RZA: The Mastermind

RZA: The Mastermind

True genius excels at making the phenomenal look natural, almost easy. For Robert Diggs, known to many as the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, his foresight matched with a borderline maniacal sense of confidence and purpose also made him appear to have precognitive abilities that he used to upend the music business’ contemporary model. And construct a legendary collective in the process.

Lassoing eight (nine if you count Cappadonna) independently minded, inner city-cultivated men with an affinity for dense but lithe lyrics required a Herculean effort. And that’s what he finessed into Wu-Tang Clan’s game-shifting “Protect Ya Neck” single. The song alone — a sparse but hypnotic beat with high caliber verse after verse — was the sweetest of licks that would have most in a homerun trot, but RZA was barely reaching first base.

Just taking a deep dive into the circumstances of that first song into account serves like a blueprint for what was to come. RZA asked his rapping buddies to give him one chance at putting a single out independently and they obliged, certainly with no idea about its ramifications beyond maybe a spin or two on the radio. The group’s name was an homage to the Kung-Fu flicks kids loved to watch and mimic, and was now applied to an East Coast collective of rap superheroes. The team up worthy of a DC or Marvel universe title even had an insignia, the now ubiquitous “W” logo. But they needed a proper recording home to give their buzzing indie single a turbo boost.

Besides being a collective of dope MCs who brought a rejuvenated energy to East Coast Hip-Hop, the Wu-Tang Clan was a brand. Normally, a rap group signs to a label, and that label owns the rights to each member’s solo work. That business model is ripe for exploitation by thirsty execs seeking to tap into a hot group’s clout, but RZA was aware of the potential juggernaut he was concocting and made sure they wouldn’t be financially or culturally taken advantage of. Despite a who’s who of suitors, RZA rolled with the only label, Loud Records, willing to give the Wu the opportunity to take their individual talents elsewhere — and it worked flawlessly.

“Protect Ya Neck” would eventually usher in the platinum selling, verified classic album Enter The Wu-Tang Clan: 36 Chambers. The gamble — more like a safe bet — on Loud would pay off, with Wu-Tang Clan spawning numerous solo stars, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah.

RZA was the lynchpin and tasked with supplying the beats, and the occasional guest verse, for all the initial solo material. As if it was a daily operation, he was essential to delivering more critically acclaimed albums for his cohorts that included Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… by Chef Raekwon, Iron Man by Ghostface Killah and Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version by the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The aforementioned are just the masterpieces with many more albums, tours, and drama, and even a video game, with RZA at least playing a role in the vicinity if not in the center of the Wu’s maelstrom. It was his will that would get the crew together for group reunions after solo success and just getting older made re-forming like Voltron a tougher task. From street corners to boardrooms, the Wu’s sway gained them access and privileges never seen before by a hip-hop group, first nationally and eventually internationally.

That global recognition also meant avenues opened up even beyond the music. The now famed Chappelle’s Show skit where RZA and his cousin GZA urged people to “diversify their bonds” was a mantra he actually followed. While the core group’s musical output and grip on hip-hop’s fickle attention span stymied, their legend made them a permanent fixture. From clothing (Wu-Wear) to video games to over a handful of record labels to film companies, the RZA’s hustle of flipping the W’s success into a check was stymied only by his imagination, and maybe sleep.

Take a good look back at all of RZA’s accomplishments, and his lengthy résumé is outstanding. After putting an indelible imprint on hip-hop, Bobby Digital planted his flag in Hollywood, scoring and acting in films, and even writing them (The Man With The Iron Fists), too. The term “creative director” is thrown around haphazardly nowadays but it’s an accurate way to encapsulate his various roles and talents.

Not bad for a kid who was born in Brooklyn, and once beat an attempted murder rap in Ohio, before settling in Shaolin (Staten Island) to light a flame to the rap game. On his 50th Born Day, the “gold” anniversary, let’s honor a man who made himself a precious element of hip-hop culture.

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