"There was a certainty that nothing could hold us back. I would tempt death because I knew I couldn't die." -RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual
The Clan were the first crew of their size in hip hop (consisting of eight initial members), and they were the first to take a group mentality and turn it into a lasting movement. Before Diddy and Hov became the moguls they are today, there was the RZArector, a self-described "dictator" who instituted a 5-year plan of prosperity for his clansmen that they couldn't deny. After the unprecedented success of their "Protect Ya Neck" single in 1993, they signed a collective deal with the now defunct Loud Records. The agreement allowed them to sign secondary contracts with other labels as solo artists. Meth went to Def Jam. Ol' Dirty went to Elektra. They diversified. By 1997, when their "Wu-Tang Forever" album sold 600,000 copies in its first week unaided by promotion or radio play, Wu-Tang had become a household name. The brand had completely permeated the rap game, and label negotiations were never the same after the success of the Abbot's strategy. When the 5-year gestation period ended, each member of the clan went their separate ways, but their legacy remains intact, perpetuated by legions of devoted fans all over the globe.
Peep several classic Wu-Tang music videos below.
"Producing music is a spiritual act. I think anybody that makes music seriously, for long enough, comes to understand that. You know that everything you're doing in life relates to the music you're producing and vice-versa." -RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual
Although it has evolved over the years, the body of RZA's production style is recognizable in its low-fi sparseness, dustiness and incorporation of film dialogue, both from martial arts films and mob flicks. There's also heavy sampling of traditional Chinese and Japanese music, presumably the scores from the kung fu films he loves. On the other hand, he also tends to warp classic soul samples to suit the murky, unnerving atmospherics so characteristic of the Wu-Tang Clan. If a particular beat makes you feel like you're walking down a dark alleyway alone at night, chances are whoever threw it together was inspired by the Abbott.
He's also been scoring or aiding in the scoring of films ('Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai,' 'Kill Bill') and television shows ('Afro Samurai') for quite some time now, and has expressed interest in shifting his focus in this direction entirely. His recent directorial debut is evidence enough of this, despite some negative feedback.
Kanye West, our previous Game Changer, has spoken highly of RZA and the Wu: "Wu-Tang had one of the biggest impacts as far as a movement. From slang to... skits [and] the samples. Similar to the production style I use, RZA has been doing that." He claims that the sped-up, "chipmunk soul" vocal sampling in his earlier work was inspired by the Abbot. As such, and out of admiration, he included RZA as a guest producer on both Watch The Throne and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
It's safe to say that Prince Dynamite's production style has had a lasting influence in the rap game and beyond, impressing both Quentin Tarantino and Yeezy, who are both forerunners in their respective fields. Then again, so is RZA.
Watch the interviews below to learn more about his production techniques.
"Y'all might just catch me in the park playin' chess, studyin' math / Shinin' seven and a sun - BOBBY!" -RZA, 'Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)'
RZA's musical resume is inspiration in itself. While producing for his immediate and extended Wu-Tang family, as well as undertaking plenty of work outside the inner circle, he's still found time to build a repertoire of four studio albums, two compilations, an instrumental tape and multiple EPs. It's difficult to think of any working rapper and/or producer who rivals his prolific work ethic (besides Madlib, maybe), and it's undoubtedly served as an inspiration to many.
He assumed his Bobby Digital alias for most of his solo work, with album titles like Bobby Digital In Stereo, Digital Bullet and Digi Snacks. As far as his LPs go, only Birth of a Prince was released by RZA proper. He takes the Bobby Digital moniker much more seriously than the others he's adopted in the past, among them Bobby Steels, the Scientist, Prince Delight and Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. He's known to rock a custom opera mask over his eyes when in character in music videos and such. This mirrors other character acts such as MF DOOM and, to a certain extent, Madlib, who embody multiple different roles depending on the type of music they feel like putting out. DOOM being Metal Fingers and Viktor Vaughn, and Madlib being Quasimoto and Yesterday's New Quintet. Taking these roles so seriously has undoubtedly rubbed off on some of the youngins looking to do the same.
View a few examples of the Bobby's solo work below.
RZA was a part of New York City supergroup the Gravediggaz with Frukwan (The Gatekeeper), Too Poetic (The Grym Reaper) and Prince Paul (The Undertaker). He assumed the alias Rzarector when performing and recording with this outfit, occasionally rocking a fanged grill and multiple spiked rings as well. The group is noteworthy because they're considered to have pioneered the hip hop subgenre horrorcore along with Big L and Brotha Lynch Hung. Their subject matter was dark, dealing with concepts of Hell, suicide, psychopathy, and murder, but not completely devoid of humor. Founded in 1994, their mission statement was to "resurrect the mentally dead from their state of unawareness and ignorance" through shock value and disestablishmentarianism. They were poster boys for horrorcore, setting the bar high right off the bat, and the group served as an outlet of deviance for the Abbot. It's hard to be a monk all the time.
Check out videos for several Gravediggaz singles below.
"Every little gadget they put that W on, it sold." -RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual
The Wu-Tang Clan were among the first to start an official hip-hop clothing line with their Wu Wear lifestyle brand. They started it in 1995 so they could cater to their own unique tastes, discourage bootlegged merch and simultaneously promote their logo and movement. Oli "Power" Grant, one of RZA's closest friends and the honorary executive producer of the Wu, spearheaded the brand after the platinum success of their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It took off, and with RZA's blessing he opened four stores in New York, Atlanta, Norfolk (Virginia) and L.A. After Wu-Tang Forever went multi-platinum in '97, the brand saw renewed profits. This led to the now-coveted Wu-Tang-themed Nike dunks, a partnership with Alife NYC and even a line of cologne, shockingly enough.
The success of Wu Wear, however much it fluctuated, opened up new possibilities in the realm of hip hop clothing lines. Although the hype surrounding the brand has died down, it set standards for urban style throughout the nineties, and it couldn't have gone down without RZA's approval and involvement.
"To me, hip hop is moviemaking. When you write a song, you tell a story and you take on a persona, an attitude. It could be you, it could be based on you, or it could not be you at all." -RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual
RZA is close friends with directors Quenitin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, and he's undoubtedly had a hand in bringing hip-hop music to Hollywood. He officially began in 1999 with Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai', both scoring and appearing in it, and he's contributed to films nearly every year since. He showed up in Jarmusch's 'Coffee & Cigarettes' in a brilliant diner scene with GZA and Bill Murray, and later in a supporting role in Ridley Scott's 'American Gangster'. Most recently, he wrote, directed, scored and starred in his own martial arts flick ('The Man With The Iron Fists') and contributed a track to the 'Django Unchained' soundtrack. He'd previously worked with Tarantino on the Kill Bill scores, creating an intense track called "Ode To Oren Ishii." He's currently co-producing a remake of 'The Last Dragon' starring Samuel L. Jackson, and there's even been talk of a Wu-Tang biopic. RZA's story is proof that there is a place for ambitious rappers and/or producers in Hollywood, and he's been serving as an inspiration in this department for a minute now.
Peep evidence of RZA's foray into Hollywood below.
"I advise everyone to find an island in this life. Find a place where this culture can't take energy from you, sap your will and originality. Since anything physical can be mental, that island can be your home. Turn off the electromagnetic waves being forced upon you, the countless invisible forces coming at you all the time." -RZA, The Tao Of Wu
RZA's strength lies in the fact that he remains both student and teacher. Combined with his worldly experience and knowledge of self, he's arguably one of the most enlightened figures in the history of hip hop. Having studied all the major world religions outside of their respective establishments, his perspective is more universal and balanced than the average rap cat. His contributions to the art and culture of hip hop are staggering, and it's unlikely there will ever be another auteur quite like him.
Game Changers is an HNHH feature that profiles artists who've left a strong mark on hip hop. Whether it be through creativity, influence, exposure or simply good timing, they've brought something to rap music that the game just wouldn't be the same without. This week, we've chosen to profile an inarguable game changer: RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
"RZA is different from the others. His spirit drives his actions and those actions change the world."
-Sifu Shi Yan Ming, 34th Generation Shaolin Warrior Monk / Founder & Abbott of the USA Shaolin Temple
Seeing as the Wu-Tang Clan's 20th anniversary is approaching, we've decided to look back on the accomplishments of the Abbot. With a career spanning two decades, a complete retrospective would've been too much, so we've instead broken down some of the major moments throughout RZA's career. Although he doesn't have a perfect track record (there has been tension within the Clan over the years), we've chosen to focus on the good here, not the bad or the ugly.
Robert F. Diggs changed hip hop forever when he assembled the Wu-Tang Clan. Their influence over the past twenty years is undeniable and resounding. Under his direction, they birthed and popularized an original new slang, style and sound influenced both by project life and various Eastern philosophies, physical and mental. They started a movement and swarmed the industry.
As a solo artist, RZA has put out four studio albums, as well as a debut EP under the moniker Prince Rakeem. He's released three albums and an EP with horrorcore pioneers the Gravediggaz. He's helmed every major Wu-Tang record and contributed to dozens of official member and affiliate solo projects, not to mention producing for and collaborating with many artists outside of the family as well.
Other than his musical catalogue, he's authored two non-fiction books, The Wu-Tang Manual and the Tao of Wu, and has been depicted in official Wu-Tang comic books and a martial arts game for the original Playstation. He co-founded the Wu Wear clothing line that's seen phases of great success. He's contributed to film and television scores, and has been known to appear on the big screen every now and then as well.
And the list goes on. RZA undoubtedly changed the rap game for the better, forever. He helped shape it, and continues to do so to this day. So stay tuned - although fans are [warily] hopeful for a collective Wu project in the near future, we're not worried about Bobby's individual output. He just doesn't stop.
Read on for a breakdown of Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah's influence as the abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan.