For today’s Hulu Days of Summer addition, we picked a series that features a butt-kicking samurai who’s hell-bent on revenge. Afro Samurai — and its sequel, Afro Samurai Resurrection — features the voice of Samuel L. Jackson as our hero and a soundtrack composed by none other than the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. To mark the premiere of the series on Hulu, we spoke to The RZA earlier this week. Find out what inspires this Grammy-winning artist these days — and what’s he’s listening to. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor
You’ve written and produced music for everything from Ghost Dog and Kill Bill to Blade: Trinity and Soul Plane. How was creating music for Afro Samurai different?
The RZA: You know, this was right up my alley. Those other projects were less in my full control. There’s always some back and forth, but I had maybe 75 percent freedom working with Tarantino on Kill Bill. Here, I had 90 percent freedom. But you know, Tarantino and I, we had similar taste, so if I brought in 10 things, he brought five of the same things. But it was definitely tougher in trying to please him because he had his own vision for it, himself.
With Afro Samurai, they had a vision, but they also allowed the music to lead the vision. What I mean by that is, when I worked on Afro Samurai, we started with what is known as the animatics, and I would compose to the animatics, and then they would go on and do some of their drawing and action to the music.
We noticed that you’ve written a lot of soundtracks to projects that are based on a common theme — redemption through revenge. Is there a reason why you’re drawn to subjects like this?
Well, I grew up watching a lot of films with that same theme, whether it’s a Spaghetti Western or martial arts films. Those were my big creative enthusiasms. So it’s only natural that I would fall into that chamber. At the same time, I’m open to all kinds of films. You know, Barber Shop and Soul Plane were comedies. Right now, I’m working on something that’s like a love story/drama with my buddy Nemo, which is totally different, so I’m just doing like a Mozart reinterpretation. I think people know me for a certain thing, and those are the kind of people that reach out to me first. In the same vein, I often take those kinds of jobs, because they’re right up my alley. As a creative force, I like to spend time on other things and do other things. I don’t want to be pigeonholed or typecast as only a revenge-action composer. In fact, when we did Babylon A.D., which is sci-fi, I was kind of happy that was a different approach for me, too, because it wasn’t revenge. It was sci-fi, it was futuristic. It gave me a chance to kind of explore a different sound, as well.
Are you a fan of anime yourself? Do you watch much of it?
Yeah, I’m a big fan, actually. I love anime. To me, some of the best creativity is through anime, especially 10 to 12 years ago, before Hollywood was able to master the CGI, how they have it now. Anime was the only place you could really get these wild fight sequences or wild imagination going, only while watching those films. You watch animation like Ghost in the Shell, or go back even farther to ones like Akira or Ninja Scroll. That kind of action couldn’t be duplicated through live-action at the time. Even Transformers, the old animated movie, that was the only way you were going to get a movie about Transformers. But now that Hollywood has caught up to the creativity, we can finally get those live-action movies like [the most recent]Transformers and The Last Airbender coming out now, and all these other great movies like X-Men, Wolverine. Now I feel like I’m watching anime, but it’s a real live action.
You’ve been working on solo projects for a while now. Can we expect anything from the Wu-Tang in the future?
Wu Tang is always unpredictable, so you never know. We definitely have a tour this summer, where we’ll all be in the same place. Usually that leads on to something else, so we’ll see where it leads to this time.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I’m inspired through many things, whether it’s through life itself, through films, reading books, or just by taking a walk. Sometimes I get my best inspiration just through taking long walks. A lot of ideas pop into my head, and I just try to turn those ideas into reality.
Some of the tracks on the Afro Samurai soundtrack are credited to Bobby Digital, and some to The RZA. What determines which song gets which credit?
I think the context of my lyrics. I strive to make the RZA lyrics to be more intuitive, more inspirational for the listener as well as having messages of education and spirituality behind it. Whereas with Bobby Digital, it’s just a freefall for all. Just MCing and lyricism, just talking a lot of, you know, a lot of braggadocious shit, having fun.
What are you listening to these days?
Depending on the day you catch me, from listening to my buddy John Frusciante’s album The Empyrean — which has been my favorite album for the last year and change, actually. But I go back and forth, listening to new hip-hop from new artists, you know, from Kid Cudi to Drake and all. I listen to keep up to speed with what’s going on out there. But I also continue to listen to my classic music, the old ’60s and ’70s hits and things like that. Different days, different ways. My CD player’s always changing.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m mostly working on my film, The Man with the Iron Fist. That’s where most of my creativity is going to. On a music level, I have a joint sound right now with the GZA called Liquid Swords Part Two. That’s my music endeavor, but The Man with the Iron Fist is where I’m focusing most of my creativity.
What’s that you’re listening to in the background?
Oh, it’s this song “Hysteria,” I know you’ve heard of “Hysteria,” the old rock ‘n roll song [from Def Leppard]. We did a Nike commercial last week and they asked me to take a shot at remixing that song, so we’re taking a shot at it.
Really? Some of us have been enjoying an ’80s hair band revival here at Hulu.
OK, I kind of had that as well, about six months ago. I was hanging with my buddy Shavo [Odadjian] from System of a Down, and he’s always playing me like a lot of metal and rock that I’ve missed because I’m so much into hip-hop. He gave me an iPod with 30,000 songs on it. That was last year’s birthday gift. And I just started getting into it, more and more, month by month. So I know what you mean, by going back to the ’80s and feeling Ted Nugent and these guys, things that I think I skipped over. I’m a guitar player now, so I’m listening to these things to learn more about the guitar and, you know, to find out how to include it in my own music.
What do you think about music’s shift to digital formats, and music sharing sites?
I think it has a plus and negative, of course. I’ve been saying it for years, that it has a positive and negative. The negative is starting to overtake the positive now for me. In the beginning, you want the music to be heard and you want kids to enjoy music, because music is to be heard. We don’t make it for ourselves. But when it starts jeopardizing the careers and the financial income of the artists, to where some artists have to now spend less time doing music because they have to get jobs to pay their bills. Now the fans have actually destroyed their own idols. When you’re not supporting the music system or the music industry, you’re not supporting the artists. Now record deals that went from being — let’s say the average record deal could have been a $200,000 deal for a guy. That’s pretty substantial amount for a guy to live on and have a normal life and make music for six hours a day. But now record deals are down to $50,000 now, or you can’t even get a deal. So then the artists can’t spend six or seven hours making music — they’ve got to get a job or maybe get some gigs, things like that.
So the fans don’t realize that they destroyed the music industry by free downloads. What makes it ironic is that, to me, it’s not like the fans won’t spend the money. They’re going to buy iPhones and iPads, we’re spending $300 to $400 and then they’re getting free music for it. The music is only $10. We need to take a closer look at it and realize that we’re buying these gadgets, but these gadgets are useless without music. So instead of buying a regular $15 CD player or Walkman, you’re paying $200, $300 for an iPod, but you still don’t have any music. You’re making Apple grow bigger — and obviously we like Apple because we use Apple computers to make music — but we’re taking away from the musicians. We need to find a way to put money back into the pockets of the musicians so they can continue to make music and continue inspiring us.