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The Trial That Changed Wu-Tang Clan Architect RZA’s Life

In 1991, Robert F. Diggs, better known as RZA, was facing a felony assault charge in Ohio after he allegedly shot somebody in the leg.

By Ethan Harfenist
Robert Diggs "RZA"

Before he was at the helm of one of the largest rap acts in the world, a felony charge in Steubenville, Ohio threatened to derail the burgeoning hip-hop musician RZA's career before it even started.

In the premier episode of the new Showtime docu-series “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” RZA, real name Robert Diggs, discusses the trials and tribulations he and the other members of the Clan faced in the late 80s and early 90s as a result of being involved in drug dealing and street hustling in Steubenville and their native New York City. Several members, including Cappadonna and Inspectah Deck, did stints in jail, while Ghostface Killah got shot in the neck.

“People would say, ‘Why did you go off track, RZA? You have knowledge of self,’” he says in the series. “I had mental freedom, but I didn’t have economic freedom.”

In 1990, RZA’s family moved to Steubenville from Staten Island after his brother, Mitchell "Divine" Diggs, got sent to jail. The following year, the then-22-year-old was arrested and charged with felonious assault after he was accused of shooting a man named Willie Walters in the leg, according to a 2000 article by the Village Voice.

“I went to trial. And black dudes don’t really go to trial and win,” RZA says in the docu-series.

RZA faced eight years in jail for the charge, despite claiming that he fired in self-defense.

Ultimately, RZA was acquitted on April 23, 1992.

“I guess I wasn’t that good a prosecutor back then,” Chris Becker, who brought the case to court, told the Village Voice.

RZA describes the case as a major turning point in his life — especially the lonely times he spent contemplating his path forward in a jail cell.

“My mother looked me in my eyes and said this is my second chance,” he says in the docu-series. “Don’t look back, walk straight. Walk that straight and narrow path. I did that.”

After he was released, RZA says he hopped in a car and headed back to New York, determined to push forward.

“I was ready to get serious again,” he says.

A little over a year later, the Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” would be released. The rest, as they say, is history.

Still, the incident wouldn’t mark the end of the Wu Tang Clan’s run-ins with the law — especially in Steubenville.

In 1999, the Clan was at the center of a federal guns probe in which they were suspected of buying weapons in Ohio and bringing them back to New York, according to the New York Post. The investigation, however, ultimately led nowhere.

“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” premieres on Showtime May 10.