Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as RZA (or Prince Rakeem, Bobby Digital, Bobby Steels, the Scientist, Prince Delight, the Abbott, Prince Dynamite, Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah or RZArector — among other monikers), is a bonafide music legend.
As the de facto leader of Wu-Tang Clan and a founding member of Gravediggaz, the rapper was a pioneer of East Coast hip-hop, especially the hardcore and horrorcore sub-genres. He's also a prolific composer and producer, and last March he was named one of the Colorado Symphony's Imagination Artists, alongside Nathaniel Rateliff and Mary-Mitchell Campbell. RZA had worked with the Colorado Symphony the year before, playing with the orchestra and Wu-Tang Clan to a sold-out show at Red Rocks and at Mission Ballroom; in 2022, he played the Mission again for the Colorado Symphony's largest fundraising event of the year, the Imagination Gala.
And this year, RZA will join the Symphony on Friday, February 17, and Saturday, February 18, at Boettcher Concert Hall for RZA and the Colorado Symphony Present: 36 Chambers of Shaolin and A Ballet Through Mud. The double feature will start with RZA narrating and live-scoring a condensed version of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the classic kung-fu film that inspired the name of Wu-Tang Clan's first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). After that, RZA will premiere his brand-new work, "A Ballet Through Mud," which combines spoken word, ballet and live orchestration.
We chatted with the icon to get the scoop on working with the Colorado Symphony, the evolution of hip-hop and if we'll ever get another Wu-Tang album...
Westword: This weekend, you're going to be live-scoring and narrating a showing of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which is something you've been doing since 2016. You've said you've seen the film over three hundred times, so what is it about The 36th Chamber that you're drawn to again and again?
RZA: That film is a story that follows a young man, a college student in all reality, who's learned ethics, but at the end of the day, the realities of life strike him. He's under an oppressive government. He realizes that his own people are being oppressed; even though he's a middle-class citizen, a lot of people are going through that hell, and the revolution is starting. Just like the students of Kent University, he wants to be involved with the revolution. And he does get involved, and eventually it leads to tragedy in his own household.
For me as a young man, when I saw it, I realized that oppression and revolution weren't just native to America. People around the world go through these struggles, and it made me understand the potential of myself, and the potential of growth in myself. In this particular film, you watch this young man take himself from being weak and frail, to becoming one of the strongest monks in the temple, and then being able to take his knowledge and spread it to the laymen. If he wouldn't have done that, it would have died with the temple. It's a great story, a great journey, a great rite of passage for young minds, and a rite of passage for communities as well. So because of that, I'm continuously sharing the story in my own form.
Do you do something different with the live score every time, or do you have a set that you stick to?
The form will still stick to the narrative, but over the years I've been blessed to adjust it and to have musical cues and scores that really express the emotions of the story. The first time we did it was at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony orchestra, and it was very successful. Very thrilling. So now we're here to do it again, in a form that's even more dialed in.
Then what makes these nights coming up even more special is we're adding something that's never been seen by anybody: "A Ballet Through Mud."
This idea that you're going to see this weekend, we started February of last year. We demoed it as well, as far as the music. So this is a year in the making with them, and for myself, a lot of the music in "A Ballet Through Mud" I started writing in 2019.
The word "exuberating" — does that work? Exhilarating, as well. It feels really good. The idea of me as a music producer — who uses a lot of synthesizers and drum machines trying to generate my sound, and find old samples — to be able to have world class musicians playing those sounds and allowing the music that I hear inside my head to be amplified, is a great joy. It's something really special for me.
What inspired "A Ballet Through Mud"?
The funny thing is, I was digging through my old lyric books, and at first I was just writing music, trying to write classical, because I am a composer. But when COVID hit us and we had to sit still, I found myself digging through my old lyric books, and I found a book of lyrics that I wrote in my high school years. I captured myself from the age of sixteen to eighteen, and all the things that a young mind thinks. From sex, drugs, to the realities of life, and I came across a couple of stories where I was like, "Wow." I just summed it up as youthful exploration. It's almost like it's a travel through mud at the end of the day. So when I found those old stories, it really propelled me to create it musically, as in, find a narrative that had a through-line.
In the sixth century, a South Indian monk named Bodhidharma left India and sojourned to China to spread his teachings, even though he was of princely descent. The journey disfigured him, and he arrived looking muddy and downtrodden. He came across a group of monks, and they had bathed in their own conceit, claiming enlightenment. They were adorned in garments of white, and all their garments had the lotus symbol, which is the symbol of Buddhism. They were having a conversation about proverbs, and Bodhidharma tried to join the conversation and share his wisdom, and they all looked at him and frowned. They said, "A monk should never be defiled by mud." And Bodhidharma just looked at them and smiled, and said, "A lotus grows from the mud." They were so startled by his words, they became his students. I read that story maybe twenty years ago.
Out of the mud comes something that's pure. Sometimes in life you will go through that mud, and hopefully you'll be born, or reborn, into something pure.
How did having an entire orchestra at your disposal help guide the direction of the project?
Working with Chris Dragon, [conductor of the Colorado Symphony], during the Red Rocks concert, we built up communication — a comfortable expression of what I was trying to achieve, and how he can help me achieve it and how he can also express his own musical talent. Then we added Dustin [Knock, manager of artistic operations for the Colorado Symphony], as well. It's not easy dealing with Wu-Tang Clan, and what we did for the Red Rocks show was a pretty nerve-wracking experience, to be honest. Everybody kept a steady calm hand, and we got through it successfully, so when Tony [Pierce, chief artistic officer of the Colorado Symphony] invited me to be an Imagination Artist, I said, "Yeah, we could do this, but I got something special, and I think the guys that can help me do it are right here in Colorado."
And here we are. We got Yusha-Marie Sorzano from the Alvin Ailey school to come build the choreography for us, so we have a great team. We have some great young dancers from around the country. We've got something really special here, and it's really an honor to share it. You guys are going to be the first to see it. Of course I have my fingers and toes crossed that you guys will love it, but I think we've got something really cool.
From what you're saying about "A Ballet Through Mud," it sounds like its themes are similar to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, with the same idea of following a young man's journey. Do you see a connection between the two works?
Definitely. I feel like there's a connection between the two, but I think the ballet expands it. The ballet is actually following a young lady. Her name is Ionian, Ionian of course being the first mode of the musical scales. The journey of this young girl is, how do you lose yourself from an experience, and then reemerge? We're going to watch Ionian go through that process. It should be fun.
The third and final season of your Hulu series Wu-Tang: An American Saga just premiered. What was it like retelling your own history through the show?
I'm so proud of that show. It's a great privilege, with all the emotions: joy, fear, anxiety, happiness — all of the emotions are there. Because there's the pain of reliving some things in my life, there's the joy of reliving some of those things, there's the anxiety of sharing it with people that go, "Oh, I didn't know you were that guy and you did that." It's all those different things, but I feel very gratified and accomplished in completing three seasons. And I really think this season is the best of all. I think we really pushed the envelope with it.
This year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. How have you seen hip-hop evolve since Wu-Tang was formed in 1992?
Wow. It's a big question, but you're talking to The RZA. Like, you're talking to a guy that learned hip-hop in 1976. And I think when I learned it, you couldn't find five hundred guys who could do it. Now, the world is engaged with it. There are artists coming from every corner of the earth — whether you're looking at artists coming out of Ireland, artists coming from South Africa and Ghana, artists coming from Serbia. It's beautiful to see how something that started in the streets of New York has now gone on to affect the globe. Not only affect the globe culturally, but, even in the capacity of looking at Wu-Tang ourselves, economically it saved a lot of families.
As it continues to evolve, I think it will always have its ups and downs, where it has to confront itself. I think we're in an era right now where the violence of it is regressing back to a moment that we tried to escape. I think there's also a pop moment, where some of the art form is now smothered with too much gravy, or pop, and you can't taste the food. But nevertheless, it's here. Another generation of kids right now, sixteen or seventeen years old, is finding a way to ingest it and re-digest it, the same way Wu-Tang did.
What do you see for the future of hip-hop?
I would have to compare it to rock and roll. Which is different than [other genres] like jazz, in the sense that the rock artists were able to transcend the generation where they started, and spread across the world, and make rock icons. Hip-hop I think is now on that new trajectory. You may have the Rolling Stones of hip-hop. You may have the Bonos and the U2s of hip-hop. Before, we weren't taken that seriously. Now, it's stood the test of time, and it's only growing. Wu-Tang Clan may be on tour when I'm sixty. Mick Jagger's still doing it. I mean, I'm planning to make movies, but I'm just saying.
You've worked on a lot of music that's never been released. As of now, do you have plans to drop any of it?
To be honest with you, I'm the most excited about this ballet. To me, after the series was done, I had a choice to play around with whatever I wanted to do, and I said, 'I'm focusing on this.' I want to show this part of myself. Music itself is my love, and because of my love of music, I'm able to be brave enough to play on the piano, I'm brave enough to play on the guitar, I'm brave enough to think in the mind of a flute player and a violin player. I'm brave enough to think that way. And I'm brave enough to combine with a group of musicians and conductors to express that. So talk to me after this. Because this is where I'm at.
I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what are the chances we'll see another Wu-Tang album someday?
You never know. If Wu-Tang snaps into the mindset, then I'm in. And I think they're all snapping into it. I saw Method Man at the Grammys the other day, and he looked great. His spirit looked great, and he was really doing his thing. If we realize that hip-hop can be comparable to our rock and roll brothers, because it was the newest form of music until hip-hop, I just think that we all are on a special trajectory. We are helping to carry music further. So I'm never saying no to that. I'm always ready for when the Wu signal goes in the air.
RZA and the Colorado Symphony Present: 36 Chambers of Shaolin and A Ballet Through Mud, 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 17, and Saturday, February 18, Boettcher Concert Hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex; tickets range from $25-108.