RZA Reveals Advice From Pam Grier And Details On "The Man With The Iron Fists"
Exclusive: Wu-Tang's RZA explains how the queen of Blaxploitation cinema helped him immensely with his 2012 directorial debut, "The Man With The Iron Fists."
Before there was a name for mashups, RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan were blending blaxploitation flicks, Kung Fu movies and unabashedly rough Hip Hop. From Al Green samples, to clips from poorly overdubbed Gordon Liu movies and jokes about Ol’ Dirty Bastard using a napkin as a contraceptive, nothing was off limits. Damn, those were the days.
While RZA’s profile has grown to include sharing screen time with Dave Chappelle, Bill Murray and making moves with Quentin Tarantino, he’s still essentially doing the same thing. Instead of splicing clips from Pam Grier movies, now he just flies the original Foxy Brown to China to help him with his directorial debut. And while there’s nothing wrong with sampling some Isaac Hayes (RZA did repeatedly), he had the luxury of calling Hayes a friend and building a school with him in Ghana. As tempting as it is to turn back the clock, it’s been 18 years since Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers dropped and Hip Hop has been through multiple changes. But the essentials of what make any work of art dope remain the same. In addition to sharing some of those fundamentals, RZA points to his inspirations during the Clan’s epic run as touchstones to what we can expect from his future endeavors.
HipHopDX: From the Wu-Tang Forever CD Rom to Shaolin Style and now the RZA’s World app, what is it about Wu fans that makes them more receptive to these kinds of technical innovations?
RZA: I think fans resonate with the artists that they are fans of, and most of us in the crew are very electronically savvy. That applies to video games and applications for iPhones or iPads. Our fans are like us, and we enjoy a lot of the same things. That’s why I think certain items resonate with them, because they enter our world and vice versa.
DX: I heard that story about how you were getting frustrated when you first got the Roland MV 8000.
RZA: [laughs] Oh yeah.
DX: Based on that, what would you say the learning curve is for people using your app?
RZA: I think anything electronic has a learning curve, but this is on a push button system. It’s not like you gotta go out and learn some high science. The app is really simple and pretty straightforward. It’s something that will continue to grow, which is good as far as us continuing to feed it. It’s really a glimpse or an access [point] into a world that I keep private to the industry. But I don’t think there’s a true learning curve besides the chess program, and that’s just learning to get better. That has skill levels if you want to win. And sometimes winning makes you more confident to continue doing anything. But you’ve also got to learn from your defeats.
DX: You mentioned keeping some things private. What made you change that mentality and bring more of this stuff to light?
RZA: Well, one thing I realized was if you go back to the first Wu-Tang album, Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, it ends with, “It’s our secret…we’ll never teach the Wu-Tang!” And I kind of kept that philosophy for some years. But after a while, I caught on and got the idea that knowledge is free. We don’t belong to no kind of lodge where we have to pledge an oath or anything. So it’s not something we have to conceal. I realized we have to teach what we know and share it. And you’ll notice in more recent years how our music started to do that.
But there’s still a private life that I have…and I don’t mean private inside of my house, because I still strive to keep that private. But things like me going and doing these different endeavors and artistic expressions—like going to make a movie in China or the independent movie we shot in Ohio. We brought in like 20 different actors from China that I admired. That’s a lot of the stuff that nobody knows about because I keep my world pretty tight. But it got to the point where I was like, “You know what? Let them into that world.” That way people get access to what I’m doing, but it also might inspire them to do it.
I know phones can go from the basic kid in the projects who asks his mom to save up and get it as a Christmas gift to kids in suburbia who can get it at will. I mean, rich people probably get a phone every three months, right? But what it takes to make a person from either of those backgrounds a successful artist is usually kept under the sheets. So I thought I would put some of that information into my app. There’s photos of Wu-Tang Clan in Russia. And it’s not just a photo that a fan took, but it’s a photo from my eye of how I’m seeing the world. There are rare shots from The Man With The Iron Fists in there too. All this stuff is from my personal collection, and I’m glad they let me put that in there.
I don’t want to talk too long about this, but through my books and stuff, I’ve learned that people grab inspiration from me and it builds their life up. People have come to my book signings and shook my hand like, “Yo, I got a better job reading your book.” This one particular guy came over, and he didn’t want an autograph or nothin’. He shook my hand, and was like, “Yo, thanks for making me a millionaire.” So I know the information that I put out through my experiences can help somebody. And because of that, I’m being more open with it.
DX: True. You mentioned The Man With The Iron Fists, and I think most Wu fans would agree you lay albums out with a cinematic approach. How difficult was it to take the vision in your head and translate that to the technical process of putting things on screen?
RZA: So far, it’s been my hardest job. I thought the Wu-Tang Clan was my hardest job I was gonna have to face in life, you know? Dealing with all my brothers and the stuff we had to go through. But this is actually harder. And what makes it harder is…I could kind of compare it to Obama becoming president. When you become the leader of such a [large] group of people like that, you have all these ideas. But then you realize that your ideas have to travel through so many other vessels that they may have to be compromised. That’s what I learned directing. There were certain scenes that I wanted this way, but they were like, “It can’t happen, buddy!” It can happen in your imagination, but to make it practical and make it happen on certain shots was impossible. Some things were maybe too dangerous or just not pracitical within the budget. So you learn to compromise, and you learn the pressure of controlling so much money and delivering.
You’re kind of the head honcho when you’re directing. So I compare that to the president, because he’s gotta control that budget, yo. If that money doesn’t go right, then the presidency doesn’t go right. That’s how it is with directing. You sign your name on this particular piece of paper, and you’re guaranteed this money. You represent something, and you’ll go through it and make sure that money is spent wisely so you deliver on such a large investment of someone else’s money.
DX: Pam Grier leaked the info that her character is your mother and she gave up her freedom to save you…anything else you can tell us about working with her?
RZA: First of all, we shot this film in China. So she came way over there to play that role for me, and I was honored. I’m a big Pam Grier fan, and she really is a walking well of wisdom on filmmaking. She’s been doing this since back in the 60’s and 70’s, and she has so much information about the struggles that our people went through being black in Hollywood. Aside from understanding the difficulty getting jobs as actors, she also empathized with Hip Hop culture.
What she gave me in the film is what she gave me in real life—a sacrifice for the next generation. That’s kind of what her role is, but that’s also what she did by coming out to China. She took time to talk to me. And even though we didn’t have a lot of time together, she just shared that wisdom with me immediately. I grasped it, and it helped me throughout the rest of the shoot.
DX: I can’t help but think about all the similarities between Blaxploitation cinema and Kung-Fu movies…
RZA: [laughs] Definitely. And we’ll get into more of that information as the release date gets nearer, but I will say this. I have a centerpiece of Blaxploitation in the film; obviously that was a big 70’s genre. I also have Gordon Liu, the Master Killer himself, who was a centerpiece of the Kung-Fu genre. The funniest part for me though, was that I got a character from Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon. In that movie, Bruce Lee is trying to protect the restaurant, and there’s an old white man trying to take over his business. And I cast him in The Man with the Iron Fists, just for that reason. Jon [Jon T. Benn] is in the movie!
We had other choices, but when I found out we could get him, it was like, “Oh no. I want this motherfucker!” He’s one of the first villains that I had ever seen watching Bruce Lee movies. He came in wanting to buy the restaurant, and he was just really discriminating. And in my film he plays a character that’s similar…it’s someone with power. So we’ve got them as well as more modern actors in sort of a mashup. I’ve always been a fan of different genres, and even my production was a sort of mashup before people were even calling them that. Now in film, I’m striving to do the same thing. You get a wide range of characters, and attempt to blend them and make something new and unique.
DX: This is a bit off topic, but “Domestic Violence,” is a sort of genre mash up that really stands out as an anomaly in your catalogue, but it’s also a bit of a cult favorite. Can you go into how that song was created?
RZA: That song came to me from experience. I had a family already, but at the same time, I was really indulgent with a lot of women. We get in the music business, we get famous…you gotta remember my first song was “We Love You Rakeem,” and it was about having too many ladies [laughs]. I guess I kind of had an attractive power, and I was going through it with many different women. But there are many different things that can cause confusion within a household. And that can be my own household, or watching my mother go through it, or watching my brothers go through it. It’s real.
So I just started fucking writing it, and I was actually pretty stressed out while writing it. The funny thing about that song—and I’ll share this with the world—my ex-wife says she was hurt by that song. And I tell her, “Look, this song ain’t just about you. It’s a couple of lines in there that fit you, and those are the ones that are hitting you.” But that is an accumulation of different women.
And I love women…I respect them. Women are basically the most beautiful things in the universe in all reality. That’s true beauty, because that’s what brings forth our life. Without them, where are we? So I know the importance of women, but the women have become so attracted to the wrong way of society and the foolishness of society. They say, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but that’s just a rock, baby. Our capitalist system breeds a certain kind of woman. And when that kind of woman is bred within these single-parent homes and all that, they go on to breed a certain kind of family. There’s a lesson that was given to us that’s called M.G.T.
DX: Oh yeah. I hear you reference that in the song. “You better study the one to fourteen knowledge culture degree / About M.G.T. and G.C.C…”
RZA: Some women need General Civilization Classes. Those are lessons on how to keep a husband and keep their homes—how to sew, cook and work at home and abroad. It teaches women how to carry themselves in the most respectful manner at home and abroad and reflect the light of their sun. So that was a truthful song, but it made me think more about what I said. I’ll mention this since you brought it up.
I got a letter from a fan. And I get a lot of letters, but I don’t read a lot of them. So I just happened to be sitting in my office one time, and I happened to read a couple of letters. And one of the letters was from a girl. She said, “RZA I looked up to you as one of the greatest men on the planet. I love your mind and everything you have stood for. But after hearing this song, I am totally disappointed in you and you have broken my heart.” I was like, “Wow,” and I didn’t write back. After about a year, I eased back and re-meditated on it. I heard what she was saying, but the truth can be that bitter sometimes. When she starts going through different experiences, is she going to be that way?
Even the smallest things, like when I said, “Taking up all the room in my closet.” Right now, to this day, my closet is downstairs. And I love my wife! We started off sharing the closet, but now my closet is downstairs and the main one is totally her closet [laughs]. I gotta go hang my shirts and stuff in my son’s closet. And my wife and I are totally in love. We never argue or nothing, but it’s just something about women. They’ve got their ways, and we’ve got to deal with it.