17Apr/1214

The Digital Revolution: A Critical Analysis of RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo

“Bobby Digital is about what molded me: comic books, video games, the arcade scene, breakdancing, hip-hop clothes, MCing, DJing, human beatboxing, graffiti plus Mathematics and the gods. That’s hip-hop to me.”

-RZA on Page 91 of The Wu-Tang Manual

Wu-Tang has always been about amalgamation. Bringing together the disparate ideologies of kung-fu films, Mafioso and Five Percenters, the Wu built a cultural identity unto itself complete with its own vocabulary of artistic reference points. Among these, GZA’s Liquid Swords drew from Shogun Assassin and its samurai ethos; Raekwon’s crime epic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx sampled Scarface and The Killer while nodding to Once Upon a Time in America; and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and Method Man’s Tical all combined martial arts and blaxploitation tropes. Obscure as these reference points may’ve seemed for hip-hop records at the time, they appear in hindsight like a fair representation of the DVD library of the average male age 15-35 (which says a great deal about the Wu’s continued influence on youth culture in general). However, RZA’s first solo LP, 1998’s RZA as Bobby Digital In Stereo, is on some other, other, other shit.

With the emergence of Bobby Digital, hip-hop heads were introduced to the geek chamber of the Wu-Tang mythos; here, the blaxploitation braggadocios formula is filtered through comic book story arcs narrated in cyberpunk[1] vernacular… on PCP. The result: something way weirder than what most fans and critics were prepared for at the time[2]. While some embraced Bobby’s computer hacker aesthetic and overall futurism, In Stereo would not be as warmly received as its aforementioned predecessors, all of which are widely considered classics. And yet, while hundreds have tried and failed to duplicate characters such as Raekwon’s Lou Diamonds or adapt styles like ODB’s inimitable drunken monk, very few, if any, have dared to try recreating Bobby Digital. Nevertheless, this strange anti-hero clearly made his mark.

Ten years before Kanye West alluded to the classic japanimation Akira in his video for “Stronger,” Bob Digitech appeared donning a suit of chrome-plated body armor and wielding a laser cannon that looks strikingly familiar to Kaneda’s[3]. Beyond that, almost 15 years before techno, glitch and dubstep launched an all-out invasion on hip-hop production, In Stereo foreshadowed this digital revolution with its cinematic synth lines and disjointed drum patterns. Finally, it doesn’t take much effort to notice the similarities between RZA’s syncopated darts and the lyrical meanderings of modern-day MCs Danny Brown and Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire. None of which is to say that Bobby Digital In Stereo is itself without sonic precedent; to my ears, the rhymes of Kool Keith[4] and Ultramagnetic MCs and beats of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force are all presently acknowledged. However, Bob Digi is all about progression, letting us know from the jump that this here is an evolution and anything but a replication as he dismissively jokes at the start of track 2, “Ultimate Break Beats and shit, right? Niggas still making money off of those shits, looping the same shits for a thousand years and shit, right?” From here, he launches into a deceptively simple chorus framing a relentless lyrical onslaught. Sometimes sounding meticulously constructed, other times like he’s just making it up as he goes[5], Bobby spits a little bit of something for everyone on his debut.

One could literally break down the album song for song, even line by line, but rather than do that I think I’ll simply tackle a few possible criticisms — some large, some small — in hopes that by sorting through them I can build a case that this album is a classic right up there with OB4CL, Liquid Swords, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. (Yeah, I said it…)

It’s too weird.

My response: Damn straight. If you just want to hear some straightforward karate chop shit, that’s fine, stick with 36. If, on the other hand, you’re not afraid to explore the inner-workings of the Mantis style and various other advanced techniques, then boo-do-do-do-do-doot, enjoy. It’s the weirdness that makes this album great. And while the kung-fu references are fewer and farther between, when Bobby does employ them, he goes all out, boosting the Shaw Brothers’ 5 Deadly Venoms into the digital realm like Dolby surround sound.

Welcome back to the temple of hip-hop and sword kempo
Lyrical rhyme nympho B-boy Bob Digital
Diamond crystal ring solid gold bone rituals
We be the humble most calmest individuals
Hard to spot microdots, we Sasquatch stomp MCs
Third eye Cyclops laser beam shots being fired…

Which brings me to the next criticism I want to address.

It’s supposed to be a concept album, but there isn’t much of a discernable plot.

Again, there is some truth to that, especially if you’re expecting a linear story more or less like what we’re given on OB4CL. But this is not meant to be anything like OB4CL. Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions people have about In Stereo is that because it’s framed as a soundtrack, it’s supposed to tell the cinematic story of Bobby Digital. That really doesn’t make any sense though. The movie itself was supposed to tell the story of Bobby Digital[6]. You’re not going to score a film with a soundtrack that literally just recounts the events the audience is already watching. So, if not “like a movie,” then how do we contextualize the album’s concept or “plot?” For me, it works best if we look at each song like a different issue of a comic book series with each bar representing the visual and literary narrative of a different page or panel. The reason I propose this is not simply that Bobby Digital is supposed to be a superhero (and also not only because I’m a huge nerd, though admittedly, this is a factor); it’s that each line is so ripe with vivid imagery and obscure geek-friendly references, and so often non-sequiturial, that it feels like we’re looking at a still frame or splash page. For evidence of this, I refer you to each of the aforementioned tracks as well as “Unspoken Word,” which is possibly my personal favorite song on the album.

Word’s on the street dun dun, Bobby’s rolling digital
Hovering the city inside the Wonder Woman’s invisible
jet clouded by the meth, we move undetected  in secret society sects
Narc’s radars suspected us to be a cumulus cloud injecting lightning
Striking like a wild knuckle fight in New Brighton
A million strands of spider webs weaved to make my vest
Chi energy compacted deep within my inner chest
One touch of my eagle claw clutch rips your guts
Brass head kill you fast with the rapid head bust
Ninjas spying, the ammo flying, the steel iron
blow a nigga neck from head like dandelions…

Parts of this excerpt read almost like that generic introductory page most superhero comics contained throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s wherein the editor would write something like, “Now such and such vigilante/superhero stalks the streets armed with an arsenal of yada yada weaponry/superpowers. His one simple mission: to stomp out evil and corruption wherever they appear.” Furthermore, these descriptive, often unrelated bars evoke the assembly-line-like production technique employed by Marvel Comics during the aforementioned time period. In the Marvel Method[7], as it is now known, the comic book writer gives the artist a basic story synopsis rather than a full script. The artist then comes up with and draws specific scenes before the writer adds the dialogue, captions and sound effects. As a result, though many of the titles created via this method would become the most popular superhero comics of all time, the art was usually the main attraction. Likewise, while RZA’s rhymes on In Stereo are far from forgettable, they are somewhat caption-like at times, and the beats are much more than typical background music. Utilizing an array of synths, each of which is assigned the role of a specific instrument, RZA developed an orchestral soundscape that did as much storytelling as his words. And while we don’t know for sure that beats were conceived before the rhymes, we can infer from the interviews shown in my last post that this beatmaking style represented to RZA a way of breaking new ground, in effect, digitizing a process that was previously analogue-based.

Ironically, the very song title, “Unspoken Words,” could be taken as an allusion to comic book captions. I don’t believe this is what RZA intended, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless. Speaking of unspoken words, let’s look at the album’s conclusion, which is most compelling in that it leaves much unsaid.

Just what the hell is going on with the ending?

If you look at the actual tracklist on the second vinyl sleeve or CD booklet, you’ll see the word “Fin” after “Domestic Violence.” Also, the back cover of the LP says under the Side D tracklist, “Featuring four bonus RZA tracks,” which indicates that the last four tracks are not to be considered Bobby Digital songs per se[8]. So, let’s take one final detailed look at the last official verse of the album.

All the best stories, and songs for that matter, leave certain elements untold. In other words, they only give so much away, leaving the rest to the reader’s or in this case the listener’s imagination. To my ears, “Domestic Violence” details what RZA sees as the ultimate end result of the party-centric lifestyle that the Bobby Digital character embodies. In “Domestic Violence,” we find Bobby Digital at home and out of costume so to speak. Rather than greet him with love and respect, his woman, portrayed by Jamie Sommers[9], berates him with insults: “You ain’t shit, your daddy ain’t shit,” etc. Bobby responds in kind:

You don’t cook, you don’t clean or press my jeans
you don’t scrub or wash clothes or buy food,
or make any cream in this bitch, you don’t read to the seeds.
All you do is watch TV and smoke weed,
get your nails done and feet scrubbed and hair weaved,
sleep all day, eat, gain weight, can’t breathe.
Talking ‘bout you gon’ leave, then bitch leave…

What strikes me most about this song is that in spite of its title, the lyrics only detail verbal abuse. Threats of physical abuse are made, but if you listen closely you’ll notice that domestic violence never actually occurs within the song[10]. Instead, the lyrics offer us the sort of rhetoric that can lead to domestic violence if one is of the mindset that it is an excusable or allowable response. We, the listeners, are dropped into the middle of a heated argument with complex moral implications, but the violence we expect will follow is of our own imagination. Thus, the song makes a powerful statement that speaks to the message RZA aims to spread when the night of partying comes to an end; that pursuing only the fulfillment of base pleasures leads to our downfall and that in order to awaken ourselves from this “analogue” world of selfish material desires, we must free our minds to the “digital” realm wherein collective spiritual and mental enlightenment is the ultimate goal.

There are surely many other valid ways to analyze and interpret this album. After all, I’ve only singled out a few specific elements. If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’d like to sincerely thank you for reading and invite you to offer your own opinions and insights in the comments section below.

P.E.A.C.E.

 –Samuel Diamond


[1] The term “cyberpunk” refers to a post-modern subgenre of science-fiction popularized in the mid-1980s by authors such as William Gibson, whose debut novel, Neuromancer, is considered a seminal work. Cyberpunk fiction deals with computers and cybernetics and often employs a mood and pacing similar to those of film noir and detective stories. Gibson also authored the screenplay for 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic as well as the short story upon which it is based. RZA is at least aware of the film, as he references the title character in “B.O.B.B.Y.” For more info on William Gibson and cyberpunk, check out this five-part documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQaOB44Iy5E&feature=player_embedded.

[2] The album peaked at 16 on The Billboard Top 200 and 3 on the R&B Albums chart. Not that they should be considered anything approaching a trusted source for hip-hop criticism then or now, but Pitchfork gave the album a 2.9/10, likening it to “Stan Lee presents… Da Muthaf*&%in Ghetto!” Ironically, 10 years later they would give Digi Snacks — the worst of the three Bobby Digital albums in my humble opinion — a 4.0… go figure. See: http://www.billboard.com/album/rza-as-bobby-digital/rza-as-bobby-digital-in-stereo/330303#/album/rza-as-bobby-digital/rza-as-bobby-digital-in-stereo/330303, http://web.archive.org/web/20010828025610/pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/r/rza/bobby-digital-in-stereo.shtml and http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11942-digi-snacks/

[3] See http://cdn.gs.uproxx.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/akira-1.jpg. Even if RZA had never seen the anime or read the manga (somehow I doubt this), In Stereo cover artist Bill Sienkiewicz, a well-respected comic book illustrator, most assuredly had.

[4] RZA rejects the notion that he bit the alter-ego concept from Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon while throwing a not-so-subliminal diss his way on “N.Y.C. Everything,” with the lines, “Dr. Octopus tentacles, sing a simple song, Bob Digital instrumental, nothing’s identical.” All things considered, I think it’s fair to conclude that RZA and Kool Keith have both been influencing one another either directly or indirectly for much their careers.

[5] Listen to his verses on “Kiss of the Black Widow,” especially the end piece, and try convincing me he isn’t freestyling.

[6] For a more detailed look at Bobby Did It and Bobby Digital’s other on-screen appearances, check out my last post, Bobby Digital In Video.

[7] Fast-forward to :55 of this video to learn about the Marvel Method from Stan “the man” Lee himself.

[8] As was pointed out to me by claaa7 in the Official Wu and Wu-Filliates Rarities and Demos thread over at the T.R.O.Y. forum.

[9] She who according to Ghostface Killah, “got trained on the tour bus.” For more information about this bionic woman, read Jamie Sommers – The Illest Female MC That Never Was.

[10] RZA leaves the actual portrayal to the extremely graphic short film, Domestic Violence, his directorial debut, which begins with the following disclaimer: “Domestic violence is a serious problem we have in our urban communities and many communities around the world. Inviting everyone to take a look at some of the things that it encompasses, [so] maybe we could figure out a way to stop this shit.”

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14 Responses to “The Digital Revolution: A Critical Analysis of RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo”

  1. Scruffy Jay says:

    Nice write-up; check out the artwork to blaxploitation flick “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and then take a look at the In Stereo cover again. Interesting, huh?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Sam says:

      Thanks Jay. That’s a good find. Sienkiewicz says of the cover: “RZA was going to go with an illustrator who did blaxploitation movie-poster stuff in the ’60s, but he was pretty old and infirm and wasn’t able to do it. So I went in and tried to add a sort of modern flair, while at the same time making it resonate with the blaxploitation thing. In this case, it was like no holds barred. And having the Wu-Tang symbol in the back was a great way to tie it all in, to play with that sort of design element that was really prominent back in the ’60s.” http://www.billsienkiewiczart.com/onalbumcovers.asp

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. Scruffy Jay says:

    Awesome. I’m going to admit I’m still not sure my ears are honed in on Bobby’s digital frequency just yet, but who knows maybe I’ll get it a few years from now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. DMD says:

    Is this serious? This album is hot garbage. RZA had run out of ideas by this point and Bobby Digital was some grasping at straws shit. This bullshit half-baked “concept” was the beginning of the end of Wu-Tang. This overdone, fugazi smarty pants review doesn’t change that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

    • Y!KES says:

      LMAO beginning of the end? theyre LEGENDS! that status doesnt just ‘end’! wu tang is 4 ever! STILL touring and everything u aint heard? And dont tell me you read “fugazi smarty pants reviews” from albums over 10yrs old and u catching feelings? ((Y!KES)) cmon nigga u aint THAT high…

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. diggy says:

    Very well- written. Good work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  5. ESEUNO says:

    Digi, Digi…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Basilico says:

    I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on this whole thing. Do you write like this to make yourself feel smarter, or to trick people into thinking you’re smart? RZA smoked a bunch of weed and made a weird, terrible album. He had a stupid idea to make a movie to go along with it, but it didn’t work out– probably because someone with money realized how stupid it was and pulled the plug. That’s pretty much that all needed to be said about this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

    • Sam says:

      Just trying to open up a civil and constructive dialogue. Clearly, we disagree. No reason to insult my intelligence or doubt my sincerity.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

    • LOLLY GAG says:

      yeah the movie & his idea was sooo ‘terrible’ that afterwards he went on to score ghostdog, blade trinity, afro samurai & miami vice, co starred in american gangster and he working on man with the iron fist, his 1st OFFICIAL film…but RZA is “washed up” though u right -_-

      u should delete that clowns comment just on GP…

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. ROBBIE ANALOG says:

    everybodys a tough guy online I swear…if u dont agree why bother commenting…why even check for dudes you feel are finished? fuckin loser smh!! Bob digi was some left field shit when it dropped no doubt, but I learned to appreciate the concept…shit was still dope…all I wanted was to peep the film and get a better feel for it…And I guess nobody remembers when RZA was getting sued around those times and stopped sampling altogether…but it was a “half baked album, rza ran out of ideas’…man GTFOH…dudes is like straight stalkers, follow wu tang just to talk shit about the gods…y r u here?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Sam says:

      Thanks for the comments, Robbie and Lolly. It is what it is. I’ve been approved as an admin here so I guess I could delete any comment now, and though I might disagree with some people on principle, I won’t censor them – also on principle. This is the Internet. People are free to troll or voice their opinions however they see fit. I’m only going to delete something if I feel its presence legitimately diminishes the integrity of the blog, which a few near-sighted, spiteful comments obviously do not, as your respones have shown. PEACE

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Mike Check says:

    Sam, whether people agree with you or not is kind of irrelevant (to me). I liked your review because you put a personal perspective on it, stayed true to your own feelings and interpretation, and that’s an extremely rare commodity on most blogs.

    I just credited this piece on my own blog as I felt my readers should take the time to see it. I’m also looking forward to your next article.

    Peace.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. Jesse says:

    This is really great man! I love all three bobby digital albums, and I’m glad to see someone taking this kind of musicological approach to them! Awesome stuff man! I can’t wait to read more!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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