"Do you know kung fu movies?”
I am interviewing RZA, but about half an hour into our discussion of his directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, he turns the tables on me. Now, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about Hong Kong cinema. I saw Shaolin Temple, Jet Li’s first movie, when it came out in 1982. I was a regular at the old Music Palace theater in Chinatown, catching the first run of classics like Fong Sai-Yuk, Iron Monkey, and Chinese Ghost Story. But at 2:00 AM in a smoky studio, I’m not quite prepared to be grilled by an acknowledged professor of the genre like RZA. He presses, “You remember in 36 Chambers, when San Te first gets to the Shaolin Temple, what’s he have to do?” I haltingly grasp for the answer, “He, uh, has to cross the grease pit?” I get the screwface. “That was RETURN to the 36th Chamber.” Oh, wait, I got this. “He had to cross the pit of floating logs,” I say. “Right,” RZA affirms, “and what happened?” Duh. “He fell in,” I reply. “Right! Now, when he finally gets to see the head monk and tells him he wants to study kung fu, the master tells him that there are thirty-five levels in the temple, and he can start where he wants. Where does he choose to start?” I know this one. He wants to start at the top. “Exactly.” RZA nods approvingly. And, feeling as if I have successfully traversed some kind of chamber myself, the conversation returns to Iron Fists and RZA’s glee that Gordon Liu, the original lead in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, has a cameo in the film.
The Man with the Iron Fists unabashedly celebrates the RZA’s twin obsessions of music and classic kung fu flicks, a fast-paced romp with in-jokes that only a true fan could conceive. From characters called Crazy Hippo and Brass Body to cameos by Pam Grier, MC Jin, and Way of the Dragon’s Jon Benn, to musical cues that reference classic breakbeats like Isaac Hayes’s “Ike’s Mood” and the mouth harp riffing on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” that introduces Russell Crowe’s character (Russell Crowe, Russell Jones aka ODB, get it?), it’s fun trying to decipher them all as they fly past. I couldn’t be the only Wu-Tang fan who read something into this exchange: “Tiger Style? I thought your clan was extinct?” The other nods: “I killed them...”
RZA has played many roles in his life. From the young Bobby Diggs who sold newspapers at the Verrazano Bridge tollbooths, to the teenage rap star Prince Rakeem, to Bobby Steels, the Abbot of Wu-Tang Clan, to Bobby Digital, to a camouflaged cameo in Ghost Dog, to the Californication character Samurai Apocalypse. “I’ve learned to identify that personality,” he has said of his evolving attitudes, “and give it a name.” But it seems like the role he was born to play is his most recent one: director.
RZA’s model for the Wu was the Juice Crew, brainchild of Marley Marl, the Queens radio DJ and producer who came to prominence in the mid-’80s. This phalanx of top rappers under the wing of a mastermind producer was a direct precursor to what RZA would attempt with his Staten Island–based clique. “Marley Marl was on the radio, he was selling [records], he had it popping,” RZA says. “And his sound—he was coming with the sampled sounds to make hip-hop, where other people were still using drum machines.” This innovation, first surfacing in 1985 with Marley’s chop-ups of the “Impeach the President” drum break (“Eric B Is President,” “The Bridge”), completely changed the sound of hip-hop. “Marley was doing chopped kick and snares, in the mid-’80s,” RZA says. “He was one of the fathers of it, as far as popularizing it. I give Marley Marl a lot of respect as a producer, and for what he did in hip-hop. If you were a young kid trying to be a rapper, walking through New York, you wanted to rock with Marley Marl. And I was one of those kids. I went to block parties at eight [years old], was writing rhymes at nine; I was down with it. When Marley came with his crew, and everything he was doing in hip-hop, I wanted to rock with Marley Marl. That would’ve been cool.”
The similarities between gathering rappers to form a crew and uniting disparate components to create a film aren’t lost on him. “Working with the Wu was like preparation; it was the class that prepared me for it. Making a film was an accumulation of putting all my art into a medium where I could have visual/audio, sound and emotion. Something tangible. A story. Even my first album, 36 Chambers, [and Raekwon’s] Cuban Linx—we were trying to make movies on those CDs.” The linking skits on these discs, some invented and some lifted directly from vintage kung fu flicks, are clear examples of this. The directorial impulse was surfacing even then. “The Wu called me the Abbot, you know, because I had to guide them for some years. We had a plan to get to where we wanted to go. Well, I had a plan that they was with.” His short laugh stresses the important distinction he’s just made: it was his plan that they got with.
Was this a commendable, overarching discipline that bred success or evidence of a dictatorship? There are vehement advocates for both views filling online rap forums and YouTube comments sections. But it is undeniable that this knack for channeling and orchestrating different talents explains how he turned a loose conglomerate of rappers into a powerhouse rap dynasty, and it is why RZA is such a perfect candidate for directing movies. It is also most likely the reason why we will never see the Wu form in as tight a unit as they were originally.
One thing I always used to say was, ‘Wu-Tang Clan be attacking your emotions.’ Add emotion to your rhymes! If you have the beat, add emotion; it brings a different thing to the music. Soul music has that power.
When RZA talks about directing a film, it is easy to hear the philosophy that guided the formation of Wu-Tang. “A director has an idea, a plan. A movie. And he has to get people to be with it.” The whole team, he stresses, has to be on board, top to bottom. “Everybody’s got to be with the mission. You know, your grips and the lighters have to be with it too!” When all the individual players are playing their respective roles, everything clicks. Or, as RZA puts it in one of his favorite metaphors, when the captain is at the helm, “the Starship Enterprise is flowing smooth! We got around the asteroids, we moved right through them.” Most important for success, “you got to have people trust in you as a director. The director is flying that ship.” RZA continues, “The captain is questioned every second of the day. That’s why he’s the captain. He has the answers.”
But when Spock and Bones, not to mention Scotty and Sulu, have gold-certified solo albums, it is only natural that they may begin to chafe a bit under Captain Kirk’s strict commands. Factoring in fame and its attendant side effects along with inevitable personal growth, it is not hard to extrapolate the reasons behind the splintering of the Wu crew. While RZA has been content to produce the occasional beat for his former teammates (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II came out in 2009, and he told me he was open to working with GZA on a sequel to Liquid Swords), and the whole Clan is credited on a track from the Iron Fists soundtrack, it remains to be seen if another Wu-Tang full-length will ever arrive. “We’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary [of the first Wu album],” RZA says, “so the time is right. But everybody has to come together on it.” There’s that theme again.
One issue may be that, musically, much has changed for RZA since the days of “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Criminology.” “I used to have floppy discs with beats on them,” he recalls, “and you know those separators you get with the eighty-disc box? I had each member’s beats separated with a name tag: Meth, Rae, Ghost. Ten here, five here, eight here, twenty there. I had two boxes of eighty discs like that, maybe more, and they all got washed away in a flood.” This rather biblical cleansing was followed by a self-induced purge when he decided to give away all the remaining beats he’d stockpiled, in order to start anew. “I was cleaning out. Whoever got them, got them.” How many beats are we talking about? “It was more than a couple. In the thirties. If you want to pinpoint the exact reason why, it was John Frusciante,” he says, referring to the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist. “He told me one day that he wasn’t selling his music anymore, and he felt so free. There were no strings attached to it anymore. Of course,” he admits, “he was in a financial situation where he could do that. But it made me say, well, he’s right.”
RZA had also progressed far beyond the almost crude loops of his younger days. “I started out with the SP1200, right,” he recalls. “A kid wanted to borrow it, ’cause the SP1200 was the shit. And he let me borrow his Ensoniq [ASR-10 keyboard]. The SP1200 had a limitation of only twelve seconds sampling time, at two seconds per pad. The ASR had more sampling time, about thirty seconds, but the difference was there was no limitation to the pad. So you could use your whole thirty seconds on one fuckin’ key, and then spread that across the keyboard.” This marked the start of RZA’s awareness of scales and basic music theory, something he would go on to study in much greater depth. “Eventually, I got to a level where my beats were becoming four bars, eight bars, and I started learning chords,” RZA continues. “Really, about ’97 was when I started getting in tune with it, where I knew my progressions. Then I started going further with the progressions. In ’98, I came with Bobby Digital.” This natural evolution in his sound—away from samples and toward the use of synths—was perhaps ahead of its time, and many fans and even some of his crew pined for his earlier production.
It was around this time that he was tapped to provide music for Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog. “My music was sort of wavy and jazzy, so my sound was leading towards film. I was becoming a musician,” he states. Was there anything in particular that inspired this change? “People were challenging me about being a sampling producer,” he admits. “I took the challenge. It was actually a one-on-one confrontation with somebody who said straight up, ‘You’re not a musician.’ It was at a music store—I was about to spend a G on this guy, and he said that. But it was all good though, because I was like, he had a point there.” He compares his evolution as a producer to that of a rhyme-writer. “You always want to explore the craft. It’s like an MC, you always want to make the next rhyme: first you have a lyric where the words rhyme at the end, then you start rhyming three words in one sentence, then the patterns start getting crazier. You always want to try and flip it.”
To the relief of those of us who delight in the unique texture of sampled sounds, RZA has no interest in completely giving up the manipulation of vintage recordings. He’s just found a deeper way to do it, a method that incorporates his newfound musicality while retaining the all-important emotional impact of the original samples.
From the very first Wu-Tang beats, RZA leaned heavily on soul music—especially the distinctive sound of Memphis—for inspiration, returning frequently to the catalogs of Hi and Stax. “I don’t know how I first stumbled across it,” he says, trying to remember. “I lived down South for some years.” There was a specific and intriguing aspect of the gritty, intense Southern sound that appealed to him. “I just loved when the music could change the emotion of the lyric.” It was a concept he brought to the fore with the rappers he worked with. “One thing I always used to say was, ‘Wu-Tang Clan be attacking your emotions.’ I was like, ‘Add emotion to your rhymes!’ I wanted to add the stuff like, ‘Ah man, how do I [say goodbye],’ ” he emphatically quotes the first Wu single, “Tearz,” built off loops from the 1964 Stax release “After Laughter” by Wendy Rene. Wu fans will also immediately recall “All That I Need Is You,” the wrenching RZA-helmed Ghostface classic that uses the Jackson 5’s wistful “Maybe Tomorrow” as its musical theme. Clearly, Ghost took this concept to heart. “If you have the beat, add emotion [to the delivery]; it brings a different thing to the music. You might not dance to this one, but it might get you there,” RZA says, pointing to his chest. “Soul music has that power.”
Thanks to a refreshingly open-minded attitude of the people who control the rights the Stax catalog, RZA has been granted unprecedented access to the actual vintage multitracks. The results, on display in the Iron Fists score and soundtrack, are a treat for beat-heads who know these classics inside and out. Using bits and pieces of isolated instruments from the original sessions and adding new instrumentation, he and co-composer Howard Drossin (Afro Samurai) have hit on a refined blend that evokes the mystique of classic soul but adds the punch and wit of RZA’s production.
Working with bands and musicians outside of the usual realm of rap production has provided another area for RZA to exercise his directorial concepts. “When I combine forces with the band,” he says, “I become the tip of a spear, what pierces through and causes everything else to go through. A band may be good, but they’re still a stick. Music is like that; you can become the tip of a spear. If you are a good band member, you watch for who is that tip, and you put force behind it to drive it through the crowd.” The musical theory he has picked up has come into play as well. “I could become part of the band too,” he continues. “Now I’m a musician. I can jump in with you, I can sample your shit, I can chop it up...”
In many ways, RZA, now forty-three years old, became an adult in front of the camera. “I grew up making music videos; I was in front of cameras for a long time. I did my first video when I was eighteen—the first professional one. I had my own home videos before that. We would try and make videos; we performed to the camera.”
In spite of this, his future behind the camera was late in showing itself. “I always enjoyed films,” RZA says, “but the first time I came across the joy of making them was when I was working on Kill Bill. I wanted to choose somebody to help me, to teach me, to mentor me so that I could learn how to become a filmmaker. That was Quentin Tarantino.” There could hardly have been a more perfect fit than the kung fu fanatic and B-movie connoisseur. “Spending time with him was as good as a top college, probably better,” he says. “I don’t want to blow him up like that, but any college professor would probably agree that’s a great teacher. He sparked a fire, introduced me to this whole world. Took me to Cannes back when I ain’t even knew what Cannes was.” To paraphrase the old tune, how ya gonna keep Bobby down in Shaolin after he’s seen Cannes? And why would you want to?
Clearly, the evolution of Bobby Diggs will continue. He has united his passion for film and music in a way that’s fulfilled a deeper creative craving than any of his previous, widespread endeavors. Should we, as fans, mourn the loss of his previous, single-minded self? Or celebrate what is a most sophisticated way to channel his talents?
The answer, I think, is clear. It can be that simple.
It is close to 3:00 AM as an older, wiser RZA leans back in his chair at the studio and reflects.
“Music is really a pastime, a hobby,” he says thoughtfully. “I do that all day, every day, and just try to make the best music I can. I would give it away, but it costs money to make it. So I sell it. Personally, I don’t feel that I’m even selling you music anymore. I’m giving that to you. But what I do need some compensation for is my time. ’Cause I can’t get that back.”