Career Arc: RZAGetty Images
“Our crew had lots of meanings for the words Wu-Tang — ‘Witty, Unpredictable Talent and Natural Game,’ ‘We Usually Take Another N****’s Garments’ — in China, I learned another, the original one: ‘Man who is deserving of God.’ So in that sense, we are all Wu-Tang. You are Wu-Tang.” RZA writes those words in The Tao of the Wu, his stew of memoir and spiritual philosophy, penned with Chris Norris and released in 2010. It’s one part 150-page koan, one part gripping reflection on almost dying every day in Brooklyn. Fun book, you should read it. It’s an unlikely dichotomy. But then, RZA’s had an unlikely life.
Roughneck ringleader and rabbinical temple-dweller —that’s been his split. And there are two notable moments in the rapper/producer/mogul/author/designer/friend-of-Tarantino’s life that have defined that balance. The first is no secret: As a teenager, RZA and his cousins would ditch school to haunt the grindhouse theaters in Times Square, movie houses where men yanked their crank to Pam Grier’s décolletage and popped their peepers to Sonny Chiba’s dropkicks. Kung fu movies — from the Shaw Brothers, Jimmy Wang Yu, Bruce Lee, and others — ruled his life. The other, less romanticized moment came after RZA, born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs and named after the Kennedy brothers, was 3 years old. His parents had just divorced, and Baby Bobby Digi was sent to live with an uncle, a methodical older man named Hollis who preached science, nature, reading, and the Nation of Islam’s knowledge of self — a kind of intellectual spirituality. (Think Wallace from The Wire moving out to the country to avoid the corner boys and then discovering Buddha.) Until he was 7, Diggs was raised to be a thoughtful little kid, free to explore the world any way he saw fit, but with discipline. By the time he’d moved back in with his mother in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, with his eight siblings (and then later the Stapleton Projects in Staten Island, his Shaolin), he had a front-row seat for Iron Mike Tyson’s fierce rise to heavyweight contender, the birth of hip-hop, and his own family’s descent into crack horror. He saw the worst of New York. No wonder he’s become such a vivid and vital man of invention — he’s lived. Before the release of his directorial debut, the Russell Crowe– and Lucy Liu–starring homage to all those afternoons in sticky-floor theaters, The Man With the Iron Fists, here’s how RZA became the premier multi-disciplinarian of his generation; influential, odd, and indefatigable.
The False Start
Before there was RZA, there was Prince Rakeem. Bobby Diggs was always going to be a famous rapper — his voice and enunciation was too thick, too marbled, too resonant to be anything but — put another way, he’s all loll — but in 1991, at 21 years old, he was, ironically, savvy enough to choose the wrong persona. And so Rakeem, who recorded just one Small Daddy Kane–style loverman EP for Tommy Boy that, while sonically predictive of the hard-cut looping style he’d eventually master with the Wu-Tang Clan, was just late enough to seem instantly déclassé. (Listen to “Sexcapades,” a door-knocker masquerading as a doorbell. Also, try to imagine RZA rapping, “I did the humpty hump in a vertical position” on a song today.) And so as smooth figures like Kane, Heavy D, and Father MC became less essential to popular hip-hop’s identity, Rakeem faded before he started. Then came RZA.
There isn’t much that can be said about Wu-Tang Clan at this point. Nine angry, hilarious, utterly original men obsessed with childish things, explaining them in grown ways. Upon revisiting their music, it’s hard to explain just how aggressively unique their debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), sounded when it was released. This thing opens with dialogue from a Gordon Liu flick, Shaolin & Wu-Tang, before RZA starts yelling, “Bring the motherfucking ruckus!” That’s an entrance. It plays out like this for an hour — kung fu clips, smacking Syl Johnson and Honey Drippers samples, chess philosophizing, a gallery of mesmerizing dudes talking about Spider-Man and selling drugs and hitting someone’s nuts with a spiked bat. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?
And so this album — a sort of dog whistle for men of a certain age — went platinum. It never reached higher than 41 on Billboard’s album chart, but it’s among the most important foundational documents of an era. Rap got mean, or, more accurately, rugged, after Enter the Wu-Tang, setting the table for dozens of like-minded (mostly East Coast) MCs like Nas, Mobb Deep, Noreaga, and others. But its deeper impact came from within — the album seemed to open literally 36 chambers of the Wu-niverse, an all-consuming entity spearheaded by RZA. Conceived, produced, and compiled by RZA, the album’s success emboldened him to make visionary business decisions (somewhat historically, members of the group were allowed to sign individual record deals with companies outside their native Loud Records) while also maintaining a tenuous grip on the power within the group. Just 24 years old, RZA embarked on empire-building. A dictator behind the decks; Henry Ford in a do-rag; Steve Jobs sporting fangs. It didn’t take long for his monster to turn on him.
RZA asked for five years from his charges, five years to turn Wu-Tang international. That would be enough time to make those meant to become solo stars — charisma machine Method Man, RZA’s maniacally gifted cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard, sage-like GZA, and the antic poets, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon — recognizable commodities in the world. This period is probably the most prolific and successful in rap producer history. He oversaw the complete debut albums for the five aforementioned artists (all bona fide, take-these-with-you-to-war classics) while chipping in stray (and superlative) beats and remixes for Cypress Hill, Shaquille O’Neal(!), AZ, Biggie, Bounty Killer, Big Punisher, and Björk, among others. He also co-founded with producer Prince Paul the horrocore side project, The Gravediggaz, pushing his malevolent streak to comic, coffin-depth lows. The RZA Sound — a dank, knotty but spare combination of thudding drums, keyed-up samples, and an almost imperceptibly sooty grain on every track — became a standard. (There is no Kanye West without this period.) Between 1994 and 1998, I estimate he produced more than 140 songs, and almost none are bad or redundant. By ’97, when he produced or co-produced every song on the exhausting but now oddly underrated double album, Wu-Tang Forever, he was literally the most influential sonic force in his genre, and probably beyond. (Some useful context: This six-minute song was a massive hit. Believe me when I tell you that this could never happen again — and it’s still deliriously fun to hear in full.)
Simultaneous to this, RZA launched Wu-Tang Records (according to Wikipedia, “Although never publicly stated, it is believed that RZA was the CEO”) and Wu Wear, one of the most phenomenally marketed bad clothing lines of all time. One of RZA’s best-known solo songs is called “Wu Wear: The Garment Renaissance.” It appeared on the soundtrack for the Jon Lovitz comedy High School High. It’s basically a JCPenney commercial from Shaolin and it is amazing. Sartorially, Wu Wear left some a bit wanting. A sample of some of its offerings: yellow leather baseball jackets with the Wu insignia; chunky, black Wallabee Clarks knockoffs, the preferred slipperwear of Ghostface; oversize T-shirts and sweatshirts in colorways that recalled gravel and phlegm; bee-riddled print button-downs for special occasions. (Wu Wear was all about yellow.) Wu-Tang Records was less of a concern, signing and then ignoring also-rans that swarmed after the success of 36 Chambers; fairly decent rappers like Shyheim and Sunz of Man had a cup of coffee in the harsh glow of the Wu-Nova. But RZA forgot about them and they were soon ignored or banished to compilation hell.
Slowly but surely, as the empire began to grow, RZA begins to fade from view. His production credits became increasingly rare as he lost his grip on his once-loyal inner circle. In 1998, after enduring the exhaustion of overseeing the lives and careers of people like the late Ol’ Dirty — imagine it, for a second — RZA had a selfish moment, choosing to write, produce, and perform his first solo album: a transmogrified art project called RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, a fake soundtrack for a blaxploitation-style hedonist hero. It’s a strange album, marked by a keyboard-driven sound that diverged from his dusty sample-strewn style. One gets the impression from RZA that he got a little tired of being a big brother and wanted to sow some oats here. His, um, interest in women is often unsettling. But there are great, or at least galvanizing, moments — “Holocaust (Silkworm)” sounds like something from the mind of a possessed man living in a bus station, while “Domestic Violence” is either the darkest satire of misogyny in hip-hop ever recorded, or just plain evil. RZA’s other solo albums are less polarizing, mostly because they’re boring or erratic — two more Bobby Digital affairs, and an internationally themed compilation. There is one occasionally wonderful solo album, Birth of a Prince, the only one released under his original name, a telling note. It came and went in 2003, but I’d slot “Grits” among the all-time Wu solo songs. RZA, for all his derring-do as a leader and a translator capable of bringing the underground over, just couldn’t get out of his own way as a solo artist.
A dark time followed after Bobby Digital. Wu-Tang became a rudderless ship without a mission or a leader. Then RZA met Jim Jarmusch. The downtown director responsible for stark, art-smart independent films like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law was making an urban samurai movie, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Only one person in the world should be allowed to create the soundtrack to an urban samurai movie, and so began RZA’s lucrative if ill-defined run as a composer in Hollywood. After Ghost Dog, a fairly straightforward collection of Wu ephemera scattered throughout, he helped collect the music and recorded a handful of tracks for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. (He also got to observe QT on the set of the movie for months, a crash-course film school watching the homage master in peak form. Keep this in mind for Iron Fists.) After Kill Bill, there was a feeling that RZA might transition into a kind of Hans Zimmer for the hip-hop generation (turns out that was actually Pharrell). Then he did mildly unimpressive score work for crap like Blade: Trinity, Unleashed, and Blood of a Champion, along with the music for Afro Samurai, a series on the Cartoon Network. His production on the Iron Fists soundtrack isn’t exactly “Clan in Da Front, 2012,” since it involves the Black Keys and Wiz Khalifa, but there are moments. In many ways, this is a baffling turn of events. RZA is obsessed with movies, encyclopedic on kung-fu, and increasingly fluent in other genres as he’s been huddling in the nerd corner with his new posse of Tarantino, Iron Fists co-screenwriter Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright. RZA should be soundtracking Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall — making evocative, stirring, modern movie music. Instead, it’s been his greatest failure.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on a brief but somewhat forgotten spell from 2000-01, when a fractured Wu-Tang reunited for two sorta-great albums people don’t talk about much, The W and the lesser but still worthy Iron Flag. During this period, RZA also contributed four songs to Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele, including the career highlight “Child’s Play” — it’s an album that became the apotheosis of the Wu Dream. It’s so good, it nearly eradicated the need for any more Wu. This stretch run, through 2001 and Iron Flag, effectively ends RZA’s time as a relevant musical presence. Since then, you can basically count the number of great RZA songs on one hand. (He did kick in a modest new song, “New Day,” on Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne last year.) Still, if we’re talking about 10-year runs, this was Albert Pujols on the Cardinals, Scorsese in the ’70s, NASA in the space age — you can’t climb higher.
RZA has co-written two books with Norris, and if you’ve read this far and don’t own them, you should probably purchase them right now. The Wu-Tang Manual, an elegantly composed almanac/bible from 2005, explains many of the more pressing questions about the Wu’s origins and obsessions — Why Asia? What are the Five Deadly Venoms? How did U-God and Cappadonna meet? — while also weaving a solemn and sincere explication of RZA’s mishmash of religion and existentialism. He is Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, a Five Percenter, and a secular man. He’s every philosophy and you can be, too. It is the breeziest 250 pages of high-level lyrical analysis and photos of dudes moshing at concerts that you will ever read.
The aforementioned The Tao of Wu is even better and more of a real book. There’s still loooooong doses of philosophizing throughout, including a doe-eyed foreword by Shifu Shi Yan Ming, the founder of the USA Shaolin Temple and a close friend and adviser to RZA. But this is also one of the great rap memoirs ever written, if not the best after Jay-Z’s Decoded. Norris, a talented longtime music writer, gets some of that credit. But RZA’s insight, coupled with the fantastically strange ways he dovetails chess strategy with nods to Christian mercy and then leaps into how a failed tour with Rage Against the Machine in ’97 nearly destroyed the group completely, makes this an unpredictable read. The book has no structure, but it doesn’t really need one. It floats, unaffected by the world outside. The same way its author moves.
Briefly: RZA is excellent at having inscrutable nicknames. Here they are: Prince Rakeem, Bobby Digital, The Abbot, Bobby Steels, Prince Delight, Prince Dynamite, The Scientist, RZArector, and of course, The Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. (Say it out loud, you will enjoy it.) In addition, watch this video of him shopping for sunglasses. Doot doot doot doot.
The things that make RZA a compelling rapper — that fat tongue, that dazed glare — are the same things that make him a great actor. He’s never really playing anyone other than RZA, but it’s no matter. Neither does Denzel Washington. Just listen to him pronounce “Bill Murray” in this scene from Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. He’s playing himself and going toe-to-toe with Bill Murray! The closest he’s come to real performance are small roles in American Gangster, in which he plays an undercover cop, and as an ex-con in the forgotten and awful Jennifer Aniston thriller Derailed. I also recommend his deleted scenes as a deli counter grunt (and again, somewhat disconcertingly, an ex-con) from Judd Apatow’s Funny People. (We shall not speak of his recurring role on Californication.) So often, acting is just shoveling charisma in people’s faces. RZA has been yelling at people from a stage for years — his very own great white way, considering the Wu demo — in preparation for his time on-screen. Now comes his biggest test. But RZA isn’t just The Blacksmith, the narrator and star of The Man With the Iron Fists. He also co-wrote, produced, and directed the movie.
How to put this delicately: The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t very good. It’s not a bad kung-fu movie about a brass-bodied hulk fighting a man with iron fists in a brothel inhabited by black widow temptresses run by a scheming madam in a crime-lord-infested village that would make Akira Kurosawa vomit for several consecutive hours. But there are problems. The wide-ranging implications of a national conspiracy are explained in a matter of four baffling and ultimately unnecessary minutes. The action set pieces move too quickly and often without grace. The gore is fun, but fleeting. (Not enough boot knives through the throat.) It was filmed in Beijing, but I suspect a wooded area in San Jacinto would have done just fine by the scenery. The point of this movie is not to be good, it’s to make you squeal and cheer and clap, and it’ll do that just fine for people who were interested in it in the first place. What that audience looks like in America today can’t be terribly big. But there is also an X factor in play: Russell Crowe is doing fantastic things in this movie. He is furiously smoking Black & Milds. He is wielding a gold-plated, spinning knife-gun. He is eviscerating corpulent Chinese men from stem-to-stick. He is cooking Indian-inspired meals and globbing huge pats of butter into bowls. He is yelling things like, “My name is Mr. Knife! But you may call me Jack.” Russell Crowe is finally realizing Russell Crowe’s fate: Ham-bone action virtuoso. With mutton chops. And it’s glorious.
It’s hard to know how much of the rest of this to pin on the filmmaker. Reportedly, RZA’s first cut was more than four hours long — Tarantino, who has a “Presented By” credit on the movie, struggled to make it through the first two hours of that cut. It’s not hard to see why. At just 95 minutes, this thing drags in spots. Four hours sitting beside RZA gleefully yucking up one gullet-slashing fight scene after another sounds unpleasant. (To say nothing of the attendant love story.) And one thing is certain, he has badly miscast himself as the gallant hero. RZA’s lackadaisical (but not stoic) charm is all wrong for The Blacksmith. Likewise Jamie Chung as his love interest. The Real World: San Diego cast member has crafted a surprisingly sturdy acting career despite not ever realizing she’s been cast in a movie. Conversely, Byron Mann, as the villainous Silver Lion (actual name) is wonderfully giddy throughout — he completely understands the movie he’s in. At times, the inflections in his delivery recall the American voice actors who dubbed the Shaw Brothers’ ’70s masterpieces. (The legendary Gordon Liu, star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, also shows up in flashback, just as he did in Kill Bill.) But Mann’s nod to this movie’s forebears is also damning. Does RZA want this played straight, paying tribute while implementing new filmmaking techniques? Or is this just goofball pastiche, starring a wrestler, a reality star, a rapper, and a slumming Oscar winner? It’s never clear. Not that it has to be. RZA has always operated above expectation. He does what he wants to do and it’s typically served him well. Because of that 10-year run, his is a cultural contribution above reproach. It just won’t make him a great director.