As founding member of the Wu Tang Clan, the RZA turned the hip hop world on its ear with the kung-fu and comic book collaboration of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. The satirical assault of the Wu Tang Clan was a refreshing tongue-in-cheek aimed at the G-funk rappers of the era. The RZA’s production prowess made instant stars of Genius, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface Killa, U-God, Inpecta Deck and Masta Killa, not only on Wu Tang’s three albums, but with their solo projects as well.
The RZA has contributed joints for movie soundtracks before, but his scoring of the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog marks his debut as a feature film composer. The movie is, of
course, right up his alley, the story of a black Samurai living in an urban world.
The RZA and I cold-kicked it at the Fizzour Sizzeasons in Bizzy Hizzy to opinionate about the movie, the Way of the Samurai, and hip hop.
How did you and Jarmusch come together for Ghost Dog?
I had the idea, “I’m going to score movies.” Here comes this guy, Jim, who was brought over by a member of my crew named Dreddy Krueger, who’s a member that gets in a lot of trouble, like “Dreddy, what are you talking about?” So he comes over with Jim, and he says he wants me to do a score. I had never heard of Jim before, so I was like, “Aw, Dreddy, what are you up to now?” You know what I mean?
What did Jim tell you about the film in that initial meeting?
Jim addressed me and said his dream was to have Forest as a star, RZA doing the score and a few other things that he wanted. And he actually brought his dreams into reality, know what I’m saying? He sought me out, found me and asked me to score the film for him. We got a few meetings, get-to-know-each-other-better type meetings. He and Forest both came down at the studio and talked with me and explained what they were doing. And I said, “I’ll be very interested to do this.” Being that it was the Way of the Samurai we were dealing with. Dealing with the kind of thoughts that I’m also trying to present to the world.
How do you think your score added to the flavor of the movie?
I think I kind of married some of the scenes together. In a sense of some movies, if it’s a scary scene, you can hear the normal ehhhhhhhh, but I’ll give you a groove though, but it’s still sinister. Like when they were doing the Mafia pull-up ehhhhhhhhhhhh. But it’s cool, too. It’s ‘70s, but it’s also ‘90s. You know what I mean? I definitely added some flavor to it. Some of the hard stuff like, when Forest gets into the car, it’s this song “Strange Eyes.”
Right. Which was sort of his theme. He plays it every time he gets into his car.
Yeah, I think I added some flavor to it and caught the mood of what Jim was trying to do, which was this guy, he lives in a Samurai world, but he lives in urban America. He’s a monk, he’s walking the path, but you see what kind of neighborhood he lives in. The music reflects the neighborhood, but it also reflects the spirit of the Ghost Dog, which is my goal to capture. I didn’t approach it without a mission. My mission was to kind of continue on the same path which James Brown and Isaac Hayes did, which was they made themes that fit characters. When you hear Shaft, you’re hearing Shaft. And twenty years later, Shaft is still Shaft. I can’t do a job like those bruthas did.
Because those bruthas did it. That was the hip original. I’m not going to sit here and just throw a bunch of stuff together and throw a bunch of people together or some cash or whatever money could buy. I really deeply, personally got involved with it.
Was there a particular message in the theme?
I don’t think I have a specific message I’m trying to deliver with the theme. It’s more like it’s left to the imagination of the viewer. A movie is for atmosphere. You want to get into the atmosphere. Chariot’s of Fire, when he’s running, it’s like, you know, you couldn’t create a better thing. That was my goal, trying to follow the path that other scores had done over the years. I’m new at this, so I couldn’t say “Oh, I got the best sh*t or something.” You know? But I took a shot at it.
Did you score the film while it was being shot or after it was already cut?
It was continuing. First, we talked. After we talked, I’d go try something I had in mind and put it to the side. Then, when Jim got certain clips, he showed me and I played to the clips. And then when I finally watched the whole film, I put a bunch of stuff together and said, “Jim, here goes some stuff. This ought to be there.” He told me that he never wrote like that way before, it was a new way for him, too. He actually got a chance to get more involved with the placement of the music. Most directors don’t do that. But this is an interesting case. Jim said, “These five songs fit that movie…you find out where they go.” I’ll give you a story about how I did the score. When the movie ghosts come on, you see the butterfly, and what do you hear? The flute. You go to Peter and the Wolf. This is what the flute represents every time, the bird. When the wolf came, he used the cello. So I used the same philosophy also.
Overall, in the music you create, is there a message you’re attempting to convey through the themes you investigate?
Specifically, I think my whole attempt when I make Wu Tang music is to deal with empathy instead of sympathy. I take what I feel. I mean, with my earlier music you can see that even more. This is a guy with the pressures of poverty, the pressures of ghettohood. You listen to that song, and you hear that. You hear that.
Where did you experience the pressures of ghettohood growing up?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn and Staten Island, those were my two homes. Project to project, tenement to tenement.
Why do you think hip hop, which seems typically to be about a very specific experience--ghettohood--is embraced by so many different cultures?
I think that’s exactly what it is. You have some music that advances and helps to express our pains, our joys and our sorrows to other cultures around the world. And I traveled around the world and went up to these people, and I met these people, and I was seeing that they’re relating to me for my music. Also, they relate to the same struggle I relate to. When I made that song “Triumph,” for instance, on the Wu Tang Forever CD, I made that song specifically for anybody who felt oppressed. When I made it, I was thinking of Bosnia. So I think that hip hop has no problems. I think hip hop is one of the first musics that encompasses all music.
Because it encompasses all music, do you think it will have the same staying power as other forms of music?
I have three hundred songs in my closet right now that you might not be able to define other than hip hop. You may have to say, “That’s hip hop,” you know what I mean? Where as right now you can say hip hop or you got Mr. Jazz or you got Mr. R&B, you got Rhythm and Blues, Mr. Rock. But now, you got someone who has no musical knowledge other than what’s on the turntable, now coming to a musical understanding and reproducing sound now of his own. With my own chord arrangements and my own timing. Because hip hop has it’s own timing. Even now when it can be more techno-ish, it’s still got that timing. I think hip hop’s gonna be here forever.
Will the Wu Tang be here forever?
You know, dating back to the first Wu Tang, it’s always been said, “Well, how come you don’t sample everything and loop everything?” I said, “Well, if you buy a Wu Tang album, you may get 20% of loops of famous songs and 80% of original music.” And the reason why is because I want people to go back and use my music again.
Beyond the music, twenty years from now, do you think people will still respond to the negativity that permeates a lot of hip hop music?
I think it goes in circles. I think you got a time when you got a lot of positive messages coming from hip hop. And then you got a time when you got negative messages. But that’s more controlled by the particular people who’s in charge at the time. I mean, for instance, it was at a point when gangsta rap, quote unquote, kinda got out of hand and the people that control everything, they slowed that down. And they gave a chance for some positive stuff to bleed in. You’ve got positive and negative in everything. You turn on any music and you hear some artists that do beautiful music like Alanis Morrisette, something you can drive to and sit there and listen to. At the same time, you got your Marilyn Manson. I mean, this is America. Everybody’s gotta right to say what they want, regardless. I think that wherever you go, you’re gonna find that sometimes positive people are dominant and sometimes negative people are dominant. That’s life. That’s a cycle. You don’t control that.
Going back to the beginnings of hip hop culture in the “blaxploitation” movement, hip hop has always embraced martial arts and gangster themes. Why do you think that is?
If I was to opinionate why something like hip hop is influenced by those things, I think it’s America. I watched martial arts movies, right? They were the only movies you could see that had a history in it that was pre-slavery. And you could see wars and men and loyalty and brotherhood. I’m a big Greek mythology fan, also. I’m always into the past. I think hip hop takes from what it’s surrounded by. I mean, America grew up in a lot of violence and a lot of war. It’s a fighting country. We are products of our country. We have that in our people. At the same time though, the country has bore great leaders of peace. Every time you turn around, you’re gonna see somebody come up with some tough aggressiveness, somebody beautiful will come with more peace. It’s a cycle and the music reflects that.
So, you’re saying hip hop reflects all sides of the equation?
Hip hop is no exception from any other music, it’s gonna be influenced by what we see. You know, there’s a lot of hip hop artists, take Das EFX. You remember Das EFX? They come out and they rap with TV raps, right? They got that watching TV. You look at Wu Tang, though, and what we explore. What you put in, you get out. You are what you eat. That’s the message. That’s the metaphysical thing. I’ll tell you one thing, when I went on my travels, I went to the continent of Africa. I wrote lyrics, and my lyrics reflect my travels. And then, when you hear the lyrics, you’ll feel like, “Ohhhh, what a beautiful hip hop song.” But when I go by my own neighborhood, you’ll go, “OHHHHH,” you know what I mean? So, I think all artists are going to reflect what’s going on around them, and what they’re surrounded by.
But some of the hip hop artists who write the most violent stuff are from good homes in the suburbs.
Suburb kids always want to be tough, but the tougher guy always want to be loved. That’s life. I think hip hop reflects that. The Wu Tang Forever album, you have positive messages in there. I think Wu Tang is a balance of both. You’re going to get your positive messages. But, you’re going to get your own Ol’ Dirty Bastard, too. At the same time, you’re going to get innocence.
Who are your biggest influences?
Artistically, what influenced me is really Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, I mean, James Brown, Paul McCartney, his writing. He wrote some beautiful (stuff). I would go and check Simon and Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence. I actually love that song. Even their styles of writing and their rhythm of writing is hip hop. Listen to the quarter time of “Fifty Ways To Live Your Lover.” That’s one of the best raps. “The problem is all inside your head he said to me, the question is easy if you take it…” I listen to that, I went wild for that.
The Hagakure is obviously the inspiration for Ghost Dog. What books inspired you?
Other than The Bible and the Koran? I’ll give you a good book, The Tao Ching. Because it took away what you’re talking about, the negative view and positive view, and left it to an open view. It’s a sword because a sword could save your life and could take your life. A book like that, it has no side to it.
Did the Tao Ching arm you for battle?
I don’t really feel like I’m at war, but I feel like I always have to be prepared for war. I feel like I’m at peace, actually, but you know anything can disturb peace. It’s like when you throw a pebble into water.