The man born Robert Diggs, but known to the world as RZA, is one of the nine or 10 most important people in the history of hip hop. The prolific rapper, producer and composer is massively influential—with a sound as distinctive as it is universally aped. And he’s a founding member—and the spiritual leader—of one of the most exclusive clubs in hip hop: the Wu-Tang Clan, the nine-piece rap crew that changed the face of hip hop in the early 1990s, with stark, hypnotic, menacing beats and hardcore lyrics littered with references to kung fu movies, comic books and chess strategy. In addition to producing the records of the Wu-Tang Clan, and their many spin-offs and affiliates, RZA has had a prolific solo career, releasing records under his own name and under the guise of Bobby Digital, including last year’s Digi Snacks. Since 1999, he has been composing music for films and television, including work on Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and the popular anime series Afro Samurai, starring Samuel L. Jackson. He’ll perform at the New Oasis, 2100 Victorian Ave., Sparks, on Saturday, Feb. 7.
You’re playing here on February 7th. What can people expect at the show?
They can expect to have a good time, first things first, you know what I mean?
What material are you going to be doing? Is it going to be Bobby Digital stuff? New material?
I kind of do a mix of things, depending on the vibe of it, and how much energy the crowd’s got. Sometimes you get to a crowd that want to listen and hear, so I’ll do stuff that’s kind of insightful. Sometimes I’ll get a crowd of people that’s drunk and want to jump up and down and go crazy with me. So I like to measure the crowd. There’s a few songs I always do, know what I mean? Definitely got to do a few songs off of Digi Snacks—because I have so much fun performing that.
I really like that track, “You Can’t Stop Me Now.”
Oh, I always do that track. That’s one of my favorite tracks.
It’s a cool song. I might be wrong, but it sounds like it’s based on the old Temptations song, “Message from a Black Man.” Am I right?
Yeah, that was one of the original bands that recorded it. It was recorded about 50 different versions to date. Reggae artists … it was such a big song in the ‘70s that a lot of people recorded it over and over. The version that inspired me is a version from a band called the Whatnauts.
One of my favorite things that you’ve ever been involved with was the soundtrack for the movie Ghost Dog, which I think that was the first movie …
Yeah, my first score.
How is doing film scores different from doing regular albums?
Well, in most cases the difference is that you don’t have total control over what you want to do. But with Ghost Dog, I had control, because Jim Jarmusch was a gracious director—he was looking for me to be me. But for some of the other films I’ve worked on, I’m at the mercy of the studio, at the mercy of the director, and sometimes it kind of hinders … not creativity, but it hinders experimentation. You know, when you make music, you want to experiment—especially if you get a chance to put music to film. But some things are, dramatically, known to be correct. For instance, for sad things you hear strings or pianos, you know? You can’t hear … a big, crazy synthesizer coming on [laughs]. But I’m the type of composer and writer that like to make things different.
In action movies, every time there’s a fight scene, you always hear this techno-sounding music, but my idea was make the music slow sometimes for a fight scene and let the action speak for itself. … To me, it worked great, because it was new, it was different.
I read somewhere that you’re directing a film now, too. Is that right?
Yeah … we’re getting it ready. I’m looking forward to that—that’s a dream come true, once we hit that plateau. That’s what we’re putting a lot of energy into right now.
Man with the Iron Fist, that’s what it’s called?
Man with the Iron Fist, yes.
Tell me a little bit about it.
Well, I don’t want to talk too much about it because, you know, a movie takes so long to come out, and I don’t want to have someone else making my movie [laughs], but it’s definitely a unique blend of hip-hop, martial arts and my way of looking at certain things, you know?
I read somewhere that when Wu-Tang was first starting out, you told the rest of the guys in the group that if they let you be in charge for five years, by the end of that five years, you guys would be the biggest music group in the world, and that five years ended right at the time when Wu-Tang Forever came out and debuted at No. 1. Is that a true story?
That’s a true story.
How did you have that vision? How did you know how to have that plan?
A few things—I probably won’t be able to accurately explain it all now because time has elapsed—but one thing I knew was that I had the illest MCs and the best talent right in my fist, you know what I mean? And I knew that I also was the best at what I was doing. I had a chance to meet a lot of guys that was doing it—and no disrespect to them, a lot of them inspired me, and they’re great in their own right—but at that present time … I felt that nobody was making hip hop like I was making hip hop—hip hop that make you want to kick a window in, you know what I mean?
I just felt like nobody felt like that, because maybe they wasn’t going through the same kind of hell I was going through, the same kind depression, oppression—one thing about Wu-Tang, we had to come up and get here or we was going to be dead or in jail, you know what I mean? And I fully had that stirring in me … and I knew that it was going to take time. I studied books and I realized that things happen in cycles and circles. I was reading the I Ching at that time as well, so I calculated about five years. I said, just give me five years—and I made the contracts for five years. And I said, “Within the five years of that contract, by the time it expires, when we get to that point, we’ll be No. 1.” And we did it. It happened.