Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Milk Crate: Rza and Cinematic Sound

Rza is not a producer, rapper, or artist.  Although I am unsure what exactly he is, I would call him either a way of life, or an adjective.  He is a way of life in the sense that he has birthed his own hybrid religion that incorporates everything from Buddhism to chess, and martial arts to smoking blunts.  He is an adjective in the way that I can only describe certain sounds as “Rza.”  He has embraced several aspects of other organized religions that somehow allow him to dominate his own faction of hip hop, direct films, write books, produce film scores, and produce hip hop for some of the most important rappers of all time.  His cult following, along with the entire Wu Tang family’s, is preposterous.  Needless to say, if he were politically inclined, he could lay the smack down on Obama for the next presidential slot.

In inventing his own approach to spirituality he has enabled himself to include all of the aspects of his life that might be considered less-than-religious.  Rza grew up in Brooklyn, NY back in the 70s and 80s (before it was plagued by hipsters and deprived of the crime that so perfectly represented it).  Being in Brooklyn in these decades would spawn various different ways of life, but the way Rza turned out you might expect that he was from somewhere between Brooklyn, Asia, and Classical Era Europe.  He manages to draw equal influence from all of these places in such confusing amounts that you can’t help but question/admire his technique.  One minute he’ll be boasting about his guns and drugs, the next he’ll be threatening you with his pawn or Queen chess pieces. 

One of the most important aspects of Rza’s approach to music is his noticeable cinematic sound.  He claims to have been inspired by awful old Kung Fu movies, as well as spaghetti western king-of-soundtrack Ennio Morricone, and Tim Burton and Sam Raimi collaborator Danny Elfman.  The Asian sound can be traced back to the kung fu stuff, whether it consist of direct samples of a film, or a tone of a song created based off of the feeling of the film.  Influence from Morricone is more subtle in sound, but more obvious in theory.  Morricone used his music to further a particular scene in any movie by accurately reflecting the mood of the scene through sound (crescendos, accents, sweeps and tension).  Rza does the opposite.  His songs are so genuine and focused (and so regularly accompanied by the ultra-photographic lyrics of every Wu Tang member) that it accurately creates a visual that goes hand-in-hand with the audio.  This cinematic feature in Rza’s sound is responsible for a major shift in hip hop music.  The style in which the Rza and Wu Tang have represented their city, upbringing, and personal culture through visuals and matching audio has been replicated by thousands of rappers since. 
Naturally, this ability that Rza has popularized has allowed him to score several films.  His work on Afro Samurai, a bizarre yet brilliant anime show about a samurai’s quest for revenge, is groundbreaking in terms of music for television.  Whereas Jason Segel (in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) accurately refers to dramatic television’s music as “dark, ominous tones,” Rza has created an entire new world for the music to exist in.  Drawing on his history of Asian culture and sound, as well as his extensive knowledge of all cinema, Rza is the perfect producer for a show like Afro Samurai. 

The merging of two extremely distinct cultures is done with finesse and played over stunning visuals (which also reflect a marriage of the same two cultures). Rza’s background in hip hop and his familiarity with African American musical history has provided him with the ability to make hip hop under any conditions, so the beats are never a problem.  However, his deep (and somewhat odd) love for Asian culture and spirituality allows him the rarer ability to insert the right dose of Eastern influence in order make the anime aspect of the show feel familiar and proper. 
His work for directors Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino has not gone unnoticed.  Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, from director Jarmusch, follows a Mafia hitman who lives by the code of the samurai in an urban area. It would be blasphemy to even consider another composer for this project besides Rza.  His contributions for Kill Bill feature more collaborations with other artists, taking away from his overall tone, but still reflect his sound all the same. 
            I can promise he will continue to influence the music industry for years to come, but I am more concerned with how Rza’s career in film will pan out.  The direction in which modern music is moving could allow for Rza’s skill set to potentially become a standard in film scoring.  His ability to work in a formal studio setting, as well as his knowledge of computerized music elements may soon be a must in the film-scoring world.  No matter what direction it moves, Rza will be on the front lines, bumping hip hop beats behind “enter film genre here” visuals.  R-Z-A ain’t nothing to fuck wit.

by Ken Glauber