(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thanks, Jonathan. Our guest today is RZA. Inspired by kung fu movies that he watched as a kid, RZA founded the legendary hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan. And not only does he love movies, he makes them. His latest is called "Cut Throat City," and he's sharing his love of film with a project called 36 Cinema, streaming movies with live commentary. RZA, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
RZA: Bong-bong (ph) - how you doing today?
EISENBERG: RZA, such an absolute honor to talk to you. I know that you've been pretty busy. I've actually - was listening to you talking in some interviews saying that, you know, during this time, you have - you've been doing a lot through Zoom.
RZA: Yeah, Zoom is the new way of communication. It's actually the way we work now. So I've been on Zoom calls and meetings, like, back-to-back and press interviews...
RZA: ...And all that.
EISENBERG: ...And writers rooms.
RZA: We had two writers rooms being ran through Zoom. At first, it was one, where it was too many people. And it started getting...
EISENBERG: Out of control (laughter).
RZA: Yeah (ph).
EISENBERG: So this is for "Wu-Tang: An American Saga" Season 2, correct?
RZA: Yes, indeed.
EISENBERG: So what - you know, what is it like writing and being part of a fictionalized version of your own life?
RZA: You know, I like to call it a dramaticized...
EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).
RZA: And forgive my pronunciations. One thing I think I'm known for is pronouncing words in my own way (laughter). But we taking truth, and we are getting a chance to play with it, expound upon it and also set it in unique settings. I think what I - what we strived to do with this particular show was tell the story the same way that Wu-Tang music told this story.
And if you listen to Wu-Tang music, when you hear the kung fu samples or, you know, you hear the lyric - I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses can't define how I be dropping these mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery - that's a lot of images into a lyric. And so, through this show, we would say, well, we could play with martial arts. We could play with animation. We could play with - Socrates could appear in our show, in our reality, if we wanted to use something to continue to tell the story.
EISENBERG: And when you were filming Season 1, were you - you were in Staten Island, right?
RZA: Yeah, we filmed in Staten Island in our neighborhood. The best part about that - you know, the best part is that we went to the old apartment, a rented house that I lived in. That was where - you know, we would hang in that basement and make music. And we went back to the old house. And you know, the people allowed us to come in. And a lot of it was still the same.
EISENBERG: Oh, really?
RZA: Yeah. They changed a few things. But this one particular thing was this stained glass window that was there.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
RZA: And we used the exteriors, of course, for shooting, but we rebuilt the interior on a stage. And it was amazing...
RZA: ...You know, when my sisters and my brothers would come to set and they would, you know, see this place be transformed back to the original. And one of the - I mean, one of the production designers, he actually had to talk to my sister. And she had old pictures from when we was kids. And so he the floor right, the wall, the paint.
EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness.
RZA: He got it all right because she had these pictures. And when she came and saw it, like, it brought tears to her eyes and brought tears to my brother.
EISENBERG: And I'm sure - at that point, did you all start trading stories that, you know, maybe you hadn't even thought of in years, kind of thing?
RZA: Yeah. We had dinners - family dinners. And we would bring it up, and we would tell stories. And you know, one thing I had to be careful of, thought, is a family member, you know, who wanting to come in and write an episode. You know what I mean?
RZA: You know, trying to stick something in there - and look, there's nothing - this is not about our family. This is a Wu-Tang show. We don't care about the day you lost your shoe and the dog bit a hole in it. That's not making the series, boo. We just want the pictures.
EISENBERG: So you're also a film director, and you have a new film out called "Cut Throat City." So this film is about four childhood friends who are forced into committing crime to survive in New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So why were you attracted to a script that was dealing with Hurricane Katrina?
RZA: Yeah. I mean, look. Hurricane Katrina was a national tragedy - right? - 15 years ago. It really devastated New Orleans, and especially the Black community really caught the short end of the stick. And when this - when I first read the screenplay by Paul Cuschieri, he had - I think some of the things that inspired this entire film for him as a writer was a couple of articles about these truck stop robberies. And yet, what resonated with me was the story of the four men, the four young man, and not the crime aspect of it - the point of the matter that they were not criminals.
And so that part related to me because that's in almost every community. That happened in my community. The chances of aspirations turning to desperation was a common denominator for the Black community and for impoverished communities.
EISENBERG: You say that Quentin Tarantino basically taught you.
RZA: Yeah, so - I'll call myself a student of Mr. Quentin Tarantino, and I proudly will say that. And I'll say it, humbly, that I took him on as a teacher.
EISENBERG: And then in the first scene of this movie, you have your characters criticize Quentin Tarantino films.
RZA: You know, I was - I hope he sees it. I don't know if he's...
RZA: I know he's going to be dying laughing. You know, we have our own sense of humor. We've spent a lot of time laughing together. And I'm sure that, based on our relationship and based on our sense of humor, he's going to get a kick out of that.
EISENBERG: Right. And you also became friends with action movie director John Woo, right?
EISENBERG: Is that right?
RZA: I sampled his music for the - Raekwon's album "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx."
RZA: And at the time, sampling was really unknown to me, like, far as the lore and the financials. You know, you don't...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Copyright and - yeah.
RZA: I'm going to make (unintelligible).
COULTON: Yeah. Everybody just did whatever they - yeah.
RZA: Yeah. I don't know that you can't do this or you can't do that.
RZA: But I was informed that - you know, that this might be a problem. And I was like, well, why?
RZA: And we wrote John a beautiful letter, and he responded to the letter. And he came to New York, and he invited me to dinner, and we sat down.
EISENBERG: That's pretty cool.
COULTON: Yeah, it's really cool.
RZA: Yeah, we sat down, and we talked. I mean, at the - I mean, I was the biggest John Woo fan, you know? He just became that first director that I was able to talk to about storytelling and filmmaking.
EISENBERG: Does he give you, like, directorial advice? Or in the beginning, did he say, you know, go look at this or, you know, watch this kind of movie if you...
RZA: In the beginning, he gave me a lot of advice. And even - and John's advice to filmmakers is study the films in the '70s. He said, because the freedom of filmmaking had its prime in the '70s. And I do to this day - I always, you know, once a week, there's a '70s film being played.
EISENBERG: And then, of course, you've scored films for Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch and then, obviously, for your own films. And how do you - how did you find yourself doing an ice-cream jingle?
COULTON: That is the - that is my favorite thing.
EISENBERG: You composed an ice-cream jingle for the Good Humor ice-cream company.
RZA: Yeah, let me give Good Humor the credit because "Turkey In The Straw" was a jingle that was in most of our ice-cream trucks. And it was - originally, it was an Irish folk song that made its way to America. But in the case of the "Turkey In The Straw," they took it and they made it derogative, and they made it a racial slur, comment and mockery of Black men and women in America. And they discovered the history of it, and they said, let's do something about it. And they reached out to me, and the idea was like, look; we can't change history, right? But...
EISENBERG: It's like, we could actually fix this.
RZA: Yeah, we can fix it.
EISENBERG: Well, let's - I think we have it. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: It does sound - you know what? I like the sound - the kind of two sounds together. I know - I can't talk about music like a professional. Jonathan's professional. You're a professional, obviously. But I like that it has a little bit of a bass note to it that I would run to, that would be my beat to run to the truck, and yet it still has this, like, buoyant happiness.
RZA: Yeah, that was actually one thing that we noticed. The ice-cream trucks, there's never bass in it.
RZA: And the trick was - the trick of that was, like, how do we keep a bass frequency when the speakers in the ice-cream truck don't really hold bass frequency?
COULTON: It's not like they have the big rig in the back, right? They don't - (laughter).
RZA: So they sent us a speaker to the studio.
COULTON: Oh, so you could actually...
EISENBERG: Oh, that's cool.
COULTON: ...Listen to it through an ice-cream truck speaker. Of course, yeah.
RZA: Yeah, and then I mixed it to that speaker.
COULTON: Don't you think some trucks should now upgrade their sound systems...
COULTON: ...So they get some real bass in there, some real serious low frequencies?
RZA: That'd be cool. But, no, it would be - yeah, it's subjective. It's not - you know what I mean? Some people be like...
COULTON: Yeah, true.
EISENBERG: That's right. OK, RZA, we have a game for you.
EISENBERG: And we wanted to do something that we're pretty sure you've never done before.
RZA: (Laughter) OK.
EISENBERG: So this is a game...
RZA: I don't have to take my shirt off or nothing?
EISENBERG: No, nothing.
COULTON: No, no, no. Not unless you want to.
EISENBERG: Very - I mean, yeah. It's always - it's optional. It's optional.
EISENBERG: So your game is called Is It a Lizard?
RZA: OK, OK.
EISENBERG: So either we are describing a lizard, or it is not a lizard.
EISENBERG: OK, so we'll give it a shot.
EISENBERG: Here's your first one. Australia's thorny devil is covered in spikes. It can capture water almost anywhere on its body. The water then travels across its skin through microchannels directly into its mouth. Is it a lizard?
RZA: That sounds like a sponge.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That does sound like a sponge.
RZA: A sponge in my kitchen, a big green sponge. My wife - I tell her I don't like the big green ones, but she keeps coming home with the big green ones. So I'm going to say no.
EISENBERG: I'm sorry. It is a lizard.
RZA: It is a lizard.
EISENBERG: Yes, it is a lizard.
RZA: Damn-a-lama (ph).
EISENBERG: Thorny devil was not in the Wu-Tang Clan.
RZA: No, no, he didn't make it.
EISENBERG: Not the 11th member, OK.
RZA: No. I get another chance or I just blew it?
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. No, that's...
COULTON: You get many chances.
EISENBERG: Oh, you have so many chances.
COULTON: Here's another one for you. Coati can be found from Arizona to Argentina. Their darkly banded tails make up half their body length and are held erect as they walk. Coati are known to click and whistle while foraging. Is it a lizard?
RZA: (Laughter) I'm going to say yes.
COULTON: I'm sorry. That is not a lizard.
COULTON: It is actually a member of the raccoon family. It has a long, flexible snout.
RZA: So how much almost money I lost here?
COULTON: You lost $2 million. Each one of these was worth a million dollars.
RZA: OK. Let me keep going so I can win something back.
COULTON: No, those are the only ones worth any money.
EISENBERG: OK. The okapi, the okapi, is a very - it's very flashy, with its deep-brown, almost purple body, white face and black-and-white striped legs. Is it a lizard?
RZA: You know, that sounds like one of those strippers that I seen.
RZA: And I think I was in Austin.
COULTON: (Laughter) That sounds right.
RZA: I like Atlanta, but - you know what? That sounds like a bird, though, to me, so I'm going to say no to that.
EISENBERG: You are correct. It is not a lizard.
RZA: All right. I got one right - getting my money.
EISENBERG: It is - I mean, we don't know any of these, but we are learning. It is a relative of giraffes. It kind of looks like a deer mixed with a zebra.
COULTON: All right, here's another one. This is the name of the animal. The horned toad thrives in dry climates from British Columbia to Guatemala and subsists almost entirely on ants. The horns are only part of a suite of defenses that include hiding in the sand, gulping air to inflate itself and occasionally spurting blood from its eyes. It's called a toad, but is it actually a lizard?
RZA: That sounds like my drunk uncle David (ph).
EISENBERG: The spurting blood from the eyes - is that the part?
RZA: Yeah, and the chocolate ants.
RZA: I'm going to say yes, it's a lizard.
COULTON: It is a lizard. Is it an inaccurately named lizard. That's right.
RZA: Now, I knew that one because, you know, as a kung fu guy - right? - there's a kung fu technique called the lizard style. And I think they kind of use that guy in some of the techniques.
RZA: Oh, really? All right. Your kung fu knowledge came in handy even in this dumb lizard game (laughter).
EISENBERG: Always does, always does. All right, we have two more for you. The Goliath birdeater is a 12-inch-long Amazon predator that preys on rodents, frogs and even birds - nasty. When roasted in banana leaves, it's a local delicacy that tastes a little bit like shrimp.
EISENBERG: Is it a lizard?
RZA: I'm going to say no.
EISENBERG: You are correct. It's a giant, nightmare spider.
RZA: Well, the shrimp part is what got me. When you said - if you would have said tastes like chicken, I would have said yes, lizard.
RZA: Taste like shrimp - I was like, no, that's not no lizard. They can't...
COULTON: Lizard - there's no lizard that tastes like shrimp. Everybody knows that.
RZA: Don't play me like that.
EISENBERG: I mean, if lizards tasted like shrimp, we'd be eating a lot more lizards. That's all I'll say.
COULTON: A little lizard scampi.
RZA: On a skewer.
COULTON: (Laughter). All right, this is the last one.
COULTON: The Cuban knight anole gets its name because it's from Cuba and it's large bony head resembles a chess knight. Is it a lizard?
RZA: You know what? To have a head like a knight, I'm going to say yes, it's a lizard because it seems like a lizard would have that type of a head.
COULTON: (Laughter) You're right. That's totally a thing a lizard would do. You are correct. Yeah, it is a lizard.
RZA: Yeah, I could see a chess set now - I could see...
COULTON: An all-lizard chess set.
RZA: ...A lizard chess set.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you're a - you are a big chess player. Do you have novelty sets?
RZA: Yeah, I do. I do have some beautiful sets. I've been blessed. Yeah, I have one set that my brother got me for my birthday, and he went all-out. It was a, you know, I mean, this set is - I need security for this set.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Are they, though, in the shapes of, like, the kind of classic...
RZA: No, these are Napoleon - it's the Napoleon war.
COULTON: Oh, nice.
RZA: It's - look; it's made out of pure gold and silver.
RZA: I'm like, man, yo, thank you, but - like, my brother Divine, he's - you know, he's CEO of Wu-Tang Productions. He controls the money anyway, so, I mean...
EISENBERG: Yeah. Right (laughter).
COULTON: Yeah. Right. It's coming out of your pocket, sort of.
EISENBERG: It's like, yeah, happy birthday to you.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Happy birthday to you.
EISENBERG: This has been so much fun and just such an honor. Thank you so much, RZA.
RZA: Thank you, guys. It's been fun. Thank you.
COULTON: Thank you for being here.
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EISENBERG: RZA is the founder of the Wu-Tang Clan and director of the new movie "Cut Throat City." On Sept. 24 he's screening one of his favorite movies, "Shaolin vs. Lama," and providing live commentary at 36cinema.com.
That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Ruth Morrison and Scott Ross, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neal, and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. We'd like to thank our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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