It’s almost a requirement for a hip hop producer to be a connoisseur of vinyl records. Especially in the late 80s and early 90s, the genre was so sample-heavy that knowing the best records wasn’t good enough: they had to be unique, somewhat obscure, and deep in the crate by necessity, lest someone else find your hidden gems.
Bouncing around from North Carolina, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Staten Island, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs needed grounding other than the Five-Percent Nation, chess, and old school kung fu films. What he found were an endless collection of old school soul, funk, rock, blues, and jazz records just aching to be poured over.
“I like to listen to music on vinyl,” RZA told SPIN this year. “The slight variation of speed, there’s something about the ebb and flow of it that makes me always feel alive.”
Eclectic tastes were always a part of the Wu-Tang Clan‘s arsenal. With so many voices competing for space, most of the beats behind the MCs had to be sparse. On Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), most of the sample credits go to the various Hong Kong martial arts lines that are interested throughout the album.
What remains are swampy drum machines and only the faintest traces of Thelonious Monk, Otis Redding, and the J.B.’s. But the light touches, like Wendy Rene’s heartbreaking titular revelation on ‘Tearz’ or The Charmel’s twinkling piano on ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, become essential elements to the emotional highs and lows of the album.
When it came time for RZA to give his top five favourite albums, the Wu-Tang mastermind gave a diverse array of both classic artists and new legends.
RZA’s five favourite albums of all time:
1. Donny Hathaway – A Donny Hathaway Collection
As with most soul fans, RZA used his first pick to pay respect to the great Donny Hathaway, choosing the wide-ranging The Donny Hathaway Collection because it “includes songs that get you in the romantic groove Friday nights after a week of work.”
“It includes incredibly arranged solo vocals and piano performances by Donny, alongside classic duets with Roberta Flack. After a few glasses of wine, you and your significant other will be singing, dancing and cuddling.” RZA is a romantic at heart.
2. Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
But when talking about soul and funk, no list is complete without a little Stevie Wonder. Once again opting for a compilation, RZA went with Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes some of the standout tracks from his classic 70s run of albums like ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’, ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, and of course ‘Superstition’.
“Stevie Wonder’s Musiquarium is a collection of some of his masterpieces,” RZA explains. “Stevie is amongst the greatest solo artists to ever make records. This album is inspiring on all levels. Thought-provoking, dance and sing-along tunes that have also taught me how find my own style of mixing arranging and producing music.”
3. Drake – Views
From here on, RZA turns his attention to some modern-day music. His first pick is for one of the only MCs who can make a credible claim to being the top rapper in the world, Drake. RZA explained that he values the Canadian rapper for his candid lyricism.
“Drake’s Views is one of the few modern albums that stay on repeat in my house. His lyrical honesty accompanied with lyrical confidence layered over various emotional beats was refreshing when I first heard them and they continue to soundtrack my days.” Have a good beat, and you’ll be good with RZA.
4. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Hotel Base + Casino
Just in case you might have thought his choices were becoming a bit too predictable, Rakeem goes with a curveball for his next choice. Going all-in on the indie rock world, RZA chose Arctic Monkeys most recent and somewhat polarising album, Tranquility Hotel Base + Casino. “Although this is not a hip-hop rock album, it hits harder than many attempts to create such a palette.
“The lyrics, the arrangements, the instrumentation and the cadence of the performances are all top-shelf. I was introduced to this album on a road trip with my son who had just downloaded it. It totally caught me by surprise, made the trip memorable and stayed in my playlist ever since. ‘Batphone’ is one of the few modern rock songs I memorized from start to finish.”
5. DaBaby – Baby on Baby
Finally, RZA gave a shout out to DaBaby and his debut LP, Baby on Baby. “DaBaby’s Baby on Baby allowed me to continue appreciating what hip hop does for young men and their families.
DaBaby vibe flow and production turns Saturday nights into an immediate club party no matter if you’re home or in your car.”