RZA is known worldwide as one of hip hop's pioneering figures: Wu-Tang Clan member, MC and producer, actor and director. On April 18, he appears as part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' speakers series, talking about, among other things, his 2009 book The Tao of Wu. In it, he discusses a largely undocumented era of his life — in which Pittsburgh played a role
RZA, born Robert Diggs, grew up in the New York City projects, at one point living with 18 relatives in a two-bedroom apartment. At age 9, he was introduced to hip hop at a street block party. By 11, he was challenging other MC's throughout the city to rap battles.
"I definitely had a confidence that my talent level was amongst the greatest, you know what I mean," he says with a laugh. "It's like Bruce Lee fighting all the time, nobody could do what he did, he developed his own [style]. I felt that's what Wu-Tang had."
Even at that early age, he and fellow Wu-Tang member Ol' Dirty Bastard believed they were destined for greatness, he says. "By the time we was 11 or 12, definitely by that age, I would talk to Dirty like, ‘We're here for something. We're here for a special reason, I can feel it. We're gonna do something great.' We kind of had that feeling and belief in both of us."
In 1990, RZA, in his late teens, left his home in New York City to live with his mother in Steubenville, Ohio. His stepfather ran a convenience store in Pittsburgh, in the Hill District.
"Pittsburgh basically was the weekend spot," he says. "My pops, he would stay the whole week running the store, and maybe I'd go out once, twice a week or whatever. Met some cool dudes out there, pretty tough.
"At that time everybody was into the rough life, shall we say."
In The Tao of Wu, he touches on some of the major stories from his time in Steubenville, including a descent into petty crime and drug-dealing. It culminated in an attempted murder charge — he was facing up to eight years in prison, but was acquitted.
"I had a chance to get off that path of hell," he says. "My moms seen it and she just told me, this is my second chance. I don't really smile a lot, I don't smile in none of my pictures or whatever, but I had a smile on my face that was stuck for at least about 10 hours. The joy of walking out of that situation, and the understanding that, you know what, this is a second chance — I took heed to it. I made that second chance count."
It was in Steubenville, too, that RZA became involved with 4th Disciple, who produced for Wu-Tang-affiliated group Killarmy and helped RZA produce Wu-Tang's 1997 album Forever. He had been a schoolmate of RZA's younger brother, Freedom, who had moved to Steubenville before RZA.
"We used to have meetings at the public library in Steubenville," recalls 4th Disciple. "Everybody would bring information to the table — whether it was Islam, or whatever was spiritual. Everybody would bring it to this table and share information. Freedom had brought RZA to one of the meetings, early in its inception, and that's when we all first met RZA.
"I don't think he even knew I did music in the beginning. It was purely an intellectual, spiritual relationship at first."
Fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard also came to spend time in Steubenville, as a getaway from New York City. They would record demos on a four-track in a makeshift studio in 4th Disciple's grandmother's basement.
"I had a hanger with a stocking cap over it that we used for a wind screen," 4th Disciple says with a laugh. "We had a regular, old hand-held, stage-type mic. The mic stand was even broke, so the mic was, like, taped to the mic stand."
RZA crossed paths with some Pittsburgh heads, including McKeesport rapper Sam Sneed, at a hip-hop contest outside Steubenville in 1990.
"I had my group Rougher Than Most," Sneed says. "So, when this contest comes up, we drive up to see what it's about. I had gotten a couple of my artists in it to perform. And that's when I met RZA, when he performed."
"There were some Pittsburgh guys that came down and battled, and that's where I met those brothers," RZA adds. "So, me and Sam Sneed, we stayed friends. I knew him from Pittsburgh. I mean, I helped him get out of town."
Sneed says RZA cottoned particularly to one Pittsburgh rapper, Joe T.
"[Joe T.] was the most lyrical, and he had a song called ‘Slaughterhouse,'" says Sneed. "RZA really liked that song. It's crazy because the first time I ran into RZA out in California, the first thing he asked was, ‘What happened to that guy with "Slaughterhouse"?'"
Sneed would later move to California and sign to Death Row Records, working with Dr. Dre.
"Those [Pittsburgh] guys," says RZA, "I've seen their humble beginnings as well. I recall them trying to do what they was trying to do, and when they did make it to the mainstream I was really proud of them."
Sneed and RZA's paths continued to cross. After they connected at a Source Awards event, RZA invited Sneed to make a cameo in fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon's music video for the single "Ice Cream." Sneed can be seen throughout the video wearing a bandana and button-up Pittsburgh Pirates jersey. In the mid-'90s, Sneed parted ways with Death Row, in part due to frustrations with the label not releasing his album. Even then, RZA didn't forget about that Pittsburgh kid he'd met in Steubenville.
"After the Death Row thing fell apart, I was still in touch with RZA and I was telling him how I was having a situation where I was trying to get a drum machine," Sneed reflects. "So I'm talking to RZA about it ... and he's like, ‘Man, you should've been told me about that.'
"The next day he sent me 10 grand to get a drum machine and a keyboard — an MPC-3000 and a Triton keyboard."
"I gave him some money and gave him a chance, you know," says RZA. "I thought he was a good dude and shit."