|© The Wu-Tang Corp.- 2004-04-22
If you've seen the films Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and/or Kill Bill Vol. 2, then you've undoubtedly seen the name RZA up on the silver screen, listed amongst the credits alongside the words "Original Music By" or "Composer." Now at first glance seeing The RZA's name up on the big screen may seem a little strange. I mean he is the supreme beat maker for the legendary rap conglomerate The Wu-Tang Clan and in the somewhat old school realm of film composition he's a virtual black sheep, a musical outsider, if you will, especially amongst the classically trained musicians who orchestrate the sounds we hear at the movies. But then RZA has always been an outsider, in a manner of speaking. When The Wu-Tang Clan emerged on the rap scene back in 1993 they shocked the pop culture collective with their brash, rugged crew-styled sonic mayhem that was wrapped in a devout love of martial arts films.
As the sonic brainchild behind the Wu, RZA took the collective's love of kung fu and samurai films to the next level, filling his beats with atonal noize and decidedly Eastern sounding elements, ranging from strange, exotic strings to the wailing dissonance you often heard swelling in the background of the climactic kung fu showdowns featured in Shaw Brothers films. And while RZA laced up all of the Wu's material, as well as each member's various solo efforts, he also cultivated his own alter ego, that of Bobby Digital, a super-hero who worked somewhat outside of the Wu's influence, creating more edgy, experimental electronic haberdashery that has thus far filled up two albums--RZA As Bobby Digital: In Stereo and Digital Bullet. "The Bobby Digital album proved to me that…I like it, but people were like 'It's not RZA hip-hop,' you know what I'm sayin'" says RZA almost rhetorically. "But to me, it made me think 'Well then maybe it will fit movies. Maybe I'll get more cinematic. Maybe I'll get Mozartish. Maybe I'll get f@#kin' like more operatic with my ideas.'"
The correlation made sense, of course. RZA's diverse aural mayhem is perfectly suited to the world of cinema. Yet, historically speaking, very few rap producers/DJs have made the leap into film composition. Hank and Keith Shocklee, the nucleus of the infamous Bomb Squad, have dabbled in film scores. DJ Shadow, as well. But for the most part the urban sound collagists who have made rap music such a vital art form have stayed away from Hollywood, often not of their own choice, however. "Well I think what happens is that really there's no connection between the people, you know what I'm sayin'?" muses RZA. "Also a lot of hip-hop artists and talent never look past the turntables. Some don't see past the beat machine, they don't see ahead. And I think a few of us do see ahead. You know what I mean?"
RZA is one of those forward thinking individuals who see past the turntables and into the revolving reels of film. And he made sure that he made the right connections to get himself into the celluloid spectrum. "I was hired by Miramax to promote Iron Monkey [Quentin produced the 2001 re-release of the film] and we were at a press junket," he says of how he first met Tarantino. "They wanted to get a picture of us together, so we got a picture together. And Donnie Yen was there. He's the best out [there], but he doesn't know his own movies. So I was tellin' Donnie Yen 'Aw, man, when you did that movie [you know, complimenting him on his work] and the Fist of Fury series in China …' [I gave him props on] so many movies and he didn't even know what the hell I was talkin' about," RZA laughs at the memory. "And then Quentin [jumped in and] was like 'You know, the one where you…man, you don't even know your own movies!' Then Quentin and I just started talkin' about movies and next thing I was like 'Did you see…?' And he'd say 'No, but did you see…?' And it started being like a little baseball card flip-off and we wound up promising to get each other copies of the films we'd been talkin' about. The next time I was in LA he invited me up to check out some movies. He had a print of a rare movie and was like 'You want to come check it out?' I said 'Sure, why not?' We just became friends like that and after about 8-9 months I wound up gettin' on the project with him."
At first RZA's role in Kill Bill was a little blurry. Initially he had no inclinations about working with Quentin on the martial arts homage, seeming more content to have found a kindred spirit who loved the same types of movies as he did. But as if often the case, the duo's shared passion eventually led to collaboration. "First thing Quentin did was, after we'd hung out for maybe 8 months, he was like 'You know, I'm doin' a film and it's a martial arts film…' And I said 'Yeah, I heard about it, Quentin. Yo, you know I'm a master of the martial arts movies. Any capacity you need me, yo I'm right here, no problem.' He was like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, anyway…' you know how he's always finishing his thoughts?' He was like 'No, no,no, what I want you to do'—and he pulls the script out—'is read this first and tell me how you can capacitate it.' So I read it and it was a great script, you know what I mean? So we were hangin' out at his crib, just kickin' it again and I was like 'Yo, what I think I can do for this, to help out, is make sure that one, you choose the right sound effects and two, we choose the right themes for when the fight scenes happen.' Because most movies I watch—these martial art movies made by Hollywood—the sound effects are never there and the music never matches the action."
RZA was definitely on to something. Let's face it, even when Hollywood gets hold of and re-releases a classic Hong Kong action film, they tend to dub it and then throw a pulsating rap soundtrack into the mix.
"If you watch the Chinese version--the original subtitled version--of The Black Mask it's more fun," RZA points out. "But if you saw it here [the dubbed version with the rap soundtrack] it was like 'What the hell is this?!' What the hell [does rap] got to do with it?! And that's what I told Quentin. I said 'Yo, I'm not lookin' to come rap on your movie.'" RZA laughs, then continues with his thought. "What makes a fight scene good, like when you watch Kill Bill 1 when Uma plucks the guy's eye out and the film goes black and white and after she splits the one guy [in two], then Gordon Liu comes in with the two swords and then we bring in that theme from Champion of Death--duuuuuuuuuun!—and it comes in in the middle of the music, it's not the beginning, it comes in in the middle and ends in the middle, but it builds your adrenaline up like duuuuun-duuuun-dun! And then she does that flip and everything and then she lands and the music builds up. And then she stops and looks and then we shift to the Isaac Hayes beat—doon-doon-doon-doon-doon-doont!—you're watchin' it and your adrenaline just keeps going. But if you were sitting through the whole thing with a techno track or a rapper rappin', you ain't seein' the same thing, you know what I mean. I love kung fu movies. But when I saw Black Mask in New Jersey and I saw certain scenes that I loved in the movie and the audience was laughing at the kung fu scenes I was like 'Yo, this is not the comedy part.' It was all because of the music and the sound effects.
"Even when Iron Monkey was re-dubbed—they did a decent job because they didn't go crazy on the music—but the sound effects were dampened. And that's what I didn't like about it. One thing that Quentin has, that I learned is important, he has some of the best sound mixers in the game. When you watch Vol. 2 and you hear them knockin' that hammer through the wood, you hear the splinter of the wood, 'rrrrrreeeeeennnnngh,' you hear that. Those guys were great. The sound in that movie was amazing. And that's important. I think Hollywood overlooks that because they don't know the genre. Quentin knows the genre, he loves the genre, he's a fan. I mean we go up to his house and I'm bringin' over DVDs, but he's a bigger pimp than me. I'll bring over a DVD of a classic and he'll go 'Ah, great movie. Now I want to show you one.' He has the f@#kin' master. He has a movie theater in his crib! You go over to the Quentin movie theater and he has this big Crenshaw sign, like the Crenshaw Theater he grew up goin' to as a kid in the hood. So he has the same curtains and when they open it says 'The Crenshaw Theater.' And then he puts on Snake In Monkey Shadow. He has the original print. I haven't seen the original print since 1979! One thing about DVD and VHS, some of the fight scenes are not as intense as watching 'em on the big screen. I'd seen this film over a 100 times on VHS and DVD and of course in the movies when it came out, we had a couple of girls with us, too, and we had a couple of bottle of champagne, right? And, you know, just because of the size of the screen and the sound and everything, the movie was brand new again to me, the women loved it, and they laughed at the parts that should be laughed at and when the guy was doin' the drunken style they were like 'Oooooh!'"
In the end RZA's involvement with Kill Bill went beyond sound effect consultation and theme music selection. He actually composed large chunks of atmospheric score that is littered throughout the film. He even teamed up with QT's long time compadre, Robert Rodriguez. "With Kill Bill I did score and songs, meaning that we put a lot of songs in [the movie] from old collections of records and I composed music for some scenes, natural music." In terms of the composition of the "natural music" RZA did his typical Bobby Digital in-studio wizardry, which means that he programmed his music, focusing on 16-bar phrases before handing it over to an orchestrator who writes it out for symphonic re-interpretation. On other projects, such as Soul Plane, RZA's electronic nuances were more or less removed from the mix, but with his scoring for Kill Bill Vol. 2, most, if not all, of the electronic noize was left in. "When we did Kill Bill 2, you know, we brought Robert Rodriguez in," explains RZA. "Check this out, he took my music and he kept the foundation there, though. With Robert he didn't want to remove any of the electronic [sounds]. He said 'No.' I was like 'Take out all the electronic stuff, you know, so it can be [more like a traditional score].' He said 'No, man. I like the electronic stuff. This is the reason I wanted to do this.' So he took the electronic stuff and kept it there, then built the orchestrations on top of it, you know what I mean?"
Kill Bill may be the most exposure that RZA has gotten to date in terms of film composition, but it definitely won't be the last. He also contributed some musical bits to Barbershop 2, and will have his music featured in both the upcoming comedy Soul Plane and the third installment of Blade, not to mention an actual speaking part in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. So while the Wu-Tang Clan continues to be on hiatus, RZA is adopting the "no rest for the wicked" mantra, digging his heels into the mix and continuing to work his wares in the world of cinema.
Written by IGN Music