RZA And DJ Scratch's New Album Is Revolutionary In Its Traditionalism
The rollout of "Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater" eschews cloak-and-dagger tactics and technological tie-ins. Maybe that’s what we all need right now.
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Wu-Tang Clan frontman Robert “RZA” Diggs possesses famously eclectic tastes, ranging from hip-hop and film to chess and martial arts. He also turns out to be a baseball guy, as I learn on a recent call with him and fellow producer DJ Scratch.
With America’s pastime on an indefinite lockout, we fire up the hot stove with a conversation about our all-time favorite Yankees. I offer Bernie Williams and Wade Boggs, while Scratch and RZA go more old-school: Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, respectively. Appropriately enough, the duo’s baseball preferences mirror the throwback ethos of their new album, Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater, released earlier today.
“In all reality, this could be defined as the original way,” says RZA. “Hip-hop was created with a producer or DJ, and an emcee, making a tape, you know what I mean? And then that tape is shared with the world. This is really that … it kind of took away pressure. It gave me a creative freedom.”
The record boasts a vintage vibe, with rugged beats and pointed rhymes pitting RZA against alter-ego Bobby Digital. “The production is loud, chunky, raw … you feel the sensation,” adds RZA. “It’s healthy.” And the distribution strategy is a throwback, too—no surprise drops, no secret albums, no gimmicks—just a straightforward release on the usual services.
That’s a bit of a departure for RZA. In recent years, he has spearheaded boundary-pushing launches like Wu-Tang’s one-of-one “secret album” Once Upon A Time In Shaolin (I broke the news of its existence in Forbes back in 2014 and continue to contend it was actually the first-ever NFT). In that context, a traditional launch is the truly unexpected move.
The recording process for SAKFT began during the height of the pandemic when RZA, faced with some rare down time, began rifling through his old hard drives and came across a compelling beat from Scratch. He called up the DJ, who said he had a lot more where that came from—in fact, he’d been working on an instrumental album called If The Wu Was Here.
And with that, the collaboration was born. RZA and Scratch decided to orient the album around their childhood memories of rushing home at 3pm on Saturdays—sometimes ditching stickball contests or baseball games—to watch the weekly Kung Fu movie on New York’s channel five. Organizing SAKFT as a coherent thought, rather than a collection of singles, marked another departure from current trends.
“There’s ten producers on one album, and it’s ten different ideas, ten different egos, ten different attitudes, ten different directions—and that’s what the project sounds like,” says Scratch. “What we wanted to do was just take it back to how we used to do music and [how] when you were listening to the album, it’s just one thing. It’s like a movie.”
For RZA, working with a fellow producer allowed him to melt back into the role of emcee. He says the process was mostly seamless, with Scratch occasionally correcting him if he ended up “in the wrong chamber.” For Scratch, it was especially rewarding to work with an emcee who also happened to be a superproducer—one who understood all his musical references.
Will the album resonate with hip-hop’s vast modern audience, which has become accustomed to trap beats and mumbled lyrics? Could this record gel with scores of Zoomers who’ve never heard of RZA or Scratch—much less Reggie Jackson or Thurman Munson? Might it be the start of a shift back to hip-hop’s musical roots? We’ll see.
At first listen, SAKFT seems to have a timeless quality that’s almost prophetic. Though the album was finished long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many of its lessons ring especially true amid today’s strife. Take, for instance, the song “Fate of the World.”
“I just thought about how it is in our hands, but it’s also in our children’s hands … we gonna pass it to them, and Wu-Tang is for the children,” says RZA. “I’m talking to our country and the world, we got people on the left side, people on the right side … and I was like, come together, put your hands up. Wu-Tang is forever.”
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Nice One Zack! But I find it a bit off that Artists from the Interscope/ Geffen/A&M Umbrella often dominate the Award Shows, when Artists from Republic tend to sell more.
I know it's more about critical acclaim, but how come the two big contenders for Record of the Year for instance, Gaga & Rodrigo, are both Interscope' Artists? Billie Eillish from a couple of years before that, and Kendrick Lamar, a perennial favourite. J. Cole, a huge contender on the Rap Side, is also an Interscope Artist.
Something's off and really needs to be looked into.