RZA on Iron Fist, the Last Dragon and Barack Obama
by Gene Ching
In 1999, I had the honor of travelling in China with RZA and his shifu, Shaolin Monk Shi Yanming. We journeyed to Wudang Mountain, the inspiration for Wu-Tang Clan. It was a pilgrimage for all of us. Recently, I've reconnected with RZA through his participation with the Hip Hop Chess Federation, a non-profit organization that explores the confluence of hip hop, chess and martial arts. The HHCF has held invitational tournaments and awarded scholarships to at-risk youth participants. RZA has been an avid supporter of the project.
The day after Barack Obama won the election, I had the chance to catch up with RZA and rap about what's been happening in kung fu cinema, along with his own promising projects.
RZA: What up, Gene?
GC: What's this I hear about your involvement with THE LAST DRAGON remake with Samuel L. Jackson?
RZA: Yea (laughs). I've always been a big fan of martial arts movies of course and LAST DRAGON was one of the urban films done by Motown back in the day. I'm a big fan of that movie and I had a chance to meet with Berry Gordy's son and some other Hollywood executives, Dallas Jackson. We met up at Quentin Tarantino's house one night ? hanging out ? and hit it off each other. He approached me with the idea with Berry Gordy's son about two years ago. We talked about it. We kept talking and talking. And you know Taimak, who starred in the movie THE LAST DRAGON, ironically becomes a disciple of Sifu's (Shaolin Monk Shi Yanming).
GC: Oh really?
RZA: Yeah, he studies at the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple. That's some crazy shit, right? Me, him, Wesley Snipes, hanging out and shit. It's pretty funny ? pretty weird in its own weird way. But he also always said somebody should do this ? Taimak should make the movie over. So it's been an idea that's been floating around in my head and through a few other peoples' heads. We got together with Samuel Jackson about a year and half ago. He's also a big fan of the movie, a fan of martial arts movies and Wu-Tang music and things of that nature. He thought it was a great idea. We got John Davis over, his company, and we all got involved with it and now we're going to do it.
GC: Don't you think that one of the charms of that movie was it captured the period?
RZA: The 80's and stuff like that?
GC: Right, right, right.
RZA: That's definitely the charm of the movie, but I think that the way that Dallas is writing ? you know, Dallas, he's a writer as well ? he's a pretty smart kid. He knows a lot about hip hop, martial arts films and black culture. He's writing the script over.
GC: So this will be an update? LAST DRAGON 2.0?
RZA: I think it'll be an update. I think it'll capture this generation. I think this generation is just as good as the '80s generation when it comes to martial arts. I think we are into it a lot, you know, compared to when we got a lot of films, like it was in the old days. We get maybe one a year. In the old days, we'd get like 50 a year, you know what I mean?
GC: Oh yeah. But now it's spreading out with films from Thailand and Korea.
RZA: Thailand is turning out great films as well.
GC: What do you think of kung fu cinema today?
RZA: I think it's awesome. Of course I'm a big fan of Tony Jaa. Even that other kid, Johnny Nguyen, in the PROTECTOR, the guy with the white suit on (laughs). He did that movie about Vietnam, the REBEL.
GC: I've heard. I haven't sent that yet, but I hear good things.
RZA: That's a pretty good movie, actually. I enjoyed watching it. I think it's real cool that films are coming out of all these different Asian cultures. It's not only coming out from Hong Kong.
GC: And now Mainland China's been doing these huge epics with casts of thousands.
RZA: Exactly. Like the BANQUET, which is a great one. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS of course is a classic.
GC: A lot more special effects too.
RZA: Yeah, a lot more special effects.
GC: Tell us about THE MAN WITH THE IRON FIST.
RZA: Yeah, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FIST. I think your readers know that I'm a kung fu fanatic. I'm a fan of the movies and also a fan of the culture. I study qigong with Sifu Shi Yanming. I read a lot of kung fu manuals, not for the moves but for the principles and ideas. I think I've been able to apply those ideas into my life and my business to a way that has helped me as a man, because martial arts is actually about cultivating the spirit. Many people who hear that about cultivating the spirit don't know what that means either, you know what I mean? I have cultivated my spirit through martial arts. I think Wu-Tang has been a big influence in my life, more than I can imagine, more than I can even grasp. It's like a parallel universe for me. And I want to be a person to help show martial arts on the silver screen. I have this project called THE MAN WITH THE IRON FIST, with my buddy Eli Roth. He's giving me his support and we're looking to make a full feature film. It's looking like it's going in a positive direction. We hope it'll be in theaters in 2010 or late '09.
GC: You once said that comedy martial arts, like Jackie Chan's or Sammo Hung's work, ?kind of takes away from the true martial spirit.? Does that mean we should expect your films to be hardcore?
RZA: Yeah. I really appreciate Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, you know what I mean? They're masters. Their movies are entertaining ? also Stephen Chow ? they're the best movies. Whether it's martial arts or not, they make great movies, you know?
At one point, I was against the comedy in martial arts because I felt that it has such a great spiritual meaning ? such a unique, underlying philosophy ? that when they made fun of that, I got offended, know what I mean? But going to China helped me grow, I think, because you have a laughing Buddha, a sleeping Buddha, a fat Buddha, a skinny Buddha, a drunk Buddha. And that to me means that these are all different ways that different men have found enlightenment, or found that serenity within themselves. Through wine, through ecstasy, some through women, some do just laughing, some do crying, some do sleeping all day, they find this bliss, this harmony, this wuchi, which is beyond tai chi. There's no extremities. Our bodies, our minds, seek for it everyday. You only get it in your dream world. When you go to sleep, when you're dreaming, you get this wuchi thing. But to have it while you're awake, is what Master Tamo prescribed for us. You have it instantly, when you want it. When you want it, you can turn it on like a TV set, at your will.
I think that's what Buddha meant when he said he became enlightened. He's alive. It's instantaneous. It's daily. And when he says you don't want us to be into the cycle of life and death, and rebirth, he meant that when you go to sleep tonight, you wake up tomorrow, you still feel that same blessing. Sometimes you drink yourself, you be in alcohol, be drunk and you may feel happy, but then you wake up the next day depressed. Therefore you're reborn again, back into your hell again. You got to go back and find heaven again, you know? But when you truly realize it, you could be there at will. I think that's what Buddha was able to do and what Bodhidharma was able to do. I think that's what Wu-Tang means. I think that's what General Wu did when he jumped off that mountain and then turned into this great dragon. He emerged from death and became this god. I mean that's the myth of it. He found himself. And once you find yourself, it's eternal.
GC: I'd dub you the leading martial arts soundtrack master. There's you, Lalo Schifrin back in the day, and maybe Tan Dun but he's a different trip. How does that feel to you?
RZA: Well, I love action movies. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to add into action movies. I'm down with AFRO SAMURAI PART TWO. I love making music. It's really fun. And with the martial arts, well, you were there with me at Wu-Tang Mountain. And many of the monks when we were up there had CDs and tapes. Their music ? that's part of it.
Music, it's all mathematical. It's all flowing of waves and frequencies. They have very much in common. The Buddhist texts would go "the five tones deafen every ear." I think there's some big synchronicity ? the resonance between martial arts and music. And I'm glad that I get the chance to kinda do that when I do these action movies. It's been a good experience for me.
GC: And now, Wu-Tang is reforming like Voltron for the 8-Diagrams tour. WU: THE STORY OF THE WU-TANG CLAN is about to drop. How's the feeling there?
RZA: One thing that's unique about Wu-Tang that I'm seeing is that it just keeps evolving, reaching new people, even without mass media, because it's real. It's like the old kung fu manual, the Wing Chun manual that Master Yip wrote. It's still in circulation. It's still a popular book. Bruce Lee's JEET KUNE DO book ? it's still in circulation. It's still a popular book, because they're good books, good information. With Tamo and the 12 postures of qigong that he first taught the Shaolin monks ? yijinjing ? it's still relevant a thousand years later.
Wu-Tang Clan, for western society, is a way to introduce young people into the eastern society and philosophies. Wu-Tang music borrowed from the kung fu movies. From the kung fu movie, they check out a kung fu book and from a kung fu book they join a kung fu school. I see some guys walking around with? Mexicans with Asian wives, Asian women with Black husbands, seeing all these people from different cultures expressing. There's also chess, you know, the Hip Hop Chess Federation, where you see a big, big, big movement of the Asian culture. All these things are so connected, man. We all knew it was and we all felt it. I'm happy to be somebody that's helped to add some cables to that bridge.
GC: So I got to ask you about how you're feeling about Obama.
RZA: Ah man. Actually I've been up all night (laughs). It goes back to what we do in the martial arts ? about the principle that's written being practiced in a different way. At one point, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all these documents, they were not being practiced. But this is an example of us practicing our principles passed down by our forefathers.
I had a conversation with a cab driver the other day in New York City. I said, "The one thing we should realize is that when the founding fathers wrote these words ? the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence ? they were men that were well into mature age." It's not until you get to the mature age of a man that you realize these things anyway. That we are all created equal ? that things are not based on color, height, male or female gender. You realize that, but as a kid you don't know these things. You don't understand it, you know? It's like, "Why's that baby crying?" Because he can't say what he wants to tell you. As an adult, we forget, you know? Then you get this re-growth as a mature man. And they wrote these documents as mature men. I think when they got old, they missed it. But then, as time went on, these young men and women who get it again, who just don't understand it and grow up with these bad ideas and bad practices. They don't practice the principles that we've had for hundreds of years. They were not being practiced in this country. I think yesterday showed that this generation is willing to practice the principles of the founding fathers. Give everybody a fair chance, you know. Not because he's Asian or Black. Who's going to say that Lucy Liu is not one of the prettiest women in the world? Before they thought that slanty eyes were not beautiful. With cosmetic surgery, you can get rid of that (laughs). To think that Tony Jaa can be a sex symbol. Even Bruce Lee. I was watching Bruce Lee with my girl, and she says, "You know, Bruce Lee is a handsome guy." You know what I mean? Now I don't like guys but I can see what she means. He has a nobility about his face. He's not just a martial artist. He's a great man. That's what martial does for him. I think that's an example of what we had yesterday when people looked at this particular man, his nobleness, his stern way of reflecting the way that he feels, like he feels for all sides, you know?
GC: Obama looks very presidential.
RZA: He looks like the leader that we need, not only for our country, but places around the world respect him. It's like, no matter what, you wouldn't mind having a meeting with this guy, you know what I mean? Some of these other guys, you wouldn't want to meet. You can't judge a book by its cover, but it's great to have a nice cover sometimes.
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About Gene Ching:
I want to send a shout out to Adisa Banjoko, of the Hip Hop Chess Federation, who helped me re-establish contact with RZA.