Author: The RZA
The voyage of the best ship is a
zigzag line of a hundred tracks.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Outside Pittsburgh, along the Ohio River, there's a town called Steubenville, Ohio. It's a wierd place, with a long history of political and police curruption and lots of rumors and legends surrounding it. Some people know it as the birthplace of Dean Martin. Others, like members of a Trinity church there, believe it will be the site of Jesus Christ's Second Coming. For me, Steubenville represents darkness -- a darkness that I made for myself, a darkness that almost
took me for good.
"It was like a
Seminar of the streets."
For a few years, my cousins Ghost and Dirty and I would come down to Steubenville from Staten Island to visit family. I made my first trip down there at nineteen, and that time I came with righteousness. I brought my book of Lessons and started teaching Mathematics to anyone who wanted to learn. Before long I had about twenty students. We'd meet every day at the town library, and soon our group got so big that they moved us to a community center. Then other community leaders started showing up, and we began running roundtable discussions, We talked about the Divine Mathematics, but also geometry, biology, and all sorts of other subjects. It was like a Seminar of the streets.
Some people at those meetings came from other street schools, like Universal Law, which, like Mathematics, was taught in prison. Ever jail, whether it's in Ohio, New York, or L.A., has some form of these studies. Somebody gets hold of them and adapts them to their own sect. The Black Panthers -- They had precepts. The Mah-Wahs -- they had precepts. Even the Bloods have lessons now. And all of them draw on either Islam, Christianity, or the Jehovah's Witnesses. Each one takes the precepts and twists them in different ways to help teach and empower young guys who are thirsty for knowledge. It's one of the few benefits of prison -- letting teachers and students form a community of learning.
Ours was called the Five Percent -- for the Five Percent Nation of Islam -- but I would say the name applies globally and historically as well. Anyone dedicated to freedom, justice, and equality is what we call a poor righteous teacher. These are part of that 5 percent of any given society who know the truth and will speak it freely without personal gain. Gandhi was a Five Percenter. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Five Percenter. Jesus was a Five Percenter. The Shaolin monks and their disciples the Taoist priests and the Confucians -- they're the Five Percenters of China.
When I first went down to Steubenville, I came as a true member of the Five Percent. And the knowledge I shared took root. Some of my students formed the Wu-Tang offshoots Fourth Disciple and Killer Army. Some of them had some success, some went back to being street thugs, but at least my first trip down to Steubenville was righteous. My second trip was the exact opposite.
"This time, I'm on the Amtrak with a briefcase
holding my product, a gun, and my Lessons --and
wearing a gold chain to pawn for cash flow."
Around 1991, things were bad for us in New York. My album as Prince Rakeem wasn't paying my bills. GZA's record for Cold Chillin' didn't do well either. We needed money, one of my friends for killed, some people were trying to kill me, and all of us were just scrambling.
Ghost was doing things like waiting outside a stop for the Brinks truck, trying to figure a way to rip them off. Or we'd wait outside drug dealers' houses -- saying, "When he comes out in his Benz, we'll put a gun in his face, take his Benz, and go sell it." None of this would have worked, but we were desperate. So I went back to the street game. I began chopping nicks up to sell them and started thinking: I know a place where they aren't as advanced in this game, a place where we could go out and get a hustle on. And that's what we did. We headed back to Steubenville.
I borrowed some money from GZA and gave it to Ghost -- because Ghost was already a street vendor -- and said, "Ghost, go get what we need." He did a robbery -- robbing someone we know, that's how bad it was -- and we headed down to Ohio. This time, I'm on the Amtrak with a briefcase holding my product, a gun, and my Lessons -- and wearing a gold chain to pawn for cash flow. This time we went down and we got into hell.
Before we got down there Steubenville's nickname was Little Chicago. After we got established there it became known as Little New York. We made money and were able to feed ourselves, but it was the most negative point in my life. This was the time I broke my one vow to myself. I never wanted to be a drug dealer -- I thought I was killing my own people -- but for my own survival I entered that world. I betrayed myself.
A lot of bad things happened quickly. A lot of street beefs developed from us moving in. And before long my brother was in jail, Dirty was in jail, I was in jail, Ghost got shot, and my student Wise got shot. We came apart as individuals. And I found myself on trial for attempted murder.
I had gotten dragged into a beef between a girl Ghost was seeing and her man's crew. I was driving that girl and her friend home one night -- Ghost wasn't even in town -- and some of those dudes pulled up next tot us at a stoplight. They were street hustlers -- everybody was then -- and this one guy sees his girl in a car and goes into a jealous rage.
Before I left the house, I had been given one commandment from my sister: "You better not fuck my car up." But at the light, this nigga jumps out and starts kicking the car, bashing the windows, denting it. The girls start screaming, "Drive, drive, he got a gun!" -- so I pull ou and he starts chasing me. I zipped out, got away, and laid low for a while.
In a couple hours, I took them home, but the one girl lived on a dead-end street. She got out and went into her house, but those same guys were parked there waiting for us in an ambush. Immediately, it was pandemonium: A lot of shots were fired, my car was still moving, crashed up on the sidewalk, and everyone was pulling their shit out, yelling "Fuck you!" "Nah, fuck you!" In the end, it wasn't really that big a deal -- there probably ended up being just six or seven shells on the grouns -- but that scuffle got my charged with attempted murder.
The fact is, the charge I was facing did not fit the offense. The actual incident was a case of self-defense. I regret that somebody got shot and I felt bad for being a part of that kind of violence. I would have copped out to sixty days; I would have copped out to a year. But the prosecutor wanted eight years -- he wanted to nail me down. This is when things started to become clear to me. One, I gained clarity about our legal system -- its unfairness of matching crime and punishment. But two, I gained clarity about my life.
"That day, I got eight years of my life
back in my own hands. I realized, Oh, it's me?
I'm the man? I'm the one who can fix my life?
I decided to take real control of my music career."
On top of everything else, I had gotten my girlfriend pregnant. I was in jail for thirty days and started thinking about this, how I had a baby girl coming, how I had to change my life. That's why I named my daughter Ra-Mecca -- "Ra" to signify me, Rakeem, and "Mecca" to represent the Holy City, the highest point, the beginning. She would be the highest achievement of my life so far. I knew then what I'd be losing.
So I prepared. I stopped smoking, I stopped drinking, started studying the Lessons again. I thought about my daughter having to visit me for eight years inside -- because I didn't think I was gonna win this case. And when I finally bailed out, I was in the law library every day. In fact, I used to run into the judge and the prosecutor there. They'se see me and mean-mug me, as if they were thinking, what's this guy doing sitting there?
Finally, the day of the trial came. It was a three-day trial and ended on April 22. That was the day my lawyer put me on the stand. In a way, I gave the most important performance of my life that day, and it was from the heart. I addressed the jury myself -- told my story, presented it vividly, gave testimony as powerfully as I could. Then the jury, which had only one black guy on it, went away and deliberated. They were gone for two hours and came back. I was nervous; my stomach was going crazy. And the woman read the verdict"
I can't really explain the feeling in the courtroom at that moment. I mean, obviously I was ecstatic, but some of the people on this jury were crying. Two old white women and a white man came up and hugged me. There was even an article in the paper that said something like "Jury Cries as Diggs Sentence Comes." And as I left the stand, my mother says, "This is your second chance."
That day, I got eight years of my life back in my own hands. I realized, Oh, it's me? I'm the man? I'm the one who can fix my life? I decided to take real control of my music career. I went back to Staten Island and called Tommy Boy, but they were done with me. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen outside that system. And I realized the first step was to reclaim myself.
Down to Steubenville, we used different code names. Ghost was Moses and I was Jesus -- an irony we both appreciated at the time. But after the trial, I got back into Prince Rakeem.
I named myself Rakeem at the age of eleven, when I found Knowledge of Self. I renamed myself Prince Rakeem whenI mastered the 120. Then Divine Prince Rakeem, Then by the time I was eighteen, I had ten or more students of my own, I named myself Divine Prince Master Rakeem Allah. But through dealing with negativity, I lost that persona. So after the Ohio event and all the chaos it brought to my life, I had to bring that title back. I had to rejoin the Five Percent.
The laymen, the people who don't know much and are easily misled -- they're the 85 percent. Those who know the truth but use it to deceive and explot -- they're the 10 percent. You see, the 10 Percent everywhere today, in every news broadcast, on the front page of every paper. You know their names. And their crimes are only getting greater, the pain they inflict more widespread.
"In the Divine Alphabet, Z stands for Zig-Zag-Zig, which means Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding. It's the last letter of the alphabet and represents the final step of consciousness."
So when they say the Five Percent is just a gang, I say they're just seekers and givers of knowledge, which is exactly what we need right now. Our culture is programming its children to join the 85 percent, to be robots, to have no knowledge of self. Today, being one of the 85 percent might mean being married in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and 3 cars, spending your days eating pre-packaged food, and talking about ten-year-old sitcoms. It might mean chasing Escalades, Rolexes, and power in a corporation that will betray you. It might mean simply accepting everything you see without question. Today, we need some form of the Five Percent. We need people to teach civilization to all human families. Money gives you economic freedom, but it doesn't free your dome from the lies and ignorance that make you dumb.
I had become dumb. My life had done a zigzag. I was in the right place from ages eleven to sixteen. Then I got involved with women, drugs, and hip-hop in a street way -- not just a hobby way where you're having fun in your house, but a street way, with battling, guns, cars, gold cables, drug using, and drug dealing.
This is a man who already had enlightened twenty other kids. Ason Unique -- who became Ol' Dirty Bastard -- he was a student of mine. I had other students in Brownsville, in Bed-Stuy -- they knew the 120 now. Now my students were teachers. And here I am -- someone who knew the 120 before he was thirteen -- here I am acting like a fucking savage? I had to change -- change back.
In the Divine Alphabet, Z stands for Zig-Zag-Zig, which means Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding. It's the last letter of the alphabet and represents the final step of consciousness. So finally I just thought of the name as letters, as a title, not just a word. R-Z-A. It stands for Ruler-Knowledge/Wisdom/Understanding-Allah.
In my life, I was zigging. I was going right but I zagged. I zagged and I almost died zagging. So I zigged back. I became the RZA. Rakeem Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. Later, people came to calle me the RZA-rector -- like I bring people back to life. But that year I found out the truth: The first person you have to resurrect is yourself.