RZA overcame an unpromising, stuttering start to become a hip-hop legend. Both on the mic and as a producer he pioneered a deliberately rough-and-ready style that won him a worldwide audience, later cultivating a cinematic aesthetic that led to work scoring Hollywood movies. Even though the hip-hop group he led, the Wu-Tang Clan, is no more, he continues to record as one of rap’s elder statesmen.
Attempted Murder Charge to a Second Chance
RZA was born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs on July 5, 1969, in Brooklyn, New York. Although he would go on to be forever associated with Staten Island, he actually spent much of his childhood in North Carolina, Ohio and Pittsburgh. That nomadic childhood was spent moving between the homes of his mother, father and uncle. He became involved in drug dealing and petty crime, and was eventually charged with attempted murder in 1993. He saw the acquittal as a chance to make a better life for himself; he reflected in his 2010 book The Tao of Wu that “I had a chance to get off that path of hell. My moms seen it and she just told me, this is my second chance. I made that second chance count.”
Seeds of the Wu-Tang Clan
Before Wu-Tang, Diggs formed a couple of rap groups with his cousins Russell Jones and Gary Grice called, first, Force of the Imperial Master, then All In Together Now. Those cousins would go on to find their own fame as, respectively, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Genius, aka GZA. A music entrepreneur called Melquan managed to secure single deals and album options for both Grice and Diggs — then recording as Prince Rakeem — with the influential independent label Tommy Boy. Diggs released the single "Ooh I Love You Rakeem" in 1991. (The B-side, "Sexcapades," included a “Wutang mix” that was the first reference to that group.) But Tommy Boy didn’t take up his album option after Diggs was jailed prior to the attempted-murder trial.
Wu-Tang Clan Members Make Hip-Hop Revolution
After his acquittal and his failure to make a splash with his Tommy Boy single, Diggs regrouped in Staten Island and, with Grice, Jones and other local friends, formed the Wu-Tang Clan. The addition of Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Raekwon, Masta Killa and, sometimes, Cappadonna, gave the group a different feel to most rap crews — chaotic, boisterous, high energy. So did RZA’s production style. The group was named after the kung-fu film Shaolin vs Wu-Tang and RZA wove samples from that and other, similar films with southern-soul samples to unique effect.
The group’s first release turned heads immediately. "Protect Ya Neck" was initially released on the independent Wu-Tang Records, before Loud Records signed it and re-released it. The video set a visual tone to go with the fresh sounds, marking out the Wu-Tang Clan as a refreshingly charismatic group. As well as rapping, RZA produced the group’s entire 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It is regarded as one of hip hop’s greatest and most influential albums. Rolling Stone included it in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, concluding that “hip hop had rarely been this dirty.”
What was also new was the kind of record deal that RZA and his business partners had struck. While Wu-Tang was signed to Loud Records, the solo members had individual deals elsewhere and would go on to release other instant classics such as Method Man’s Tical (1994), Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords. Remarkably, RZA produced them all, maintaining an astonishing aesthetic consistency across all of them — while the EQ-ing may not always sound totally professional (especially on Method Man’s solo debut), the rough-and-rugged approach was deliberate, making the Wu-Tang sound the one that ruled the streets in the mid-1990s.
The Wu-Tang Offshoots: Gravediggaz, Sunz of Man, Killarmy
RZA’s restless creativity also found an outlet outside of the Wu-Tang Clan. In 1994 he formed the group Gravediggaz with rappers Frukwan (formerly of Stetsasonic) and Poetic, plus the renowned producer Prince Paul. Taking on the persona of The RZArector, he co-produced and rapped on their brilliant concept album 6 Feet Deep (1994) and its 1997 follow up, The Pick, The Sickle and The Shovel.
Wu-Tang offshoots were also keeping him busy. Groups such as Sunz of Man and Killarmy were taking the Wu-Tang style into even darker directions, while RZA’s fresh approach to sound also made him an in-demand producer and remixer, working for artists as diverse as Shaquille O’Neal and Björk. He was also popping up as a guest MC and, in 1996, he dropped the solo single "Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance." After the release of Wu-Tang Clan’s second album, the sprawling Wu-Tang Forever (1997), he became more hands-off in terms of production, with associates like True Master and Mathematics doing more work, and RZA remaining as executive producer.
From Composer to Director
RZA embarked on the next stage of his career with the Bobby Digital in Stereo album, released on Gee Street in 1998. It saw him moving towards keyboards instead of samples, and rapping under the Bobby Digital alter-ego. Subsequent albums Digital Bullet (2001) and Digi Snacks would maintain the persona, while 2003’s Birth of a Prince straddled several.
The Wu-Tang Clan continued to release collaborative albums throughout the early and mid-2000s, but by then RZA had become involved in scoring films. His first was Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), a perfect fit for RZA’s sampling obsessions. He went on to organize the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, and to score 2007’s Afro Samurai and 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists, the latter of which he also directed and starred in. He has dipped into acting several times, with roles in American Gangster, Coffee and Cigarettes, GI Joe: Retaliation and the TV series Californication.
The Wu-Tang Clan's output has slowed in recent years: creative differences with Raekwon delayed the release of 2014’s A Better Tomorrow.
RZA is married to Talani Rabb, having divorced his first wife Eboni Mills. He has four children, although he has expressed regret at having them with different women.
He has several collaborations and projects in the pipeline, while a newer generation of producers and MCs have been reaching out to him. Kanye West invited RZA to work with him on his Watch the Throne album (2011) and praised his influence: “Wu-Tang had one of the biggest impacts as far as a movement. From slang to style of dress, skits, the samples. Similar to the [production] style I use, RZA has been doing that.”
(Profile photo of Rza by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)
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