LEGEND tells us there was once a poor boy called Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, who grew up in a housing project on Staten Island, just across the water from the skyscrapers of Manhattan’s financial district. He learned ethics and life strategies from comic books and kung-fu movies, studied hip hop under several of its original New York masters, and assembled eight of his cousins and friends – all fellow high-school dropouts and convicted felons – into the most magnetic and esoteric enterprise in modern music. To quote a sample line from the Wu-Tang Clan’s peerless 1993 debut album, can it be that it was all so simple?
“It can be that simple,” says Diggs today, now 38, and much better known as the RZA. “It goes back to that part of Hindu philosophy that says when you read something, it’s for you. When you hear something, it’s for you. And it’s up to you to realise that, and make use of it.”
In another way, it’s not simple at all, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s value system has since expanded into a perplexity of martial arts, chess, Islamic scholarship, cosmology, technology, numerology, Chan Buddhism, urban gangsterism, high capitalism and super‑heroic alter-egoism, much of which emanates from the mind of the RZA himself.
“I can keep it all straight in my head,” he says, “because it’s all based on mathematics. Numbers are infinite, but there are only really nine of them, or 10 if you count the zero. They can be multiplied, but they can be simplified. So the Wu-Tang go into all these different worlds, but it can always be broken back down to fundamentals, you know what I mean?”
Even if you don’t, you will surely agree that it sounds good. advertisement. Later this month, the RZA will be performing solo at the Triptych festival in the guise of Bobby Digital, a play on his real name, and a stage persona he invented 10 years ago. Bobby Digital, he has said, represents the hard-drinking, drug-smoking, party-going womaniser that Diggs “used to be” and who the RZA “struggles not to be”.
Does this mean that for all the RZA’s recent studies and self-discipline – he is, among many other things, an expert chess player and ordained Shaolin monk – he still has to make a conscious effort to be good?
“As long as you’re dealing with the world,” he says, “you’re going to be tempted by the world. You can master yourself, but if you close your eyes to rest, the struggle will be there again when you open them back up. Bobby Digital is a way to have fun without being destructive.”
The RZA’s other duty at Triptych is to introduce screenings of the 1999 film Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai and answer questions afterward. Because the Wu-Tang Clan had influenced the screenplay, writer-director Jim Jarmusch commissioned the RZA to compose the score (a work of art in its own right) and cast him in a fleeting but fitting role as a New York samurai in urban camouflage.
“Jarmusch said that one third of the movie was inspired by me. But the movie inspired me in turn, you know? Ghost Dog quotes from the Hagakure an 18th century Japanese warrior’s code book, which contains firm principles to keep your mind pretty foundated sic whether you’re doing business, or making music, or just living your life. The inspiration the movie puts out there can help people at a mass level.”
The RZA has since gone on to compose more film scores, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and take more acting roles, most recently as a cop called Moses Jones in Ridley Scott’s retro crime drama American Gangster. It must feel similar to play live music in character.
“I would say so,” the RZA agrees. “I would say that hip-hop itself, for a lot of us, is a way of showing sides of us we don’t reveal in our daily lives. Some of the Wu-Tang disagree with me, like I’m not keeping it real, because we all grew up in the projects, around violence, and they think our lyrics should always reflect that. But I say you keep it real by admitting that hip-hop is also supposed to be entertainment, so you better fuckin’ entertain people.”
The Wu-Tang Clan conspicuously failed to do that at last summer’s T in the Park, in part because the RZA’s particular sonic genius as a producer – which accounts for several of the most musically inventive hip-hop albums ever recorded – can’t be reproduced outside a studio. For that reason, the RZA hired a backing band for the Wu-Tang’s last tour, but the other members didn’t want to pay for it. “I told them, that’s not fair, yo’. Real instruments were making us sound so much bigger, solider, heavier than we did with just a two-track mixer and nine mics coming out of it.”
Arguments like that tend to suggest that their current troubles are more than technical. With one member dead of an overdose (Diggs’s cousin Russell Jones, also known and mourned as Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and others (particularly Raekwon) openly disapproving of the RZA’s subtle and melodic work on the latest Wu-Tang record 8 Diagrams, they no longer seem “the perfect circle” of his formidable imagination.
“If that’s how it seems to you,” he says, “then maybe it’s headed that way. But to me, it’s like a bunch of superheroes who can get the job done alone but also know that they’re better working together. Every member makes money by himself, to help his own family, but when we come together, we’re helping thousands, maybe millions around the world because of the magnitude we bring, the energy we give off.”