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RZA on the current state of hip-hop: ‘The wisdom is missing’

Rapper RZA's new album is “Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater.” (Mary Inhea Kang/For The Washington Post)

Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as RZA, 52, is a rapper, actor, filmmaker and record producer, and de facto leader of the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan. His latest album, “Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater,” was released in early March.

You decided to work with DJ Scratch to produce your new album, freeing you to do MC-ing again — a big change, having produced almost all of the Wu-Tang albums. What was it like being able to flow and write the lyrics and do all this stuff you hadn’t been able to focus on for so long?

It was really cool. It left more lyrical freedom for me, more time to focus on the pen and less worrying. The project started from me reaching out to DJ Scratch. I was going through my hard drives and I came across one of his productions that was submitted to us, to Wu-Tang, but Wu-Tang didn’t use it. I was like, “This is dope. Why didn’t we use it?”

I reached out to him to check on him during the pandemic and see how him and his family was doing. And I was like, “I was digging through my hard drive when I came across this track you made, and it reminded me that there’s another one that you played with me one day, that I never heard again. Do you have it?” And he said, “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I do have that.” So that track was, like, the founding track of the project. He said he was going to do an instrumental album that would be, like “If Wu-Tang Was Here.” And I was like “Well, I’m back on my MC mode. Send me all that. And let’s see what happens.” And I just went loose on the mic.

So how did you get back on your MC mode?

The pandemic. Having a lot of time to sit still with my family. My wife, my son, watching movies and reflecting on life, but then getting those afternoons, like, “What are you going to do?” I started going through old stuff, and I found my old lyric book from high school, so pre-Wu-Tang. These are the songs that never seen the light of day because it’s my developing years. And I started going through them, and I was like, wow, I need to pick up the pen here and go again. And so it was that stumbling across the past that inspired me. And then, I think as an artist, we all can agree that we are busy. We ingest a lot as artists. We take a lot in. And sometimes we don’t digest. And the pandemic gave me the opportunity to digest. And this album is part of that.

So when you came across this old lyric book, what did it reveal?

Well, my ability to put words together confidently, boldly, unapologetically, dope. Like all the things that it takes to be a great MC. I got a song I wrote called “I’m Invincible,” and I’m like, listen to this 16-year-old kid, where his mind was at. There’s another called “The Biochemist,” where I’m having all these ideas, talking about the zygote, mitosis and meiosis. This book goes from the age of 14 to about 18. And it just was like, yo, I just was super confident in what I wanted to say, how I said it. It was something beautiful about that. So now I’m reengaged. Like, yo, hold on. Because nobody’s going to do it the way I do it — and there’s a part of hip-hop missing the way I do it. There is some substance missing in our genre, I think. And nobody’s going to even notice that it’s missing until somebody else put it back out there again.

How do you describe what it is that’s missing?

The wisdom is missing. Sometimes people think hip-hop is just about money, drugs and sex and good times. And that’s just one pillar. Where’s the pillar of information? Where’s the pillar of inspiration? And I don’t mean inspiration to want to go out on Saturday and party. But inspiration that even another artist can hear, and a painter can listen to and paint his greatest painting because of the poetical words that’s passing through his mind. Where’s that at? Those things have been removed, or there’s less of it because of the popularity of it has dwindled.

When Public Enemy was the number one hip-hop group in the country, people were saying: “Don’t believe the hype.” “Fight the power.” You know, people expressing their anger and discomfort — without destruction, though. It was similar to the marches they had in the ’60s. You watch the “Fight the Power” video. They’re bringing that energy, and they’re bringing it in the way our country accepts it. They’re not doing bricks through windows. And when KRS-One was the lead hip-hop artist, he was talking about songs like “My Philosophy,” you know what I mean? “Love’s Gonna Get’cha” is giving us more proverbial inspiration.

Then in the ’90s you was able to get that from Wu-Tang and Nas, the Tribe Called Quest; you was able to get culture, lyrics — you got the street experience. Like with Wu-Tang we tell you: “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side, staying alive was no jive.” But in the same song, he says, “I’m ready to give up, but I seek my old earth.” Your “old earth” is your mother. “I seek my old earth who explains working hard can help you maintain, to learn to overcome the heartaches and pains.” You know what I mean? So there’s something else there.

The influence of Asian culture and martial arts has been huge in your work. Can you talk about where that influence came from?

It was a multiple-layer thing. The first time I saw a martial arts film, I may have been 9 years old. It was a Bruce Lee movie and a Jim Kelly movie. And it was double feature. And those films, with the rapid action, the setting and all that, they caught my attention. But where it really etched in my heart was probably around the age of 14, seeing this movie called “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” I’d seen it before, but this time I really saw it. At 14, you’re going through your puberty. Race becomes obvious as a teenager. The poverty becomes obvious. The oppression — everything becomes more obvious. And in this particular film, I saw that they was going through oppression. It was a bunch of college students oppressed by a tyrannical government. They wanted to find a way to fight back. And the only thing they could do was go to Shaolin and learn how to master themselves to make themselves better. But during that process, it wasn’t only physical mastery. It was a spiritual component. And that became something that opened my mind.

Because for the Black men in America, in my generation, history don’t go past 400 years. If we do see any history earlier than that, it’s going to be Greek, Roman and that type of thing. Even in film. But here, this is a movie that’s based a thousand years ago. And even though it’s a movie, it’s taking me to that thousand years ago. And I’m seeing through eyes of a different culture. I’m still seeing oppression. But what I’m seeing, though, is the ability to fight back and the chivalry of this particular character, to represent the teachings that he learned. Because even though he was fighting back, the moral was, you’re not allowed to kill. ‘Cause he was a Buddhist monk. But then he was like, even Buddha punished evil. That’s a big line. And it hit my brain in a different way. So I just started running down to Chinatown, buying books and studying. And it became part of my whole flow of my energy.

And did you have other people around you, family or friends, similarly influenced or knowledgeable?

Yeah. All of my friends. By the time we were 14, these movies are now coming on TVs on Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock. And so you could be a gangster, a basketball player, a baseball player, a great dancer, a skateboarder, a nerd. Whoever was in the neighborhood in my projects, at 3 o’clock on Saturday, everybody left the streets: empty. And they all went up to watch Kung Fu Theater on Channel 5. And then after it was over, everybody comes back outside, and now we are emulating what we saw. We’re playing. We are all taking our mother’s broomsticks and making nunchucks out of them. And that’s the reason why my album is called “Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater.”

You’ve talked about taking inspiration from all these different sources and this notion of shared humanity. In fact, somebody, I think it was Raekwon, called you the “hip-hop hippie”?

[Laughs.] I didn’t know how to take that at first, but I took it. I understand what he means by that, ‘cause he knows I do that, not only in being able to amalgamate, homogenize various cultures into my creativity, but he also saw me do it with various instruments. He’d be in the studio when I’d be playing some 1969 Indian song. And he’s like, “Man, what you doing, man? I liked that chord, I liked that movement.”

Wu-Tang Clan also started as a really unusual creative collaboration — with nine MCs. That’s unheard of. People can’t usually pull something like that off.

I come from a big family of 11 brothers and sisters. So in hindsight — of course I couldn’t tell you this during the period, but in hindsight — I think understanding personalities was important. All of the members of Wu-Tang Clan were my buddies. Either my cousin or my buddy. They weren’t buddies to each other. Some were on enemy terms. But they had a common denominator in me. And, like, I’m a good guy. If you needed it, I got it, I’ll give it to you. If you had to crash, if you needed somewhere to go. So being that common denominator of good, I was able to bring the brothers together. They didn’t trust each other, they trusted me.

On the music side, being an MC myself and a producer, I had an ear to know what was good for others. And so I’m like, “Yo, you going to sound dope on this.” Or even being able to say, “Nah, that’s not going to work.” And to take it off, cut it in half. Throw it in the garbage, without nobody riffing, because of that trust factor. And on the business side, I had entered the industry before, and it was a bad experience. I learned that the hard way. There was a quote I learned: “We always come in peace, but we prepare for war.” I took that and applied that to my business mind, let me prepare before I go into here what to watch out for. My own aspiration — before, I wouldn’t probably say it — but I was aspiring to make sure that, if it’s up to me, one third of the industry of hip-hop would be my vibe. So that’s like a takeover, a complete takeover. And for a two-year period, the top-selling artists were for my crew. We did it. We made it.

And you negotiated so that everybody could have their own solo [career], as well.

Exactly. I did a deal that gave Loud the right to control the Wu-Tang Clan, as of then. But on the solo deals, I could shop it throughout the industry and find homes that fit. And it worked.

You’ve talked also about the responsibility to try to educate with your lyrics. How did that sense of responsibility come to you?

I think by going down the wrong path and seeing the results and the failure over and over on the wrong path, and then seeing when I went down the right path, how fast I multiplied. I’m a living proof. And if you’re just speaking, just on a simple American Dream of it all, I was arrested over 19 times between the ages of 17 and 21, I think. And it was always because I was trying to grab something or sell something or do something. It was mostly from illegal activities — let’s be real, right? And no matter what, everybody around me, part of the Wu-Tang members, all of us. Jail, danger, street beef, all confusion. And Raekwon says in the song, “Every week we made forty G’s.” You take that same 40 G’s, and you divide it by the 10 members of Wu-Tang Clan, that’s four grand a week risking our lives. Damaging our community, right? Et cetera, et cetera. But now, you could do one concert in one day and make $400,000 with positivity. So all my negative fell. But when my positive was successful, I realized that’s the aspiration, that’s the goal. And that’s what I promoted, because it works.

And you got that second chance. You said that at some point that your mother said, “Okay, you beat this charge, this is your second chance.” And you didn’t look back.

I took heed. KK, the greatest in the Holy Koran, they give us a verse that says, man’s biggest flaw, his biggest weakness, is heedlessness. Like your stomach could be saying something to you, and you just keep eating, you know what I mean? You don’t take the signs that’s given to us all the time. And so I was blessed with a second opportunity. My mother said those words to me, and I took heed.

Over the decades, you’ve worked through different mediums — through songs, through videos, through films, more recently. Can you talk about these different methods of storytelling?

I’m the kid that walked to school and made a whole movie up in his head. I’m the kid who finished his classwork early and started writing a song in class. And now it’s a blessing to be able to find different mediums. I found that film — and I didn’t understand this until I hung out with Quentin Tarantino — is actually the epitome of storytelling, because it includes music, visuals and dialogue. And if captured right, the emotion and the setting. Different forms of art come together in a collaborative effort to tell your story. And when I realized that that was possible and realized that I have the brain capacity of that possibility, I became enamored. And I studied underneath Q.T. and paid attention on his sets. And Robert Rodriguez allowed me to come to some of his sets as well. It just gave me that clarity, that this is the best way to tell a story. ‘Cause every stimulation is possible. And if I had it my way, I’ll put you in a Disneyland seat, where I’ll have air blowing at you, we shake your chair a little bit. [Laughs.]

So I’m striving to tell a more 360-view of my experience, my cultural experience, in this world, and in the time period. That’s my goal. This is the reason why I sit down and I write. Because I feel like it’s good to share that. And, in this way, by sharing it, we all can grasp a better understanding of each other.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Magazine.

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