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May 2004
Coffee and Cigarettes: An Interview with RZA

By Todd Gilchrist

Coffee and Cigarettes: An Interview with RZA

Few members or fans of the hip-hop universe are able to mention Wu-Tang rapper-producer RZA without whispering his name in hushed tones of reverence; as a founding member of the nine-headed conglomerate hydra, he transformed the sound of underground rap into mainstream formula, and virtually changed the face of contemporary music as popsters once knew it. His production credits continues to proliferate since W-Tang's debut LP over a decade ago, and has more recently added a few extra hyphenates to his already seemingly endless list of credentials: actor-composer. He features prominently in the upcoming anthology "Coffee and Cigarettes", directed by onetime collaborator Jim Jarmusch, for whom RZA (nee Robert Diggs) composed the score to "Ghost Dog". RZA sat down with blackfilm for a conversation about his burgeoning interest in film work- specifically, his work on Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" volumes 1 and 2- and about the difference between the worlds of hip-hop and Hollywood.

RZA, how is the upcoming stuff you're doing going to be different than your previous composer work?

RZA: First of all, "Soul Plane" is a comedy, and therefore it's very different. In the past, "Ghost Dog" and "Kill Bill", except for volume two, which was Robert Rodriguez, there hasn't been orchestration for my work. It has been mostly electronic. "Soul Plane" was the first time I had a 49-piece orchestra, and they played my music beautifully, and so for me it was really a dream come true. 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. And I want my music to be played by an orchestra; I said it so many times in my early interviews. 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, but they all have different styles and different cultures.

How is your approach to composing different than to producing?

RZA: 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. But when you're dealing with scoring, you know, you have to change mood, you have to change vibes. Even in one mood, you have to keep the camera in mind, the movement of the camera and the movement of the actors. 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, and 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 own thing, when I did my track, I did it more bluesy. And then after that scene, it goes into a big comedy scene, of course. 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.

Did you record a great deal more music for "Kill Bill" that didn't make it into the film?

RZA: Yeah. I mean, some of the music we just used for the website.

Do you prefer independent filmmakers to Hollywood ones?

RZA: If I had my way I'd work with Quentin on every movie. 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. With the studios, there are a lot more people involved. There is a lot of stuff that you never see, executive stuff that's just executive. So far 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. On "Soul Plane" the director, Jesse Terrell, is also from the hip-hop community, so we hang anyway, and that was cool. But on "Blade 3" I hung out with Dave [Goyer], and we kicked it, be he and I haven't gotten into the mix yet. I think the kind of person I am, though, I always want to get along with my director and everybody because I seek and see their vision. If I can see it, I'll [do the movie]. If I can't then I'll let it be. On if they can't explain their vision, like on "Soul Plane", Jesse didn't have any musical ideas. He said, 'I don't know, I don't know.' I said, you need to know, because it helps all of us, but if you don't know, you don't know. But it did get to a point towards the end of the score that he took my advice and he started making himself known, and started giving his opinion. After a while, I didn't want his opinion no more," he laughed. "Once he got started, he started changing too much, and I was like, whoa, okay, wait a minute. There is a difference between independent [projects] and the studios..." "I think my scoring helps relate to my lyrics, which is the freedom of my lyrics. When you are producing hip-hop, you're very limited. 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."

What's the next step for the Wu-Tang empire, having done countless albums and solo releases?

RZA: I think people have heard it, but I don't think they have seen it enough. I think we need to get it on the screen. I think with Wu-Tang, movies should be our next endeavor, because our creativity and our experience is something I think will interest filmgoers as well as the record buyers. I shouldn't say this, but I'm going to say this: if you take one of GZA's songs, "Life of a Drug Dealer," you could basically use that as a template for a movie. I just think that's what time it is for us.

What kind of ideas do you have for possible Wu-Tang films?

RZA: I'm writing scripts now. I was advised by Quentin to write. We were talking, and he was like 'look. You know what you should do, because you could do all this, but you have to write it.' and since the day he told me to write, I've been writing.

Is that the next logical step for you?

RZA: I don't know if it's logical but it's something I definitely have a passion for. It's not something I'm doing because, hey... a lot of rappers do want to be actors, but a lot of them don't respect the art. 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. I spent time with Richard Gibbs, a famous composer who did over forty movies, Phil Giffin, who orchestrated for me, he 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. I studied it, yo? 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. That's why when you watch these guys on the screen, you don't have any love for them. They come in there with their hip-hop egos. They're not going down and respecting the "art" of acting.

Talk about some of the cues from the "Kill Bill" soundtrack?

RZA: That's from a blaxploitation movie. The whole trick we did on part one was it was Japanese Samurai. So even though we had some Shaw Brothers sounds in there, I went to the Sonny Chiba collection because it was Japanese. Then on part two, it was the Pai Mei, White Lotus, so I thought more of the kung fu movies. It wasn't always two parts, of course, but to me, you had to cast a Japanese Samurai film, and you've got to cast a Shaw Brothers kung fu film. That's why the music was so back and forth between the two chambers, as well as a spaghetti western film.

Who would you like to work with that you haven't yet?

RZA: As far as great filmmakers, I don't know if I'll get a chance to work with them, but [I love] Oliver Stone. I "need" to work with John Woo at least one time, because I've had a dialogue with him since 1995, but we've never worked together. I look at those classic films, and you know these guys, I don't have to say their names, but they're incredible. Somebody like Ridley Scott. Oliver Stone, that's one of my favorite directors.

How did you first get involved with Jim Jarmusch?

RZA: When Jim came to me, he wanted me to score "Ghost Dog" for him. I already was telling all of my peers I need to be scoring movies, because when I did that "Bobby Digital" album, it's too deep. It's too cinematic; motherfuckers don't know what I'm doing. Critics are talking all this shit. 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. And then a month later, 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. 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. But I didn't know what he did, so he said 'let me get you a copy of some of my movies,' and he gave me a DVD of some of his 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". 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. I'm the type of kid I watch out for, I know good directors, I think I can judge a good director, but "Dead Man" put Jim in a league like, okay, he's a deep thinker. He's a deep director."

Is compositional work differently satisfying than rapping, producing or acting?

"The stage to me was a release. 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. And we watched "Kill Bill" in Manhattan, you know, at the premiere, it happened, but that's Hollywood. 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! And they didn't clap for anything else yet, because the movie's just coming on. I was like 'whoa! What the fuck is that about?' 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 shit, 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."

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