The code of the beat.

BeatTips Top 125 Beatmakers of All Time: #3 – RZA

RZA. Creator of the Wu-Tang sound, one of the Three Drum Kings of beatmaking, and the first pioneer of the off-beat swing drum style.

Just as with many beatmakers on the BeatTips Top 30, RZA possessed a savvy knack for diggin’ in the crates and he had a great ear. But RZA was less concerned with finding obscure samples than he was with finding the samples that fit his vision for the style and sound he created, which would become popularly known as the Wu sound, one of the two most immediately recognizable sounds in the history of beatmaking (DJ Premier being originator of the other). While most beatmakers ca. 1990-93 where experimenting, on one level or another, with lots of jazz samples, RZA was more focused (almost exclusively) on soul and funk (particularly of the Memphis/Alabama, Stax Records brand and influence) as well as dialogue and sounds from karate motion pictures. Narrowing his sampling preference to this specific mixed batch of source material helped RZA to come up with a style and sound that was like no other.

When describing music that has both a soulful and aggressive quality to it, it’s almost natural to use the descriptor “raw.” However, describing RZA’s sound as raw seems to be an understatement. This is not to say that there was never any sophistication at play with RZA’s style and sound; to be certain there was. However, the rawness of RZA’s beats rested somewhere between the realm of a genius and someone who didn’t give a fuck, so long as the beat sounded good and fit the feel. A true student of beatmaking and music in general, RZA was also a technical wizard. But even with all of his technical skill, he kept his sound stripped down (not sparsely minimalistic) and raw.

Another characteristic of RZA’s style and sound was that it was distinctively aggressive. While the Bomb Squad deserves the most credit for pioneering and popularizing a booming sonic aggression in beatmaking, the nature of their aggressive sound was mostly the result of pushing recording studio sonics to their limits. No doubt this was due to their quest to make bass distorting “jeep” music. But RZA’s aggressive sound, on the other hand, was not the product of intentionally hot mix levels and purposeful bass distortion. Instead, RZA’s aggressive sound came directly from the juke-joint soul frequencies he was attracted to and the afterhours lounge-like drum frameworks that he crafted. Where some beatmakers and engineers were and are stil eager to try out all of the bells and whistles in a recording studio, RZA’s music was the personification of less is more.

In the area of arrangement, RZA was also a pioneer. Vocal samples, sound ruptures, cuts, scratches, karate picture snippets were all carefully — not necessarily smoothly; that wasn’t RZA’s concern — woven into RZA’s beats. And when it came to chops, instead of making beats with choppity chops just for chops sake, RZA often chopped his samples much more conservatively than many of his peers who were guilty of forcing their chops at times (this was something that never plagued a beat from RZA.)

But it wasn’t simply RZA’s sampling flavor, his uniquely aggressive sonic signature, or his arrangement talent that went into the formation of the Wu sound. It was also his drums. RZA is one of three beatmakers who I like to call the Three Drum Kings of Beatmaking. (The other two drum kings are Pete Rock and DJ Premier.) I use the “The Drum Kings” moniker to single out Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier, not because there aren’t others with great and recognizable drums, but because Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier created the most recognizable and influential drum styles and sounds in the history of beatmaking.

Post-1995, more drum styles and sounds were generated from the roots of Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier than any other beatmakers. Whatever anyone says about the drums of this or that beatmaker post-1995, most drum styles and sounds (e.g. off-beat, bounce kick and snare, stuttering snare breakdown, sleigh bell hi-hats, shuffles, etc., etc., etc.) can be traced right back to something that Pete Rock, RZA, or DJ Premier originated and pioneered. (Incidentally, there wouldn’t be a distinctively “new” drum style and sound until the early 2000s, when Bink ushered in the big drum and sweep style and sound.)

RZA must also be specifically recognized for his drums because he is the originator of the off-beat drums swing style. But RZA didn’t just do off-beat drums for the sake of it, unlike many modern beatmakers who seem to force the style to the detriment of the beat. RZA’s off-beat swing (and shuffle) never lost sight of the pocket. That is to say, they held the groove together, which was never a stuck-sounding or mechanical concoction.

It’s worth noting that J Dilla often gets praise for his off-beat drums. Some go so far as to say that he was the first to use the off-beat drum style. But songs like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan in Da Front” (which uses a break-beat phrase) and “Tearz” demonstrate that RZA was already making beats with the dragging and off-beat drum rhythms as early as 1992. Note: Both RZA’s and Dilla’s off-beat drum styles share basic rhythmic similarities. The main difference of the two styles can be heard in the way in which both swung their beats. RZA’s off-beat drum style had more shuffle and pull to it. Dilla’s off-beat drum style had more stick and push to it. No doubt J Dilla was influenced by The RZA, but to his credit, Dilla built upon the style and made his own sound.

Finally, here again we have yet another beatmaker who also rhymed. (This is especially important to point out, because in today’s scene, far too many beatmakers don’t believe that they could also be rappers.) As a member of Wu-Tang Clan, Gravediggaz, and as a solo artist, RZA was a full time rapper.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

RZA Beats (Songs) Recommended for Study:
SPECIAL NOTE: Listen to Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) straight through.

“Shame on a Nigga” – Wu-Tang Clan prod. by RZA

“Can It All Be So Simple” – Wu-Tang Clan prod. by RZA

“Clan in da Front” – Wu-Tang Clan prod. by RZA

“Tearz” – Wu-Tang Clan prod. by RZA