wearing ’em. And now braids is everywhere.”
On his current tour, which features a live band:. “We all love hip-hop, but how many guys just walk back and forth on-stage holding their dick, and that’s all the audience has to look at? When we were out last year with Rage Against the Machine, they’d come on-stage after us and blow the fuckin’ house down.
"I’m taking a big risk with this tour; I’m actually not making any money because of the cost of the band and the buses to make it happen. But I’m willing to risk my money for the fans to be able to see something better from me. If it works, then I’ll do it again, and next time I’ll double the fee.”
Despite that snub, the producer insists his association with Wu-Tang is forever, and that the debate over 8 Diagrams will only focus the group’s resolve. That seems to be the message behind “You Can’t Stop Me Now”, the return-to-roots first single from RZA’s forthcoming Digi Snacks, the third solo album he’s released under his Bobby Digital guise. The disc showcases RZA in a classicist mood, its old-school aesthetic a counterpoint to his recent experiments with ambient textures and live orchestration.
The reemergence of Bobby Digital comes just after the launch of WuChess.com, an on-line community devoted to the producer’s favourite pastime. RZA’s fascination with the game has long been evident in his lyrics, which make frequent reference to combat and numerology. Instead of sharpening their reflexes with Xbox, he says, teenagers should be honing their minds with chess.
“We have a problem in America, and definitely in the black community, of spontaneous reaction to situations without proper calculation,” he says. “Chess is a game of calculation, it’s a game of analytical thinking and strategic planning. You’ve got to think two, three, four moves ahead. If brothers had that thinking in their life, maybe they wouldn’t end up dead or in jail.”
Because he prefers chess to video games, because he’s still obsessed with ’70s-era martial-arts films, and because his music flies so defiantly in the face of ringtone pop, there’s a temptation to see RZA as out of step with the times. Pursued on that subject, the producer insists he doesn’t care whether he’s in or out of style; he figures he’s already timeless.
“Listen, I’ve made a lot of money doing this shit,” he says. “I don’t care if only 50 people buy my records anymore. It’s for them, and they’re going to benefit from that knowledge they gain while those who don’t get it ain’t going to benefit from it. Some people don’t read the Bible—that’s their loss, it ain’t everybody else’s loss. I don’t care if people get my shit now. One day, they will. People say that Jesus was ahead of his time; it took him 2,000 [years] to get a billion fans. How many times platinum is that?”
RZA plays Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (June 25).