There is so much you can ask the RZA. The master producer/composer/MC has done so much in his time with hip-hop (scoring films like Ghost Dog and Kill Bill, acting in American Ganster and producing umpteen Wu-Tang classics) that it’s hard to know where to begin. But with the release of Digi Snacks the third CD from his alter-ego, Bobby Digital, it was a perfect chance to throw everything at him: Wu-Tang Drama, production techniques, The Cure, Cuban Linx 2, ODB and where the heck he found the Charmel’s record he sampled for “C.R.E.A.M.”
NODFACTOR: It’s been 10 years since the debut of the Bobby Digital character and the world has become increasingly digital since then. How does that make you feel?
RZA: Makes me feel like I was 10 years ahead, baby. [laughs] On the real though. It was foreseen with the character, if you think about it. I was telling people in the industry, you know, like Lyor Cohen, Steve Rifkin and ‘em, that things are going digital, that we should find other ways for us to sell our music and shit. Instead of just making videos, why don’t we just make a whole movie so that the artist can have an [album] and a DVD together? At the show, all the cars goin’ to have TVs in their cars. It’s going to be like American standard, I was telling them all that shit. They still ain’t listen to that. So it’s like foresight was there. And now that’s it there, it’s like, haha, like I said.
NODFACTOR: How does Digi Snax differ from your previous Bobby Digital albums?
R: The main difference…the first Bobby Digital album, I feel like I was having fun with the alter ego and I was really sporadic with my talent. It was like I just spit my lyrics any way I wanted, whether it was on beat or not, just had a lot to say, a lot of energy. On the 2nd album, I kinda got a balance going. To where some songs were sporadic and some songs were focused, like “La Rhumba”, “Brooklyn Babies,” some songs like that. On this new Digi Snax album, I feel like the whole album is focused. At least 90% of it, maybe 1 or 2 songs on there where I’m just wigging out, nahmean? But mostly every song on there is a song, a song you can take and create any context. And that’s why I think I’ve become more of a musician, and more of a focused artist now, not dependent so much on uncontrolled substances for everything I do. Shit like that. Just really being more focused, I think I was able to give a focused album. And I’m just going to say this: for every recorded album, I’ve recorded it closely on uncontrolled substance, I recorded it like that. I recorded it like that first.
NODFACTOR: What do you mean when you say you recorded on uncontrolled substance?
R: I was high! [laughs] Shit. Because when you high, you act different. When you drunk you act different. So I took all that, recorded all that and we recorded it sober. Then we went back again and re-recorded everything like half high, half sober. But like a little bit of weed and shit. Instead of doing 4 o’clock in the morning sessions, I was going in the afternoon and doing it. More like a job, focused. Like okay, now, it’s getting that 20 days, I wanna go in and really make this a record, like an R&B artist would do it. I’ve seen a lot of artists do it over the years and do it real professional. And not just do it like how I was in hip-hop, which was just doing it fucking spontaneously.
NODFACTOR: I read a quote where you said, “Long time ago, I realized that music isn’t only a note and a melody and a harmony, it’s also a pulse.” Can you elaborate on that?
R: I felt like I pointed that out when I was dealing with sampling and shit. But it can also be with anything, doesn’t only have to do with sampling. It can be with any note. Every note has a pulse to it. So it’s the pulse sound of philosophy that applies to sampling more than anything. Because I was sampling shit like…take a song on Raekwon’s album called “Icewater.” Where it comes in, [imitates vocal sample from “Icewater”] “Ahhhhhhhh.” That’s just an “Ahhhh”, you can’t really sample. When the drum comes in, and the horn that’s on top of it, then I make it have a rhythm now. That’s the pulse. The pulse is there, forced out of it.
NODFACTOR: On this album and a lot of your work recently, you sample less than you used to. So how do you still capture that sound, that feeling of the sample, but you’re still…you’re playing piano now, you’re putting in live instruments.
R: One thing I do, I keep the drums sampled in my shit. And so by having sampled drums and shit, that kinda adds up for not having to sample instruments. But also, with a good band, which is what I got, Soul Method, Soul Method is a band that plays samples over. They specialize in playing over your samples. They’ve been doing that shit since Ice Cube, they did Ice Cube’s shit, Mac Dre’s shit. They been doing shit for years. Unknowingly. They wasn’t known for what they was doing. [But]they specialize in that. So they would come in, and play something that would make it sound close to a sample anyway. So to me, on Digi Snax, the music sounds like it could have been a sample. But it ain’t a sample. Also, it’s still a pulse there, no matter what. ‘Cause it’s still a pulse when the drums kick in, it’s still going to push it to that hip-hop pulse.
NODFACTOR: I was listening to the song “O Day”. Is that a mix of samples and live instruments or is that straight live?
R: The very end of it is a sample. But the beginning of it is all just keyboard shit. Just me vibing out on that keyboard shit.
NODFACTOR: So that was you playing the piano on “Drama”?
R: yeah, that’s me on the “Drama” as well.
NODFACTOR: I noticed on the intro, it sounds like you used those classic Skull Snaps drums.
R: But it wasn’t Skull Snaps!
NODFACTOR: It sounded like Skull Snaps though, so I was going to ask you was that a sample or that was played live?
R: That was…um, I forgot I did that one early. That was [imitates drum break].
R: It wasn’t Skull Snaps, it was a few other drums that sound like Skull Snaps. If you get it from Vinylistic and shit like that. I dunno if you noticed that, they took these breakbeats and different drummers played them over, and they put all these different CD-roms out and all these CDs of these different samples and shit. I got a lot of those and so I take their shit, and when I find what sounds like a breakbeat, I put it in my sampler, and mostly just slow it down. And once I slowed down their shit, because their shit be sounding a little too clean, and once you slow it down and put a filter on it, it start sounding like a breakbeat.
NODFACTOR: What do you use to filter?
R: Right now, I got a MV 8000, got an ill filter in there. They got about 4 or 5 different filters in there that’s way different than the old ASR filter. The MPC got a filter button but the MV got an even better filter than that. But the MV 4000, that’s definitely built with great filters.
NODFACTOR: The MPC 4000? Okay.
R: Yeah. 4000 got good filters on it.
NODFACTOR: Now, it’s interesting that you said you use the CD roms, because recently a lot of people have been trying to say that Polow Da Don had used a software program to make the Usher record and people were all, “Oh, he used that!” But how do you feel about that? Does it really matter where you get the sounds from, or is it more about how you used it?
R: Yeah, it’s all about how you used it, man. I took sounds from VHS tapes, so you going to get mad at me ‘cause I got a fucking VHS tape? No, it’s how you use it, man. And you want to talk about that new song Usher got called “I Wanna Make Love In This Club”, that song was a smash hit, yo. Usher sampled another hit on his fucking hit. I don’t know how he made it, don’t care how he made it, but he made a hit, I know that. You gotta respect that aspect, especially for what he do.
NODFACTOR: The Charmels’ record that you sampled for “C.R.E.A.M.” Where did you find that?
I found that on a Stax Box set that they put out in 1990. A few producers had it. Large Professor had it, RNS from Staten Island had it. It was something that cost $100 or $200 but who had money to get it back then? I did. I’m surprised that Large Professor didn’t find that beat first. But I know why they didn’t find it first, they were looking for hip-hop breaks, I was looking for musical inspiration breaks. That’s the difference. And the way the song starts you wouldn’t think that it would break into that piano part. A lot of crate diggers used to always take the record from the beginning and if they don’t hear nothing they skip…I play the whole song! I take a day to listen to all the songs first and then I sample on the second day. There’s a producer from UMCs, Hasan he was talking about making beats. He was like “what producer would sit there and hit the hi-hats through the whole three minutes of a song?” I was doing that for years! That’s why on 36 Chambers my shit always felt like it was live. I hit my own snare on 7th Chamber “good moornin”…it was always on beat. It was like a drummer was doing it . On “Method Man” I was programming the keyboard while he rapped it so every breakdown was done live on the spot. And then we had to re-imitate it again in the studio version. That’s why there’s a homegrown version and a studio version. So when he said “what producer would do that,” I said to myself I always do that. I listen to the whole song, I hit the snare through the whole shit, I’ll go back and layer my pianos through the whole beat, like on “Chess Boxin” and I was an amateur then.
NODFACTOR: What’s the biggest difference between the MV 8800 and the MV 8000 you were using before?
R: Oh, the 8800 is quicker. The 8000 was just as good, but was a little slow on save time, a little slow on sample time. As far as processing information, it was kinda slow. Because they tried to make it like the MPC 60 mixed with other things. It had a floppy disk on it, the new one don’t have a floppy disk on it, which is an example, actually. Because the old one had a floppy disk that read ASR floppy disks. So I could take my ASR samples and put ‘em aside for the 8000. I could take my MPC 60 samples aside for the MV 8000. That made it special. The 8800 don’t do that for the CD roms. But the new one is faster and it’s more user…you could plug it in a laptop and fucking take beats on your laptop or save your beats to your laptop. It really is now a perfect blend between software and hardware. So you plug right up to your computer with this, and end up on the screen, and do that same Pro Tools with that. You could make a record with that, almost, man.
NODFACTOR: Now the 8800 is still a big machine and you travel a lot, so what do you do when you make beats on the go. When you get an inspiration on the road…
R: It ain’t that big. I know everyone’s been running around with the MPC 1000s and all of that, but the smaller the machine, the less time, the less space with which you can do what you really want to do. To me, that’s the perfect sized machine, the MPC, the SP 1200, those machines are the perfect sized machines for hip-hop. You put ‘em in a little case like a turntable.
NODFACTOR: So you travel with yours?
R: Yeah, I travel with mine. I gotta a couple machines, I gotta big ass Phantom on my bus. But I got my own tour bus.
NODFACTOR: You produced records for both Biggie and Big Pun, how are they different and how are they alike to you?
R: They were definitely superheroes and shit, they were definitely two different emcees. B.I.G. had the most immaculate voice ever on the mic, I don’t think you’ll find a voice like that. I think Biggie and Raekwon are two of the illest rhyming voices [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? Those brothers have voices that just jump through with the shit.Pun was able to fit a lot of words into one sentence because of that Spanish tongue he had, speaking English he was able to fit a whole lot of words into one fucking sentence and get it off and shit. And he didn’t have that Kool G Rap lisp.
NODFACTOR: So what do you think is coming out first, The Cure or Detox?
R: [laughs] Detox better come out first, I already got Digi Snax out. That’d be deep and shit. If The Cure come out before Detox, shit, someone got give the great doctor a call.
[laughs] I think Detox is followed by The Cure. Because first you detoxify yourself, then you get the cure. That would be be great in life and shit. I’ma watch for when he drop that, I’m going to make sure I try to make the universe line that up for us .
NODFACTOR: So what happened to the Cuban Linx 2 tracks you played for me years ago like “State Of Grace” and all that. Where is that music?
R: I left all that at Raekwon’s after 8 Diagrams and shit. And how he felt, he wanted to take control of what he was doing for his own destiny, Rae told me. And so he felt my decisions weren’t in line with his decisions.I let him go ahead, let him do what he wanted with it. And so why not keep that shit and make it a little tighter and put those shits out. Because they had a classic album right there. What I have one problem with is this, the reason 8 Diagrams and Digi Snax sound the way they sound is because there’s a lot of producers that got into my chamber that’s not part of my family. Then there’s a lot of producers within my family like Mathematics, True Master, 4th Disciple… so many of these producers who make RZA sounding beats. You could buy a Ghostface album, Pretty Toney, and there’s not one RZA beat on there because he made every beat on there. [editor’s note: actually RZA produced “Run” and “Kunta Fly Shit” on The Pretty Toney Album] I got tired of emulating…breaking the same sound that’s been emulated, and that people get from Mathematics. Mathematics put an album out called The Problem, and he put out an album called The Answer. Both of those sound like a bunch of Wu beats, and it’s got Wu niggas rapping on it, it sound like Wu shit, nah mean? And he’s selling like 50,000 copies of these shits, and you got 5 of these in the store.
4th Disciple put a record out, Hell Razah put a record out, Killah Priest put a record out, Ghost put a record out. They got all the same soul sounding stuff. I was like, yo, let’s change chambers. Let’s give them a couple of the soul shit but let’s switch it up, bring it over hear to this chamber. Same thing on Digi Snax. On Digi Snax, I had the chance to do whatever I wanted musically, even as far as the arrangement, the wordplay. I got more hooks, and more songs. I made a lot of songs on Digi Snax because any songs I wanted to make, I had to ask somebody, yo, rap about this or do this or say that. I would make the songs and then I could do it myself. On Wu, I had to be like, yo, this song is about this, make it right. “I don’t feel like writing about that” [laughs] You know?
NODFACTOR: It seems like every few months there’s some random report on the internet about problems within Wu-Tang, and someone in Wu-Tang is upset. Is it just family stuff getting out in the public or are there real issues to be resolved with you guys?
R: To be honest with you, it’s both, man. It’s like the family stuff is definitely getting out to the public, and the issues that got to be resolved…everybody got their own manager, everybody got their own lawyer, and they got these motherfuckers that are looking at me like a hamburger. I’m realizing that I don’t make money off of the Wu-Tang Clan, and yeah, crazy…since 2001. The money I’ve been making, I had to clear a whole new career for myself, a whole new input for myself. I was making mega millions at first! Now I’m making a couple million, I got to keep myself balanced, for my own worth. It has nothing to do with Wu-Tang.
And so for the people on the outside looking in, they looking at what RZA’s doing, he’s on that, he’s on this, he must be robbing y’all or something. He must be doing something against them and shit. Not realizing that’s my own hardworking and my own kin. Like I was telling Rae one day, yo nigga, I never got a Wu-Tang royalty check in my life. I never got a royalty check for record sales in my life. But I got a royalty check for fucking Kill Bill, a big one came quick, motherfucker! And why is that? That’s the question.
I don’t know why that is. That’s why I’m letting brothers know that I’m not getting paid off the hard work we did together.When I did 8 Diagrams, I actually put a lot of money, I turned down my own future to get back with the Wu-Tang shit. And then I was the one to go full speed ahead, I did go full speed ahead, but then niggas shot the front. After that, I was like, damn. They sayin’ U-God suing the RZA for a hundred and seventy thousand dollars. You know what? I could never owe you a hundred and seventy thousand dollars. But even if I did owe you a hundred and seventy thousand dollars, U-God, after all these years of millions you made, motherfucka, you gonna come back and bitch about a hundred and seventy thousand dollars?
If you want to be logical, know what I’m saying? I’m the one who gave you, when nobody would sign U-God, I gave him a million dollar fucking deal! And of that million dollar, I put seven hundred thousand that’s in his pocket. And the rest went to making the record [U-God’s debut, Golden Arms Redemption], and I still spent hundreds of thousands on videos for “That’s Gangsta” and “The Bizarre”, and all that. That was on my own label, yo. I could have spent that money on whatever I wanted to spend it on. But he didn’t secure a deal back then, so I’m like, you know what, I’ll give you a deal. Same thing with Cappadonna, he couldn’t secure a deal. I’ll give him a deal with Razor Sharp. Put a record out, put out a gold album, nigga. If he listened to his manager, who was Mike Caruso at the time, he would have fucked around, tried to go to Sony, sign to Sony without me. Put out a record out and sell a 1000 units. Alright then. That same kind of problem goes on in our family, because all the people who are always around us saying…They did the same to me.
My boy in California, he hates Wu-Tang, man. And when I was doing 8 Diagrams, he would always tell me, leave the studio, don’t do this, don’t do this. I couldn’t pay him no fucking mind because he don’t understand the love. If I would have listened to him, we would have had nothing. But I don’t listen to nobody like that when it comes to Wu-Tang. But in that case, some of these brothers would listen to these niggas gassing them up, get ‘em in a fucking courthouse and they’ll pay 500 to 1000 dollars a day in court fees. I’ll pay a 1000 dollars a day in court fees. At the end of the day, no matter who win or lose, the only one who’s a winner is the lawyers. Because these courts are nothing. At the end of the day, when they judged it, the judge is going to go my way anyway, because I got contracts for everything I’m dealing with.
But I ain’t trying to rely on a contract when it comes to my brother. But if we go to court, all we could do is rely on a contract. And there’s not a contract in this industry that’s going to be against the label. [laughs] I don’t make the contracts, that’s how they make ‘em when they give it to us. I tried to sue Sony for Razor Sharp, they took me for $12 million, yo. Probably 15 million, that’s what they got me for. Nothing I could do about it. I sued, I sued, I sent my lawyers in, nobody want to fight with Sony, nigga.
You asked about Wu-Tang, that’s the problem with it. There’s third energy, that’s sparking our own energy and making us look at somebody gotta be wrong here, somebody gotta be wrong. Maybe it’s Brother Divine, somebody gotta be doing something wrong here. Nobody is doing something wrong, this industry has been like this since the 60s, homey. It’s very rare that a black artist even makes it 10 years in this business. It’s very rare that hip hop artists make it this far. That we could still be worth money in the first place. And you can ask anybody. I’ve talked to niggas from before, I’ve talked to Redman and De La and all them niggas, when I was talking to them in the early days of hip hop and shit. I talked to everybody, man. I asked them how much they be getting. We was getting top dollar compared to what some of these niggas was getting.
Inspectah Deck got his first album, Redman never got nothing for his albums, as far as dollar advances and shit like that. To realize that we had that kind of advance, and we already selling 50,000 records. You can write that off, it’s not coming back. If I give you a million and you only get a dime a record after deduction and everything, all that shit, from that dollar, you sell 50,000, you gonna owe me. That’s the system.
NODFACTOR: You were in the American Gangster film, and the Shocklees worked on the score. Did you guys get to talk about music at all, while you were working on the film?
R: Yeah, we talked a lot about music. We had a couple of plans for songs he wanted to do that didn’t materialize. But he came by the studio a lot of times while I was working on 8 Diagrams, he was working on the music for Gangster. I love Hank Shocklee.
NODFACTOR: Did you guys actually record songs or you just talked about doing songs?
R: Nah, we just talked about songs and shit. He had beats, some songs he wanted to do. One song he wanted to do was a “Shut ‘Em Down” remake, they wanted to get me, Common and T.I.. That’s who was in the movie, they wanted us to do the song but there was scheduling difficulties and all the plot was happening during the course of the campaign, so it didn’t come to fruition.
NODFACTOR: So when you’re working on Bobby Digital, do you write rhymes to fit the beats you’ve made or do you make beats to fit rhymes you have in your head?
R: Both. It goes both ways. One thing about this album, I let cats make beats too. I did it on both albums anyway, always had one or two beats by somebody else. But this album I have more. I got one from David Banner, one from my man Pana, King Tech, who did one on each of the previous albums, I brought him back in for another song and shit. I was getting one from Just Blaze and shit, but I ran out of time. That’s my man. But we talked and we were thinking about doing it. It was my fault. But I let other people come in, I wasn’t just being self-centered with it.
NODFACTOR: Now, you’ve done a lot of film scoring. Do you expect people to sample you the same way you sampled kung fu movies in the beginning?
R: Potentially, yeah. I mean, even my old music on Wu-Tang, a lot of my music has been sampled a lot over my life. But on every album, I try to make it at least 70-80%, no samples. Or non recognizable samples. ‘Cause I want people to sample my music in the future. But definitely after Wu scored the soundtrack, I’m quite sure I’ll be sampled. One good example, my favorite example is a movie that came out this spring, Street Kings. It had Common and Forrest Whitaker. The trailer of that movie was my music! I didn’t do it, I didn’t give it to them, I don’t know how they did it but I got a check in the mail. They took my shit and made their own shit out of it. It’s interesting cuz the song they chose was off the Blade soundtrack and that’s not even five years old.
Let’s combine your interests of hip-hop and Chess. If your keypad on the Roland MV 8000 was a chess board, how would you plan your moves?
I think I would use a technique known as the King’s Gambit. All the Chess players will know what I mean. That would be my way of programming a drum pattern, the King’s Gambit style. It was one of the most famous openings in chess at one time. It’s been played by so many masters and studied, but I’m trying to bring it back. Bobby Fisher was a master of it. There’s a game called The Game of The Century and that’s where they used that technique. And they imitate that game in From Russia With Love.
NODFACTOR: This November, it will have been 4 years since ODB passed. What do you remember most about him as an artist?
R: That he was the best hip-hop performer of all of us. Right now, I’m on tour with a live band. If I he would have ever had a fucking live band, he would have been the fucking new James Brown, yo. He was the best hip hop performer, he had the freest hip hop spirit ever. I actually used ODB a lot on the inspiration on this new album. Especially when I first recorded it. On the first recording of it, the demos of it, I was honoured to his spirit, that I kinda cleaned it up when I re-recorded things. But he was one of my main influences on this album. That’s why at the end of the album, you hear me say it.
Have you seen Kung Fu Panda?
Yeah, I seen it. I think it was fun. They had the Furious Five in that motherfucker. That shit was