RZA as BOBBY DIGITAL with MARVEL and DJ LAW at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (March 9), 9 pm. 19+. $24.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
RZA, Wu-Tang Clan's mythic beat master, squarbs off the digital domain
Seeing the nine (now eight) neuron-shocking ninjas of the Wu-Tang Clan wreck shop – whether together or solo, in any of their various kung-fu-inspired permutations and incarnations – is on any hardcore hiphop head’s bucket list. It’s like seeing the Rolling Stones or Stevie Wonder was for our parents.
I was one of the 1,000-plus fanatics who trudged through some wicked winter weather a few weeks ago to see Wu-warrior the GZA energetically re-enact his classic Liquid Swords album at the Sound Academy. And I slept on a furnace room floor in a Times Square hotel last July so I could see the reunited Wu-Tang Clan perform at Rock The Bells.
Since the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2004, opportunities to see RZA and/or the rest of the Clan bring their sprawling catalogue to life have become increasingly rare.
And it’s about to get a whole lot rarer. RZA – aka the Abbott, aka Prince Rakeen, aka Bobby Digital, aka Robert Diggs of Brooklyn, New York – drops a thermonuclear bombshell: he’s just a couple more disc in him, then he’s done.
“The Cure will basically be my last album,” he says. “I think I’m gonna close my MC career with that one and move on to my movie directing career.”
RZA’s already directed his videos for Tragedy, Gravel Pit and Domestic Violence. And he’s had plenty of chances to pick up a few pointers while hanging with Quentin Tarantino (RZA contributed to the Kill Bill soundtrack) and Ridley Scott, who cast him opposite Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in American Gangster.
Not that he’s making Jay-Z-style pronouncements about retiring. He’s too damn prolific to just quit music.
I just finished “building with the god RZA,” as they say in the Five-Percent Nation of Islam, a sect to which the Wu-Tang subscribe. He was on the phone in his car, wheeling around Los Angeles, where Wu-Mansion West is located, off Mulholland Drive, and where the dense, unpredictable and mind-bending 8 Diagrams album was recorded.
Prince Rakeem was gracious and jovial from moment one, a relief considering how wary of the media spotlight the secretive Clan have become.
Media insensitivity about the various tragedies that have touched the Wu in the last few years is depressing, from the questionable imprisonment and premature demise of ODB, the Wu’s beloved wild card, to New York radio gossip queen Wendy Williams’s shameful, unauthorized announcement of Method Man’s familial tribulations. (His wife is healing from cancer.)
Then there’s the RZA’s silent separation from the other seven Shaolin slang soldiers, who just completed a promotional tour of 8 Diagrams, Wu-Tang’s first collective album since 2001’s sub-par Iron Flag.
Strangely, they didn’t perform a single track off the new disc, but merely announced it was available in stores, a clear sign of internal conflict and a far cry from the frenzy surrounding 97’s juggernaut sophomore double album, Wu-Tang Forever, dubbed “the most anticipated rap album of all time.” Back then, those words weren’t hype.
Ever since 8 Diagrams’ release, RZA has been a masterless ronin, a real Afro Samurai humbly accepting the state of affairs in the House of the Wu.
He’s expanded his acting career, including a role in the upcoming Jude Law/Forest Whitaker flick Repossession Mambo, filmed in Toronto. He’s recorded his next album, called DigiSnacks, in the guise of alter-ego Robert Q. Digital, and he’s working with electronics giant Roland to redesign the MV-8800 sampler, hoping the computer generation of hiphop musicians doesn’t completely abandon the spirit of hiphop production hardware for software like FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops) and Pro Tools.
But there will always be hardcore hiphop heads devoted to keeping the Wu-Tang vibe alive while modern mainstream radio and TV pretend they don’t exist. The Clan’s unique brand of unpolished, righteous criminal rap anthems has been replaced by the graduates of their school of thought, if not by the many Mobb Deep/G-Unit/Dipset clones.
And it’s impossible to imagine the RZA, one of the most energetic and theatrical stars in hiphop, not being lured back on stage. Maybe to rock a party with an entire solo record of his in one show, like 1998’s colourfully rugged Bobby Digital In Stereo.
“I never thought of doing that,” he says. “GZA’s been dong that for a year now with Liquid Swords, which is the kind of album you can do it to. It’s a classic album, it’s like a movie within itself. I don’t think a lot of albums really got the theme that you could do that from beginning to end.”
While complaining about hiphop’s problems is so 2005, even diehard Wu-Tang Clan fans have to admit the collective has seen better days. Ghostface Killah has accused RZA of withholding his tour profits. U-God, the cleanup hitter of the crew, took Wu-Tang Corp. to court for $174,000 of allegedly unpaid funds.
And though these superstars are currently not all aligned, it’s a relief that despite their dissatisfaction, resolution still seems possible. Even after Raekwon told NYC media scribe MissInfo that RZA was acting like a “hiphop hippie,” he said he felt no hate toward RZA and still called him his brother.
It may be a very long time before we hear an official follow-up to 8 Diagrams. So until then, there's still a few solo music missions to finish before he switches career tracks.
“There’s two things I’m doing musically right now. One, I’m finishing up the Bobby Digital album, and I think I have a real unique approach and vocal cadence. I think I’m going to have a nice surprise album out of that one. And I’ve been working on it for 10 years now almost, but I’m still finishing up The Cure.”
The Cure is RZA’s oft-whispered-about solo disc – a myth, a dream many suspect may die as mysteriously as Tupac Shakur leaving a Mike Tyson fight.
“I think that’s going to be a satisfying moment for all Wu fans around the world. If they don’t get it from nowhere, they will get it from The Cure, because I think that’s really going to be special.”
With so many one-dimensional personalities tormenting modern-day hiphop, the electronic, abstract funk and cleverly edutaining lyrics of RZA’s Bobby Digital alias should receive a warm welcome from the masses, or at least those seeking more than ringtone rap music.
A masked rap avenger, Bobby Digital is RZA’s hedonistic superhero alter ego, but his contrasting personae now seem to overlap. Makes me wonder what separates 2003’s Birth Of A Prince album from The Cure.
“The Cure is all purity, whereas Birth Of A Prince and Digital Bullet, there’s a few sprinkles. You can listen to it or you can read it. It could be a book. And musically, it will be on the level of Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords and all the Wu classics,” he says, comparing the disc to Parlia-ment’s Maggot Brain.
“I’m really trying to bring something that you can listen to no matter what year, no matter what genre of music you want. With 8 Diagrams, I just skimmed the surface of musical exploration.”
And there’s the in-development Wu-Tang Manual Vol 2: The Book Of Wisdom, the RZArecta’s next step in the continuing saga of Wu-Tang. That should be enough to let Wu fans go to sleep soundly, knowing they’ll wake up to a better tomorrow, like the John Woo-inspired song from Wu-Tang Forever, even after he wearily observed that “our Voltron Lions are not formed right now.”
Above: Watch RZA's video for Tragedy.
"When you see what's important to the new generation of hip hop heads compared to the values and heroes of the 90's or the 80's, do you ever lose faith in the power of hip hop to enlighten people? Like Method Man said: "Cash rules everything around me", but what changed over the years to make the pursuit of success so corrupting to the minds of the youth?"