There’s Something About RZA: An Ode To Wu-Tang’s Leader

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Juan Vidal / September 2, 2014

Of all the Wu, I’ve long been partial to RZA and his street philosopher ways. His stylistic approach, his everything—ever since the supergroup invaded rap’s consciousness in the early 90s—reveal a man that is, and forever will be, just beyond categorization. From his delivery to his calculated rambling on interludes, there’s a certain singularity present. And while most members have earned the right to be called anyone’s favorite, RZA, the mastermind behind their movement, always seemed to know something the other eight didn’t.

It’s true that internal conflicts are inevitable in such a marriage, especially one spanning more than 20 years. As evidenced by a recent public fallout within the ranks, not even the Wu is immune. However, the issues have reportedly been mended and things are moving along harmoniously. The whole crew recently made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and they released the single “Ron O’Neal.” An album, we’ve been assured, is truly on the way.

When you’re dealing with an ensemble as fierce and colorful as Wu-Tang, naturally, people will gravitate to specific personalities. Method Man for his raspy voice and overall panache, Raekwon and Ghostface Killa for their intensity and borderline deranged poetics. And GZA made Liquid Swords, arguably the best solo record to emerge from any one of the camp’s individual offerings. But this isn’t about any of them. Nor is it about Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s hilarious, free-spirited raps, nor Inspectah Deck’s dazzling performance on Wu-Tang Forever, nor U-God’s god-like flow, nor Masta Killa and his beaming promise turned disappointment. No, this is about the off-beat swagger of one Robert Fitzgerald Diggs aka Bobby Digital aka Prince Rakeem aka The Abbot, and a bunch else, the Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. This is an appreciation.

When I think of RZA, I also think of James Earl Jones. And here’s why: Jones, who’s oeuvre as an actor has been bountiful enough, possesses a vocal tonality that has become synonymous with voiceover work. He can be heard on tag lines for CNN, commercial spots for Verizon, he’s been featured on The Simpsons, and, of course, his calming baritone is none other than Mufasa from The Lion King. He even narrated the entire New Testament in James Earl Jones Reads the Bible. But this isn’t about James Earl Jones, either.

Point of fact: RZA—the Staten Island born producer, rapper, actor, director, and screenwriter—boasts some of the same qualities. Namely is it relates to his easily distinguishable rhythms of speech. His slight impediment, slurs, and fancy for onomatopoeia, yet, are something else entirely. If things were as they should be, RZA would narrate everything. He’d be the sole chronicler in every National Geographic documentary until the end of time. And in a perfect world, their exists a compact disk of something called “RZA Reads the Old Testament Softly in a Dark Room.” The parts about the plagues would be particularly special, and alone worth every dime of the asking price.

Over the last few decades, RZA has proven time and again that his artistic impulses know no bounds. In addition to selling millions of records across the world, he’s had roles in multiple films including American Gangster, Funny People and most recently Brick Mansions alongside the late Paul Walker. He’s been involved in the musical scores for Blade: Trinity, Freedom Writers, and Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2, respectively.

RZA’s longevity can be attributed not only to his far-reaching talents but to the nature of his deep and many curiosities. His appetite for making sense of the universe is what makes for much of his charm, and his success. In The Tao of Wu, a New York Times Bestseller and the follow up to The Wu-Tang Manual, he shows himself to be a widely read seeker of truth. A hodgepodge of anecdotes, lyrics, numerology, religion, and philosophy, the book traces RZA’s journey from impoverished adolescent to influencer at the forefront of popular culture. Listen to any of his countless interviews and you’ll find someone who’s knowledge spans worlds, from astrology to kung fu, biblical prophecy, and even alternative medicine. He’s also a master chess player and an outspoken proponent of the academic and social virtues of that game.

It’s no surprise that RZA’s career has taken such fascinating turns. While many rappers/producers are comfortable with being just those things, RZA never has been. And why would he ever confine himself to limited pursuits when, clearly, he has the capacity for more? How he singlehandedly plotted Wu-Tang’s commercial assault remains a testament to his foresight and his qualities as a manager. Several of the guys—Raekwon being perhaps the most outspoken about this—were still running street corners when RZA called them out from among the ruins. Out of these, he assembled a team of misfits who would later become wunderkinds in their own right. Together, they set forth kicking down doors and building an enterprise worth millions. All of this on the strength of RZA’s vision. As an emcee, he has always separated himself. Sure, he’s not often seen as the most superior to his counterparts, but his wordplay has always been strangely effective. Take his verse on “Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance,” a prime example of his schtick:

Keep your sword straight, maintain your weight
But he ate too much monosodiumglutumate, and polysorbate
And drug rate concentrate, with sodium benzoate
By the chicken thighs and tryglycerides

In a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley, RZA spoke about the core meaning of Wu-Tang, which he discovered on a pilgrimage 10 years prior. Although initially the name was intended to reflect the style of martial arts with which RZA became enamored as a youngster, he later learned, as he told Smiley, that it also meant “man who is deserving of God.” This led him down a “path of enlightenment,” a path of discovering his true self as Robert F. Diggs, a name his mother had given him as a tribute to two men she’d revered; Robert and John F. Kennedy.

RZA’s obsession with the origins of words and names is evidence as to just how much stock he places in the power of one understanding one’s identity. Look all throughout religious texts and you’ll find that, oftentimes, set names were given as a way of calling to a person’s nature (identity). And though this can be easily dismissed as strange or superstitious, you cannot help but wonder at the implications. Robert, the name RZA’s mother gave—no, awarded—him, he learned, means “shining fame.” Now, what could be more representative of who her son turned out to be? —Juan Vidal (@itsJuanLove)