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POP MUSIC | Hip Hop Report

He's Forever Taking Risks

November 22, 1998|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

The Wu-Tang Clan entered the rap game with an elaborate vision in 1993, and it's still unfolding. Its first album, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," eventually sold more than 1.5 million units because the music represented a new era of New York rap, but the group's business acumen was more impressive than its sound or lofty record sales.

Shrewd negotiations with Loud Records, part of the BMG conglomerate, led to a contract that allowed all the Wu-Tang members--including the RZA, the Genius/GZA, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah--to pursue individual recording contracts with other labels, an unprecedented arrangement that prevented them from being controlled by a single record company.

The results were impressive. Solo debut albums from all the above artists except the RZA were certified at least gold (500,000 sales), and the group's second album, 1997's double-album "Wu-Tang Forever," sold more than 1.8 million units.

As the primary (and usually exclusive) producer on all the Wu-Tang-related releases, the RZA is the designer of the Wu-Tang Clan's highly addictive, grimy sound. In the process, he emerged as one of rap's most significant beatsmiths. Even crossover pop star Lauryn Hill sampled two RZA-produced songs on her multi-platinum debut album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."

"As a producer, he changed the sound of the music," says Elliott Wilson, former music editor of hip-hop magazine the Source. "At the time he emerged, hip-hop was more 'G-funked' out and the East Coast was pretty stagnant. Then Wu-Tang came with a new sound that was real minimalist, dirty and gritty. He was the architect of it."

Although the RZA rapped sparingly on each of the various Wu-Tang members' albums, he's held off on releasing his own albums. That changes Tuesday with the arrival in stores of "RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo."

Ironically, it comes out at a time when questions have been raised whether the Wu-Tang Clan's status in rap is on the decline.

Even though "Wu-Tang Forever" is the best-selling Wu-Tang project to date, it was the first to be heavily criticized by consumers and the hip-hop press. Complaints centered on everything from the production values to the sometimes bland vocal contributions of various group members.

"That album got criticism just because of the times and the girls," says the RZA, 28, whose real name is Robert Diggs. "Girls became more of an influential consumer by the time 'Wu-Tang Forever' came, and [men] follow what [women] do. When [women] were like, 'I don't want to hear that,' they want to dance, [men] followed suit."

Subsequent releases from Wu-Tang-affiliated artists Sunz of Man, Killah Priest, Killarmy and the Wu-Tang Killa Bees were met with indifference by both the record-buying public and by the hip-hop media.

Cognizant that fans are thirsty for the Wu-Tang sound they fell in love with, the RZA has reinvented himself on "RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo." The album serves as the soundtrack for a direct-to-video movie, "Bobby Digital." The film, which was shot in New York and Philadelphia in two weeks without a script, is scheduled for release early next year.

On the album, the RZA raps as the lead character from his movie, a man obsessed with women, parties, money and the latest fashions. He stresses that the soundtrack shouldn't be confused with what he calls his real solo album, which is scheduled for a mid-1999 release. Still, the package is bound to be seen by the RZA's fans as a solo bow.

In the soundtrack, the rapper-producer departs from his trademark macabre sound. The music is more textured and more intricate than his work with the Wu-Tang Clan.

"It sets a different tone [from most of today's hit rap music]," says singer Tekitha, who was featured on "Wu-Tang Forever." "He's like, '[Forget] radio.' The music's not brain-dead. It's not monotonous. He took risks. There isn't too much sampling. It's weird, bugged-out sounds. It's futuristic."

For the RZA, creating "Bobby Digital in Stereo" was the necessary byproduct of producing nonstop.

"I had to stop creating and become a listener again," he says. " 'Wu-Tang Forever' didn't go as I'd planned it. I wanted to do 13 songs, make it compact. But the other executives that were involved in the project, they got me to the level where I was like, 'OK, [let's do a double album].'

"On 'Wu-Tang Forever,' we came back for a common cause," he says. "Nobody was unleashed [creatively]. Now we're unleashed. They thought we were maxed out, but we were humble."

With its next wave of activity, the Wu-Tang Clan will attempt to reestablish itself as hip-hop's premier crew. Method Man's second album, "Tical 2000: Judgment Day," was just released and is the first in a long line of Wu-Tang projects. Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard, along with the RZA, are all expected to release albums in the first half of 1999.

The RZA believes his group's various projects are popular because they touch the young audience in ways other artists are unable to.

"We give kids that feeling of freedom," he says. "All children feel rebellious. We give them that feeling of rebelling, but with a cause. We give brothers a reason, the inspiration to continue on with their goals. Our story is a Cinderella story within itself. Our music is visionary and it gives you drive. It makes you want to be like us."

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