|© The Wu-Tang Corp.- 2004-04-23
Music is an essential part of Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic visions, and it takes more than a typical composer, performer or producer to fulfill the myriad desires of his kaleido-cscopic musical palette.
Luckily for him, Tarantino found rapper-producer-composer-martial arts enthusiast RZA willing and available to help him bring forth the colors of his latest opus. Having served as longtime majordomo of the music industry empire Wu-Tang Clan, the RZA (a.k.a. Robert Diggs) has long since become familiar with a vast range of musical styles and influences; unsurprisingly, this eclecticism came in mighty handy once Q.T. began compiling sounds for Kill Bill.
While Tarantino’s A-list status has been all but permanently gilded on the face of Hollywood following the first-weekend success of both volumes of his grindhouse revenge epic, the RZA’s position remains far from as comfortably assured, but the producer is looking to change all that in upcoming months. Kill Bill follows the RZA’s dynamite work for director Jim Jarmusch, who tapped him for the score to his 2000 gangster samurai flick Ghost Dog, and will soon be accompanied by full-fledged symphonies for the upcoming pictures Soul Plane and the third (and presumably final) installment in the Blade series.
Recently, the RZA recently spoke with FilmStew about the process of moving from hip-hop to Hollywood and shared his hopes of becoming a burgeoning creative force in the film industry. Since his auspicious producing and rapping debut in 1993 with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the RZA has also released two albums under the moniker ‘Bobby Digital’ and produced countless others.
Ironically, even though he has exhaustively explored and expanded the boundaries of modern hip-hop, he finds the genre somewhat limiting for his immeasurable talents. "When you are producing hip-hop, you’re very limited," he says. "Hip-hop and r & b is basically a template you must follow. But when you’re doing scores, or you’re doing poetry, there’s no template, and that’s really the difference."
He confesses that the idea of composing music on a cinematic scale is one he’d thought about for some time, but not everyone was quite ready for it - until, that is, Jim Jarmusch approached him about Ghost Dog. "I already was telling all of my peers I needed to be scoring movies, because when I did that Bobby Digital album, it was too deep," he recalls.
"It’s too cinematic," he continues. "Motherf**kers don’t know what I’m doing. Critics are talking all this sh*t. They don’t see I’m making a sixteen-bar loop for each [track]. I’m not making a two-bar loop. I’m not sampling some old breakbeat. This is me, homie. I’m letting my creativity come. The critics were like I’m going over their heads."
"I was like, you know what? This is for movies. I did a movie."
The introduction of the two, RZA suggests, may or may not have been under questionable circum-stances. "Jim shows up in my office with one of my homeboys, a guy named Dreddy Krueger. Now I don’t even imagine how they met," he says with a knowing laugh. "All I can imagine is they met getting some broccoli together, and one thing led to another, and boom! They were at my office, and Jim said ‘I want you to score a movie for me.’ I said, wow, that’s what I’ve been talking about with all of my peers."
Still, the RZA says he wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s work, and neither immediately was he won over by the director’s deeply personal, intimate and frequently eccentric films. "I didn’t know what he did, so he said, ‘Let me get you a copy of some of my movies.’ I threw one in, and I didn’t catch on to it; I don’t even remember the name of that one. The second one I watched was Dead Man."
Suggesting volumes about the mind state one might want optimally to be in to enjoy a Jarmusch movie, he continues: "Me and my brothers had some broccoli, and we zoned in. We watched that one at least four or five times. But after seeing that one, I was like okay."
Confident in his own ability to recognize talent, RZA agreed to a collaboration. "I’m the type of kid, I watch out for [talent], and I think I can judge a good director," he maintains. "Dead Man put Jim in a league like, okay, he’s a deep thinker. He’s a deep director."
The rest, as they say, is history, though it seems that RZA is hardly interested in letting that experience repeat itself. Well, at least not without expanding the self-educated artist’s growing repertoire of talents: "Ghost Dog and Kill Bill, except for Volume 2, which was Robert Rodriguez, there hasn’t been orchestration for my work. It has been mostly electronic."
With his next project, the upcoming Snoop Dogg comedy Soul Plane, RZA will stare down a full-fledged ensemble of musicians and fulfill a dream posited in the early days of his career. "Soul Plane was the first time I had a 49-piece orchestra, and they played my music beautifully. It was really a dream come true."
Expectedly, RZA is thankful for the modest steps he’s already taken but sees no reason to maintain the status quo, since he has built a career out of redefining hip-hop for an entire industry. "Of course, Ghost Dog was part of a dream, and Kill Bill, hey, you can’t beat that, right? But I’ve always said to myself, if you read my earlier interviews, that I know hip-hop can be done by an orchestra."
"I want my music to be played by an orchestra; I said it so many times in my early interviews," he adds. "And now I lived it, and now I’m going to live it even higher because on Blade: Trinity, we’re actually planning for an 80-piece orchestra. So for me it’s really fulfilling."
RZA sees film composition as an almost entirely different discipline than the usual production duties he performs. The reason for this, he says, is because it both enables and requires him to consider the emotional scope of the material he produces. "Typical production is limited to me, basically, because all I have to do is focus on two or four bars, and make repetitive music, and maybe a few changes here or there," he explains. "But when you’re dealing with scoring, you know, you have to change mood, you have to change vibes."
Having learned from his past experiences, RZA says that the visual content must be considered in order to maximize the effectiveness of the score; it matters little if it’s brilliantly composed if it’s inappropriate for the characters, scene, or film as a whole. "Even in one mood, you have to keep the camera in mind, the movement of the camera and the movement of the actors," he suggests.
"There’s a scene in Soul Plane when there’s a guy on the stairs, and he’s making a speech about being poor and all this," he continues. "In the temp track they had, you couldn’t feel the poverty of the kid, because it was a black guy’s poverty, and to me that’s the blues, you know what I mean? So when I got up there to do my track, I did it more bluesy."
Sometimes, although no amount of calculation can make the musical proceedings easier, RZA considers sharp transitions a fun challenge and a reminder of music one might not naturally associate with his hip-hop niche. "After that scene, it goes into a big comedy scene, of course," he says. "So I have to take it from this moment where you feel sad for this guy to where it’s like, ‘40 million dollars!’ So it’s a total curve, and to me that’s like opera, that’s like Mozart."
"That’s like orchestra stuff, and that’s the approach I took."
RZA’s appreciation of his experiences with Jarmusch and Tarantino seems to know no boundaries, perhaps because of their outsider approach to Hollywood formulas.
"If I had my way I’d work with Quentin on every movie," he enthuses. "It’s not only about work; we could relate, talk and laugh."
"There were times when he would just pop in the room and just hang out for hours," adds RZA. "With the studios, there are a lot more people involved. There is a lot of stuff that you never see, executive stuff. But for me, fortunately, I haven’t had a problem either way, and I’m grateful for that, but the intimacy of working with Quentin and working with Jim felt good."
Admirably, RZA considers his foray into film composition a serious step beyond the boundaries of hip-hop and not a dalliance enabled by the fickle finger of commercial success. As with his burgeoning acting career (such as in next month’s Coffee & Cigarettes), he devotes time, effort and attention to doing his job well.
"It’s something I definitely have a passion for," he admits. "A lot of rappers do want to be actors, but a lot of them don’t respect the art. [For Coffe & Cigarettes,] I took my weeks and weeks with an acting coach, and learned how this thing works. So if I do come to do something, I’m not just walking in because I’m the RZA. I’ve been trained. That’s why I took my time even with my scores."
Describing the research he did to work effectively as an orchestral composer, arranger and conductor, he said, "I spent time with Richard Gibbs, a famous composer who did over forty movies, Phil Giffin, who orchestrated for me, did over 80 movies, as well as reading books, and watching great ones like Danny Elfman and John Williams, checking out what they do and just listening, how they took one melody and made it a whole Close Encounters of the Third Kind thing."
Asserting his honorable intentions, he adds, "I’m not just somebody coming in because I’m the RZA. I’m coming in as somebody with talent, know-how, knowledge and respect. I think if every artist came in with that particular weight, he should be successful."
Like a performer born, however, it’s not the accolades of critics or the success of dollars moved and records sold that motivates him, but the reaction from fans and friends, people who are honest about what his music means to them, whether it’s coming from a street-corner stereo or a screen forty feet high.
"The stage to me was a release," he says. "On the Kill Bill score, what made me feel good about that was, when you watch movies, you never ever see an audience, when it says ‘Music by’, [they applaud]. I’ve never seen that in my life."
"You know, at the premiere it happened, but that’s Hollywood," he begrudgingly confesses."In Manhattan, at a theatre with just a bunch of kids from wherever in New York, inside the theatre with the movie coming on, they don’t even know I’m the man with the music, and when it says ‘Original music by the RZA,’ you hear the audience clapping!"
"They didn’t clap for anything else yet, because the movie’s just coming on. I was like ‘whoa! What the f*ck is that about?’"
Without trying to pinpoint a reason for this remarkable and satisfying outpour of appreciation, RZA says that the reaction made all his efforts worthwhile, especially since it’s something he couldn’t imagine ever doing for anyone else. "I think that’s very different, and it actually might be something special, you know, because you never care who did that. Once you see who stars in the sh*t, you don’t read who edited it. You eat your popcorn, and it goes right by you."
"But for someone to see that and clap, that felt pretty great."
Written by Todd Gilchrist for FilmStew.com