Brooklyn-born rap legend, soundtrack virtuoso, and rising movie actor, RZA (aka Robert Diggs) is the epitome of multitask (apparently he was so busy with other projects he had to turn down a supporting role in The Departed). The a co-founder (with cousins the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GZA) of the renowned Wu-Tang Clan has worked on film projects involving everyone from Judd Apatow to Warren Beatty to Shaquille O’Neal. (He’s rumored to belong to the largest extended family in New York City.) He scored Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (99) and Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (03), and has acted or appeared as himself in several films, most notably in a vignette from Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes opposite Bill Murray, and most recently in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. A common thread running throughout his career has been the influence of martial arts cinema, to which he constantly pays homage to with dialogue and soundtrack samples and lyrical references. While finishing the latest Wu album, 8 Diagram, RZA spoke with Film Comment about his devotion to martial arts (which he has also practiced for years).
How did you originally get interested in the genre?
In 1979, my cousin took me to 42nd Street to see some kung fu movies and I was blown away. We started going every weekend after that. There was a movie directed by Chang Chen called Five Deadly Venoms  and when I saw it, I was totally geeked out. The plot was crazy, and the characters . . . The Toad, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Snake, the Centipede! They seemed like superheroes. And there were no guns or weapons, just hand-to-hand fighting.
That led the way to many greats like Chia-Liang Liu’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin , the first of about a half-dozen Chamber flicks. That one changed my life. It’s like a kung fu Rocky but the training and the story are great. I’ve never seen swords slashing like that before. It was through these films that I was able to see and feel from a non-Western point of view. Some of the dialogue struck a chord with me. It was Buddhism and psychology. “Without wisdom, there is no gain.” There’s beauty in that. And I eventually became a Shaolin disciple.
Five Deadly Venoms
When you learned martial arts, did that affect how you saw the films?
As a true martial artist, you’ll recognize that good films incorporate the real tactics. For example, there’s a way a samurai works his sword: he pulls it out, slices, swings the blood off his blade, then puts it back inside his sheath without looking. You watch Ghost Dog or Shogun Assassin  and you see that. But with some Japanese movies in the Seventies you see the guys not doing it. As if they didn’t do their research. Speaking of which, Assassin is credited to an American guy named Robert Houston, but is actually a combination of earlier films directed by Kenji Misumi.
Director Lau Kar-Leung is a great martial artist and in every film, he always showed you a little bit of the form. The proof for me is that when I watch the movies nowadays, now that I’ve read Bucksam Kong’s Tiger/Crane book on martial arts technique, and I’ve seen it done by a master, I understand the moves.
Did the temperament of those films also affect you?
Definitely. When you watch Five Deadly Venoms, it’s a true classic—there’s nothing funny going on. These are serious killers! It opens with a training sequence but then, for the next 20-30 minutes, there’s no fighting. It’s a slow build-up, just hearing their names and sensing the excitement to come. That just sucks you into the movie.
How did your martial arts fascination mix with your interest in music?
Early on, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and I used to watch kung fu movies, leave the theater, do some kung fu fighting, get on the train, keep fighting, and then run into MCs and musically battle them like it was a kung fu fight. That was my weekend habit.
When we could afford VCRs, we got all the kung fu movies we could get our hands on and watched three or four a day. We were smoking blunts, drinking beer, watching movies, making demo tapes. To this day, at least four times a week, a kung fu flick is in my DVD player. And I’m still DJing, making beats, making songs, and fucking with kung fu movies. I’m still the same kid when it comes to those things.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
When you were making Wu-Tang records, how did you decide to incorporate samples from the movies?
I always found beauty in Gordon Liu’s Shaolin & Wu Tang . When I heard the line “A game of chess is like a sword fight . . . you think first before you move,” I never forgot it. When we made the first Wu-Tang album in 1993, we only had VHS and it was hard to hook up your equipment to get a good sample. The dialogue bit, if what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu Tang could be dangerous” (sampled for the song “Bring Da Ruckus”) was a perfect line for my crew. Another great sample, from Five Deadly Venoms, was, “The Toad Style is immensely strong . . . it’s immune to any weapon. When properly used, it’s almost invisible. Raw, I’m gonna’ give it you!” used in “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”). Those types of intro lines were perfect for my imagination and what I wanted to represent.
My fantasy was to make a one-hour movie that people were just going to listen to. They would hear my movie and see it in their minds. I’d read comic books like that, with sonic effects and kung fu voices in my head. That makes it more exciting so I try to create music in the same way.
When you score films do you take any ideas from the soundtracks of martial arts movies?
Oh yeah. In Kill Bill, when you see the sequence where Beatrice Kiddo’s fighting the Crazy 88s, the music that comes in is from Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Champion of Death . Starring Sonny Chiba! We used music from numerous kung fu and blaxploitation films throughout that movie. Mr. Tarantino has many films in his own collection and some days we would show up at the studio with the same titles.
How did you score Ghost Dog?
That was just one kid, me, sitting at a keyboard, watching the movie over and over, and finding the sounds that made sense. I would also listen to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and learn from that. He used a different instrument for each character so when the fox appeared, you heard a trombone, and when the bird came on, you heard a flute. So when Ghost Dog first comes on, you see that bird flying, you hear hip-hop beats, and there’s a flute playing over it.
Before, it was just one keyboard—not all the computer screens you’ve got now. I had a TV with a built-in VHS and a headphone jack output where I’d plug in my equipment. It was such a bad connection but nowadays, it’s all about laptops. Ten years ago, you couldn’t do it the way we doing it now.
Enter the Dragon
Who are your favorite kung fu actors?
Jet Li and Donnie Yen are modern masters. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody make movies, or choreograph styles, and make you feel the beauty of martial arts like they do. Gordon Liu, who played Pai Mei in Kill Bill, was my favorite martial artist for many years. Donnie Yen is a friend—we call each other kung fu brothers. He was born in Boston, but he’s made some of the best kung fu movies, and he’s won choreography awards many times. He’s the personification of what Bruce Lee could have been—speaking both languages, a master loved in both countries.
He’s not a pretty fighter. His stance is not pretty. His face is not pretty. But he fucks people up! His movie personality reminds me of [Wu-Tang rapper] Ghostface Killah. He seems so invincible, and he’s so nice, until you twist that one edge.
And Bruce Lee?
He’s a prophet, for what he means to his people, and what he means to the culture of martial arts around the world. You could say that Jet Li and Donnie Yen are great martial artists but not great actors. Bruce Lee was a great actor! You watch Enter the Dragon  and even though that movie is old as molasses, he’s still better than a lot of contemporary kung fu players. You can’t take your eyes off him.
Are there any martial arts films you wish you could have been in?
I would have loved to have been in Five Deadly Venoms. There’s also Soul Brothers of Kung Fu  with Bruce Li and Carl Scott, who’s the best black actor in martial arts films.
Any martial art stars you would have liked to challenge?
A chance to fight Gordon Liu, known as the Master Killer, would have been great. Also, Wong Lung Wei—he’s the best bad guy of all time. I would have loved to have been in a movie with him. And won! [laughs]