RZA on Kendrick’s Pulitzer and his message for Jeff Sessions

Written by
Ryan Pfeffer

RZA was on his way to the airport when we caught up with him. The Wu-Tang founder, rapper, composer, producer, actor and all-around national treasure is currently bouncing around the country performing his latest creative endeavor: a live scoring of the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Tomorrow, for III Points 4/20 concert (appropriately named III Joints), RZA lands in Miami to breathe new life into the classic kung fu film he credits with planting the creative seeds that inspired the Wu-Tang Clan. With two partners and a Roli Blocks modular music system, RZA will weave Wu-Tang tracks into the narrative of the two-hour movie, a performance that utilizes RZA’s multitude of composing, DJing and improv skills. We spoke to him about that as well as some other timely subjects: Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer and just what he hopes will happen to the single copy of the now government-seized Wu-Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

Last time you were in Miami was last Art Basel, right?
Yeah, the whole Clan was there. That was a good night.

It was. Do you like coming to Miami?
Who wouldn’t like coming to Miami? I just love the wind blowing on the beach. I like the vibe of it all. I’ve been coming to Miami since the ‘90s. It’s one of those cities that you just go there and really feel the vibe. One of the last times I came down there I stayed at the Soho House. I actually ended up staying a few extra days and got to enjoy it.

So your score changes from night-to-night for this show. Is that due to crowd energy or other variables?
Well, it actually doesn’t depend on the crowd. It depends on the energy I’m feeling and the energy my two co-pilots are feeling. So we have a particular menu of music but when we go live anything can change. If it starts feeling—and not that this has happened yet—but if it starts feeling a little dead there’s always a go-to song. The music plays kind of chronologically with the film. A lot of the chosen tracks and cues have some type of relation to what you’re seeing on the screen. Just last night, I basically created a track on the spot. That’s fun too—to explore along with the movie and channel that spontaneous inspiration.

Do you remember the first film you were ever hired to score?
Yeah, it was Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai by Jim Jarmusch. Jim was basically my key into this world. I’m always grateful to him for recognizing my talent and coming to me to compose. He exposed me to a whole new world of expression.

Was it challenging to transition to film scoring or did it come naturally?
It was definitely challenging. The technical process was a very steep learning curve. The creative process wasn’t so difficult because I had done some studying and I was deep into music. It was right after Wu-Tang Forever. During that period—after ’96—I started actually studying music theory. By the time I did Ghost Dog I had a strong foundation of music theory and knew what sounds to hit to move you emotionally. But the technical aspects—cue points, fading in, fading out, climaxing—all that was unknown to me and challenging. I would meet Jim at like two in the morning with a bunch of written music and just give it to him. He was like, wait a minute—this is a nine-to-five job, not a 2am job.

I’ll tell you one more quick story. After I did Ghost Dog, I got some critical feedback and got hired by FOX to do a TV show directed by Ernest Dickerson. So I do the show, and the music editor flies to New York to work in my studio. This guy comes to work every day at 9am and leaves at 5pm. I come to work every night at 8pm and leave at four in the morning. He reports back to the studio and I actually lost the job. I got fired. When Tarantino brought me back in on Kill Bill, he was the first one to sit me down in the editing room and give me an office. I had to sit there for months as a composer and that was my final training.

I love the Kill Bill soundtrack so much. Was that the most challenging and fulfilling score you’ve done?
Yeah. They both were pinnacles for me. My proper education. On Kill Bill, I’ll never forget the challenge of Quentin telling me day after day: ‘That’s not it.’ I’m used to being the boss so I wasn’t used to that. I got frustrated and then one day I was sitting in the editing room writing the piece for the scene when the Crazy 88’s attack Uma Thurman and he just bursts in the room and goes, ‘That’s it!’ It was gratifying. It took days to crack that code.

While I have you, I wanted to see if you had any reaction to Kendrick winning the Pulitzer? It’s the first hip-hop album to ever win the award. Did you ever think that would be possible when you were first starting out?
Yeah, I did. First of all, I’m so proud of Kendrick and I think it’s great. I’m glad that they finally turned their eyes over to us. But I always thought the Pulitzer was dealing more with writing, so I don’t know how they do their judging but I always felt that it had something to do with writing. And when I go back and see some of the lyrics that GZA wrote on Liquid Swords and Beneath the Surface, some of the writing he did was well-deserving. Take a song like “Fame,” where every verse and every line is somebody’s name. Everything he did to me was at a genius level of writing. So I think in hindsight a lot of early hip-hop—Slick Rick, Rakim—a lot of those albums may have been overlooked because hip-hop wasn’t looked upon. But I’m glad that in today’s society Kendrick Lamar, who definitely has got to be considered one of the best and most poignant lyricists out there, can win that prize.

Did you get a chance to see Method Man and Ghostface on Colbert?

It was very funny.

They met James Comey backstage apparently and then did a sketch on the show where they pretended to talk to Jeff Sessions, who was portrayed as a Keebler Elf cookie, and essentially asked him to release Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
I’ve got to watch that.

If you had a chance to say something to Jeff Sessions about the album, what would it be?
If it’s in the hands of the Department of Justice, they need to do it justice. But… I’ll just say, Mr. Sessions, Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with. And I’ll leave it like that.

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