He continues: “A shrouded valley of doubt, procrastination, excuses. What do you need to build a bridge, cross the valley and attain what you seek? But everything you need already exists in your own universe. You just have to activate it.”
These teachings come courtesy of the RZA — a.k.a. Prince Rakeem, a.k.a. Bobby Digital, a.k.a. Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, a.k.a. the Rzarector in your sector from Shaolin to the holy city of Mecca. The mastermind of the Wu-Tang Clan shares his wisdom on the album “Guided Explorations,” where you’ll hear him offering Proustian rhapsody of the sights and smells of Shaolin, nee Staten Island, and how it stacks up to the personal atoll floating amid your chakras. Its cover depicts the RZA in a saffron robe, backed by an incandescent Laserium-style map of the heavens, proffering a glowing orb that reads “RZA” and “Tazo” (the tea company sponsoring the affair).
“I thought about meditation for the first time at 13 or 14. A viewing of [the 1978 kung fu film ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’] sent me on a mission,” the RZA intones. “I’d seen it before, but that time it sparked my quest to look for books, learn kung fu styles and meditate. Another film, ‘Fists of the White Lotus,’ inspired me, too. In it, there’s a quote where the villain says, ‘Today is the Dragon Boat Festival. This is the day where I meditate all day to regain my chi.’ And the hero came and disturbed him. When he said it, I was like, ‘You gotta take a day to sit down and regain your chi.’ ”
The RZA does not give interviews; he grants you an audience. His answers should be brushed onto scrolls of papyrus. On this pre-pandemic afternoon in mid-February, he receives me in a lavishly appointed hotel suite at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles — roughly an hour away from his placid mountain aerie in a gated community just east of Calabasas. He’s wearing all black: jeans, high-laced combat boots, designer Wu baseball cap and a jacket with just a slash of killer bee yellow. Amber-tinted sunglasses conceal unusually alert eyes. His full beard lacks even a speck of gray, which helps him look a decade younger than his 50 years.
The nominal purpose of the conversation is to discuss “Guided Explorations,” but it’s really an entree into the constantly swirling galaxy of the RZA. At the moment, that includes “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” the fictionalized drama about the rise of Clan, which Hulu just renewed for its second season; a mini-documentary about Ol’ Dirty Bastard that recently premiered on Amazon Music; and the Bayou heist “Cut Throat City,” the third feature film that he’s directed. Starring Terrence Howard, Wesley Snipes, T.I. and Ethan Hawke, it was scheduled for an April release until covid-19 forced an indefinite postponement.
A tete-a-tete with the RZA is a psychedelic experience. The tangents can be oblique or occasionally perplexing, but the effect is what matters. His mind is a choose-your-own adventure, where every outcome is a matryoshka doll of infinite metaphysics. Regardless of what he’s promoting or what his latest album sounds like (or even if it’s not exactly an album), the multi-hyphenate legend is one of the rare subjects worth speaking with anytime you get the chance to hear him talk.
This encounter starts off with an explanation about how original Wu-Mansion was actually in Warren Beatty’s old house. Ask a simple question about his dalliances with meditation and you amble down a path that includes whistle stops in the Wudang Mountains; the original Shaolin temple; the sacred texts of the “Diamond Sutra” and the “8 Pieces of Brocade”; Shi Yan Ming (the 34th generation Shaolin warrior monk, of course), and the reason for why when you see drawings of the Bodhidharma it’s just one shoe on a stick. There’s also a side lesson of 5 Percenter numerology crossed with mystic Eastern wisdom.
“I thought Shaolin had 36 chambers, but Shi Yan Ming explained that it’s actually 36 times two,” he says, describing his edification and travels in the wake of 1997’s “Wu-Tang Forever.” “Because it’s 36 external and 36 internal. Shaolin starts with the external, Wu-Tang starts with the internal, but they’re part of the same school! I’m hearing this and all the folklore that I thought was all just literature. It’s like reading Shakespeare. Stories that’s so old that by the time we get to the modern day some of them are believable. Like somebody might believe Romeo and Juliet were real, but it was fiction. I was finally getting the pure facts. I began to understand that meditation is moving and still.”
As hyperbolic as it sounds in this postmodern, cynical, plague-riddled world, the RZA is one of the most valuable prophets of the past quarter-century. We take it for granted now, but what he has accomplished with Wu-Tang remains one of the most monumental achievements in modern cultural history.
After growing up in the infamously poverty-stricken and violent projects of Staten Island, the bodhisattva-born Robert Diggs scored a record deal in the early ’90s and promptly flamed out. After getting dropped by his label, he fled to Ohio and became involved in a web of illicit activity, culminating in an attempted murder charge. Testifying in his own defense, the RZA won an acquittal from a nearly all-white jury.
Returning to Staten Island, he formed a Voltron that featured the neighborhood’s best rappers and a pair of his cousins (the GZA and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard). But this wasn’t just hip-hop; the RZA transliterated a supernatural creole of comic books and 5 Percent Islam, criminology rap and creaky Memphis soul samples, kung fu flicks and street hustler slang. He was something out of Joseph Campbell; a mystic brew of Occidental and Asiatic influences like Gary Snyder, but from a different Beat Generation. The influence he wields and the respect for his work has maintained.
That’s why earlier this month, on a Saturday night in the middle of mandated isolation, an Instagram Live beat battle between the RZA and DJ Premier became the hottest topic on social media, attracting a staggering peak audience of nearly 200,000 people. A rare silver lining about the crisis has been the unexpected shift in pop cultural fixations. A cynical TikTok-baiting single from Drake was roundly mocked online, but the RZA, wearing a sleeveless shirt and fingerless gloves, looking like a mechanic from the Paradise Garage, owned the timeline.
“The intention of Wu-Tang has always been the same,” he says, taking a sip from a cup of “Zen” green tea. “Our goal is to spread hip-hop culture, our culture, art culture. It’s a form of knowledge and cultural fusion. And a lot of the songs I played contain pieces of other songs that were manipulated to create new ones. The Ol’ Dirty said that ‘Wu-Tang is for the children.’ What I think he meant by that is when a child comes to a certain age and learns of the Wu-Tang catalogue, it’ll help him navigate life. So many people are trying to find a map, and Wu-Tang provides a map.”
The RZA’s beat-battle selections underscored the 25th anniversary of one of the most immortal years in hip-hop history. Fresh off the platinum success of the Wu’s entirely RZA-helmed debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” he rented an apartment with the Ghostface Killah in Staten Island, and promptly sequestered himself in a stank 300-square-foot basement studio, subsisting on nothing but turkey burgers. A flood — the first of two biblical deluges to waterlog the RZA’s archives — had destroyed all preexisting beats. So forced to fulfill contractual and fraternal obligations, the RZA hastily produced all of Chef Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” the near-entirety of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers,” and all but one beat on the GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” All three are unimpeachable classics, full of flawless mistakes and chaotic originality. Regularly and deservedly ranked among the top 50 hip-hop albums ever made, they fundamentally define what it means to describe music as “cinematic.”
Just in time for the summer of 1995, Method Man and Mary J. Blige dropped their single for “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” which won a Grammy and instant canonization as one of hip-hop’s greatest love songs. It amounts to the greatest year that any producer ever had, a trick of crossroads divination that scarcely seems real in retrospect. The hip-hop equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points a game in a single season. It could never happen again.
“ODB would come over with his seeds and wife, and they argued a lot,” the RZA remembers, reflecting on the basement sessions from that March. “So I had her come down and curse him out and told him to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ because he always used to sing that anyway. That was one of his jokes. That and ‘The Love Boat’ theme. Busting them out was part of his personality.”
There was no furniture in the living room. Just a lot of chess and “Samurai Showdown” played on the forgotten video-game console, the 3DO. Once ODB was finished, Raekwon and Ghost descended. After scooping up the RZA’s best beats, they decamped to Barbados to compose their Mafioso rap-opus. All season long, the lab was the center of the universe, attracting all the Wu members, plus the likes of Nas, Big Daddy Kane and Cypress Hill.
So what was it about that hermitic basement summer of 1995 that produced such stainless cult magic, a clutch of generational spells that continue to rings bells and inspire a multigenerational obsession? The RZA offers a parable. “When some things are kept closed in, the vibrations are kept tighter. That basement was the cave. Bodhidharma, the master of Zen, he had to go meditate in the cave for nine years to figure out his solution on how to make a better world and to help the Shaolin. That’s his legend. That cave is always important. You gotta have a cave.”
It’s only natural that over the past decade and a half, the RZA has increasingly harnessed his creative energies toward film and television. As Prince once said when asked why he didn’t write another “Purple Rain”: “I’ve been to the top of the mountain. There’s nothing there.” The RZA freely acknowledges that much of the early Wu-Tang music was mired in negativity, a reflection of their upbringing and environment, but not the head space you want to be in after a half-century of striving for perfection.
Our conversation is sprawling, a wild syncretistic display of the RZA’s curiosities. He is both seeker and Shakyamuni. He waxes philosophical on the following subjects: the Ottoman Empire being composed of people of pigmentation; the origins of Mongolian democracy; the need to celebrate the economic contributions of black Americans; the numerological breakthroughs of ancient India; why he went vegan; how American has different Kit Kats than Europe; the accomplishments of the First Council of Nicaea; how freedom must operate under a law of justice; and a brief digression about how goat curry contributed to the aggression of early Wu-Tang.
Finally, we return to meditation.
“I’m doing this project to help unlock the energy of other people, other creative energy. Zen is important to me,” he says. “It means enlightenment and awareness. That’s where my spirit has been for a long time.”
And like anything destined to stand the test of time, Wu-Tang encompassed more than just a sound, attitude or moment in history. They are an idea and ontology destined to both evolve but remain immutable. So it is both remarkable and inevitable that a man once so committed to the concept of his superhero alter ego, Bobby Digital — to where he made an unreleased movie and purchased an armored Digi-Mobile for him — has become wizened and maybe even spiritually enlightened. This is the same RZA, but now set off on a different path.
“Life is accumulation of those 12 jewels. It’s joy. It’s bliss. It’s love,” he says. “ My goal at this point is to inspire, leave footprints, and show the younger dudes that this is all possible. And if I’m blessed to be able do that, bong, bong.”