By the time he was a teenager, Rza would be immersed in New York’s hip-hop scene.
He would eventually be linked with Method Man and Ghostface Killah and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and more. He would create Wu-Tang Clan (shown here), the powerhouse group depicted in a new Hulu series.
But some of the first poetry he heard wasn’t rap … and he wasn’t in New York … and he wasn’t Rza. He was Bobby Diggs, living in North Carolina and listening to his uncle.
“He spoke in song, nursery rhymes all day,” Rza said. “Or old folk tales.”
He said words like these: “Never cry when the hearse goes by/You could be the next to die/They’ll cover you in a cold white sheet/Put you down six feet deep.”
They were lodged in young Bobby’s brain over four Carolina years. “When I came back to New York and I heard hip hop, that became a fusion for me.”
Later, Rza and his Clan-mates would fuse many things, claiming to be part of an ancient sect. They “used their interest in Asian action movies to inject a sense of the mystical into hip hop,” Nelson George wrote in “Hip Hop America” (1998, Viking Penguin).
They injected many things, Chris Norris wrote in “The Vibe History of Hip Hop” (1999, Three Rivers Press): “Rza crafted a hip hop soundtrack unlike any other – a hazy minimalism of distressed violins and horror-film keyboards, langorous-yet-charged beats that squeezed noir-ish drama from random chunks of ghetto debris.”
This sprang from a far-ranging soul . The Hulu series starts with Bobby as a teen, juggling family, drug-dealing, violence and music. It hints that those North Carolina years had loosened his mind.
“When you kind of grow up in the projects, everything is confined, close, close,” Rza said. “North Carolina gave me a chance to see things that could be expanded. It kind of broadened my horizon.”
When he was 3, he said, his parents had “a violent separation. (Then) I’m down South with my uncle.”
He was there until he was 7. “Those years were beautiful for me. My Uncle Hollis was a doctor, a very educated, very ambitious person …. His inspiration is still active in me today.”
As Bobby, he would face big crises. He moved to Steubenville, Ohio, iwith his mother in 1990 and two years later faced a murder trial. (He successfully argued it was self-defense.) Returning to New York that year, at 23, he helped mold Wu-Tang into a sort of all-star squad of the neighborhood’s best.
Hip-hop was then leaning toward the “posse” approach, George wrote: “The logical conclusion (was) reached by the Wu-Tang Clan, whose posse – instead of hangers-on – is packed with skilled rhyme animals who stalk the stage, ready to ‘catch wreck’ at a moment’s notice. While in most cases the posse is somebody’s cousin and the kid from down the block, Wu’s … posse is the star.”
As a group, Wu-Tang had albums that reached No. 1 (1997) and No. 5 (2000) on the Billboard charts. These guys had a clothing line, stores and more. “They recast the rap group as street gang, Mafia, ninja corps, artist collective and multi-national business conglomerate,” Norris wrote. “And in so doing, they became the most vital rap group of the century’s end.”
Their separate projects, often produced by Rza, did even better. The individuals found fame and one met Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning (“A Beautiful Mind”) producer. “I was fascinated with somebody who wanted to call himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” Grazer said.
Grazer learned about Wu-Tang and cast Rza in “American Gangster” in 2007. “He brought a soul to it that Denzel (Washington) and Russell (Crowe) and the whole team really unified on.”
Now Grazer is producing the series, which reaches Hulu on Wednesday (Sept. 5) and, with its strong language, isn’t for everyone. Showrunner Alex Tse calls it “historical fiction. There are things in there that actually happened. There are versions of events …. But spiritually, it’s very truthful.”
It starts with the teen struggles. In real life, the future Ghostface was growing up with two brothers in wheelchairs … The future Raekwon was homeless, living on a roof … The future Rza was dreaming. Big things were ahead.