RZA never makes a move without careful thought. Moments after walking on to the set for his exclusive photo shoot with rolling out
, RZA pulled a chair up to the edge of a chessboard and began playing himself in the strategic game. Before moving each chess piece, he studied the board as if facing a formidable opponent.
Seeing the chessboard from both sides has advantages. For RZA, his solitary chess game wasn’t just to kill time. It was an example of how he approaches life.
”I apply mathematics to my way of life,” RZA revealed when asked about the creation of the Wu-Tang Clan. ”Chess is a game that allows you to think ahead. I had the vision of what I could do with the Wu-Tang Clan. I went back to my neighborhood and got all of my emcee buddies. I told them that if they gave me five years of their life, I could take them to number one. In five years, we were at the top of the charts.”
Indeed, RZA was the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan and the acclaimed solo releases from Ol Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and GZA.
The Wu-Tang Clan is one of the most heralded rap crews in rap music history. But RZA was never satisfied with only achieving success in hip-hop.
He wanted to take his vision to another level.
He took the same principles that propelled Wu-Tang Clan to greatness, and applied them to his venture into filmmaking.
This week, RZA’s directorial debut, The Man With the Iron Fists
, hits theaters nationwide. A rapper-producer helming a $20 million motion picture might be considered a checkmate in chess terms. But those who have followed RZA’s career since the ’90s, know that this is only an opening move, much like the Queen’s Gambit.
How did the game of chess reflect what you created with the Wu-Tang Clan?
I’m the abbot. Every rapper was like a superhero. I watched the cartoon ”Voltron.” All of the Voltron lions are powerful by themselves. But when you form Voltron, that’s when the Defender of the Universe comes down and pulls out the blazing sword. I applied that concept to us. I applied the chessboard. One of our first videos was ”Chess Boxing.” In that video, it was me and GZA playing chess and members of the Wu-Tang were pieces on the chessboard.
Brothers played their position[s] throughout the course of our rise in hip-hop. My only rule was that it had to be a dictatorship. With the notoriety, there was competition at times but they still followed my ideas. Things almost got physical at times. In the beginning, it was so tight that one member got a deal and it helped another member get a deal.
Everyone has an idea for a film. How did you make it a reality?
Foresight is important. I had a five-year plan for myself. No one knew about it except my wife and I. I went to Quentin Tarantino, who became my mentor. I was his student. I went to film festivals and was on the set of Kill Bill. I took some of my own money and filmed a movie called ”Wu-Tang vs. The Golden Phoenix.” I had a chance to taste what it would be like. I studied books and script writing for five years. After five years, I wrote my first screenplay. It was good, but it wasn’t great. I pitched it to Eli Roth and he helped me flesh out the ideas to make it bigger. I learned from him and it led to 130 pages and we took it to the studio. The studio saw an artist. They were impressed by the idea. Most production studios believe that a rapper would make another Boyz N the Hood
or movie about where he grew up. I wanted to take hip-hop to another level when I made this film.
What was Quentin Tarantino’s role?
He’s on board as a producer. The thing about kung fu films is that they are big on an international level. But we don’t really get many of those films in the U.S. We wanted to separate from the 50 other films that are made internationally. We added Quentin Tarantino and he’s the master. But after Kill Bill
, no one filled that void. I’m looking to fill the void with The Man With the Iron Fists
. If it’s done properly and we’re accepted by the public, there is an audience that will come see films like this every year.
If you created a kung fu film based on five fierce women, who would you choose as your leading ladies?
Lucy Liu has a natural knack for action films. Zoe Saldana did a great job in Columbiana
. She’s very agile and beautiful. Scarlett Johansson … did a good job with The Avengers
. I would bring in Pam Grier to be a godmother who could tell the young ladies what time it is. Jamie Chung — she looks so sexy when she does a side kick. The kick alone is worth the price of admission. I would have a rainbow coalition of beautiful women.
Back to hip-hop, do you think it’s as creative as it was when the Wu-Tang Clan first came on the scene?
I think the creativity is there. You have artists like Wiz Khalifa, [who] harmonizes with his raps, Young Jeezy has a crazy voice, Rick Ross also has an immaculate voice. Drake has good lyrics and his own style. He’s not a thug, but he makes good music.
The creativity is there, but there is a lack of knowledge of self. A lot of the young brothers in rap don’t have a clue about what the future is going to bring, because they have no knowledge of who they are to see ahead.
Before you do anything, you should understand what you are doing. That’s different in our culture. You have a generation that learned hip-hop from watching TV. A lot of them didn’t actually walk the streets like the pioneers. Some brothers want to be rappers because it’s a moneymaking thing. We did it out of love. We woke up wanting to rhyme, but we also had a hunger for knowledge. In New York, before we formed the Wu-Tang, you would see book peddlers all over the city. There would be cyphers. The first cyphers weren’t about rapping or a battle. It was about brothers coming together [and] dropping the day’s mathematics and giving lessons.
I remember talking to Kanye West about it. He’s a focused brother. I got inspired by that. But I let him know the importance of his position and giving people something to aspire to. Because one spoon of chocolate can change a glass of milk.