There are moments you imagine for yourself as a teenager. Wild visions of success and wealth and coolness. Being smack in the middle some ultra-vivid “scene.” The sort of experiences that famous people seem to always have and the rest of us almost never do.
Moments like hanging out in the basement of a Staten Island mansion, watching The RZA, founder and architect of the Wu-Tang Clan, walk into the room with his crew. Seeing him dressed in a black leather jacket and boots, black jeans, and a black cap — no jewelry, no splashes of color. One part rockstar; one part austere Daoist.
Having him come over, dap you up with a “bong bong,” and ask how your vegan pizza tastes before drifting over to an Alesis Sample Pad in the corner. Bobbing your head as The Scientist starts tapping out a beat — something he can charge a whole hell of a lot of money for but is doing right now just for fun. Reminding yourself to stay in the moment and not text your fellow ’90s hip-hop nerds ’til later.
That all sounds equal parts incredible and unlikely, right? Hanging with The Abbot himself in the underbelly of a partially-restored mansion — once owned by a sea captain, now occupied by a collective of performing artists — discussing cashew cheese with Young Dirty Bastard (ODB’s son). But that’s precisely the situation I found myself in two weeks before the quarantine started.
And the most surreal part was still just percolating.
With his beat looped, RZA pulls up a chair and starts beatboxing over a mic. He waves a second mic toward the 15 or so people looking on. “Yo, who’s dropping a verse?”
Except when Bobby Digital says it (I could pepper different nicknames for the man born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs through this entire piece and never run dry), you have to imagine the very distinct way he speaks. The Staten accent, the rapper’s syncopated delivery, and the voice that sounds like he was just about to blow a smoke ring, then bit it in half and held a piece in his mouth to season each word.
At first, no one jumps at the opportunity to freestyle. It’s pretty intimidating to be offered the mic by the dude who produced Meth and Inspectah Deck (“What RZA put together let no man tear asunder“). So The Abbot keeps the second mic for himself and unfurls a few bars. Multi-hyphenate artist Emmanuel Everett grabs the sample pad and starts tapping out drums. A keyboardist begins layering in gothic synths that fit the Amityville mansion vibe.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / Sometimes I feel like I’m in a motherfucking zone / Outerspace, out of canals / Sometimes I’m just floatin’ down the Nile…”
The RZA was never known as an “off the dome” rapper, but watching him do so reminds me of years back, when Jay Leno asked Michael Jordan if he could still dunk and MJ gave the late-night host a scathing look before replying, “Are you stupid? Yeah, I can still dunk.” It would be stupid to wonder if Bobby Diggs can still rap.
When RZA waves the second mic again — “Bong bong, who wants this?” — a poet, Peter Lange, reaches for it. The crowd tightens a little. He raps a few bars and hands it to comedian Riley Soloner who spits a few lines of his own and passes it on. Folks are dancing, the mic makes its way around the room. Everyone’s having fun, it’s light.
And then… And then…
With the niceties out of the way and his hero looking on, Lange reaches for the mic a second time. Something’s shifted in him now — eyes burning, vibe electric. He charges headlong into a freestyle. Time telescopes in that peculiar way the universe uses to tell us, “this is something; pay attention.”
“Don’t judge but I’m like an addict / breathing so high, ‘hi!’ oh, that’s an attic.”
After a few bars, Lange drops the rhymes and starts to sing-scream. He’s kicking his feet, clawing at the air. Then, just as naturally, he starts linking up couplets again. The RZA’s eyes widen and he starts punching in highlights.
Lange: “Put some C.R.E.A.M. on it.”
RZA: “C.R.E.A.M. on it!”
Lange: “Let’s go, put your dreams on it.”
RZA: “Dreams on it!”
No one dares turn away. One moment Lange is yelling, the next whispering. He paces, testifies, dances. The crowd closes in tighter, drawing to this burst of energy like moths to a lantern.
This isn’t a fleeting moment, either. No one’s trying to follow this. At one point Lange gives a mini-speech, like a grad commencement, and I realize that we’re watching an origin story. Like something you’d see on the RZA-created Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
It’s a full seven minutes before Lange begins to wind down. And even then, there’s one surprise left. Performance artist Nicoletta de la Brown appears from the kitchen with a birthday cake (vegan and gluten-free, like all items when Prince Dynamite is in the building) and sets it in front of the free-flowing poet (I’ll find out later that it’s Lange’s 23rd birthday). He’s rapping in stocking feet (“to feel connected to the earth”) with his eyes squeezed shut and Brown guides him to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the cake.
In every likelihood, Lange can sense the heat and flicker of the candles but keeps his eyes closed. When Brown instructs him to open them they immediately well up with tears. Brown is crying, too, and the beat hasn’t stopped and neither — absolutely inexplicably — has the rapping. Young Dirty Bastard and I are standing across the room from one another and he gives me this head shake like, “Crazy, huh?”
It is crazy. The bizarre-surreal-amazing variety of crazy that modern culture is calibrated to give us far too little of. A burst of free expression in a pre-COVID era when so much creative output still felt manufactured, heavily stylized, and generally edited. Raw and real in equal parts. A man coming into his own while freestyling in a Staten Island basement. A remix of RZA’s past and a complete metamorphosis for Lange.
“I feel like in that moment all that was in me was the energy for release and transformation,” Lange told me later. “Being in a space with RZA woke me up. He rapped ‘sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ and I’m adopted, so it felt like he was speaking straight to me. Like ‘stop playing games and just let your creative self be born.'”
His analogy resonates. That’s what I saw that night — the birth of an artist.
The RZA is also having something of a creative rebirth right now. After years of pushing Wu-Tang as a group, he took a little distance from hip-hop in the mid-2000s. He worked with a more eclectic range of artists (System of a Down’s Shavo Odadjian, Interpol’s Paul Banks), scored movies (Kill Bill, Afro Samurai), acted in movies (Funny People, Popstar), and eventually started directing movies (The Man with the Iron Fists). But during quarantine, Price Delight has been a highly visible figure in the ’90s hip-hop resurgence. His Verzuz battle with DJ Premier might not be the most-viewed of the series (that goes to Erykah Badu v Jill Scott), but it certainly felt like a galvanizing cultural moment.
Watching him speak to Talib Kweli on Uproxx’s People’s Party Live the week after the battle, it was clear that RZA had fun being back in the rap game.
“I had to go backwards, yo,” he told Kweli and cohost Jasmin Leigh about preparing for Verzuz, “and rekindle all the things that was happening while I was happening. And I’ve realized there were so many beautiful things happening.”
RZA has always been introspective, but his contemplative return to his rap roots seems to be part of the “chamber” of life he’s in right now. (RZA’s unit of time is chambers — which is a reflection of his interest in both numerology and Kung Fu.) His twin pursuits at the moment are his own work in film and TV and the mentorship of a new generation of creative minds (“Wu-Tang is for the children!”). At the end of February, when he rapped with Lange, RZA was in the writers’ room for season two of Wu-Tang: An American Saga and had a new directorial project launching, Cut Throat City (the film was slated for debut at SXSW and has since been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic). The day after the freestyle session, he quietly released an album of narrated meditations made specifically for artists.
It was actually this album, titled Guided Explorations, that brought Lange and me to Staten Island. We were both there for a RZA-led creative retreat — an extended brand activation by TAZO Tea called “Camp TAZO.” The six tracks were the public-facing cherry on top of the whole initiative. As wild and spontaneous as it felt, the party in the mansion also fell under that umbrella.
Camp TAZO actually started months earlier, with a nationwide contest, which RZA judged. 12 winners and two journalists (of which I was one) were then flown from Florida, Alaska, and every other corner of the country to New York. Once there, participants had two days of focused time with The Abbot and his personal gurus across multiple locations — including the aforementioned mansion and Snug Harbor Cultural Center’s Chinese Scholar’s Garden.
As a group, we studied chess from Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder Adisa Banjoko and practiced kung-fu with longtime Wu mentor and legit Shaolin monk Sifu Shi Yan Ming. We were given entire blank walls to paint our personal manifestos on and instructed to write letters home about our ambitions. When we got hungry there was vegan food. When we were thirsty there was an endless supply of tea.
The PR people and various event producers for the brand constantly commented on just how seriously RZA took the whole thing. How invested he was.
“It’s beautiful when someone who has lived experience can instill it into a young mind, or any mind that’s inexperienced in a field,” RZA told me of his newfound mentorship role. “If Einstein taught us E=MC^2 back in the ’20s and ’30s, we’d be a fool to start back and try to learn it all over again.”
The TAZO retreat, structured as a series of explorations, was powerful even before its star stepped on the scene. Much credit is due to the safe space that performance artist and “head counselor” Nicoletta De La Brown designed. In phone calls with each camper, weeks before they flew to New York, she set the tone of inclusion, free expression, bracing honesty, and collective nurturing. The result was a group of people open to soak up whatever the Wu leader threw at them.
With the classroom prepped by Brown and “camp host” Laurence Burney, senior editor at The Fader, the RZArector didn’t hold back an ounce of his hardwon wisdom and personal charisma. He learned all of our names in five minutes. Within an hour he knew our goals and would repeat them back to us, like mantras, punctuating them with his personal catchphrase, “Bong bong.”
“I’m comfortable being that person who helps someone evolve thanks to what I’ve already experienced,” he told me later. “All it does is push the art, the wisdom, the information, the experience further. Let’s just say it took me 40 years to figure something out, and I tell it to a 20-year-old. Look how far ahead they are.”
To help contest winners turn what they learned into sustainable creative success, TAZO gave them a $2,000 grant. RZA also handed out his personal email to each camper while having his assistant make a note of their goals and needs. And Brown started a text thread that every single attendee of the camp is still actively involved in — sharing wins and commiserating over tough breaks.
“I was on a creative and spiritual journey before the camp started,” multimedia artist Nneka Gigi told me after the retreat. “Once I got to camp there were activities that gave me the confidence to express myself without feeling like I had to perform. There was no fear of the gaze of others.”
The Abbot’s ability to form a collective, first shown all those years ago with the Wu, was in full evidence over the course of the three-day camp. But it was his ability and desire to guide and mentor a new generation of voices — like Lange’s and Gigi’s — that was even more striking.
“Being around RZA there was a… I guess the best way to say it is a warm vibration, if you will,” Gigi said of her experience at the camp. “That’s the beautiful gift with someone who can reach millions: even his presence was enough. His very existence is the result of actualized creative possibilities.”
The experience seems to have fed something in RZA, too. The day after Lange’s freestyle, he told the group that it invigorated him. During our interview he added that passing wisdom on helped him make space to enter his own creative chamber.
“If you spend time with me, it’s my duty to share and impart my knowledge to you, right?” he asked me. “All it does is ignite your flame. But at the same time as I’m imparting, I’m also laying off a load from myself. That way, another load can come on.”
This means that RZA’s commitment to mentorship is likely to give birth to more of his own art. It might be a new Wu record. It might be a third film. It might be — as he says in the interview below — writing, directing, and scoring a Disney movie. Whatever the case, the world is now officially put on notice: RulerZigZagZig Allah is feeling fully charged up.
Get hyped for what comes next. Bong bong.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE ABBOT:
Between guided meditations, chess lessons, impromptu performances, and being instructed to scream “Merry Christmas!” while practicing Kung Fu, I had the chance to speak with Bobby Diggs on the record at the retreat. We talked about fully stepping into the role of mentor, honing his intuition, and his dream of scoring a Disney movie.
You’re mentoring people this week and that seems like such a natural role for you. Does it create any fear at all? Like, “I’m still in the game and I’m giving the playbook away”?
That would be selfish. And art is actually not selfish. At 21, 22, 23 would I have given it away? Probably not in this capacity, I don’t think. At the end of the first album, I consciously put a skit that says, “It’s our secret. Never teach the Wu-Tang.” And I remember me and Dirty laughing like, “Yo, we ain’t going to teach it to them until we’re ready.” And then on Wu-Tang Forever, it started opening up. You know what I mean? And I said, “Well, they ain’t going to figure this out ’til the year 2000 anyway.” Then in 2000, I think it was balanced after that. I honestly became quiet after 2000, if you hadn’t noticed.
My own life took a unique turn, you know what I mean? Losing my moms and things like that. You got to lose your mom to understand that, right? And that was like… it took a sense of purpose out of me. And it took the rekindling of that purpose with a second wife because me and my first wife — we didn’t work. So it took my second wife and that child that we had together, that rekindling, that rebirth of life, to put me back on a path of being able to create flow and gain experience again.
By doing that a second time around, yeah — I became more gracious with it, right? Because look, at the end of the day, I’m from New York City, right? And New York City was a place that in the ’60s and ’70s people was dealing with the knowledge of self, it was a black movement against the system. And yet there was another man who they called the father, who was really not against the system. He was helping the system because he was about helping the growth of the country, the growth of the youth, and the growth of the truth. And so his studies is what came to me. And it says, “Knowledge is free.”
He’s like, “The Christians, the Muslims, always trying to sell it to you. The Masons try to hide it from you.” He said, “Knowledge is free.” And so I’m from that school.
So I’ve had two conversations with you, and one thing that has always struck me in those two conversations and then researching for having you on The People’s Party, I’ve read this thing I’ve quoted to about 100 people. Where you said — and if you didn’t ever say this, tell me — but where you said that when you stopped eating fish you could “taste the death in it,” right?
And what strikes me about you that, one of the many reasons I’m so fascinated by you is it seems like as you have gone further down your path, your intuition becomes sharper, basically. And so that much of what you do is all of a sudden driven by intuition because it’s the communication between your brain, body, soul is so fast right now. Is that what you’re finding for yourself as a creative person? And then how is that shaping what you create right now?
That’s a good observation. That’s a pretty… the is word “shrewd.” That’s a shrewd observation. And the reason why I say that to you is because I said to my daughter who was going through a tough time: “Baby, you just got to get further and further away from that person that you was. That’s all.” And it’s like, “If I shit in this room right now, you going to smell it. But the further I walk away you won’t smell that shit. And then more time you’ll forgot that I did it. And next thing you know, it doesn’t exist anymore, right?”
So that’s part of that everything that I’ve stopped in life. It’s just like one of the campers said… I’m not going to say what they said. I think. In one of the rituals, she’s saying that she used to smoke weed for her creativity, and then she stopped because she realizing that even though she thought that was what she needed to create, she started smoking it and not doing nothing, right? Now wow — that happened to me, right? So I can relate to that. And I stopped doing weed, I might be going into five years now, if not longer, so I definitely felt that, right?
I can imagine.
It’s like so many things for me, it’s like the myth of things have gotten farther erased because of the reality of me living and seeing, “well, that wasn’t for me.” So it does build a certain type of intuition and instinct.
You’ve done so much. Do you have goals that you see five steps out, where you’re like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to be called to do in a couple of years,” or, “This is a project that I know is kind of on the side burner, I’m going to heat it up in a couple of years.” Does that happen to you?
Yeah, it does. It happens. But I also have a couple of dreams left to start from scratch.
Yeah. What are the biggest ones? For a guy like you, who’s so accomplished —
On a artist level, we’re talking as an artist? We’re not talking like —
As an artist.
On the artist level, I guess one of my biggest dreams — and this might be a selfish one — I want to score a Disney movie.
A RZA-scored Disney movie? That’s a good one, man.
I want to score a Disney movie, man. I’ve had this dream for almost, it feels like it’s been 14 years since… I was working on Kill Bill in 2002, right? And I started thinking about this in 2004 or 2005. I kind of like thought about it but didn’t take it seriously. But then around 2009, my son might have been three years old, and he saw Jungle Book and he loved it. And then I was like, “I got to do this.” I told my agent, and I told everybody, but it never happened yet. And maybe it won’t ever happen, but that’s an existing dream.
Well, you just put it out into the universe. That’s one of the ways that you told us this week that we can make things happen.
True. So that’s one of my dreams. I’m not shy to say it.
You had one of the most fascinating spans in the history of creativity, in my mind.
You went into the basement and you came out with two group albums, seven solo albums, and you made every single track on every single one. You said, “I smelled bad, I looked bad, but I was creative every second.”
Yeah, I was ugly.
How did you know… We’ve seen so many great musicians, so many great artists who didn’t know how to keep their foot on the gas. How did you know, “Look, this is my moment. I can’t leave, I need to stay in this space and do whatever I can do in the time I have”? Did you just sense?
It’s hard to describe that, right? But I can just describe my personality. I honestly find great joy in completion, right? And I think an artist’s got to want to get to the finish line of things. You know what I mean? He’s got to want to start and finish. Now, the thing that kept me in a basement, it’s actually ironic because I was in the basement because I made promises to companies to deliver. But when I made the promise, I already had the cake, okay? And I’d been in the basement before I had the cake. So yes, I was in a basement during that period of time, but I was already in the basement for a long period of time before that any fucking way.
My brother Divine made it sound funny the other day. He said it in a… He was angry. Not anger. What’s the word? Discontent. Discontent provoked him to say it. And it was about some of the crew, I think he was having some… We had these weekly calls and we’re trying to figure out what to do, and sometimes it’s hard to get everybody on the same page because everybody is kind of doing what they’re doing, but they supposed to, not knocking nobody for their hustle, right? But he was like, “I don’t understand why everybody ain’t together with what they doing.” Then they may not come together because, as you’ve seen in the documentary, they got something against him, right? Sometimes you hear like, “Oh, Divine, Divine, Divine, Divine.” And he was like, “Yo, I didn’t go to their houses to smoke weed. I never been to half their houses. They always was at our house.”
You know what I’m saying? They wasn’t playing music at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning at their house. They was playing music at 3:00 in the morning at our fucking house. What’s the problem at the end of the day? That’s what this has been, the location for it. And I was like, wow. When he said it, I was like, “He’s not talking about after success. He’s talking about before and after.” You know what I mean? So like Deck said, “Yo, RZA’s mom was in there. We had to go there, his ma’s telling us turn it down.” So now you think about that life. That’s been the life I live, right? The life of creativity. I’m so grateful for that gift of creativity, yo, and I’m so grateful that one day I realized it, right?
Are you spending time in the writer’s room on Wu-Tang: An American Saga, too?
Yeah, I’m in the writer’s room every day. I mean, I got a week off because I’m doing this, but this was already scheduled. And Hulu was taking time to figure out what they want to do, and they figured out “yes, we want a second season” which is beautiful.
[RZA has been intermittently playing me a track on his phone and it finishes.]
So where would that track end up? Or do you not even worry sometimes?
Look, that’s underneath. In the show, Bobby talks about being a producer and how he feels the pain of another artist in joy, right? So as a producer, he’s someone who can empathize but never sympathize because music must relate to the voice of the community. And that means the joy as well as the siren of the cops, the noise of the train, or the foot patter of eight million people walking through traffic. So from the gunshots to the screaming children to the crack heads fiending, okay? That which is real never ceased to exist.
So I’m just saying, it’s like, who knows where it goes.
Right now, you’ve been successful enough where you get to just say —
Back then you had to say like, “look, I got mouths to feed. I got friends to take care of. I got this group that I’m at the forefront of. I’ve got to get an album out the door. I got to get a tour out the door.”
Now you’re like, “Look, I’ve been rich for a little while.” And that’s good. All power to you. But you can say, “All right, I could be creative however I want. And the moment’s going to come that I know all these things.”
That’s a blessing, right?
It’s the greatest blessing for a creative. It’s what we all aspire to, right? Creative flexibility.
I wish that on all artists though, right? So in some countries, they put a lot of money into the arts. You think of places like France and Italy, where they was giving people money to be artists. And in our country, we are cutting in the arts, which I think is a bad thing for us because our country is actually the leading inspiration of art, especially musically, right? And cinematography as well. You know what I mean?
And we need story. We need story. We’re in a changing nation. We’re in a changing time.
So I’m grateful that I have… I’m grateful that economics is not driving my creativity. I’m grateful for economic freedom. You know what I mean? But I will honestly say this to you, and I’m saying this to you because I can say that now: Creativity never was about economics for me. It’s always been flowing through me. I couldn’t walk to school without seeing a movie in my head. I’m that guy. You know what I mean? Like I said, I’m the guy in the classroom that finished the test quick, so he’d go write the rhyme. You know what I mean? So it really had nothing to do with money. I lost more lyrics than I ever released. You know what I mean? I lost more phones full of lyrics than any album.
So I will say I appreciate it that I’m not in a one-bedroom apartment with a drippy faucet, dingy smell. The truth of the matter is my baby slept on the floor. My girl, who became my wife, slept on the floor. I slept on the floor at night. And that day I rolled that mat up and people came over to the studio, didn’t even know that I slept on the floor. And during meal hours boxes came, right? Which was my records, and I mailed them out. And it was just like, people would call, “Hi, mom. Hold on. I’ll call you back, ma.” “Wu-Tang Records, can I help you?” “Oh hold on, it’s for you Ghost.” because he lived there too.
So I understand. I’m glad we’re not doing that no more, okay? I’m blessed with that. But to be creative is just to be. If you’re going to think that money, all that stuff is the reason to be creative, you’re going to fail at being creative. My biggest fall — beyond the thing that happened with my moms, right? Which was unpredictable and I cannot explain that to no reader, listener, or anybody — my biggest fall was my first bit of creative stagnation. And that’s when I had got up to about $135,000 a track, okay? And then if you didn’t call with that number, I didn’t answer, nor did I make beats. All right? So I went through a phase of conceit, okay? Of course, Bobby Digital was born and hey, you got a gold album out of it. No problem, right? But still, it stage of conceit, a stage of doing what I want to do. “How much? Nah, I don’t care.” It was, I wouldn’t go to the studio without money.
And I can say half my team became that way. Before, we just showed up to the crib with a beer and a blunt. And now it’s like, yo, the money ain’t there, you ain’t showing up, okay? So I’m glad that I did escape that phase. That’s a very dangerous phase. And you know what? I think is one of the hardest phases to escape, and I would warn any artists of that. If money becomes the reason you make art, your art will have a short life.
That was powerful. I really appreciate it the way you enter into an interview, you don’t hold anything back, nothing’s off the table.
What are we going to do, man?
I think you should be writing that Disney movie too, writing it and scoring it. I’m such a fan of The Man with the Iron Fists.
I mean, look, that’d be a super dream. You don’t see me smile a lot. You’ll see the smile.
I’ve been to Disneyland maybe six times or seven times in my life. I never left there uninspired. I’ve never went to Disney and not been charged up like a kid in his first candy store. Never. And it’s incredible. I’ve never walked out of one of their movies without some incredible inspiration. You know what I mean? And I appreciate that. You know what I’m saying? I would love to be part of the reason why some kid will walk out and feel the same way.
My greatest joy in Disney so far though, and this is an ego thing here, was last year we went for spring break, right? You know the Star Wars thing? Yo, would you believe I saw about four Wu-Tang shirts walking through Disney?
Oh, I bet.
Yeah, but I’m just saying that was interesting for me. And I looked around and I seen… I started… Actually I might have seen eight over the weekend, right? And then I said, “Well, I didn’t see a lot of Adidas t-shirts.” Let’s just say I’m kind of being conscious. I’m like, “Interesting. Is something happening here?” You know what I mean?
There was symmetry?
It was very interesting to see. And they didn’t know. People walk by, I’m just a regular dad with kids. You know what I mean? I put on my glasses and I wear a corny jacket. You know what I mean? That’s what I do. I don’t give a fuck. I’m just a guest. I don’t do all the paid fast-lane shit. I don’t do that. I’m a dad at Disneyland. I wait in line. You know what I mean? I don’t do none of that other shit. Some brothers do, and I got my wife, we’re friends with other celebrities and they do that. And we’ll go with a family and that family might but not me.