When RZA’s alter-ego Bobby Digital emerged in the late nineties on his first solo album RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, many thought the Wu-Tang zen master had gone slightly berserk. He went from being the evil genius behind one of the greatest hip-hop collectives of all time to a funky apocalyptic savant, with far-out experimentation his only mission. It’s true — the man born Robert Diggs has always been an outsider in an industry of insiders — but then again, the Greats always are. RZA’s place in the rap pantheon as both producer and MC was secure the day Wu-Tang’s instant classic Enter the 36 Chambers was released, and he’s since earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. That includes three albums as Bobby Digital, scoring films — Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai — and acting in them, such as American Gangster, and the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy Funny People.
When I spoke to RZA last week, it was to promote his appearing in HBO’s The Black List Vol. 2, a documentary profiling prominent African-American figures and providing them a forum to share lessons learned as minorities in this country. One thing I noticed is that RZA’s answers were heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy — unsurprising for a man known for his Shaolin references and kung fu fixation. He talked candidly about life in the ghetto and spewed philosophies on how to escape it. I asked him to explain his famous proclamation, that Wu-Tang is forever. He talked about consciousness, space, and time. And then, to cap it all off, I asked him what it’s like working with Adam Sandler.
I just checked out the video for “’Drama,” and it starts off with a quote that reads, “We need to change hood policy….” What do you think hood policy is, and how can we change it? Well in the hood, we like to raise our children as gangsters and thugs, and you got to be the coolest kid, or the roughest kid. We have a lot of teen pregnancies and a lot of us become fathers before we become men, and then we find ourselves in situations where we can’t really support ourselves or our families. The women have multiple fathers for their babies. It’s not just economic poverty, it’s poverty of spirit and soul. To change the policy — instead of us thinking that I’ma go wild while I’m young, and it be crazy, and join this gang, drink this beer, smoke this weed — we need to develop ourselves into men before we make lifelong decisions.
I read that you used to get together with ODB and Method Man and try to find ways to get out of the ghetto and off the street. At that time, was hip hop your only option, or were there other things you could have done? At that time, I think I saw hip hop as a true way out because by that time I was deep into the art. But as far as myself, I thought of many things. I thought we could be scholars, scientists. We used to talk about the atom. Work was always what I was willing to do. And I’d say Dirty as well to a certain degree, until we got to be teenagers and started looking for short cuts. I did anything from sell newspapers to peaches and oranges in Downtown Brooklyn. I had a job of standing up all day putting screws in a box, that paid $150 a week, and I felt like a man to get that money and bring that home to my family.
And do you think getting out of the ghetto is something that every young black man should aspire to or do you think it is possible to live a fulfilling life within urban poverty, you know, whether it’s spiritually or if you have family and stuff? It’s a very slim possibility. But the generation before it was more possible because their violence level wasn’t as bad as our violence level.You’ll see your grandmother, and she can live in the projects and be cool with it. But for young people, the violence level has increased, so I don’t think in today’s society, and with the land mass and wealth of our nation, I don’t think that a man should be satisfied living in what they call the ghetto. Living in the urban community and living in the ghetto are two different things. It’s the quality of life that’s different, because the quality of people is different. You’ve got a rapist living on top of you, a drug dealer underneath you, a wino on the left side, and a good kid on the right trying to go to school. But when he’s going to school, he’s got to go through the elevator that somebody pissed in. He’s got to walk outside and worry about if somebody’s going to steal his jacket or steal his shoes. You got to get out of that.
Let’s talk about your involvement in The Black List. Aside from skin color, what do you think ties together all the subjects in the documentary? I think the common thread though is people looking for that glory, or their glory day that they know exists. Nobody is talking about condoning certain conditions in the black community. They’re talking about certain impressions of it and how sometimes it feels that some people are blacklisted. You’ll see some people talk about that. There’s some people talk about the coolness of being black. I just think it’s a real unique conversation, from what I saw. I saw it on Sunday morning, and I didn’t have to go to church because that program had enough insight that it gave me a spiritual day.
Has your consciousness as a black man had a slight tweak since Barack Obama was elected? Yeah, for me it’s definitely changing it. If anybody doesn’t smell the coffee now, they really are sick in the mind. Possibilities are something that every mind and body yearns towards. If you look at the evolution of the black man — from chains, to the man who’s controlling America — that puts a very powerful sense of impact on us as a people.
So your kids are going to grow up with a different mentality than you did when you were their age? He has reversed the polarity. I like to say, as far as evolution, when a man wanted to fly, man couldn’t fly. Then the Wright Brothers came with a little plane that went 100 feet. And now they got space shuttles. Once the mold is broken, the idea or the consciousness is raised up and I think every black man in America should take this as an example to stand up and walk that right path.
When you started Wu-Tang, you told the other group members to relinquish control to you, and that in five years, you would bring them to the top. Where did that confidence come from? It came from a knowledge of self and of my ability, as well as knowledge of who I had around me. Being slightly egotistical at the age as well, some people would even say conceited. I knew that when you put your mind to it, your mind is a master of all space, time, motion and matter. And if you put your mind to project the will, you can make whatever you want happen. In the mind time don’t exist. You can think about when you were two, three years old but that’s 30 years ago whenever that was. But in the mind time don’t exist. But time exists in three dimensions. It takes time for it to manifest itself. I already studied the Art of War, the art of peace, the books of the five rings. I came across the works of James Allen, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” I knew that if we came with that energy and we stuck together, in five years we’ll be number one. The only thing I asked for in return for my brothers was, Yo, let me drive this bus. I know we’re in a democratic society, but sometimes to move things forward it takes a dictatorship mentality.
You once said “How can hip-hop be dead, if Wu-Tang is forver?” How can Wu-Tang be forever? First of all, the work we put out will remain in the data books of history. If you go to the Encyclopedia Britannica and look up hip-hop, our name is mentioned. The spirit of Wu exists in our family, but it exists in our extended family as well, and in our fans, and in people who have been inspired by us. When you see somebody like Kanye West who’s one the biggest artists in the world and you read his interviews, you’re like, Yo, he’s been inspired by RZA, Ghostface. That means he’s been inspired by Wu-Tang. Even though Wu-Tang ain’t the one doing it, the Wu mind, the Wu vibe is still existing, is still bringing it to the next chamber
You’ve been acting a lot lately. Are you trying to express yourself through the art of acting, or are you appearing in movies for the fun of it, as a fan? No, I take it serious, super-serious. It’s like having a new girlfriend. You know when you first get your new girl, you want to make love to her every night? It’s very self-gratifying, not positive or negative, but it feels really good and I’m striving to be really good at it. I’m inspiring that it leads me to be a movie director so somehow I can bring the hip hop experience and the hip hop mentality of creativity to the silver screen.
What about Judd Apatow’s Funny People? How was the set? How was being on set for that working with Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler and all those cats? Them are some of the funniest guys in the world, the wittiest. If they were rappers, they’d be the top rappers because they’re very spontaneous with their jokes. It was a very cool set, a super-cool experience.