If you’re gonna interview Robert Diggs, aka The RZA, you’d better come correct with your Wikipedia game. The man — holder of more than a dozen nicknames and widely known as the architect of the Wu-Tang Clan — is so blazingly smart and so widely cultured in music, film, TV, comics, and books that you’ll find yourself Googling every answer he gives. One minute he’s talking about smoking blunts while composing “Method Man” with no electricity in his apartment, one minute he’s talking about Dog Day Afternoon, and the next he’s joking about the creative methodology of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson from All in the Family.
It’s a wild ride but a hell of a fun one, from one of the most experimental minds of our era. A man who made literally every Wu-Tang beat from the band’s foundation in ’92 to Wu-Tang Forever in ’97. Imagine that: All the solo projects, the group work, the soundtrack spots… he was behind the boards. Even when he started bringing collaborators into the mix, The RZA was everywhere. He had his fingerprints on every album, the look and design of Wu-Wear, the videos, and his own solo projects. Later, he started making more instrument-driven music, scoring films (Kill Bill, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), acting, writing, directing movies…
I could go on. It would be easy. The RZA has impacted literally every creative wave of hip-hop today and, in doing so, has never gone back to the same well twice. His career has been defined by expansion and growth. Constant evolution.
Right now, The RZA is the driving force behind Wu-Tang: An American Saga on Hulu, while also touring with his resurgent and reconnected band, making media appearances, and — most recently — announcing a creative retreat to be held in Staten Island, New York. The overnight experience is called Camp Tazo, and though it’s put on by Tazo tea and you can bet there was some serious money changing hands to get a star of this caliber, it also passes the sniff test as something that fits with The RZA’s persona and approach to life. Creatives looking for a breakthrough are invited to apply for a chance to sit with the master for the weekend, sip tea, and listen to his Zen-infused wisdom. Who wouldn’t want that?
With the Camp Tazo announcement and application period going live yesterday, Wu-Tang: An American Saga getting buzz and solid reviews, and the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Tour finishing this week, I spoke with the man of 1,000 aliases about his favorite tracks, the lasting impact of his work, and his methods for creativity.
The RZA! Prince Rakeem! Bobby Digital! The Abbott!
What if I had a response for every alias as you said them? That’d be funny, right?
Well look, I can keep going. I can go deep in the archives. I could go Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. You know, I can —
Leg-Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Head. Look, I got a response for you.
[I later realized I wasn’t the first to run through all of the RZA’s nicknames in person with him (though Conan needed notes). See below.]
All right, Bobby Steels, in the place. Thank you so much for your time and energy today.
For me, as a creative person, you’ve had a huge impact as a creative voice. So tell me, the idea of you leading a creative retreat, I guess, in many ways, it feels natural. You have your fingers in everything. You’re the architect of the Wu. Was it something when they came to you, were you just like, “all right, this works”?
Yes, basically. When Tazo approached me, first of all, it was perfect timing. I’ve been contemplating, “how do I get some of the message-energy out, some of the defining energy of what it is I do and why I do it?”
I was trying to figure that out in my own circle and, more importantly, the zen of it all, right? To me, that’s the foundation of this collaboration. So… I was in that mindset — in that chamber, as we would say — and when they reached out, it was perfect timing, a perfect partnership. The Tao of Wu is turning 10, so that’s a backdrop to some of the ideas.
A lot of things we do, they’ll have their reasons but they won’t have their residence. This, for me, is the perfect residence for the ideas I want to explore.
Speaking of that and just looking at the idea of how Zen has affected you as a creative spirit, where do you stand with that now? What are your spiritual beliefs connected to it? What are your personal beliefs connected to Zen? And how does it affect you, creatively?
Well, far as my connection to it on those planes — on those spiritual, creative, and even physical — is intertwined in my fabric now. And so, as a Shaolin disciple, you get a new name. And it’s a name you may not know about me, you know a few of my names but you don’t know this one. My Shaolin name is “Chan” and that means Zen. It’s a Chinese word for Zen and Chan Buddhism is the foundation of Zen. And Zen needed to be totally aware of, mostly of yourself. And by being aware of yourself then you are aware of your creative energy and what inspires it, what ignites it, what stifles it. Y’know?
And for me and what I am today — the evolved me — it’s such a big part of me. I know, for instance, that there’s a morning rush for me, for creativity. There’s an evening style of creativity, which is more of an absorption for me nowadays. And then there’s the unpredictable urge of creativity that enters in the fervor of excitement, like a sexual fervor. You’ll get a sexual fervor, sometimes it just comes out of whatever, y’know?
Being conscious that all of that’s the possibility, allows me to know that in the morning sometimes, when I get up, I sit by my piano, I start writing. So that’s the coolness about becoming aware.
Now, the thing, also, is that your clock changes as you get older, your own clock changes. So, as I look back on myself, it was more of a nocturnal thing. A lot of my dopest beats would hit me about two in the morning. We would go to the studio and I would know, “yeah, let’s smoke joints, chilling. But before the night’s over something’s going to kick in and we’re going to get crazy.” And that clock changes. Different seasons change, it gets darker earlier in the winter and it stays brighter longer in the summer, so that same season, it happens in you.
Zen is the awareness and not losing that awareness.
Now, you’re a person who, when you change different lanes, my perception always was, you never had to, it never felt like you were like, “Oh, I want to do this because that’s where the money’s at right now.” It always felt like you were seeking to be inspired. When you crossed over to filmmaking, it felt like you were seeking to be inspired. You did one of the craziest things, coolest things I’ve ever seen, which is, you cleared out your hard drive and gave some beats to people. Because you were like, “I don’t need these at this point.”
What is that excess of creativity and how is fearlessness connected to it? How is it important to be fearless in those ways? To change lanes, to say goodbye to the old stuff, and to know that new stuff will come?
Well, I would say that also goes back to the awareness, but you use those examples, far as emptying the hard drive to add space for something new, let’s just say. That’s a good analogy to look at it because learning is also part of creativity. So repetition and numbness stifle creativity. Part of our exploration at camp Tazo is going to be the idea of how to escape today’s hustle and bustle for economics and realizing that that’s blocking your creative energy.
So if you’re looking at someone like me as an example, right? I didn’t make no money when I came to Hollywood because I had no value. There was no precedent in saying that I could demand money. But what I did do, when I came, I absorbed energy. Meaning, I was conscious enough to know that, “I understand this machine, I understand that machine, but I don’t understand this machine. So let me get the one I don’t understand and conquer that.” And by conquering what I didn’t understand, it forced me to go ahead and reset my creative energy to create something new and different.
If you follow that trajectory of my time as a music producer, you would notice that, eventually, I put down the drum machines and the turntables and picked up the instruments. So by picking up the instruments, I no longer have to search for the drum pattern.
I’ll never forget the first time I got a drum kit in my studio. And my studio wasn’t really made for drum kits because it was a producer-style studio. But we stuck one in the vocal booth and Method Man came over and he was like, “Well, we about to rock those drums? What you going to do?” I said, “Yeah, I want to make an ill bassline; I got an ill beat. I got my cousin coming over, he’s a bass player.” And this is during the height of the sample beats. And he was interested, like, “Let’s see what happens.” And, of course, we smoked some weed and all that. But eventually, that day we wrote the song called “The Riddler,” which appeared on the Batman Forever soundtrack. That was the first song I released that features me playing on drums and the bassline is not run through a sampler, it’s just played through. Of course I put other sample elements on top of it, but that’s part of this “trying something new to discover something new” idea. Experimenting to find another way to create.
One surprise that happened — regardless of me playing the drum — is that you still hear the “RZA timing tick,” as I like to call it. It’s my timing tick. Which is my own time. Even when I’m talking to you on the phone, I can’t help but pace while I talk. I’m moving while I’m talking. That timing tick still found its way inside the music. It still has this timing thing that’s part of creative DNA.
Now, that was good for me to notice. So now that I know that that is there, I just use it, I accept it. And if I’m around all the players who don’t have the timing tick, which is all good, it causes my creativity and their creation to create something that’s unpredictably random. So there are multiple layers to the answer of your question.
That was a very underrated track on a very bad movie.
Picking up a new instrument, a new location, changing your diet… all of these things affect your creativity. But one thing that doesn’t change in the Zen, is the awareness of you and that you are creative. So, knowing that you are creative, you know that even if somebody just gave you a fork and a spoon, you’re going to make something out of this, because that’s you’re natural energy.
That’s just the natural inclination of all human beings, yeah?
Yeah. We are creation. The first… not to get too crazy with it but the one thing that’s embedded in all of us — and I don’t care how we use it, because we can use it how we want to use it, people use it how they use it — but procreation has been given to all species. And for us, the highest level of creation, it is definitely given to us. In any way we want to express it. I don’t want to get too scientific on this, but even if you get two teenage girls together and they have a fervor of passion, it’s still a creative energy that causes that to happen.
Right. Wow. And so as your feelings on life and the construction of the universe have changed, obviously the way that you make output changes, has it shifted how you feel about anything you produced? Does it make you think differently about what you produced with the Wu? Or do you live in this present now of creativity, where it’s like, “that was perfect in the moment it was created, this thing is perfect in the moment it’s created.” How’s that work for you?
Well, two levels for me. So, for me, I’m very comfortable and satisfied in what I’ve created already. Because it’s like a child. That child was made in my twenties, maybe I was smoking and drinking and he came out with a limp. [Laughs] This child is made in my sober days and he’s standing up straight, now. He’s more powerful based on what I’m currently absorbing.
So it’s all very cool — the past and the present of my creativity. The one thing about me, and hopefully that this is something we will do in the exploration camp with the attendees, is the awareness of: You don’t have to duplicate when you’re creating. Even this conversation that we’re having right now, it really can’t be duplicated. You could record it and play it back, but you cannot duplicate this conversation. So, the same process of creativity, when you accept that, then you don’t go back and try to make “another one” or do it again. It’s done. And your evolution of creativity will evolve you to create whatever that time is about. So that’s one thing I want to say.
The second thing I want to say about the past and the present of it all is: if you are to be made aware of yourself or your creativity, or you look back on your past creation, it should actually strike awe in you, the same way it struck awe into the so-called fan or the viewer or the appreciating individual of that creativity. Because now, you are apart from it and you can look at it. So, for me, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard 36 Chambers, I don’t know how many times we performed it but, for some… I mean, I know the reasons so, I would not say “for some unknown reason”… But I can say, just three days ago, on stage with GZA doing “Clan in the Front,” it still had an adrenaline boost in me. Maybe with a different line, maybe whatever… I must’ve heard that thing and performed it a thousand times.
It’s like when you listen back to the seventies music and things of this nature, for some reason, it has “that” sound. And you go watch the artists change in the 70s and you say, “Wow, when Stevie Wonder came to the eighties, it got this way. And when it got to the nineties, it got this way.”
One of the things about 36 Chambers, right, is that if you play it for someone, it creates such a nostalgia effect in them and they literally say, “I know where I was.” I can tell you where I was the first time I heard “C.R.E.A.M.” I can tell you where I was the first time I heard that intro “M-E-T-H-O-D…MAN”
Which is just to say, I think that you’ve created something that is part of the cultural memory. How does that feel?
Well, that’s a blessing and a compliment. And anytime anything that’s appreciated that was made by me, it has a great feeling of reward and achievement. I could not ever deny the praise you feel… Even if someone say, “Oh, hey, what a handsome young man you produced there.”
I’ll just use my personal thing real quick so… they had to change the projector in my studio recently and the studio is in the guest house. So the guy has been coming over two or three times to do it, and he finally got it right. And he texts, “Projector has been hooked in and reinstalled, thank you. P.S. I know I’ve never met you, but I got to say, your son is one of the most respectful kids I ever met in my life. You’re doing a great job. Wu-Tang forever.” But when I read it to my wife, she’s like, “Wow.”
I don’t know what our son said, I wasn’t in the room. But knowing that whatever we’re doing is right… This was an older gentleman, too. He actually said his respect, “his treatment of older cats”… Because I didn’t meet this guy, I don’t know how he looks, how he smells. So, that kind of praise makes you feel as a father, you know what? Good job on that creation.
So you’re telling me that “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Method Man” — because I remember, “Method Man” is a song we created when the lights were out in my apartment and I had to plug downstairs to the neighbor’s light socket, to get electricity upstairs. Luckily, they had the light bulb, they had a light bulb downstairs. They didn’t know I was plugged into that light. That was the only way for me to have electricity because at the time I couldn’t afford my electric bill. So, they cut mines off until I got my ones up.
So, when people say they love that song, I’ll never forget Method Man coming into my house, he had a blunt, he had some weed. He was like, “Yo, I came to smoke one with you.” I was like, “Yo, I made this crazy beat.” And he pulled out some wrinkled papers. And said, “I wrote this ill shit.” Bing bong, here we go.
That’s incredible. That’s incredible. So, do you have, is it impossible to say, a “favorite” beat that you ever made? Is that just a crazy thing to ask or…? I’m sure you get the question a lot.
Yeah, I won’t be able to answer that because it’ll change over time all the time. If you would’ve asked 10 years ago, maybe I would have said “Rainy Dayz,” maybe I would’ve said “Triumph,” I know one thing: It continues to change. But, more importantly, I know the answer to this: “What is the favorite moment in time for creativity?” And I would say my favorite time to create is when I’m isolated in a location for a long period of time. And for me, that particular isolation was during the process of creating Liquid Swords and Cuban Linx. For the first five albums, I must’ve been in that basement, it felt like almost three years straight. That’s where I was at. You came over, you found him, right there. Underarms smelling bad, kung fu movies in the background, Samurai Shodown video games on the screen, no furniture on the floor, studio with no furniture. Come on down, make some songs, go on up, make yourself some turkey burgers.
But that isolation point, I realize, is important. So when I do start important projects, I try to find a moment of isolation. I live up in the hills, in the mountains, where I’m isolated from reality. So when I’ve got to sit down and write for the TV series [Wu-Tang: An American Saga] I’ll have all this empty space. And if I go back east, the Wu mansion is in the woods, isolated. And if you leave me there for four or five days, you’re going to get something out of me, something is going to come. That’s what I’ve learned about it.
And I think, through our exploration, we’re going to talk about finding your own island. You’ve got to have an island sometimes. King Kong can’t grow in the middle of the city, too many things going on. Too much carbon imprint on him. He needs to go somewhere where the trees are 200 feet high. So isolation and building your own island, whether physically, you could do it, in some cases, you can’t do it physically, so then you’d have to do it mentally. Archie Bunker and George Jefferson said they both did their best thinking on a toilet stool. The only place you could close the door and have that moment to yourself.
Where do you go for inspiration now? I mean, obviously kung fu was such a big part of your early inspiration in what you were looking at. Are there new places that you go now as you’re a filmmaker, as you’re making more acoustic and instrument-driven music, are there new places that you go to get inspired or to see what’s out there?
I would say, fortunately, there’s an abundance of art that was created in the past and there’s an abundance of art being created today. Even a nail, when it’s hung to a magnet long enough, becomes magnetized, right? So, you’ve got to say, are you a permanent magnet or a temporary magnet? When you’re Zen, you become a permanent magnet, in all reality.
So I continue to expose myself to art and its different forms. So, for film, of course, I’m watching so many different values of a film. Kung Fu, of course, is still my favorite genre and it’s still my biggest collection. But I remember I was doing a movie called Love Beats Rhymes and it’s a love story, right? And we go to shoot in New York. And for me, I said, “You know who I would like to study for the next three months, because I think his way of telling New York stories? Woody Allen.” And I sat there and I studied his films. Then I studied Sidney Lumet — you think of Serpico and you think of Dog Day Afternoon. You think of New York films — Scorsese as well — you think of the films in one concept of cinematography, then you think of Woody’s quirkiness and single shots and also walking, moving shots… He always had the long dialogue shots of walking, talking, and sometimes there’s dialogue.
They become part of the New York movie language, so to speak.
Studying those things gives you an idea of what you need to do. And that’s part of the hip-hop mindset of creativity because hip-hop came out of finding a breakbeat. Hip-hop came out of sampling an obscure part of a song. We sampled a song that was a love song but turned it to a hip-hop song. Or we took a rock song and turned it to a sad song. That’s the beauty of our creativity.
So, to answer your question, I pull inspirations from all around me. Most of all from life itself. I’m continuously inspired. Just yesterday, we sat down and I got this DVD that collects trailers from the fifties or sixties or seventies. I just say, “I’ll watch the trailers tonight.” That’s what we did — pop popcorn and watch trailers and let the brain sit with them.