RZA is idolized for his daring musicianship. Even more so for his likable eccentricity. The future fetish that inspired his resourceful lo-fi uprising against a stagnant rap industry keeps him employed and visible in the Internet Age. He pops up on YouTube more than he was ever featured on Rap City. Forever multi-tasking, code switching between the now-famous personas he either performs or embodies. Fiddling with knobs and levers, fucking with your expectations. But see, he’s often been this way on the mic – the mad scientist, the ghetto sensationalist, the metaphysical scholar, the elaborate storyteller, the drunken digressor, theyÂ all crowd into the same skull.
Yes, RZA is a great rapper. How soon you forget!
His shtick is jarring to the listener expecting the emcee to get to the point already. Remember “12 Jewelz” from the second Gravediggaz album? The man trounces through the entirety of the track, making no attempt whatsoever to arrive at a chorus. Launches into a sloppy but admirable dissertation on earth science and cell regeneration and then … drops it to talk about some penny-wise, pound-foolish old man? But it makes so much sense. Havelock Nelson and Michael Gonzales complained back in ’91 that a certain breed of rappers treated crowd-rocking like some dry seminar. If Guru’s presidential podium impersonation of Rakim in the “Words I Manifest” video is the Nation of Islam stodginess of the past, RZA’s unkempt Shaolin style was the 5%ers after Clarence 13x went back to the essence. One busy hive.
Because if you attended Show & Prove or a local monthly Parliament rally (New Jersey residents had their choice of Allah’s Paradise or Justice Cee) you noticed that some Gods and Earths were straight out of the ghettoes of hell and some from the upper echelons. You had those bedecked in jewels and finery, others in bad clothes, most somewhere in between. Speaking style and comportmentÂ varied as well – the break from the NOI was not ideological, it was cultural too. You couldn’t presume a shaved head and a bowtie to possess the greater mind than the peasy ‘fro and hoodie. RZA isn’tÂ just engaging in multivalent slang play when he says on “Sunshowers” that the new plan is to “use key notes to make g-notes.” It’s the God’s honest truth – he came up at the exact right time to be a convincing youth spokesperson and get paid for it.
And what a come up it was. GZA once spoke to Formless at length about battling crews on the Ferry, questing on through the outer boroughs in search of conquest and experience, almost like “vagabonds” going in “ferris wheel” circles. But RZA’s rhymes get right to the picture perfect point via digression: “I recall, me and GZA, Dirty hangin’ in halls, bangin’ on walls, kickin’ rhymes three hours straight no pause.” Not bars, but run-on sentences. No beginning, no end, no need to rely on rigid sequences. No need to apologize for randomly dropping a gem like “You could travel every square inch of the Planet Earth and still be ninety three million miles away from the sun, until you realize you and sun is one.” A tirade against child molesters? Throw it in. Odd seemingly addled repetitions of words and turns of phrases (“the world is sick … sick … sick, trapped up in six, six, six)? It all has its place. That’s why you rhyme off beat and off bar with such ferocity it falls on beat again. Match polo shirts to camo fatigues. Kick a lecture but kill shit.
The risk of such politicking is the accusation of contradiction, of incoherence, of ambiguity or uncomfortable hybridity. Calling yourselves the F.O.I. Â MCs while you’re swimming in drug culture. Up to pure fuckery in crumbling schools bearing the names of dead American heroes tainted by the gradual emergence of the sad truth. Living the lush life while nagging the listeners about coming cleansing Armageddons. Claiming that moving from “making beats on lunchroom tables” to rocking chains swinging lower than one’s navel is progress knowing damned well that adolescence has been extended. How else can you keep their attention? Comprehending the “everlasting winter of hellfire” requires a nuanced perspective. Might as well get the babies used to the conflicts, the inevitable friction of irreconcilable forces, right?Â
Some things are never adequately drawn up – Just Ice (ice, ice) himself is at a loss to adequately break down his moniker. The world according to RZA is rife with pleasant nonsense; he gives the people what they want before they know they want it. Mostly convenient binaries that he smashes at will, for mere sport but also with serious things in mind. Namely repackaging the shards as the next best thing. Who’s colored when you redefine the terms of the inquiry? Who’s grafted, and is that always a bad thing, and most importantly, why are we nervously, almost fiendishly anticipating all things digital … digital … digital … digital?Â
Still with us? Class dismissed. Keep the song on repeat for homework. On Sunday, Verge is going to school us on the piece of vinyl this song first appeared on, so stay tuned!