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The soundtrack to the RZA's life

Sounds from the screen have long inspired the rap DJ. At a film festival, it will all spin back.

June 08, 2005|Soren Baker | Special to The Times

When representatives of the Los Angeles Film Festival approached groundbreaking rap producer and rising film composer the RZA about contributing something unique to their event, he thought about his childhood in Staten Island, N.Y., when he watched older DJs in his neighborhood play records synced to cartoons.

As an artist in residence at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, the RZA will revisit his childhood, presenting his own score to a variety of classic cartoons as part of the festival's "ToonTime" on June 22 at the Ford Amphitheatre.

"When you see Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff, it's always 'duunnnnn,' " says the RZA, the musical mastermind of the respected rap group the Wu-Tang Clan, as he mimics the sound. "But imagine him falling to a James Brown beat, one that could be slowed down or sped up."

In addition to his cartoon DJ performance, the RZA also selected three films to screen at the festival. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the 1966 classic starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone, played a pivotal role in the RZA's evolution as a film fan.

"Clint Eastwood is one of the master icons of Hollywood cinema, as well as world cinema," he says. "He did movies in Italy when he was doing TV shows, not features. He goes to Italy and makes these movies, and these things set a whole trend that not only resonates back to America but resonates all around the world. You start seeing some of the early samurai movies and kung fu movies and you'll hear the soundtrack from 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' or you'll hear that some of the ideas were basically westerns."

The 1977 film "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," starring Gordon Liu, inspired the "36 Chambers" and "Shaolin" motifs the Wu-Tang Clan uses in its music. The nine-member rap group named its 1993 debut album "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" and called its Staten Island stomping grounds "Shaolin" in songs and interviews.

"The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" film touched the RZA and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan on many levels. "To me, that's like the Asian 'Rocky,' the training this man goes through," the RZA says. "It's one of the first films that really inspired me on a psychological and spiritual level, as far as martial arts films."

The RZA's final film selection is 1999's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," written and directed by Jim Jarmusch that marked the RZA's entree into scoring. The RZA was drawn to the character of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, who lives by the samurai code, something the RZA also follows.

"It's vitally important for everyday psychological warfare, whether you're dealing with business, family, people or just walking in the streets," he says. "Also, that is my first score. I'm the resident, so I had to have something to represent myself and my humble beginnings. It's also a tribute to Jim Jarmusch, who gave me my first opportunity in this film world."

When the Wu-Tang emerged in 1993, many fans were drawn to the RZA's skeletal yet cinematic production. Four years later, after "Enter the Wu-Tang" was heralded as a classic in hip-hop circles and such Wu-Tang Clan members as Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard had released acclaimed recordings, the RZA made quantum leaps in his music-making equipment and started studying music theory.

"That's when I started realizing that the progression of music, the chords, the melodies are beyond two bars, four bars, and beyond the hip-hop DJ cutting it back and forth," he says. "I started realizing song formats, and not just soul songs or rock songs. If you look at Mozart, the melodic way that these composers would take one melody line and it becomes a whole symphony, it made me become interested in that."

DJ, radio personality and producer King Tech, who featured the RZA on "Back 2 Basics," the album he released last month with longtime musical partner and MTV VJ Sway, says that the RZA's wide range of inspiration has helped him make the transition into film composition.

"His vision, his sound and what he hears is not what the average person hears," King Tech says. "That dude's mind is complexly different from everybody else's. It's not so much that he's making every song that you hear there, it's just that when he sees the scene, he can think of something to put in there."

Since "Ghost Dog," the RZA has worked on scores for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies, "Barbershop 2: Back in Business," "Blade: Trinity" and, most recently, "Unleashed."

Unlike his own music, which he typically composes with minimal input, the RZA has been able to thrive while working with other composers on music for movies. "I've been real fortunate," he says. "Every project I've been on, I've have good collaborations with people who have had more experience and more knowledge in an academic way about music than me. I'm bringing this raw, unchallenged talent to it, and they love what I'm bringing to the table. A lot of the guys are telling me that they're learning things from me, and that's great."

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