Rap musician, producer, composer
Few people have shaped hip-hop as directly and profoundly as RZA. As one of hip-hop's elite producers, RZA has pushed the limits of hip-hop music with his trademark sound. As an MC, his Eastern mysticism-inspired lyrics and avant-garde genre busting has inspired a whole generation of new artists. As the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, he created an entirely new blueprint for group success within hip-hop. His current position as hip-hop's everyman is directly linked to his many and varied accomplishments within the culture. He told Black Voices magazine, "I live hip-hop so I understand all facets of hip-hop…. When I produce I see all of hip-hop, not just one slice."
Born Robert Diggs, RZA spent the first three years of his life in Brooklyn, New York. The fourth of eleven children, he was sent to Murfreesboro, North Carolina, to live with an uncle after his parents divorced. Soon after, his uncle died and he returned to live with his mother, who was now living on Staten Island. It was there in the violent Park Hill Housing Projects, known by residents as "Killer Hill," that RZA first began on his creative path. At the age of ten he began to read comic books while replaying the characters' battles in his mind, imagining that they were fighting to the rhythms of hip-hop. It was this fusion of hip-hop, martial arts, and personal imagination that would ultimately serve as the foundation for his groundbreaking sound.
RZA's first foray into rap music, however, came as a member of the short-lived rap group "All In Together Now," which included his cousins Russell Jones (aka Ol' Dirty Bastard) and Gary Grice (GZA/Genius). After the group dissolved, RZA, then known as Prince Rakeem, re-emerged as a solo artist on Tommy Boy Records. After the release in 1991 of the unsuccessful lover-man single and video "Ooh We Love You Rakeem," and the equally disappointing follow-up "My Deadly Venoms," RZA reassembled his cousins and other area MCs to form the Wu-Tang Clan. The group consisted of nine members: RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa.
The group's first underground single, "Protect Ya Neck," received such a positive response from fans and DJs that they were quickly signed to Loud/RCA. Despite receiving many offers, the group chose that label because it allowed each member of the group to pursue solo projects with the label of their choosing, an option that was an indispensable part of RZA's plan for building a Wu-Tang empire. In November of 1993 the RZA-produced Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers was released to wide acclaim. The album's dramatic loops, dirty beats, and clever samples made the album an instant classic among fans and critics, as well as the target of frequent imitation by other rappers and producers. As a result of the success of their solo debut, most of the Wu-Tang members were able to secure solo albums deals. In addition, Wu-Tang Clan began to branch out into other business arenas such as video games, comic books, movies, and the clothing industry, where Wu-Wear became a centerpiece of hip-hop fashion.
Like the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA has been no stranger to name changes. Among RZA's multiple monikers are (Prince) Rakeem, The Abott, Bobby Steels, and The Rzarector. More important to his career, however, has been Bobby Digital, a character for whom RZA developed his first two albums and a film. The first album, the pseudo-soundtrack RZA as Bobby Digital In Stereo, changed the face of hip-hop production with its sped-up soul samples, piano riffs, and surreal backing tracks. His second album, RZA as Bobby Digital In Digital Bullet, incorporated and updated many of the "horrorcore" sounds of the first Wu-Tang Clan album. Despite the innovative sonic backdrops, many critics found RZA's lyricism to be uninspired and underwhelming. In October of 2003, RZA released Birth of a Prince, his first album without the Bobby Digital moniker. The album provided RZA with his most favorable reviews to date.
Unlike many hip-hop artists, RZA is reluctant to remain in one artistic place for an extended period of time. In addition to working with the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA is also a founding member of the Grave Diggaz, producing their 1995 debut LP 6 Feet Deep. In 2003 RZA released The World According To RZA, an 18-song compilation that included his Wu-Tang peers as well as several European hip-hop acts.
RZA's highly sought-after production skills have also been transported to the world of film. RZA's first foray into cinematic music production came in Jim Jarmusch's 2000 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. In addition to providing the soundtrack, RZA appeared in a brief but critical scene at the end of the movie. RZA's big film break, however, came the following year. After meeting Quentin Tarantino in 2001, RZA developed a friendship with the director that eventually led to his creation of the soundtrack and score to the movies Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (for which he earned a Grammy nomination) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2. After realizing that they shared many of the same cinematic and musical tastes and interests, Tarantino allowed RZA to be the first composer to write original music for one of his films. Since then, RZA has added the Barbershop 2 and Soul Plane soundtracks to his list of production credits.
More recently RZA has moved beyond the roles of producer and rapper, appearing on several mainstream television shows such as Chappelle's Show, America's Next Top Model, and The Sharon Osbourne Show. RZA also received raves for his performance in the 2003 independent film Coffee and Cigarettes. RZA's own Kung Fu movie, The Z Chronicles, will be released in December of 2004. The Wu-Tang Clan reunited in July of 2004 for the first time in five years for a concert in California. Their performance was recorded and released several months later as Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Vol. 1. Much to the delight of their fans, the Wu-Tang hinted that the reunited group might record a new album soon. RZA told an MTV reporter, "If the fans want it, I think it's possible."
For the Record …
Born Robert Diggs, c. 1968, in Brooklyn, NY.
Rap artist and record producer for various artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Gravediggaz, and Bjork; began career as member of All In Together Now, early 1990s; released solo singles as Prince Rakeem, 1991; formed Wu-Tang Clan, 1992; released three solo albums; produced Enter the Wu Tang 36 Chambers for Wu-Tang Clan, 1993; produced Wu-Tang Forever for Wu-Tang Clan, 1999; produced The W for Wu-Tang Clan, 2000; produced Wu-Tang Iron Flag for Wu-Tang Clan, 2001; scored Kill Bill: Vol. 1, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 550 Madison Ave., 20th Fl., New York, NY 10022-3211, phone: (212) 833-8600. Website—WuTang Clan Official Website: http://www.WuTangCorp.com.
RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, BMG, 1998.
The RZA Hits, Sony, 1999.
RZA as Bobby Digital in Digital Bullet, Koch, 2001.
Birth of a Prince, Sanctuary, 2003.
The World According to RZA, EMI, 2003.
As producer and composer
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai—The Album, Sony, 2000.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Maverick, 2003.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Maverick, 2004.
Barbershop 2, Interscope, 2004.
Soul Plane, MGM, 2004.
With Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers, Loud, 1993.
Wu-Tang Forever, Relativity, 1999.
The W, Sony, 2000.
Wu-Tang Iron Flag, Sony, 2001.
Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 1 (live), Sanctuary, 2004.
Billboard, November 8, 2003, p. 19.
Entertainment Weekly, October 24, 2003, p. 23.
Hollywood Reporter, November 11, 2003, p. S-11.
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, p. 6.
"Original Wu-Tang Clan Lineup Reunites," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1489526/20040719/story.jhtml (July 18, 2004).
"RZA," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 5, 2004).
Wu-Tang Clan Official Website, http://www.WuTangCorp.com (July 2, 2004).
—Marc L. Hill
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