Q&A with the RZA
Before the RZA released his first solo album, three years ago, Wu-Tang Clan fans hoped it might reveal the secrets of the seminal 90s rap crew's head producer and de facto leader. But instead of insights from the mastermind, Bobby Digital in Stereo offered some of the most confounding music and rawest rhymes yet heard from Staten Island?or anywhere else. A modest success by rap-celebrity standards, the album broke with both hiphop's mainstream and hardcore in its concern with comic-book-inspired fantasy instead of reality or even "reality."
RZA's second album in character as neighborhood superhero Bobby Digital was released on Aug. 28. A significantly less challenging listen than its predecessor, Digital Bullet builds on RZA's intentional conflation of hiphop's identity crisis with his own. Interviewed via telephone, the RZA discussed the album, Wu-Tang's place in history, numerology and the poetic truth of hiphop fiction.
I think when Wu-Tang came into the industry, we changed the whole game. Especially from an East Coast point of view. I think that, also, we built up the first family structure in the industry. Instead of coming in for solo deals, everybody going for themselves, being selfish, it caused people to kinda like bring your community with you. Wu-Tang, we brought all of Staten Island with us.
Then in the period '94-'96 you got a lot deeper, producing the first five Wu-Tang solo albums yourself. How do feel when you hear those in 2001?
Those albums are like manuscripts. They education. I'm not even gonna act like they not... You're in check. Pardon me. You're not in check.
Are you playing chess?
Yeah, haha, crazy, right?
Were you a good student in formal school, or just in outside learning?
Nah, I was a great student in school, but I never showed the fuck up. Unless I was trying to get some girls to come home with me and play hooky, nahmean?
I understand. That brings us to Bobby Digital.
Bobby Digital is the way I view shit described and explained. So you hear me talking about "Domestic Violence," or I got a song where I say, "Come into my lab half drunk." On the new album you got songs like "Brooklyn Babies," "Glock-A-Pop," "Domestic Violence 2," "Shady"?all you hear is me talking about maybe getting high, maybe getting some guns, some pussy, but then towards the end of the album, what happens?
He becomes conscious.
Right. Bobby says, "Hold on, man. This shit ain't right," and he goes from Bobby to Prince Rakeem. Then from Prince Rakeem came RZA, ya nahmean? Basically, it's like I zigzag. That's why my name is the RZA. I was Prince Rakeem Allah. But I zigzagged. I went all different angles in life. I had to add a 'z' to my name.
I wanted to ask you about the switch at the end of the album, because it seemed to me that Bobby was your vehicle to express the side of yourself that's not so thoughtful, so when it switches that's...
That's getting ready for the RZA album The Cure, which I promised everybody anyway. I promised that album to my fans.
You've been talking about it since 1996.
It's well-written though! As a matter of fact, I just wrote two new songs for it. One I wrote while I was in Europe. I think I'ma call it "Heavenly." It's crazy. It's a real beautiful song. I'll give you an idea of what kind of verse it is. It says stuff like, "Who gave the woman her tasteful saliva?/Who gave the vagina its fibers/And caused men the lustful urge to be inside her?/But they try to play with the ribonucleic acid/And grab their fatherless bastards born in plastic test tubes/Trapped in a cesspool/But now it's Allah Akbar to the rescue/Since the first atom moved out of darkness/Allah sparked us."
I don't know if you can catch that right there. But it's saying, "How the sun be shining/And light striking at perfect timing/Hitting mountains/But stuck in deep enough that stones capture that light and make it into diamonds." So that's how I'm on it with that.
I got the idea that by doing another Bobby Digital album, you were sending a message that the first one sold well enough, as opposed to the idea that only going multi-platinum is a success.
I think [Bobby Digital in Stereo] did well. Domestically they shipped out about 700 or 800 thousand units. Gold album. This one...I put a few songs on there I think could help it go platinum. I gave it a song like "La Rhumba." It's for girls and shit?especially my Spanish girls. So I had to add that in. There are only Spanish girls on tv this summer, matter of fact.
I just saw Do The Right Thing again on cable last night. I was looking at Rosie Perez, sorta the first one.
Word, remember that? Oh shit. The ice cube scene, that was great... I think it's gonna be deep for you, son, when I make this move right here... I'ma try and get this checkmate here real quick.
Who are you playing?
One of the young gods up here.
You're at the label office?
Yup. 36 W. 37th St. 36 Chambers.
I wanted to ask you about the ways that Bobby is a hero. I notice that he's a nonconformist, so he's kind of a reminder of the days when being into hiphop made someone a little weird.
Right, and also, if you take a close listen, you'll hear like on the song "Show Your Love," you'll kinda see what his mission is. "We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin/Bob Digital located inside the hood again." I'm back in the hood now, and my album is what gets me back there. "He was last seen helping a crack fiend to detox"... That's mate. So I got checkmate on that move, too.
What's Bobby's mission?
It's to enlighten people from his experience, really. While most things move forward, I went backwards. When we deal with digital, we dealing with the linear, a binary unit, just ones and zeroes. If you look at mathematics it's the same thing. When you get to nine you add that one to it and you're back at 10. Back at the same one and zero.
So you're saying positive and negative, RZA and Bobby, you can get anywhere?
If you forget the positive, which is the one to the right of the zero on the number line, and forget the negative, the one to the left of the zero, and just focus on the zero, you're focusing on the truth. If you look at history, they didn't know about zero in Roman and Greek times. When the Romans got to 10 they used an 'X.' It was unknown. When Europeans went to the Crusade wars, with Prince Saladin and all that, back in 1198 and earlier, that's when they found out about zero.
From the Arabs.
Yeah, from the Arabs, who dealt with mathematics. They got the science of the zero: no beginning and no ending. The Earth ain't flat. It's only when you step outside the zero, to the left or the right of it, that you can get a number. Other than that it's all in the zero, because that's all it's gonna add up to. You can count positive one, positive two, positive three?by the time you get to 10, what happens? The one goes back behind the zero again.
Where do you get this stuff?
It's common sense right there. That came from understanding mathematics and taking a look at it in the life-form, instead of as a piece of paper with numbers. Look at it for life, and try to understand the meaning of what religion is, or God, Allah. All. That's why they say Allah, because to get "Allah" you gotta first spell "All." "All" is contained within that name. That's why they never translate "Allah" into no other language.
But isn't "all" a different word in Arabic?
But not in English. Nahmean?
Just like "Allah" is an acronym for arm, leg, leg, arm, head.
You think that's meant to work in English?
That's the beauty of mathematics. What seems coincidental ain't no coincidence. I can give you over 50 things that may seem coincidental. Like there's 64 squares on the chessboard, right?
And how many codons in your DNA?
Yeah. Hahaha. Why is that? Why in mitosis and meiosis does a cell split into 64 different cells? What happened in 1964? I could go on. It all seems coincidental. I don't think anything happens by chance or coincidence. I think some force makes it happen, whether you know it or not. You don't know why it rain, but there's a reason. So I come back and go, "Why why why why why." I'll give you a little insight: in mathematics, seven is considered God, right? "G" for God, the seventh letter...
...it's good in craps, too.
Yeah, same thing, haha. Check out this, though. "Y" is the 25th letter; two and five?
And the ultimate answer to "Why?" is what? God.
So you go, "Okay, that's cool." I'll give you another one. The Y chromosome is the smallest chromosome. It's only found in man. And God made man in His image. Now you go, "Why?" And I say, "That's why."
What kind of stuff do you read?
Uh, right now I'm studying DNA, so that's why I came with that right there.
Let's talk about the sound of Digital Bullet. It's kind of dark and gloomy. Some songs are pretty minimal, but "Thirsty" and "Be a Man" are tracks with a lot of complications. What kind of things do you listen for in your own work, to decide if you're going to use it or not?
I listen for music that builds my adrenaline. "Thirsty" builds my adrenaline?it hits you like, "Baaaaaaa!" It makes you frown!
It's not the same adrenaline as like a Ruff Ryders track, that rah-rah feeling.
No, it's different adrenaline. It's more like an endorphin come out your head or something.
What's the feeling you want a listener to get?
I want them to get a feeling of the things I been through in my life, and to see that I sound the way I sound because of the roughness in my life. But then [I want them to] see the beauty of my music. A song like "Shady," or "The Righteous Way" with Junior Reid, or "Build Strong," you can hear that there's also some beauty in my life. So I want the listeners to absorb me and realize the transformation I made in my life. I came from boy to man. From sperm to baby, from baby to man. I want people to really feel that, and feel hiphop as undescribable.
There's something very strange...
Yeah! And you could tell from those beats I'm making that hiphop is?some people are making hiphop like r&b right now. Like it all belongs in one pot right now. But when you listen to my shit it's like, "Oh man. Who the fuck put the beans in the rice?" Ya nahmean? With coconut milk. "What kind of dish is this?"
What is the strangeness in hiphop? Where does it come from?
I can't really put a word on it, but if I had to guess I'd say the unpredictability of it. It's like?I can't give you a good simile right now. It's unpredictable. Though it may seem at times that there's a format to it, there is no format.
To me it's like a UFO. I get the sense that something is arriving, and it's big.
I agree with you. It's like you know it's of Earth, but you feel like it's heavenly! It seems like it's more than that. Especially when you get a good artist to give you a display of it.
The RZA will perform Weds., Aug. 29, at S.O.B.'s, 204 Varick St. (Houston St.), 243-4940.
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