It's a snowy night in late 2006, and Hostel director Eli Roth is stranded at Logan Airport with RZA. The two are bound for Los Angeles, on their way home from hanging with Quentin Tarantino in Iceland. It's just a layover, but with their flight delayed, Roth suggests that they eat dinner with his parents, who live right down the Mass Pike in Newton. The world-renowned ringleader of the Wu-Tang Clan accepts the invite, they hail a cab, and a few hours later, as RZA puts it, "The Man with the Iron Fists begins over a good bowl of mushroom soup."
On some level, this story starts in 1993, when Wu-Tang first hijacked the music industry. As the Staten Island outfit's chief maestro, RZA — alternatively known as the Abbot — had already dabbled in the rap game, and as such was hip to the corporate gauntlet. Two years earlier, a solo deal he'd struck with Tommy Boy turned sour, but he spun the loss into a lesson, and began to grow his Clan of close friends and cousins into an inimitable empire, mercenary-style. By the time labels finally showed interest, his swords were sharp enough to cut an honorable deal.
As Wu-Tang advanced — yielding an assault of group and solo outings — RZA stockpiled heaps of conceptual currency. He wasn't simply hoarding beats, but also branding the group through sound bites plucked from such kung-fu classics as the 1981 film Shaolin and Wu Tang. That flick inspired not just the group's moniker, but also RZA's tactical mantra, which he sampled on the Clan's 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): "A game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move."
Speaking two decades after that initial foray, RZA calls 36 Chambers a showcase of his freshest work up to that point. The project's dark karate thug aesthetic reflects a range of his defining influences — from Southern-soul samples, to the Shaw Brothers' slice-'em-ups that RZA studied with his cousin Ol' Dirty Bastard in dollar matinee shows on old 42nd Street. Those prerequisites, he says — plus everything he's learned since then, along with Roth's mom's mushroom soup — gave way to his latest chess move, and filmmaking debut, The Man with the Iron Fists.
I recently sat with the first-time director for an exclusive chat about his Far East fantasy, which features him as a blacksmith who hunts murderers to repossess the weapons that he made them.
"This is the second tier of what I did at the beginning of Wu-Tang and of being able to put all of my energy into one outlet," says RZA, who co-wrote the Tarantino-produced Iron Fists with Roth. He continues: "I've been making music, acting in movies, and scoring films like Kill Bill for years now. With The Man with the Iron Fists — this is a lot of me giving back to everything that inspired me."
RZA's actual film career began in 1999, when director Jim Jarmusch tapped him to score the Jersey City samurai flick Ghost Dog. In the process, Jarmusch gave a small acting role to the Abbot, and a dormant movie man emerged from the shadows. The leap was hardly surprising: all of RZA's soundscapes are intensely cinematic, and his imagination has always fashioned screen-worthy characters, from his nihilistic alter-ego Bobby Digital to his role in the horrorcore troupe Gravediggaz.