At a Los Angeles airport, fiancÃ©e by his side, RZA, the rapper, actor, soundtrack composer and producer of the legendary hip-hop outfit the Wu-Tang Clan, sits with his new baby on his knee. The erstwhile Robert Diggs is trying to fit in a rare family break while promoting his bandâ€™s first album in seven years, and talking to me with his mobile phone pressed to his ear.
Itâ€™s 15 years since WTC released their legendary debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). â€œWe were like a whole youth group or boysâ€™ home,â€ RZA (pronounced riz-ah) says fondly of the original nine-strong band made up of friends and family from Staten Island, New York. Their music depicted the dirty heart of America in the 1990s, in the same way that the gangster films of Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma did for the 1970s. A flurry of classic solo releases from other band members â€“ GZA/The Genius, Raekwon, ODB (Olâ€™ Dirty Bastard), Ghostface Killah and Method Man â€“ followed, though they are generally considered collective Wu-Tang releases as they were all produced by RZA and featured all the group members.
Their gritty raw sound dominated hip-hop during this period. To the wider world, the horrific depictions in their lyrics of the fresh blood of a crime scene or a sexually debased act summed up all that was bad about hip-hop, and Gangsta rap in particular. Yet the multilayered lyrical style, which embraces references from mythology and politics, literature and graphic novels, always underpinned by producer RZAâ€™s ground-breaking techniques, gave fans of the genre an experience of depth and soul far beyond that of their contemporaries.
Jeff Chang, the author of Canâ€™t Stop Wonâ€™t Stop, a social and cultural history of hip-hop, says: â€œRZAâ€™s influence has been massive in terms of hip-hopâ€™s sound, and his unique philosophical bent â€“ chess, mathematics, martial arts, Taoism, Five Percent Nation â€“ has influenced a generation of hip-hop and rap intellectuals.â€
WTC not only redefined the sound of hip-hop but also heavily influenced the business model by which all future rappers would operate. RZA and his business partners, his brother Mitchell â€œDivineâ€ Diggs and Oli â€œPowerâ€ Grant, refused to let Loud Records, who released the groupâ€™s debut, control the individual Wu-Tang artists. This meant that record labels had to compete to sign them individually, ensuring the best deal for each artist. The Wu-Tang team also took the practice of selling a few T-shirts at concerts to the next level by launching Wu Wear, a global clothing brand that by 2000 was taking $20m a year. They diversified into other consumer products, including their own Playstation game. Claiming to have â€œno money hungerâ€, RZA explains this business drive quite simply: â€œWe were a group of felons and high school drop-outs, so our desire was to just get out of hell.â€
In 1997, their Grammy-nominated second LP Wu-Tang Forever was the first rap album to reach number one in the US and the UK simultaneously. But it also heralded the start of the bandâ€™s wilderness years. Subsequent solo releases failed to match the quality of the originals (many point to RZAâ€™s lack of involvement as the underlying reason) and some band members became actors involved in projects that varied in quality. Despite occasional highs â€“ such as Ghostfaceâ€™s acclaimed LPs Supreme Clientele (produced by RZA) and Fish Scale, and Method Manâ€™s portrayal of Cheese in the HBO series The Wire â€“ the potency of the Wu-Tang brand became diluted, and a new Wu-Tang release or side project lost much of the must-have status it once had for hip-hop fans.
â€œI zag while others zigâ€ is the explanation RZA offers as to why his own forays into new artistic fields have proved more successful. In addition to working with artists such as BjÃ¶rk and Prince, he released an album with European hip-hop artists entitled The World According to RZA as well as solo albums that remained popular with Wu-Tang fans.
His move into making music for films came about through Quentin Tarantino, a fellow martial arts enthusiast and Wu-Tang fan. â€œTarantino says his favourite lyricists of all time are Bob Dylan and Ghostface,â€ RZA proudly tells me. Their friendship led RZA to contribute to the soundtrack for Tarantinoâ€™s martial arts epic Kill Bill . RZA has also worked with Jim Jarmusch, writing the soundtrack and acting in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. He appeared as himself in Jarmuschâ€™s Coffee and Cigarettes alongside Bill Murray and recently delivered a strong yet understated performance as a cop in Ridley Scottâ€™s American Gangster.
â€œTheyâ€™re all geniuses,â€ says RZA, indifferent to whether he is working with a legend of cinema or of hip-hop. â€œBut whoever Iâ€™m working with has to trust my vision, and I theirs.â€
An unapologetic integrity seems to have returned to the bandâ€™s lyricism on the new album 8 Diagrams. RZAâ€™s production has clearly been influenced by his recent film work and these styles manifest themselves in the albumâ€™s first single â€œThe Heart Gently Weeps,â€ a version of George Harrisonâ€™s Beatles classic â€œWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsâ€. In addition to all eight of the WTC members (ODB died in 2004), this track features George Harrisonâ€™s son, Dhani Harrison, as well as the female R&B singer Erykah Badu and John Frusciante, guitarist from Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
The title of the new album brings the Wu-Tang legacy up to date. The figure eight turned on its side is the sign of infinity in western philosophy. 8 Diagrams is the representation of a philosophical concept derived from the ancient Chinese text The I Ching: Book of Changes. â€œInfinity and change,â€ says RZA. â€œWeâ€™ve been through a lot of changes but itâ€™s still Wu-Tang forever.â€
â€˜8 Diagramsâ€™ is released in the UK on February 11