Call the RZA hip-hop's foremost alchemist. The self-professed former drug dealer-turned-Grammy-winning rapper-producer has defied all odds to spin not lead into gold, but démodé pop culture and arcane philosophical beliefs into platinum disc upon platinum disc.
And now, after spending years under the tutelage of several high-profile filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, he's preparing to unleash his unique mash-up sensibility on the big screen, in a project that will be part chop-socky flick, part spaghetti western and all RZA.
As founding father of the hard-core Staten Island rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, RZA (pronounced "rizza," given name: Robert Diggs) conflated the spiritual enlightenment found in '70s kung fu movies with racially incendiary teachings from the Five-Percent Nation of Islam, adding to the mix references to Taoism and comic books, numerology and snippets of mafia don movie dialogue, articulating a plaintive yet hard-bitten ghetto cri de coeur.
The upshot was an almost unparalleled string of hits that started with the Clan's epochal 1993 debut LP, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," and encompasses such releases as Method Man's multiplatinum-selling "Tical," Raekwon the Chef's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . ." (widely regarded as one of hip-hop's greatest albums) and Ol' Dirty Bastard's gold-selling "Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version," another ranking rap classic.
But after the Wu's tightly knit fabric started to unravel around 2004, RZA began to focus more on film. In recent years, he has been scoring such movies as "Blade: Trinity" and making cameo appearances in Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" and other films. His encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema notwithstanding, the producer didn't have any particular ambition to set moviedom on fire. Until, that is, he got a fateful phone call from then-Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein.
"Hey RZA, it's Harvey," the RZA recalled, lapsing into a raspy imitation of Weinstein's cigarette-seasoned growl. "I want you to be in my movie. You got a new career now."
Since that appearance with Clive Owen in 2005's "Derailed," RZA has built a respectable filmography with small roles in a number of high-profile, big-budget studio movies, among them Judd Apatow's "Funny People" and Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," as well as a turn in "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips' upcoming comedy, "Due Date," and Paul Haggis' "The Next Three Days" -- a role that reunited him with "Gangster" co-star Russell Crowe.
"I'm working up in the movie business," RZA said. "Maybe in the movie business, I'm working down. How long are you going to be a celebrity? I like the art. I like how it feels to act."
So do such other rappers-turned-actors as LL Cool J, Common, Xzibit, Ludacris, DMX, Ice Cube and even Snoop Dogg. But befitting the producer's magpie ability to glean and repackage cultural stimuli from across the high-low divide, RZA says his acting efforts are in the service of his next career act: a move behind the camera.
With no small amount of backup from a cadre of top-flight filmmakers -- including independent cinema luminary Jarmusch and Hong Kong action movie ace John Woo, but most significantly, Tarantino -- the RZA-rector, as he is sometimes known, is now in final preparations for his debut as a writer-director, "The Man With the Iron Fist." And unlike the fates of some musicians' directorial efforts (say, Madonna's "Filth and Wisdom" or Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst's "The Education of Charlie Banks"), RZA's movie industry backers swear he has the right combination of creativity, chutzpah and discipline to achieve liftoff at the box office.
Planned as a genre-busting opening salvo to the industry, the movie is being produced by "torture porn" poster boy Eli Roth, the writer-director of such low-cost, high-yield horror films as "Hostel" and "Hostel: Part II."
(For the time being, though, both filmmakers prefer to remain mum on specific plot points, although Roth allows that "Man With the Iron Fist" should appeal to "an audience that's hungry for kung fu but not grindhouse. Something that's modern, like 'Blade.' ")
"RZA is such a creative fountain. The script is great, he's got characters, jokes. What he does with lyrics, he does with dialogue," Roth said. "And he's done such a great mix: spaghetti western, kung fu, modern fighting infused with hip-hop and multiculture. He has this whole comic book universe figured out. I know he's going to make a brilliant film."