Hulu’s new series Wu-Tang: An American Saga is giving fans and casual viewers alike a glimpse into the background and formation of one of the greatest rap groups of all time. But, while hip hop lovers might learn some new information about the Wu-Tang Clan, there's one small caveat to keep in mind: the show is technically fictionalized.
Still, the first few episodes dive into true story of Robert Fitzgerald Diggs a.k.a. RZA’s role in founding Wu-Tang, which isn’t surprising considering he is the co-creator of the series and one of the original Wu-Tang members, along with his cousins GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. Gary E. Grice and Russell Tyrone Jones, respectively). So what was the real RZA’s family and childhood like before Wu-Tang Clan? He's revealed bits and pieces of his personal history over the years — these are the highlights:
Where Is RZA From?
RZA was born on July 5, 1969 and spent much of his childhood in Staten Island, New York. At one point while growing up in the New York City projects, according to the Pittsburgh City Paper, RZA lived with 18 relatives in a two-bedroom apartment.
When Did RZA Start Rapping?
Even as a young kid, he knew he was interested in music — long before he helped form the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992. The 2013 City Paper feature about the musician says that RZA knew he wanted to be a rapper from the moment he heard rap music for the first time; he was just 9 years old and heard it at a block party. Just two years later, he was already challenging other MCs in rap battles.
His well-known love for kung fu movies also emerged at a young age. During a 2013 on-camera interview with Montreality, RZA recalled skipping school to watch kung fu movies. But don't worry — he didn't skip the learning part. “But the trick that nobody knew though was that I always studied on my own,” he said, adding that he is still loves to learn. “So I would come to school, maybe on Fridays, and take the test and I would get 90s.” So while RZA was absorbing movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, that would later inspire the title of the Wu-Tang Clan’s highly-praised debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), he was also killing it at school.
In a 2009 interview with NPR to promote his second book The Tao of Wu, RZA candidly explained that he originally wanted to become a rapper, not for any noble reasons, but simply because he wanted to “be cool.” He didn’t initially recognize his passion toward music. “But during the teenage years, DJ-ing and everything, and battling, it was more like some kind of lust or urge to become the world supreme master at a craft,” he said. “And I would go around the city battling DJs. At the same time, I wanted to be the best MC, walking around, battling MCs who had the best lyrics.”
As the future rap legend’s budding career continued, he became more motivated by helping the people around him. He continued:
“As I grew older, and got into the late teens and early 20s, I wanted to be a voice of the people. You know, getting locked up all the time, and going through so much oppression and seeing it all around myself, I wanted to be a voice for it. And also to have a knowledge of myself, I realized that the word was powerful, and I could use this power to help enlighten others.”
Who Are RZA's Brothers & Sister?
RZA's desire to use his successes to help other people should be all that surprising. From a young age, RZA would share his earnings with his family. He has an older brother named Mitchell “Divine” Diggs (who is shown in Wu-Tang: An American Saga and pictured on RZA's Instagram, below), and two younger siblings, Sophia Diggs and Terrence “9th Prince” Hamlin (pictured below Mitchell, also via RZA's Instagram). In his interview Montreality, RZA spoke about the different jobs he had as a young child to make money and help his family.
One such job was selling fruit with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “I had my first job at the age of 11, selling newspapers on Verrazano Bridge and I had to stand out there in traffic with newspapers and we’d sell it,” RZA remembered. “I’d make about $10 or $12 a day.” He said at the end of the week he would use the money to buy shoes and give some to his mother to support the family.
What Happened During RZA's Attempted Murder Case?
According to his Pittsburgh City Paper interview, RZA left NYC in 1990 to move in which his mother in Steubenville, Ohio while his stepfather ran a convenience store in Pittsburgh. It was there that RZA became involved in petty crime and drug dealing before ultimately being charged with attempted murder, a topic he touches on his book The Tao of Wu.
RZA was eventually acquitted and has said that moment changed him forever. “I had a chance to get off that path of hell,” he told the paper. “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.”
Of course, RZA ended up making the most of that second chance as the Wu-Tang Clan formed just two years later and he has continued to be an idolized figure in music. He has also ventured into the film industry and recently appeared in the zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. He had a rough start and faced obstacles in the beginning of his life, but he became an inspirational success story which fans can see now see play out in Wu-Tang: An American Saga.