RZA Still Sharp

We spoke to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA as he prepares to bring the mothafuckin’ ruckus to the Castro Theatre with a live hip-hop rescore of The 36th Chamber.

The killer B-movie that launched the Killa Beez is getting a one-night-only live rescore and screening with RZA himself on the decks. Reproducing the sights and sounds of the 1978 kung fu epic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the producer, promoter, and renaissance artist will create a musical and martial arts masterpiece infused with 20 years of the Wu-Tang Clan catalog.

RZA: Live from ‘The 36th Chamber’ at the Castro Theatre on Thursday, April 26, brings newly remastered tracks from the Wu-Tang vault together to form like Voltron with the Shaolin shadowboxing and Wu-Tang sword style of the 1978 cult movie.

“Fans can expect to see a great film,” RZA tells SF Weekly. “36 Chambers is a film that was really a great inspiration to me, and inspired a lot of artistic creations from Wu-Tang. And then they get a chance to see this film manipulated sonically, in a way to bring a new rhythm to it, to enhance some of the scenes.”

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin inspired the Wu-Tang’s signature vocabulary, iconography, and style.

“Beyond the kung-fu, it was the reality of the situation that hit me,” RZA says. “Growing up as a Black kid in America, I didn’t know that that kind of story had existed anywhere else. It just gave me another view of like, ‘Wow, it exists everywhere. These struggles.’ ”

Wu-Tang’s kung fu fascination is still kicking in hip-hop culture.

“Hip-hop is a competitive form of sport, a very competitive form of art, lyricism, DJing, breakdancing,” RZA says. “We always have the terminology ‘Let’s Battle.’ So I looked at martial arts and hip-hop as being the same energy, a competition and a battle.”

RZA arrives for this performance at a unique moment of cultural resurgence for the 1994 blockbuster Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Not one, but two current hit singles sample that album’s big track, “Can It Be All So Simple.”

“There’s a sample that Lauryn Hill did on her great album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she sampled a Wu-Tang track on that album,” he points out. “And then years later, Cardi B’s new single is now a sample of her sample.”

But RZA is being modest. Cardi B’s “Be Careful” did just debut at No. 16 on the Billboard  charts. But that same Wu-infused sample from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” is also heard on Drake’s just-released “Nice for What,” which is already No. 1 in the U. K. and sure to debut highly in the U.S.

“The DNA of the Wu-Tang still finds its way into hip-hop culture,” he says.

This isn’t the RZA’s first Castro Theatre appearance. He and GZA had cameos in Jim Jarmusch’s movie Coffee and Cigarettes, the opening night feature of the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival (now SFFILM).

“I’ve never seen myself on the big screen before,” RZA remembers. “I remember sitting in that theater, and when my scene came on, I remember shrieking and melting in my seat. My belly was moving, butterflies in my stomach. I turned into a nervous wreck and I started sweating. I almost disappeared in the seat.”

“But about two minutes in, people was laughing. The more they laughed, the more I erected back up to full posture. I was nervous, and when they laughed, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. They like it.’

“That’s a beautiful theater,” RZA says of the Castro. “It’s beautiful that I get to come back to that theater with this latest movie and have some fun.”

San Francisco also served as the Wu-Tang’s home base on their very first early-’90s tour. “We used San Francisco to kind of move through California,” RZA says. “It was also the first time we had a taste of being harassed by the police. We was new to the city and it was unique. But it was the first chance we all had to leave New York.”

“I remember my apartment. I shared it with [Ol’] Dirty [Bastard], so you can imagine the good times that I had,” he says. “It was one of the first cities that we spent time in early on. We performed all around. They had us going everywhere. And we wasn’t getting paid back then.”

This was an era when hip-hop culture was engaged in a symbolic kung fu battle known as the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was an epic counterpunch to the West Coast’s surge of smash solo efforts of various N.W.A. members. But the coasts would trade the upper hand regularly as the years went on.

“During that era, the production of West Coast hip-hop, led by Dr. Dre and DJ Quik — as well as brothers in the Bay Area, E-40, hyphy — I think their production sonic was coming out stronger than most East Coast productions,” RZA says.

“Even though we had A Tribe Called Quest, Marley Marl, and some great producers on the East Coast, I think that somehow the East Coast at that time lost its way,” he says. “It took people who were growing in the streets to revitalize it. And that happens in all forms of music.”

But even these coastal rivals traditionally lifted from the music of the other region’s previous generations. (And that Wu-Tang track you’re hearing sampled by Cardi B and Drake itself samples Gladys Knight & The Pips.)

“Think of the big classic West Coast hit songs back then,” RZA says. “You’ll notice a lot of it was sampled from George Clinton, who was an East Coast guy. But if you go to ’90s or ’80s hip-hop, you’ll notice a lot of samples from The Meters. In the Wu-Tang, you’ll notice samples from the Stax collection — Southern.

“We were always infusing each other’s music one way or another, subconsciously. That’s why I think hip-hop has become a global phenomenon.”

This live, multimedia 36th Chamber is some once-in-a-lifetime kind of shit for any fan of kung fu movies or ’90s hip-hop. But RZA’s biggest theatrical endeavor is still to come. He just directed his first feature film, Cut Throat City, a heist flick set during Hurricane Katrina that stars Terrence Howard, Wesley Snipes, and Baby Driver’s Eiza González.

“I just finished the director’s cut this weekend,” RZA says. “Instead of taking a vacation, like most directors do after they edit a film for 12 weeks, my vacation will be coming to the cities and showing one of my favorite films of all time, 36 Chambers, and rescoring it for an audience.

“My vacation will be spending time with good people enjoying hip-hop culture and film culture,” he says.

RZA: Live from ‘The 36th Chamber’ is a joint combination of live remixing and classic action cinema that kicks in nearly a week after your 4/20 buzz wears off. And RZA is passing some potent advice to everyone coming.

“Before you walk into the theater — roll it, light it, come on in,” he says.

RZA: Live from “The 36th Chamber,” Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m., at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. $56; 415-621-6120 or castrotheatre.com

 

See more of SF Weekly‘s 420 issue:

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Quim Rock Is the Weed Lube You Didn’t Know You Needed
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