Kai Ryssdal: It’s easy to forget sometimes that there’s more to life than just pulling down a paycheck, more than just trying to get ahead. Today, in our occasional series “Taking Stock,” where we talk to people who can give us the longer view of our current economic circumstances, an interview with Robert Diggs.
He’s better known probably by his stage name, the RZA, and for a hip-hop group he founded called the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Wu-Tang Clan rapping “C.R.E.A.M.”: Cash rules everything around me. Cream get the money dollar dollar bill y’all. I grew up on the crime side.
In the 15 or so years since Wu-Tang started, the RZA has become an entrepreneur, a platinum-selling solo artist and, in his books, something of a philosopher, too.
Welcome to the program.
Robert Diggs: Thank you for having me, Kai.
Ryssdal: This is your second book. You had the “Wu-Tang Manual” in 2005 and now you have this one, “The Tao of Wu.” What’d you want to say this time that you didn’t get to say last time.
Diggs: This first book was more dealing with a lot of Wu-Tang history itself and a lot of things into the music or the group. And this is more of a personal expression of my life experiences and the wisdom that’s gained from it. It’s not an autobiography, I want to get that clear. But it’s definitely a lot of stories and things in my life and hopefully it helps some young people have a better day and a better chance at attacking this society.
Ryssdal: Let’s do the autobiography thing. I mean, what was life like for you as a kid and as you were starting Wu-Tang Clan?
Diggs: Well, as a child, being one of 11 children, it was very hard times growing up in New York City. It seemed kind of hopeless, but always had faith in my heart and I always had a lust for knowledge. And it’s lust for knowledge that led me to learn hip-hop music and learn to express myself. And as I grew into a man, I became more of a mentor to other brothers, even though I wasn’t so much older to them, but they looked up to me for certain things. They took my wisdom and listened to it and I was able to bring together a group of men, put together a band called Wu-Tang Clan, sell millions of records, started clothing lines and all kinds of different Wu products.
Ryssdal: Do you ever have any ego problems with these guys?
Diggs: Well, ego always exists. You know, ego exists. And we are men and men, with all that testosterone, we definitely have friendly competition, sometimes not so friendly. And egos jump out. At any given moment, any one of us could be the star of the group. Nowadays, Raekwon the Chef is considered one of the hottest members of Wu-Tang Clan right now with his new album, “Cuban Linx Pt. 2.” And he lets you know that he’s the man right now.
Ryssdal: So here you are, 15 years after you started the Wu-Tang Clan, you are successful and rich, and you’re doing well, and you’ve got a great organization behind you, and yet, just to back up to something you said a moment ago, you’ve written this book, the new book “The Tao of Wu,” as a way to get kids figuring out a good way to attack this society. What does that mean?
Diggs: I don’t like to say that I’m rich. I like to say I’m rich in the heart.
Ryssdal: Fair enough.
Diggs: I’ve never really been a money hungry guy or chasing money. And I already gave a lot of my money away to people who needed it more than me, I guess. But what I mean is that we go through our society, a lot of us is underprivileged, especially in today’s recession, there’s a lot of hard times out there for people. And if you think that money is the only cure or solution, you’ll never find a cure. Wisdom is the cure.
You know, it’s all through perception. I like to say that a man should put himself in heaven at once. Don’t wait till you die to go to heaven; live heaven on earth. You could be in a small apartment inside a project. If you have the right mentality, that project could be a paradise for you. But it’s the mentality that we carry with ourselves everyday that makes our surroundings uglier than what they really are.
For instance, I grew up in a project called Stapleton Projects on Staten Island, right? And it’s a very tough place to grow up. You know, you’ve got guns, drug dealers, murderers and guys were urinating in the staircase and all these kinds of things, right? Then I go to California and there’s this place called the Oakwood Apartments. Very similar structures, you know what I mean? But it’s nice and everybody’s happy and people were working, and the grass is clean and there’s no urination in the stairway. It’s really the mindset of the people that makes the place good or bad.
Ryssdal: So what have you learned in the past year? You know, as you look at this economy and as you look at people suffering and as you look at people trying to hang onto that wealth that they have or had, I guess, what has that done to your art? How has that affected what you do?
Diggs: Well, really I learned balance is important. I was questioned last year, before Mr. Obama took the presidency, people was like, “Well he’s going to raise the taxes and it means that you’re going to have higher taxes, because you are above that $250,000 year quota,” right? And I was like, “Well, you know what, if I have to pay a little more extra so that others can have a little more food, clothing and shelter, then let me pay.” Because you know, what you want for yourself, you should want for your brother and your fellow man.
Now, we don’t all need things that we yearn for. And I try to teach my children right now more than ever that yo, OK, there’s some things you want and some things you need. Let’s deal with what we need and not what we want more. And that alone will help you get through a recession. Because your eyes want it all. You know, the cake looks good, the coat looks good, the car looks nice. But do you need it? I’m willing to accept that.
Ryssdal: But you know, a lot of hip-hop is about that. It’s about the bigger house, and the better car, and the jewelry and all that stuff. I mean, how do you reconcile your personal attitude with some of what your art and those who do your art have said?
Diggs: Talking to kids who grew up with nothing, so we all dream of a mansion and dream of big cars, because we don’t have it and we see it, others having it. But I think that’s actually, it’s not a good thing to really promote and glorify those things. Because P.Diddy said in one of his old songs, “More money, more problems.” You know what I mean? Sometimes the simpler life is better for you.
Ryssdal: The RZA is the founder and the leader of the hip-hop group called Wu-Tang Clan. He writes books too. The latest one is called “The Tao of Wu.” Listen, thanks a lot.
Diggs: Thank you a lot.