RZA: Interview from the 36th Chamber
Opening Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 24, the legendary hip-hop producer and founder of the Wu-Tang Clan RZA is re-scoring one of the formative films of his life, the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. From watching kung fu triple features in grimy Times Square movie theaters to witnessing early forays into VJing at a friend’s house in the 1980s, RZA talks about the roots of this deeply personal project and what it means to perform it for a hometown crowd at Lincoln Center.
Amanda MacBlane: Tell us about this project and why you're bringing it to Lincoln Center.
RZA: Well, I'm known for fusing hip-hop and martial arts together to form the Wu-Tang Clan and spreading another version of hip-hop culture around the world. And that ideology had spawned first from a film that I saw called The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. 36th Chamber became such an inspirational film for me that the Wu-Tang Clan's first album was named Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
The film follows a young man who's in college and questioning the government, his role in society, and the oppression that he's feeling. He has to go through a quest to find himself and stand up for justice. Themes like these always have a strong resonance in society, and what I wanted to do was take that film and reintroduce it to today's audience. And the best way I felt I could do that was to re-score it with modern music. It's ironic for me that I’m using the film that inspired me to inspire others.
AMB: What do you remember about the first time you saw The 36th Chamber of Shaolin?
RZA: You know, growing up in New York City, hanging out at a place called 42nd Street, which is not too far from Lincoln Center... It was a grimy, gritty place where you'd find dope users, dope dealers, prostitution, everything, but it was also this place where they would show you three martial arts films for a dollar fifty. And when my young mind saw 36th Chamber, it took me to a world that I didn't know existed.
"When my young mind saw 36th Chamber, it took me to a world that I didn't know existed."
I’ve always been a history buff, really into the sword and sandal movies, like Hercules. And then when it came to American history it was mostly confined to the Revolution or slavery, or cowboys and Indians. When I saw this history of Shaolin, a place that seemed to me to not even be on this planet and I saw that the struggles of those people were very similar to the struggles of my own people here, it had a strong resonance. And for me now to get a chance to bring this film back to Manhattan, back to midtown—not on 42nd Street now because that's Disney, right? But to bring it to Lincoln Center—which is a center of great art—and for me to bring this film here and show it to an audience and to re-score it live, I think it's a total way of paying homage but I also think it's a strong artistic expression that follows in the tradition of Lincoln Center and I'm proud to be able to do that.
AMB: Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
RZA: Well, the first thing we had to do was strip the movie of all of its original music, and in doing so we also lost some of the foley because this is an old film. And then we had to re-score it and re-cue it. So, when you compose a film, you know, you have cue points. On this film, the music that was in it is over 70 different cues. And so, we now have to take our music and fill that space up as well as tell the narrative of the story and re-energize it. It's live so there's a format that we have, but at the same time, being that it's live, you also just go with the emotion that you're feeling at the time.
There's an album I made called Tical with Method Man and it starts with voiceovers, some that are taken from this movie. And there's a big song called "Meth vs. Chef" where the skit starts off, "Your skills are worthy of a general. So if you want to fight, fight me! One to one! Man to man!" And when that happens in the theater, when we show this film, in every city, we play a song that is so perfect that the audience just starts cheering and it just builds your adrenaline. Because now you're watching this kung fu movie and kung fu is like a dance, but now you're watching them dance to a hip-hop track, to something that's totally fresh. And once that happens, you know, I think the audience is just, now their taste buds have been opened, you just keep expecting to keep feeling that adrenaline rush, and we keep providing it.
AMB: It’s almost like this live score is what you were feeling as a kid when you were watching it up on that screen.
RZA: The coolest thing for me as a kid was watching this film and enjoying the music, enjoying the setting, the story line, and having it, you know, sink into my psyche. But the joy now is bringing it back and having it sink into other people's psyches. And if I could say what it means to me and to Wu-Tang: it's really a great honor. Shaw Brothers and Celestial Pictures, they're very protective of their material. It's part of their culture. And the funny thing is they weren't really sure that they wanted to allow me to do this until they saw me do it at the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas. They came and watched, like "What is he going to do to our movie?" And then they saw what I did and they gave me the green light. We have now done over a dozen of these and it's so cool for us to bring it back to New York City, to Lincoln Center.
AMB: You’ve said that this is an evolving project. So, from its first iteration to now, what has changed?
RZA: When I first started re-scoring this movie live, it was nerve-racking. The first three or four times I did it, I did it by myself, and I felt like I was an octopus because I was hitting cues, hitting my drum machine, hitting the sound effects, and everything. I would literally finish sweating. I remember one guy in the audience walks up to me and was like, "Damn, Riz, you were sweating up there, brother!" And I was like, "Yeah, it was tough."
So, what I decided to do was go back and get a few of my buddies to help out. And one guy being Tom Shannon and the other being Jon Lugo, a.k.a., DJ Skane. And the cool thing about this is that the idea that I'm doing now is not founded in myself. You know, when we were kids I was known as a good emcee and a good DJ. DJ Skane was also a good DJ, and we would battle. And Tom wanted to be a good DJ, but he wasn't as good as us! But what he was good at was he would take VCRs and daisy-chain them together and dub and overdub and put James Brown music or breakbeats to animation. And we would go to his house and he would show us a new tape he made, which would be all these old animations. It could be Gigantor, it could be Looney Tunes, it could be whatever and it would have breakbeats on it. So, if you see Wile E. Coyote running and falling off a cliff, he's falling to a James Brown song. What he did never left my memory.
"Joining the world of film has opened up my creative shakra like nothing else."
So, when technology had finally caught up, when they came out with the DVD, CDJs, and you could put the DVD in it, I was like, wow, we now can do what Tom was doing in his crib in 1980-something! And so, Disney gave me a catalog of their old animation and they allowed me to go down to the Hollywood Bowl and do this thing called Toon Time with RZA, where I had these DJ decks and some pianos and some drum machines, and I actually was manipulating visual and audio at the same time. And that kind of sparked a whole VJ revolution. Maybe I got the credit for that, but actually it was Tom Shannon who did it when I was a kid and it never left my head.
So, as we started doing these live scores I was like, why don't I go get Tom, and I added him and Jon Lugo to my team and I didn't need six arms anymore. Now we have concise cues, concise ins and outs, and we change them as we feel. We may try something one night that doesn't work, the next night. We'll talk about it and say well, tonight maybe we let the movie breathe at that point, and then we'll come with this particular mood. Another cool thing that some fans are appreciating is that there are a lot of songs that Wu-Tang or Wu-Tang affiliates have created that you don't hear anymore. And some of them, you never heard the instrumentals. And I have all that. Sometimes I play those songs into the mix of this score and when the spirit is right... I remember being in D.C. and a few guys from the audience, they're screaming out like, "Whoa!" They were so happy to hear that song and to see that visual at the same time. I think New York City being, you know, the home of Wu-Tang, I think it's going to be even more exciting. They say seeing is believing, and I got something special for Lincoln Center. I think this is gonna be the best one yet.
AMB: How do you feel the work that you've done on film scoring and as a film director has helped you to visualize this project?
RZA: Whether it's on this project, live-scoring 36th Chamber, or any other artistic expression, I would say that joining the world of film has opened up my creative shakra like nothing else. I mean, music, of course, is my joy, but film seems to be the culmination of all of my artistic expressions brought into one package. And it's been an enlightening experience for me. It's something that I can continue to evolve in, but I got to say the joy and the pleasure I feel is unsurpassed.
Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.