Q&A With The RZA

The Backbeat section of Westword’s June 12 edition is dominated by updates and details about the annual Westword Music Showcase, as well it should be. But strange as it might seem, there are other notable musical happenings taking place around town during the week, including a Saturday, June 14 performance at the Oriental Theater by Robert Diggs, better known as the RZA, the guiding light of the Wu-Tang Clan. (Click here and here for show details.) Rather than appearing in full RZA mode at the concert, he’ll don the guise of his solo alter ego, Bobby Digital, in advance of an upcoming release called Digi Snacks – but he doesn’t limit himself to this topic in the following (and fascinating) Q&A.

The RZA is a man of many interests, including a new website called – the subject of a June 9 National Public Radio report that features comments from the man himself, as well as testimony about his prowess at the game. In the conversation below, he begins by discussing his motivation for resurrecting the Bobby Digital character, detailing his evolution during the decade since the 1998 release Bobby Digital in Stereo, and offering thematic and sonic previews of the new album, which is tentatively scheduled to reach the marketplace in July. From there, he talks about the influence of Parliament’s George Clinton on his current performance style; his work on the soundtrack of Babylon A.D., a new Vin Diesel film due in a few months; his possible participation in a Kill Bill sequel that writer/director Quentin Tarantino may have in the works; his conception and execution of his first film score, for director Jim Jarmusch’s underrated 1999 martial-arts flick Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring Forest Whitaker; and several upcoming acting roles, which presented him with the opportunity to share screen time with the likes of Whitaker, Samuel L. Jackson, Julia Stiles and Jude Law. Afterwards, he sheds light on the controversy surrounding the arrival of 8 Diagrams, last year’s attempted Wu-Tang Clan comeback – specifically the criticism leveled at his production of the album by members of the group. The RZA names names and gets specific about his frustration over the Diagrams fallout – and while he emphasizes that he’s ready, willing and able to help his Wu brethren in the future, he also makes it clear how nice it was to cook up Bobby Digital without having to worry about sniping from the rest of the chefs.

Let the Digital revolution begin:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Why is now the right time for the return of Bobby Digital?

The RZA: Well, right now, I felt the character had some more breath in him. With everything I’ve been doing, with acting and all of that stuff, it really added more. I have more I can bring to the character. I just wanted to let him live.

WW: Because of your acting experience, you feel like you can give him more dimensions now than you were able to years ago?

RZA: Yeah, and also, I’m in a really good creative mode. I’ve got my creativity and my way of understanding doing things at a peak level right now. So I made an album called Digi Snacks, and it’s called that because it’s not only me bringing back the character. We’ve also developed artwork on the character, we’ve developed a comic strip on the character. I’ve already had a lot of visions for the character that’s from science fiction, from blaxploitation, martial arts and reality, because he’s also a part of my reality, and mixed this stuff all together so we can make a film out of it, make a franchise out of it. I recently have recovered my Bobby Digital film, which was lost for a few years… because of my divorce. But I’ve got my film back now, I’ve got the new album. So the character’s about to be relaunched in a few mediums.

WW: How has the character changed over the years?

RZA: He’s changed in a few ways. His whole struggle was a struggle between good and evil, always. He’s always been trying to find himself and save himself from limbo, shall we say. And now, he’s at a level where he’s not comfortable with limbo, but he’s the king of his domain, and he knows who his enemy is. His enemy is the Raven, and he’s doing everything he can to put a stop to the Raven, because he thinks that by stopping the Raven, it’ll give him his freedom to get out of limbo – to rise to a higher level. It’s all symbolic. The Raven represents death, the devil, things of that nature.

And on the album cover, you’ll see Bobby surrounded by women, entrapped in a world of lust and debauchery. But at the same time, he’s striving to do good for others. The album starts with a little kid reading a story. It says, “The game isn’t over until the king has gone wild. A smart and virtuous scientist experimented with a potion called Digital Elixir,” which takes it back to the beginning… This Digital Elixir transforms him into a powerful being who struggles with the good and evil inside of himself while he’s saving other people. He’s saving other people, but he’s struggling with the good and evil inside himself. The funny thing about, there’s a trailer this weekend for a movie – I didn’t see it, my kids saw it, they were telling me about it – but the trailer is for this movie called Hancock.

WW: With Will Smith.

RZA: Yeah, right. And they say he’s an alcoholic superhero or something like that. And it’s funny, you know. Everybody’s got their own ideas, but it’s a similar situation. This guy is struggling with the good and evil in himself, but he’s saving the lives of others. And the song ends off like this: “Another classic tale of the dangers and benefits of drugs” (laughs). That’s how the album starts off, and it ends up with him still struggling, basically. If you hear the album from beginning to end, you’ll hear that.

And one of the first songs on the record is a song called “Long Time Coming.” And that song, basically the hook is about a man who thinks today may be his dying day – life may be over for him. But at the same time, it’s the beginning of his life. So it talks about how you think everything is going bad for you and you’re in the piss and you’ve got nowhere to turn, the only way from there is up – and if you get lucky, you hit the jackpot and turn up. And that’s why I put that as the first song on the album. This character thought it was over for him. He thought it was over for him, but guess what: He hit the jackpot. A hundred mils in the bank, he found his clarity, he changed his polarity. You know what I mean? And now he’s becoming more and more powerful, and it’s still growing more.

WW: For you, is a character more interesting if he’s flawed?

RZA: Yeah, I think so. It’s all about the growth of a character. Even when your children see you as an adult, they see you as, “That’s dad.” They don’t see the things you went through that made you become the man you are, so they can’t really follow the path totally. They can’t follow the path because the example hasn’t been laid down. You look at George Washington. You’re like, “Look, he’s the president, he was the first president of the United States, he was a hero.” But we don’t know about him maybe getting beaten up as a child and him getting his leg cut or spraining his arm or how many negative things he went through. They say he cut down a cherry tree and things like that, but there was a lot more than that, and we don’t know all the negative things he did that made him and nurtured him into the man he became.

I like to show characters in a way that shows the growth of the character. I came into this hip-hop world with the Wu-Tang Clan, and I came in as the RZA. And when I was being the RZA for years, there were a lot of parts of me that were just skipped. A lot of things were skipped, because my mind got to the point where my lyrics and everything I was doing made me more of a father figure – more of a leader type. But the struggles I went through and the hell I went through and the foolishness I indulged in was all pushed to the side because it wasn’t me anymore – but it was me, because it helped me become me. And a character like Bobby Digital, and even the opportunities I’ve gotten to act in films, that’s allowed me to bring out different personalities – and that’ shows my growth. So yeah, I like to do that with characters.

WW: When it comes to the sound design for Bobby Digital, what do you do that’s different from him than it is for any of your other projects?

RZA: One of the main things I did was the orchestration of the music itself. It was always more in musical movements. Even if you listen to 8 Diagrams, which was the last record I put out, and you hear a song like “Campfire,” I’m back to the one-bar loops or the two-bar loops. One loop over and over and then a vocal hook. But on Bobby Digital, the songs are more progressive, more orchestrated. I like to say I use my digital orchestra. But what I did this time as well is I’ve included live musicians with the digital orchestra, which I didn’t do on the first album or the second album. Now, on the third album, I’ve put a lot of digital sounds on it, but I’ve also included a lot of live music on top of it.

So when you hear a song like “Don’t Be Afraid to Call My Name,” for instance – it’s a bonus track, a hidden track on the album – it starts off with all these electronics and synthesizers. It sounds like a Theremin or something – like, “oooooooh,” all that stuff like that. And then I put on some little guitar chords – and by the time you get to the end of the song, you’re hearing a lot of guitarists doing a solo over a Vocoder hook. So it’s the digital Vocoder sounds mixed with the live electric guitar. It brings a whole new experience while in your car driving, listening to the music. I strive to make it different. I still have my traces, so you can always hear my stuff in it. But I strive to make it different. Some songs, too, though, I strive to make it Wu-Tang, because I know Wu-Tang is my foundation.

WW: When it comes to performing the material live, do you try to turn it into a theatrical experience? Are you following the storyline?

RZA: That depends on the venue and the dollars – of how much we have for production. For the tour we’re doing now, you’ll feel a little of both. You’ll feel the vibe of the character because of the backdrops we have and the setting of the stage. It’ll have that vibe to it. But the one thing is, you’ll also feel the vibe of the live band I have playing with me. So you’ll feel that vibe that’s more than a rapper onstage with his homeboys doing things in the background. You’ve got the girls singing with me, and I’ve got a nine-piece band with me – nine pieces all together. So it’s going to be an experience.

I’m not comparing myself to the grandmaster, George Clinton, but when you watch a Parliament show – and I’ve been checking him out a lot… He’s my buddy and shit, so I go to a lot of his shows. And there’s a bunch of musicians on stage doing their thing while George is just the voice of it, directing it. You know what I mean? I think these shows will be similar. You’ll feel the vibe of all these musicians and you’ll feel the vibe of my hip-hop spirit and my lyrics and everything pushing this energy into you. So I think you’ll have a good time at my shows. But the long-term goal, we probably won’t be able to launch that until after the album comes out.

We’re touring now before the album drops. We’re touring on just the history, not on the present of what will be the album. We have a new video on MTV that’s doing well, but we’re building up, and after the build up strikes and the consumers show me that they want to see this character – they buy it, purchase it or they download it and become part of this character’s world – then we’ll do more. I’ve got a chair that’s being built right now that’s costing me five or ten grand, and we’re choosing women who are going to tour with us. We’re choosing for a September tour, and if everything goes right and my sponsors continue on – I’ve got a good sponsor with Belvedere [Vodka] and all of this – but if everything continues going well, the plan is to spell out the music onstage in a whole cinematic way. That’s my final plan. It’s a big production, and you can’t do that unless you’re getting forty or fifty grand a show.

WW: I want to ask about some of the other projects you’re involved in. Are you working on any soundtracks right now?

RZA: I did all my work already. It’s all coming out. We’ve got a movie called Babylon A.D. starring Vin Diesel and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. It’s a big, big blockbuster type movie, big sci-fi type movie that comes out in September, and I’m involved with the score on that one. They actually combined me with Hans Zimmer and his team. The RZA’s team and Hans Zimmer’s team have combined to create a hybrid kind of score for this movie that’s based in the future. So I think it’s going to be a good vibe for the audience out there, and it’s a good movie anyway – a very thought-provoking movie.

WW: I read somewhere that Quentin Tarantino might be working on another Kill Bill project you might be involved with. Is that true?

RZA: I don’t know. I know Tarantino has been writing for the last three months. You only get to see him one time a month (laughs). He’s in the chambers and I don’t know what he’s going to come out with. I don’t know what he’s bringing out. We’ll see. He’s been talking about Kill Bill, but I’ll leave that in his world.

WW: To me, your music for Ghost Dog was one of the best soundtracks in the last ten years. What was it about that project that struck such a deep chord in you?

RZA: Well, when Jim Jarmusch came to me early in on that project, before he even finished writing it, he told me, “Basically, one-third of the character is inspired by you.” So he asked me just to be myself. He said don’t worry about what other composers do and all that other stuff. It was my first movie and I didn’t know if I could be up for the job. But by him giving me freedom, and him giving me a chance to study other things…

You know, “Peter and the Wolf” was the main thing I studied on that one. I studied how that was done. For instance, when the bird came, they used fleets. When the wolf came, they had a trombone. They showed how each character had a sound of its own, and that’s what I did with Ghost Dog. I made sounds for my characters. When the movie first came on and you saw the bird flying in the air, you hear the flute blowing, even though there’s hip-hop underneath it. That was my main idea – I picked these ideas up from “Peter and the Wolf” and I brought them to life inside of my hip-hop style of music.

WW: You mentioned acting as well. Do you have roles in some upcoming films?

RZA: Oh yeah, I’ve got a couple of roles that I did, that are going to be coming out this year. You know how it is – you do them last year, they come out this year. But I do have a movie called Gospel Hill that’s also slated to come out in the middle of September. That’s with Danny Glover, Sam Jackson, Angela Bassett, Nia Long and Julia Stiles – and the RZA. And we’ve got a movie Repossession Mambo starring Forest Whitaker and Jude Law. And then there’s another film, an independent film, called Life is Hot in Cracktown, where I play this guy named Samy and shit. Some of them are nice-sized roles, some of them are just appearances. But I definitely did a lot of that last year, and this year I’ve been focusing on music for the first half of the year. And I’ve been planning on getting back on the silver screen, doing some more films, in the fourth quarter. But I had to relaunch my character Bobby Digital with Digi Snacks. I had to get him back in the marketplace. I had to get him back out of my system again after the 8 Diagrams confusion, I would say…

WW: I was going to ask you about that. “Confusion” might be a nice way of putting it.

RZA: Yeah. And after that, I did have a little bit of hip-hop vengeance in me, and I just used the Bobby Digital character to get all that energy out.

WW: Were the disagreements over 8 Diagrams portrayed accurately?

RZA: Between me and the group?

WW: Yeah.

RZA: I’d say it was accurately portrayed in the beginning. But the followup wasn’t portrayed right. I’ll give you an example. The GZA, he got the album – and I told everyone to listen to it for three weeks first of all. Listen to it for three weeks, and if you do, you’ll get where I’m coming from. But some of them responded too quickly. So GZA, when he got the album, he gave it a six on a scale of one to ten. But then, three weeks later, he gave it an eight to nine. Same thing with Masta Killa. Three weeks later, he gave it a nine. Three weeks later, [Inspectah] Deck gave it an eight. Know what I mean? Raekwon said seven or eight weeks later.

What happened was, they spoke early without feeling the vibe of the album – because the whole argument was this. The crew told me they were looking for a Friday night album, and I gave them a Sunday morning album. And I thought, well, that’s what I wanted to give them. When they said that, they actually hit it on the nose, what I wanted to give. I wanted to give them an album that was more like, you party all weekend, and then on Sunday, yeah, you’re in your car, you’ve got your private time, you put on the Wu-Tang CD – like, take this for an hour a day and listen to what we’re talking about.

The record started out talking about, “A man must have honesty, loyalty, faith, courage… Drinking with friends is beautiful, but two drinks is enough…” It starts off with all these morals – and how could you not like something that’s moralistic? Wu-Tang has not only been a hip-hop force for aggressiveness. We’ve also been a hip-hop force for enlightenment. And so therefore, this album was 8 Diagrams, because it was a diagram for enlightenment. But still keep it rough, because the lyrics are still rough, like with Method Man. And if you don’t get the album, it’s because you’re not listening to the finer thread.

One of the arguments we got from the outspoken member, Raekwon, he said, “I wanted an album of punch-you-in-the-face music.” And I understand what he meant by that. I’m the father of punch-you-in-the-face music. I’m the one who’s yelling, “Bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus/Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthing to fuck wit.” I made that beat like that, I made the energy like that, I wanted to express that because that’s how I felt inside. At the same time, as you grow, and as I’ve grown, and as I’ve learned about different people and different cultures around the world, I made a record now that doesn’t just express my anger. It expresses my pacifity, it expresses my humbleness, it has a higher meaning – in the middle of all the aggression they’re talking about.

That’s why in the middle of the song “The Heart Gently Weeps,” I didn’t chastise all the dope lyrics and all the violent lyrics over such a beautiful song. That’s the contrast I wanted to give. To hear this beautiful song and then you hear the most vicious lyrics, where a dope dealer sells a lady a bag of dope that kills her husband but she still comes back and buys more. You know what I’m saying? I don’t think the album was properly analyzed by the group because they were looking for the glory days, I guess. Not knowing that the glory days could be ahead of you sometimes if you just follow that path.

WW: Is that one of the nice things about doing a Bobby Digital project? You can do what you want and you do have to worry about what everybody else thinks?

RZA: That is a beautiful thing. That’s the part that hurt me the most with 8 Diagrams. I didn’t have to do that album. It wasn’t something I needed to do for financial reasons, for creative reasons or nothing. It was something that I was asked to do by a buddy – Steve Rifkind [head of SRC Records] is the one who came to me with the idea. It was something to help the group revitalize their fire, because things were going pretty well for me. It was me kind of taking time out to boost that back up – and therefore, it was a slap in the face. Talk about negativity. It’s like, you can’t help people sometimes.

Not that they really needed that much help. But sometimes you’ve got to just keep walking your path. Walk that narrow road, and those who are aware, you’ll see them on the path. And if not, you still have to keep walking that narrow path. Bobby Digital and these kind of projects, I don’t have anybody to answer to – not even the label, because they don’t even come and check what kind of music I’m making. They’re just like, “Yo, you do what you do. We know you’ve got a fan base that’s based on you being you.” And I will say it’s a great relief doing it.

I did what I wanted to do, said what I wanted to say, acted how I wanted to act. And for my guitar players, I still had Dhani Harrison [son of the late George Harrison] come in and play, I still had John Frusciante [of the Red Hot Chili Peppers] come in and play, I still got George Clinton and El DeBarge singing on the hooks for me. Still have a lot of musicians. Still have Stone Mecca coming in and playing with me. But this time, there wasn’t anybody saying, “I don’t like that,” or “I don’t want that person in the studio,” or “I don’t like that person’s voice.” It was all up to me to make those decisions, and I enjoyed doing it. Because one thing about making music is this: It’s beautiful making music with your friends. And that’s what I do.

The best times I’ve ever had making music is making music with the Wu-Tang Clan. That’s the foundation of my musical life. But I’ve met many other friends over the years, and making music with them is fun, too. That’s why you have me working with [bassist] Shavo [Odadjian] from System of a Down. He’s from a totally different genre of music, but yet we make music together. And John Frusciante from the Chili Peppers is from a whole different genre, too, and yet we make music. These musicians tell me that I’m one of their greatest inspirations in the last ten or twenty years of music.

I’m not patting myself on the bat, but there’s an article out in Details magazine, and the producer of the year last year, the guy who won the Grammy for producer of the year, was Mark Ronson, right. And he comments, “The RZA has been the musical genius of our time.” He called me up and told me that when he made the Amy Winehouse album, the made the album with the thought in mind that it would please me and I would sample it one day. That shows the inspiration that’s out there.

So if you’ve got your own crew out there sometimes not recognizing that, it hurts a lot and shit. But I’m over it, but I’ve got a new album out there, Digi Snacks. And I’m always available to do Wu-Tang anytime they want me to do it. I’m with it, and I do shows with them for free, to show them it’s not about money with me. But I want my time and my music in my mind to be respected as the artist I am. Because I haven’t changed, yo. Regardless of what people say, I haven’t changed. I’ve just improved, and I can do it at will. It’s like a boxer who could throw a jab who can now throw a combination. He can still throw the jab, but he can throw combinations, too. That’s how it is.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts