Photo by Smallz & Raskind

RZA: “I knew where to go”

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Short Profile

Name: Robert Fitzgerald Diggs
DOB: 5 July 1969
Place of birth: Brownsville, New York, United States
Occupation: Rapper, record producer, actor, film director

RZA's new film Cut Throat City is available now as digital download.

RZA, as the de-facto frontman of Wu Tang Clan, when did you realize you had what it took to be a leader?

The leader part, I actually tried to shy away from! If people follow a leader, when the leader does not move, then they don’t move. So we talked about it in the Wu Tang Clan to have me as the abbot, the abbot meaning “the best knowing.” I am the one who knows the best. If you can’t find an answer yourself, we take it to the abbot. He gives you the purest, unfiltered answer. Instead of a leader, I would always say to the crew, “We all go to practice leadership because at any given moment you never know who’s going to have to be the tip of the spearhead. But the spearhead won’t go through unless everybody is pushing.”

What do you mean?

For example, when Method Man’s song was on our second single, it was such a strong song, it was everything that hip hop needed. And in order for that song to be a single, everybody else in the crew had to sit back and wait for their time. And I said, “We all stand behind him. Let him be the lead singer. And then Raekwon becomes the lead singer.” So instead of leaders, people should adapt the idea of leadership. Everybody has leadership qualities within them.

“I knew where to go. I knew how to do it. But I couldn’t take no confrontation on the way.”

You once compared your journey to a bus: you were the driver, everyone else was passengers, but no one could ask where you were going.

That is correct. I had the vision, I knew the path, and I did practice a dictatorship for a while. Dictatorship and monarchy, that type of energy inside an individual man, that idea is feasible when you are the only one who knows where to go. Wu Tang is a group of Alphas — now you’re going where I’m going, and the only way I am going to take us there is total submission. I am driving this bus, and you are passengers and when you get there, then you can start talking. But before we get there, don’t say shit to me. That was the analogy I said to them when everybody got together. I had a company that had all the assets and legal power and industry power to take us where we had to go. I knew where to go. I knew how to do it. But I couldn’t take no confrontation on the way. And they all agreed, which is really remarkable when I look back on it. Because we can hardly agree on anything! (Laughs)

It was around 1992 when you promised Wu Tang that you would take them to number one, and five years later, you delivered. Did you ever have any doubts?

I had no doubts. It’s almost like I had seen it as clear as my own hand. Equations are a formula that have the correct answer. It may take time. People say E = MC2. Okay, but what does that mean? It’s an accurate equation, right? At least accurate enough to get you to a point where quantum kicks in. And so with that equation of me understanding what I was, my own determination, the dreams and creative energy that I was bringing to the world, the creative energy of my crew, the experience of the past and also the weakness in the industry itself…  Have you ever read the fable of the crow and the bottle? The crow couldn’t reach his beak into the bottle to drink the water so he had to drop rocks in to make the water rise up… It’s that kind of philosophy for me.

Like the fable says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Right, so if we unify as a chain, as a link and stand on each other’s shoulders, we can reach it.

Where does your determination to create come from?

It’s something that is natural in you. It’s like breathing. You can hold your breath but eventually you’ve got to take a breath. It’s like a natural thing, the love of art. The imagination of my psyche, it never stops. When I finish speaking with you, it’s still right there. That’s my natural energy. I don’t want to be too philosophical right now, but I feed it and I put my intention on what is natural for me. Sometimes we put our intention on what is not natural for us… Even with people; you dance with somebody, and it’s a bad dance, and then with somebody else it’s smooth. If you follow the natural intentions, you get the most success out of life, whether that’s personal success or economic success, or just satisfaction.

“I try to use the concept of Noah. Sometimes you’ve got to go into your ark and sit still and let the storm pass. For me, I don’t mind sitting still.”

And if you follow the wrong intention?

Many times we go down a wrong path, but if you can survive through that path and get a second chance — and sure, with a second chance a man should be able to make the right move. For me, music was a second chance. I was really going into a lot of bullcrap and I got a second chance — and a second affirmation from my mother, right? To me as a young man, the biggest thing was to disappoint my mother! The pain of mama’s disappointment was something that weighed heavy on me, man.

Where do you find the strength to come back from those kinds of dark moments?

These days I try to use the concept of Noah, like, sometimes you’ve got to go into your ark and sit still and let the storm pass. For me, I don’t mind sitting still. So when I do feel like there is too much, I say: Just sit still. In the nineties, though, my mother told me, “You have a second chance, you can change your life, you can pursue your dreams. Stop doing crime, chasing quick cash,” and all that… I took a step back, I sobered up and I went for my aspiration. And there’s many communities that are in the same situation. You’ve got young men that are trying have aspirations, but those aspirations turn into desperations. And for my own life, from desperation I discovered determination, and dedication to my craft of art and making music and anything that was an artistic expression. It saved my whole life and it saved the whole Wu Tang Clan.

Was music always an aspiration for you?

I had a dream to make art and be an artist, and hip hop and music was like a burning passion in me. I had always had imagination, I wrote so many stories — you won’t believe how many stories I wrote. I wrote a lyric, no matter what. I wrote in school — I could be in math class and write a lyric, I could be in science class and write a lyric. And when I learned biology, I would write a lyric about biology. I’d write about mitosis and myosis. I’d write about biochemical equations, I got songs written like that. And those songs were two things: they exercised the muscle of creativity, but they also actually helped me retain the information.

“To me, making an album is like working with a garage band and making a movie is like working with a symphony orchestra.”

Is training the muscle of creativity essential to being a good rapper?

Well, would you believe that Raekwon, who is one of the greatest rappers in history, when we first started Wu Tang, he went to the streets and he quit writing lyrics? When I brought him back in to be part of Wu Tang and come move with us, he had only four lyrics. Four! Now he has a catalogue of hundreds of songs. I told him, “Write one every day. You’re going to get better and better.” And he became one of the greatest.

Do you miss the communal or collaborative act of creation these days, or does filmmaking satisfy you in that way?

The team disperses after the film, and this has quite a psychological effect. When you are making a film, you become a family. And you look forward to the next day, and when it disperses you hope you’ll come together for the marketing… But now, especially with the pandemic, none of my actors, none of my crew, we haven’t seen each other. My latest film Cut Throat City is out, but we never got a chance to celebrate. There is something sad about it. But it’s also beautiful if you do something and then move on. I do miss the Wu Tang energy because it is a brotherhood of pure kinetic energy. We came to Germany last summer, we had not seen each other for months, and yet when we got together, it’s almost like a prevailing bond. It automatically clicks and the energy comes on. It is the most highly stimulating expression of art that I have ever experienced.

What does directing a film like Cut Throat City do for you that making music does not?

The thing that film does, film operates every creative piston in my brain. With film, my love of music is being stimulated, fashion, storytelling, visual… Everything is being stimulated when making a film. An album to me is a micro movie. When I said that in the old days, I didn’t fully understand it, but I felt like I wanted people to see the music and see what I was doing. And when I learned how to become a director, all the things I was doing in music were actually preparing me for this. To me, making an album is like working with a garage band and making a movie is like working with a symphony orchestra.