Like any good myth, it starts with a flood.
Sometime shortly after 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (VMP Essentials No. 105) dragged hip-hop through the muck and grime of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Staten Island, water began rushing into the basement where RZA, the group’s producer and chief visionary, did most of his alchemy. You picture it seeping in through seams, then blowing holes in the walls themselves — you see the samplers that spark, sputter and die. In a 1996 interview with Vibe, RZA estimated that more than 300 beats were lost. (Two decades later, Raekwon put the number closer to 500, but you know how legends grow.) Nascent records by almost all of the nine Wu vocalists were affected, as were those of several hangers-on; it has been well-documented that Inspectah Deck, whose harrowing second verse punctuates 36 Chambers’ “C.R.E.A.M.,” was planning to release his debut album in early 1995, but saw it pushed to the very end of the millennium.
RZA and the rest of the Wu buckled down, eventually recreating the lost works and following 36 Chambers with one of the truly unparalleled runs in rap’s history. There was Method Man’s Tical (VMP Hip-Hop No. 23) from 1994, which confirmed the group as a major commercial force, and a trio of albums in 1995 — Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s delirious Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, GZA’s razor-sharp Liquid Swords and the crown jewel, Raekwon’s Joycean Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… — that saw them bury their peers under styles that were sometimes inscrutable, but always inimitable. Then, Rae and Ghostface recreated their Cuban Linx… magic on the latter’s 1996 debut, Ironman. By the time the group writ large reconvened for Wu-Tang Forever in 1997, it was impossible to deny Wu as the deepest and most daring collective in all of music, with RZA as the blunted auteur behind it all.
Such productivity after a crushing loss is hard to compute. The artists, young at the time, must have had incredible reserves of grit and focus to draw from (plus, one assumes, some of what Deck might call “uncontrolled substances”). And so even in the wake of the flood — floods, as there may have been two, again, the details blur — the records came out with metronomic certainty. A lesser producer than RZA might have allowed these to sound, or in fact be, obligatory. But each Wu release in the group’s first half-decade is truly singular, its beats tailored to the rappers, its vision clear, its slang fresh. There were aesthetic hallmarks, but these merely connected the periods of constant, rolling regeneration.
And RZA had a gift for regeneration. Where commercially popular producers before him would sample in a way that was designed to give a quick adrenaline jolt from recognition alone, or to chop in a way as to seem virtuosic (and to flummox the rightsholder’s lawyers), RZA’s samples sounded as if they’d been left out to soak in the rain. The sad songs from your parents’ record collections got sadder, more warped; even the staid ones morphed into villains’ themes. And what was perhaps most striking was the texture — the way jagged shards of young mens’ voices and the kung-fu movies they grew up on jutted out from the record wax that had been melted down and formed into something previously unimaginable.
But when the time came for him to make his solo debut, RZA wanted none of this. He was sick, he declared on the album’s opening song, of his peers who were “still making money off of” the old breakbeat compilations he had once mined alongside them. (One recalls GZA rapping, on Wu-Tang Forever’s “As High As Wu-Tang Get”: “You got lost off the snare off ‘Impeach the President,’” mocking MCs who couldn’t catch the pocket in the Honey Drippers’ famously welcoming drum loop. It seems as if RZA was just as bitter about the producers who were hooking up such expected fare.) The relentless forward motion that had been born out of necessity was not something he could simply turn off. He was starved for something new.
RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo grinds up the pulp of the past and barrels headlong into an uncertain future. Its extremely loose conceit casts RZA as a comic book antihero who drives around in a bulletproof Digimobile, an externalized id with little regard for manners, foes or anything resembling consequence. Where 36 Chambers, and the solo Wu-Tang albums that followed, made liberal use of the audio from samurai and kung-fu movies, Bobby Digital recalls the American exploitation flicks of the 1970s: self-consciously middlebrow, yet rigorously engaging, bright and vile and banned from TV. It is a record that is sourced from a thousand different places — old, obscure LPs and new digital technologies, the East coast of the Reagan years and the far East of the Westerner’s imagination — but could only have been crafted by one man.
RZA was born in the summer of 1969. His parents named him Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, the Robert and Fitzgerald tributes to Robert F. Kennedy and his brother, John, both of whom had been assassinated that decade. He grew up in Brownsville, spending some summers in North Carolina with his grandfather. By the time he was a teenager, he was enamored with hip-hop and formed a trio with two of his cousins: Russell Jones, who would years later adopt the name Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Gary Grice, who would eventually be known as GZA. (At this time, Diggs was also getting acquainted with many of the people who would later become the Wu-Tang Clan.) Before he turned 20 years old, he was offered a deal by Tommy Boy Records, and looked as if he might become yet another young, talented New Yorker to capitalize on hip-hop’s first, minor gold rush.
Nothing went as planned. Diggs had signed to Tommy Boy under the name Prince Rakeem, and the label pushed him to make what he would later describe as a contrivance: a single called “Ooh I Love You Rakeem,” which shows some wit and personality but is easily written off as a novelty play. When it didn’t chart as expected, Tommy Boy dropped him without so much as a second thought.
That was not the real peril Diggs faced during this period. Around 1990, he moved to Steubenville, Ohio, to live with his mother. It was there that Diggs got into an altercation with another young man, allegedly shooting him in the leg. Diggs was charged with felony assault and faced eight years in prison. (This, naturally, came as he was expecting a child.) When he was acquitted, Diggs said, he spent three days simply smiling, walking around Steubenville, thinking about his wife and new daughter. He vowed to say “goodbye to anything that would put me in that situation again.”
So it was back to New York. This was the pivot point: Diggs began to take seriously, as ideology, the Five Percenter wisdom that floated around the five boroughs, as well as the parables he picked up off of basic cable through the vessel of those old kung-fu movies. There would be no more “Ooh I Love You Rakeem”s. No — he rechristened himself as the RZA, meshed his cousins into the broader collective of rappers he’d courted before his days in Ohio, and the Wu-Tang Clan was born.
It is remarkable, given how culturally ubiquitous Wu-Tang would become, that the production style RZA perfected during the group’s early years can still sound so alien. Some of it is that aforementioned textural play — the sense that seemingly disparate elements make intuitive sense together — and the way this makes the songs feel like finished wholes, while still allowing the listener to isolate each element. Or maybe it’s because his beats captured perfectly the chaos, the ambient dread, the gnawing sorrow that’s native to American cities.
Though this work behind the boards was what won the group acclaim from the moment 36 Chambers was released, RZA’s raps are fascinating, sometimes cartoonish reflections of the same collagelike worldview. While those impulses toward self-knowledge and self-improvement guided him, he took a sharp left turn away from the didactic strains of rap that aimed to dispense advice and little else. Those songs lacked both style and danger, two shortcomings RZA couldn’t abide.
As a writer, RZA lacks Raekwon’s mercenary cool, GZA’s three-chess-moves-ahead calculation, Ghostface’s manic lurches from the jarringly natural to the truly absurd. But it is Ghost to whom RZA’s writing skews most closely. His is a working man’s version of the same style, which toys with not only syntax, but word order itself, as if someone who’s learning English is also learning what it feels like to rob someone while high on angel dust. These constantly molting, nearly schizophrenic bars tumble out of RZA’s mouth as if they’re bile, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. When it comes to his vocal approach, think somewhere between “machine gun” and “disembodied deity.”
If all that makes it sound as if RZA was destined to play second fiddle even on his own album, let us disabuse you of that notion. While Bobby Digital does feature one of the truly pantheon Ghostface verses — the turn on “Holocaust (Silkworm)” where he raps about having “Diet Coke meetings with the rich” — RZA remains the headliner, penning some of his starkest, funniest, most vivid verses and delivering them with the freewheeling animation they deserve.
But we’ve gone too long without mentioning the “digital” of it all. Those breakbeat compilations RZA abandoned were replaced by the “at least 16 or 17” different keyboards that he would program, creating what he called a “digital orchestra” to anchor the album’s sound. What’s most impressive about this turn is not the audacity of its departure, but its integration into RZA’s established vision. For every moment in which Bobby Digital seems to shirk the crate-digging hallmarks of the Wu beats before it, there are two where it seems iterative, an old blueprint transposed to new territory. For years, this earmarked the album as a curious aside from one of the genre’s greatest living producers. But in the past decade, it has been given a strange air of prescience — if only for “Handwriting On the Wall,” the 99-second song built around an exceptional verse from the Los Angeles rapper Ras Kass. That track, with its mounting menace and total absence of drums, now seems to presage the wave of underground rap that has sprung up in the wake of Roc Marciano’s landmark 2010 album Marcberg, where his acolytes have stripped away any extraneous element from their music with ascetic determination.
If its underpinnings are familiar, much of the music on Bobby Digital is odd, even bizarre, in execution. See the way the vocal mix on “Airwaves” makes it sound as if you’re hearing the song from someone else’s speakers while you take the bus; see the way RZA burrows into crevices so deep that you have to remind yourself it’s odd that you’re listening to someone rap at you about “naval boats” and “u-boat torpedoes.” This can be disorienting, but also deeply rewarding. The idiosyncrasies of his writing, beyond their obvious, immediate effect, sometimes create space for the truly profound. Consider the syntactic structure of this couplet on “Mantis”:
“Diamond crystal ring, solid-gold bone rituals We be the humble, most calmest individuals.”
It is, obviously, funny — “the humble, most calmest individuals” is an absurd claim in the face of not only the jewelry mentioned beforehand, but the way RZA raps on the track. But there is something else happening. Nearly every member of the Wu had a knack, at his peak, for connecting the excesses of fame and fortune and the stark poverty from which he emerged to centuries- or millennia-old traditions. And so, with a half-line that could easily be glossed over, RZA invites you to connect some jewelry he might wear on the cover of The Source to rituals meant to summon the dead.
This unmistakable phrasing appears even when he’s trying to seduce a woman, as he is on “Love Jones” — that’s the song where he says a girl is “shining like a brand-new spanking black Glock / or a thousand hundred-dollar bills inside a shoebox.” If nothing else, RZA — Bobby — is unpredictable, making even oafish bars (like in “N.Y.C. Everything” about “vagina saliva” and a “Victoria’s Secret wedgie”) seem, in their way, charming. This is to say nothing of the turns where he makes a show of toying with the listener like a 1950s comic, like with the line on “Bobby Did It (Spanish Fly)” when he promises that the “French buttercups probably wanna see Bobby in handcuffs / With the toes in my mouth.”
The album’s most memorable song is its most confrontational. Buried deep on the B-side, “Domestic Violence” opens with more than a minute of a woman’s voice hectoring Bobby Digital, with a nearly robotic rhythm and precision, about all the things that are wrong with him, only for Bobby to explode in a tirade he aims back at her. At first, the song recalls “Wildflower,” the second track on Ghostface’s Ironman, where the rapper’s venom for an ex makes him a slightly unreliable narrator. But there is nothing slight nor subtle about “Domestic Violence,” beginning with its perfectly deliberate title (the events of the song do not quite culminate in any physical altercation). At points the song is extremely funny — the bar about having to go to school to be a nurse springs to mind — but that title and the overtly somber beat do not let the listener forget the gravity of the situation. This is where the album’s concept crystallizes: the wisdom RZA previously tried to dispense to listeners here becomes a structuring absence, the raging ids of two characters put on display for the ticking bombs that they are. It is a remarkably shrewd choice on an album that so often seems to be delightfully out of its creator’s control.
When it comes to floods, those first five years of Wu-Tang seem as inevitable as any water pouring into an apartment basement. At Bobby Digital in Stereo’s beginning, RZA suggests that we all simply acquiesce:
“Can’t think about the proper remedies for destroying us Your best bet, black, is sit back and start enjoying us.”
It would have been hard to blame him, in 1998, for feeling this way. But from that point forward, Wu-Tang would be forced to loosen the vice grip they had on New York and hip-hop at large.
That’s partly because RZA loosened his own. For the second round of solo LPs, he chose to work with only one rapper at a time. While the album he helmed, Ghostface’s 2000 masterpiece Supreme Clientele, is one of the great works of American music in the 21st century, some of the other group members floundered. For example: Immobilarity, Raekwon’s sophomore effort from 1999, was widely (and correctly) seen as a grave disappointment, a mere footnote in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’s wake. The subsequent Wu-Tang group albums are all worth hearing, though they would never reach the maximalist heights of Wu-Tang Forever; the signature solo efforts came to seem increasingly like that: branches off the group itself.
But the Wu-Tang identity has maintained incredible cultural relevance, thanks in no small part to RZA’s careful defense and curation. It would be easy to imagine a person in his position defaulting to what had worked before — shutting up and playing the hits. But when it was his turn at bat, that’s not what RZA did. He made something so eccentric and so specific that it needs to be heard to be believed. Put on “Kiss Of a Black Widow” — it sounds as if he’s rapping directly into the ad-lib track, his whole verse an aside before the song can start in earnest. Hear how “Project Talk” recreates the urgent din of a summer evening, perched on the curb with your ears open. Picture a murdered man’s head blown off his neck “like dandelions”; consider his “funeral date will be engraved on the wall in Roman numerals.” There are times when RZA’s career in hip-hop seems so titanically big as to be the stuff of myth. The secret is that it’s too human to be anything but.
Paul Thompson is a writer whose work has appeared in Vulture, Pitchfork, Playboy, and many other publications. He's the author of I FEEL LIKE DYING and the forthcoming WESTERN DEATH FACE. He lives in Los Angeles.