The Wu-Tang Clan is one of the most successful and influential acts in the history of hip-hop. Over the years, member Robert Diggs, far better known as RZA (pronounced riz-za), found success outside hip-hop while still acting as a booster for the culture. He now holds credits as a music producer, rapper, screenwriter, actor and director, as well as author of his second book, The Tao of Wu. He recently sat down with NPR's Guy Raz.
Though still a young man at 40, RZA finds himself in a position to reflect on his success. When did he first want to become an artist?
"At a very young age, 9 years old, actually," he says. "And at first, it was just wanting to be rapping to be cool, or break-dancing to be cool, and expressing myself. But during the teenage years, DJ-ing and everything, and battling, it was more like some kind of lust or urge to become the world supreme master at a craft. And I would go around the city battling DJs. At the same time, I wanted to be the best MC, walking around, battling MCs who had the best lyrics."
But the ego-driven dreams didn't last long.
"As I grew older, and got into the late teens and early 20s, I wanted to be a voice of the people," RZA says. "You know, getting locked up all the time, and going through so much oppression and seeing it all around myself, I wanted to be a voice for it. And also to have a knowledge of myself, I realized that the word was powerful, and I could use this power to help enlighten others."
The new book is a series of seven lessons that RZA learned along his journey in life. He talks about his childhood in a two-bedroom apartment, sometimes shared with as many as 19 people. He says he had a tough life as a kid in the projects, but that he learned valuable lessons in the process.
"Well, beyond, 'Make sure you eat first...' " RZA says with a laugh. "No, I learned a lot from hardship. I guess the hardship and taking the goodness out of it."
Upon hearing "Triumph," an early hit for The Wu-Tang Clan, RZA still seems excited by music he helped create nearly two decades ago.
"Oh, man, this song right here takes me back ... to the good times of me and brothers running around the world performing in front of 30,000 kids with Rage Against the Machine, and getting a chance to spread out hip-hop culture and knowledge out there," he says. "Also, you hear some of the illest lyrics ever written."
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(Soundbite of song, "Protect Ya Neck")
THE WU-TANG CLAN (Rap group): (Singing) I smoke on the mic like smokin Joe Frazier, the hell raiser, raisin hell with the flavor. Terrorize the jam...
GUY RAZ, host:
We're hearing the song "Protect Ya Neck" by Wu-Tang Clan, the group's first single back in 1993. Wu-Tang disbanded several years ago, but the collective of rappers is considered one of the most influential in hip-hop history. The man behind Wu-Tang is Robert Diggs, better known to his fans as The RZA, that's R-Z-A.
He grew up in various housing projects in New York. And in his new book, he writes: These places taught him important life lessons.
THE RZA (Author, "The Tao Of Wu"): Imagine you're eight years old going to the store with 35 cents to buy a pack of Now and Laters and a bag of sunflower seeds. You get there and three teenagers choke you out with their umbrella, take your 35 cents and buy cigarettes. That's the projects, math or economic class on every block.
Imagine you live with 18 relatives in a two-bedroom apartment across the street from the courthouse and the county jail. You wonder why the courthouse and county jail are so close to the projects. When you get locked up in there a few years later, you learn. You learn civics, government, law and science every day, especially science because the projects, like jail, is a science project, one that no one expects you to leave.
RAZ: That's The RZA reading from his new book called "The Tao of Wu." And The RZA joins me from our New York studios.
Welcome to the show.
THE RZA: Well, thanks for having me, Guy. Glad to be here.
RAZ: Some folks listening might not be familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan. Can you sort of explain where Wu-Tang fits into the history of hip-hop?
THE RZA: Yeah, I think we came in the early '90s, sort of like we ushered in a new generation. We were from Staten Island, which is a borough of New York that wasn't on the hip-hop map to world. And we had developed our style of hip-hop and our style of slang, which we coined the Wu-Tang Slang. And when we had the opportunity to get it to the world, we did.
We had to sell it out the back of our trunks, and made demos, and all that. Eventually, we made noise and Steve Rifkind from Loud Records got a copy of the music, made us a very low-end deal that led to success for all of us.
RAZ: Tell me about when you first realized that you wanted to become an artist. What did you want to say or express?
THE RZA: Well, at first, me as wanted to become an artist was at very young age, nine years old, actually. And at first, I just wanted to be rapping to be cool, or break-dancing to be cool and expressing myself. But during the teenage years, you know, DJing and everything and battling, it was more like some kind of lust or urge to become the world supreme master at a craft.
But as I grew older and got into the late teens and early 20s, I wanted to be a voice of the people.
(Soundbite of song, "Tramp")
WU-TANG CLAN: (Singing) Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses can't define how I be dropping these mockeries. Lyrically perform armed robbery. Flee with the...
RAZ: We're hearing the song "Tramp" by the Wu-Tang clan, also an early hit by the band in the early '90s.
When you hear this song, where does it take you? Where does it take you back to?
THE RZA: Oh, man, this song right here, you hear some of the illest lyrics every written.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THE RZA: Inspector Deck starts the song off with, I bomb atomically. Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses can't define how I be dropping these mockeries. Lyrically perform armed robbery. Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THE RZA: I mean this guy, within just four lines you get a whole well of information. I think that one song is almost good enough to make a book out of.
RAZ: In your new book, it's sort of a series of lessons, seven lessons that you learned along your journey in life. You talk about as a kid living in a two-bedroom apartment, sometimes with 19 people living there.
THE RZA: Yeah.
RAZ: You had a pretty tough life as a kid in the projects in Staten Island, New York. What lessons did you draw from that?
THE RZA: Beyond, make sure you eat first.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THE RZA: No. I learned a lot from hardship, yo. I guess I was able to see the hardship and taking the goodness out of it.
You know, the book goes through different descriptions of, for instance, you know, me getting beat up by a guy named June-June(ph), who was a tough dude that I would fight and he would beat me. But years later, he becomes my student and I would teach him books and teach him things. He was a gangster so he didn't really go to school and stuff like that. But he was...
RAZ: And you started teaching him.
THE RZA: Yeah. I started teaching him about mathematics, about certain books to read, how to open his mind. And he became, actually - even though he's a very aggressive dude, he had gained a spark of positivity in his life.
RAZ: You've also scored soundtracks for directors like Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, and you actually appeared in Jim Jarmusch's film, "Coffee and Cigarettes." And I want to play a bit of that scene where you're with Bill Murray.
(Soundbite of movie, "Coffee and Cigarettes")
THE RZA: (as Himself) I mean just 50 milligrams alone have been proven to be fatal in a few minutes, man.
Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (as Himself) How much is in one cigarette?
THE RZA: (as Himself) Three milligrams. And did you know they also use nicotine for an insecticide to kill bugs?
Mr. MURRAY: I mean it's good if it kills bugs, right?
THE RZA: (as Himself) Well, are you a bug, Bill Murray?
RAZ: I love that scene. I want to ask you about scoring music, though. I read that you only started to learn how to read and compose music later in life.
THE RZA: When Jim Jarmusch came to me and he was like, oh, he was doing a movie called "Ghost Dog," and he like Wu-Tang music and he wanted me to put the score to it, I was like, well, I never did a score before.
I went and actually got "Peter and the Wolf." They had an animated version of "Peter and the Wolf," but during the version they had extra footage on the VHS that would tell you how the suite was composed, how he used horns or the tubas for the wolves, how he used the flute for the bird. And every character had a musical instrument.
And that information gave me an understanding of how to compose. And that's why when I composed "Ghost Dog," on the first scene, you see the bird flying in the air, there's a hip-hop beat underneath but there's a flute playing...
THE RZA: ...to describe the bird. And I just started studying more Bernstein, Mancini, and now I do score Hollywood films.
RAZ: Before we let you go, I got to ask you one more questions. Chess, what's up with chess? What is it about that game that has you hooked?
THE RZA: Man, and I am hooked.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THE RZA: Well, chess is to me is like hip-hop, right? Hip-hop is a way that we found to express aggression, express even violence without having to physically perform it. Chess is a duel. It's like a sword fight, but it's all done on 64 squares on a board. All your aggression, all your strategy, all your cunningness is now left into a game. And to me, it's a way to get the energy out.
One of my lyrics says, my remedy for stress is three bags of sess, a day in my rest - which is my house - playing chess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: That's Robert Diggs, also known as The RZA of the legendary hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. His new book is "The Tao of Wu."
RZA, thanks for stopping by.
THE RZA: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.