Anyone who has ever listened to the Wu-Tang Clan knows that movies, especially martial art films, have been a big influence on the hip-hop group’s sound and style.
During a nearly hourlong keynote speech Monday at South by Southwest, RZA, the group’s chief founder, shared with his audience how the films he watched as a kid inspired and influenced him as an artist.
“When I finally figured out what I wanted to do and that was to be a hip-hop artist,” he said, “I started making albums that reflected my idea of what a film would be.”
The first film RZA saw was Star Wars, he said, adding that he connected the most with Obi-Wan Kenobi because the character was a “deep, spiritual guy.” The sci-fi classic provided plenty of inspiration for what would become the Wu-Tang style.
“When you look at Star Wars or the martial arts films—the sword swing or the light-saber swing—and then Wu-Tang [having] a sword style of lyricism, you see that all these different films have guided me, informed me, molded me and helped me find my artistic expression [for] music [founded] on film,” RZA said.
Throughout the talk, the hip-hop legend took his audience on a tour of his creative journey from rap artist to film-music composer and movie director.
RZA’s first step was meeting Chinese-born director John Woo, whose films are sampled on some of Wu-Tang’s early albums. That meeting gave the musician insights into the filmmaking process and revealed similarities between directing and making hip-hop music.
“In a way, directors are samplers. Film is their medium of sampling,” RZA said.
“I use a sampler to sample beats and to sample old songs,” RZA added. “They use film in their minds to sample ideas. This is why we can have someone like Kurosawa, who maybe 2 million people have seen his movies, but at the end of the day, 50 million saw [them] when they watched Star Wars. So this is the power of film.”
It was indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch who brought RZA to his next stop: becoming a film composer. The director wanted RZA to score his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The only problem was Jarmusch didn’t know how to reach RZA. Fortunately for the two artists, they had a mutual friend.
“There was a guy who knew us both … the guy we bought weed off of,” RZA said.
Even though RZA did not have any film-composing experience, he quickly learned those skills and applied them to other movies, he told the audience. But it was only when he watched Quentin Tarantino in China on the set of the first Kill Bill movie that RZA’s eyes truly opened to the power of cinema.
“I remember watching Quentin do his magic, and it hit me in the head like, ‘Yo, I’m proud of what I do,’” RZA said. “But, wow, that felt like the ultimate expression of art.”
The musician said he humbled himself and asked Tarantino to take him on as a film apprentice. RZA followed Tarantino around for six years before making his directorial debut in 2011 with The Man With the Iron Fist.
RZA recalled the moment when Tarantino visited him in China on the set of the Iron Fist: “Quentin kind of leans over to me and says, ’Remember [when] you was in Beijing here in China writing notes as a student. Well the student has now graduated.’”
“That was a crowning achievement for me,” RZA added.
“If you’re fortunate enough to get a good mentor, I advise you to take the wisdom, use it, sharpen yourself with it,” RZA shared with the crowd. “Improve yourself with it.”