The Art Of RZA: The Wu-Tang Clan Leader Talks Kung Fu, Chess, And Filmmaking

RZA sitting
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A lot of words can be used to describe RZA, but typical isn’t one of them. Whether he’s writing books, making movies or helping to create a one-copy Wu-Tang Clan album that was created in secret, Bobby Diggs seems to do everything on his own terms and with his own philosophy in place.

RZA’s healthy appreciation for Kung Fu movies and Asian culture was established at an early age, and it permeates into everything he creates as an artist. Without The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, there’s no Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). In advance of the April 14th Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD release of The Man With The Iron Fists 2a film he co-wrote and stars in, UPROXX had the chance to talk to RZA about his affinity for Kung Fu, the game of chess, the art of listening, and more.

Martin Rickman: What was your entry point into Kung Fu movies, and what was it about them that has stuck with you over the years?

RZA: One of my earliest films, probably my third or fourth time through the movie, it was a double feature. Bruce Lee as Green Hornet in a movie called Fury Of The Dragon, and then a movie with Jim Kelly they called Black Samurai. That was my first double feature, you know what I mean? And I got hooked on the action and the idea of the fantasy of it. I kept wanting to go back to the films, and when I saw a film like Five Deadly Venoms, it caught my imagination. That was at the age of nine years old.

By the time I got 10 or 11, and I started seeing more of the Asian culture. Seven Blows Of The Dragon. A movie called All Men Are Brothers [ed. note: originally called Dong kai jin, and the sequel to Seven Blows Of The Dragon]. You see these guys with all these different weapons. Axes, and spears, and they’re fighting an army. All that kind of resonated with me. The last thing that hit me was when I saw The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. That was the one that was the nail for me. I saw the oppression of government over people. It wasn’t in my country. It wasn’t in my neighborhood. It was hundreds of years ago in a place called China. In this particular film, the kid was a college student and he wanted to learn ethnicity, and his teacher was a revolutionary who told him sometimes you just have to stand up for what’s right. It cost some of them their lives and their family’s lives. The guy goes to Shaolin to learn to be a monk so that he could fight and train, and train other people to defend themselves.

At that age, in that development stage in life, that was the only film that opened that up to me. That other world. It wasn’t like a Greek mythology film, which I loved. I love Hercules. I love the Westerns. I love Genies, and The Jungle Book, and The Thief Of Bagdad and all those movies. But this was a whole different thing. It was more like it felt real because of the oppression at that time. This was a big thing. Roots was on TV. The only thing that showed oppression was more like oppression of black people. Through different oppression, I see a different style of rebellion. It kind of resonated with me and caused me to study the culture and escape my own world and find another world to enter.

Lao Tzu had said “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” I’ve seen you reference that before. What do you think your most important single step has been throughout your life?

Throughout my life, I guess my most important single step was when somebody told me to seek knowledge in myself. Seek that knowledge. The person who told me that was the GZA. He’s about three or four years older than me. He told me to do that, and I remember that day walking home. I had to walk by the church, and a guy hands me a pamphlet. In the pamphlet, it says “the bread of life.” Jesus wants you to have the bread of life. And the bread of life is the truth. I memorized the whole pamphlet. I had a good memory. I started memorizing everything, yo. Reading and studying. That first step towards knowledge itself was the best thing for me.

I went to see you speak in Cleveland a couple years ago, and the conversation evolved into a discussion about chess. I played when I was younger, but it didn’t hit me until much later how much discipline it instilled in me, and what chess could teach me. How did you get started playing, and what do you think we can learn from that game?

My beginnings were weird because I got taught by a girl who also took my virginity. [Laughs.] I know, right? Can’t beat that. But as I started studying the game, I think chess can help all of us because it gives you an analytical mind. You have to think through, and calculate through each situation before you make your move. Most of us just make spontaneous moves. Chess has allowed me, eventually after playing for years, a master begins to think quicker. He can calculate his three or four moves in three or four seconds. That’s great for you in life.

A mind thinks four to seven times before you speak. If you can take that breath and figure out what to say or what to do in the right moment, that’s going to be helpful for us. Look at how many girls are pregnant, teenage pregnancy, because they didn’t think further ahead on what’s going to happen afterwards. How many guys have made mistakes. How many criminals, you know, two seconds, a robbery or a crime and your life has changed. The kid who was drunk who got in the car instead of just waiting. I remember my brother always telling me, we had this conversation about how sometimes he’d just sit in the car and sleep. He won’t drive. That’s taking a step ahead. Think ahead, yo.

With thinking also comes listening, and in Tao of Wu, you mention the art of listening and how important it really is. Do you think we’re taking enough time to listen today? Or is that something we need to do more of?

I would advise us to do more of it, and I notice this from people who don’t listen enough. Listening is not just hearing. It’s just like some people don’t chew their food. It’s in their mouth like three chews and it’s down their throat. But the more you chew it, the more enzymes build in your mouth. The more the digestive process starts in the mouth. So by the time it’s going down your throat, you’re getting nutrients. You’re not waiting for it to drop into your stomach and sit and then hopefully get the nutrients out of it. It’s the same thing with listening. Listen and hold on for a second. Let it sink in your head. I do some important jobs sometimes, but I won’t answer immediately. Let me think about that. Let me answer that question tomorrow, because today’s answer isn’t going to be as good as tomorrow’s answer.

In trying to master different genres, you had a chance to direct the first Man With The Iron Fists. What was that process like for you in writing and directing, and what did you learn from that?

It was the most challenging job I’ve taken to date. And I thought Wu-Tang Clan would be the most challenging job. When I wound up doing A Better Tomorrow, if I wouldn’t have done Iron Fists, I probably would’ve f*cking lost all my hair doing A Better Tomorrow because that was a tough one. But Iron Fists was tougher. What I’ve learned is preparation is one of the keys to success in any man’s life. It’s like, no matter what you’re doing, you can get anywhere you want to go in this world, yo, you can go for it. But you have a map, and you’re prepared for the journey, then most likely you’ll make that journey complete and sound, and safe.

Preparation was one of the greatest lessons I learned from doing that film. It was something my producer warned me of, but I didn’t take heed at first. I was kind of anxious. I wanted to get started. In six weeks I wanted to do the movie. And he said, “No, Bobby, you’re going to need at least 14 weeks of prep.” I was like, I don’t need no 14 weeks, this movie’s been in my head for seven years. But he was right. So that was my greatest lesson. I advise people. I tell my son that all the time. If you want to play basketball, that means you have to come home after school and play all day and prepare. Prepare yourself. Prepare for the game. Don’t wait until you get to the game to warm up.

RZA Coachella
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You mentioned how difficult Wu-Tang has been. With the one-copy album, I read something where you said “artists are rare” and we need to get back to understanding that. What do you hope to accomplish with Once Upon A Time In Shaolin?

I think the statement is out there, and it’s already starting to accomplish itself, and what I mean by that is I’ve been reading a lot of artists also echoing those words. When I read about the Tidal situation and what everybody’s doing and this is what these artists are saying when you read these interviews, it seems like artists are saying this collectively now. We understand that, look man, people have access today. It’s easy. At the same time, it takes a lot of time, mindpower, to make this moment for you. Even a movie, right, when somebody downloads a movie for free when a movie takes millions of dollars to make it, and some people get hurt? I’ve seen people break their arms on my action films. You’re going to say you want to take that for free? Nah, that’s not for free, bro. You have to give back or we can’t do it again.

So I’m glad the other artists are feeling the same way and taking that stance. I saw somebody saying something like “Well, this guy’s got millions of dollars, he should be satisfied.” That’s one of the biggest mistakes we do as a people. I’m going to say this to you, and I know it’s a little off the cuff, but I’m to say it anyway. Tommy Hilfiger’s rich because he made nice clothes we liked to wear and we bought them. You’re not going to get mad at Tommy Hilfiger because he made the cool shirt. You don’t get mad at Ralph Lauren or Gucci or Louis Vuitton because their bags are expensive or cool. We liked it. We paid for it to become great.

The same thing with the artists. No artists are great. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have one record sold. He mastered his craft, and when we heard his playing, we were like, yo, I like that. We bought the record. That goes for Jay-Z. We heard him, we liked it, we bought it. We bought Beyonce’s music. We bought Beck’s music. We bought Sam Smith. Now that Sam Smith is an overnight success, and he’s a Grammy winner, we’re going to get upset? No, be happy. Because he gave us that moment in our life that made our day go better.

What do you think in your mind was the best year of hiphop, and why?

Wow, that’s crazy. Man, that’s a hard one. When we made our album, 36 Chambers, we said that ’86-87 were our favorite years, and we were hoping to bring the energy back. It was only six years later, we thought that hip hop had swept it away. If you look at ’95-96, those are powerful years. You’ve got Nas and Fugees. There’s been some good years, but it’s hard to say what was the greatest. I’d probably put it before our time, and just say that what was happening in 1986 and 87 that cycle right there was something that was really spread into hip hop culture in a most dominant way because a lot of angles were coming through. You’ve got Rob Base with “It Takes Two,” Rakim, Run DMC, Whodini was still coming out there, LL [Cool J], Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T. There was a lot of different things going on in the world of hip hop. The variety. Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul. Think about all the different aspects of that music that nowadays is shallow. The variety is not there. You go there, it’s more like okay, keep coming baby. No more 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins.