Tonight, Wu Tang founder and hip-hop mastermind RZA takes the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. One of the most respected names in the music business, he masterminded the transformation of a Staten Island supergroup into a brand whose logo is as recognizable as any in the past 20 years. Not content with just rapping and producing, RZA has notably also been heralded for his work as an author, film score composer, actor, and soon, director, with the upcoming release of his new film, The Man With the Iron Fists, due out November 2.
But there’s another side of RZA many of even the most loyal Wu soldiers might not know. Before he was Bobby Digital, before he was even RZA, he was Prince Rakeem.
Yes, though many cite the beginning of the Wu-Saga as his performances with GZA (then the Specialist and later the Genius) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (then Ason Unique) or even trace it back to midtown Manhattan’s three-for-$1 kung fu film screenings, the world at large didn’t get its first taste of the man who would be RZA until his emergence as Prince Rakeem with the 1991 single “Ooh I Love You Rakeem.” A shockingly light, jovial track that you could conceivably chill or party to, it’s hard to reconcile that the MC present is the same RZA when watching the video today.
Signed to Tommy Boy Records for a single deal with an album option, RZA intended “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” to be the label-placating, radio-friendly song that was required of all early ’90s rap records. While he first sparked the label’s interest as the rugged Shaolin dude we know today, his reputation at the label as a charming ladies’ man resulted in the push for a more romantic introduction. RZA also produced the song himself, but the drums were programmed by innovative hip-hop producer Prince Paul, making the vibe of the track seem almost like a spiritual De La Soul successor.
While the comparatively more conventional flow was used to bring people on board, the B sides “Deadly Venoms” and the Easy Mo Bee-produced “Sexcapades” sound far more indicative of the Clan that was still yet to come. Even though “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” didn’t quite catch on with the masses, its misfire, coupled with RZA’s experience at Tommy Boy, led to him abandoning any aspirations for the standard artist-label relationship and starting his own movement. Today, RZA sits atop one of entertainment’s most respected brands with the critical carte blanche to justifiably venture into any sort of business or artistic endeavor he pleases. While we’ll most likely never see Prince Rakeem’s reemergence, he’ll been immortalized forever in the depths of the Internet, right next to the Wu-Tang Clan’s Super Game Boy commercial.