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RZA Discusses His Formula for Success

The leader of the Wu-Tang Clan tells AARP about his second act in filmmaking, while still commanding the stage at 50

Rapper RZA of Wu-Tang Clan performs during the 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration at ACL Live on October 07, 2019 in Austin, Texas

Rick Kern/Getty Images

Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

En españolWhat’s the key to having success later in life, like you’re doing?

I would say the persistence of artistic expression drives me the most. Remaining creative, remaining someone who, although has had success, desires more expression and desires to inspire more. That’s a drive. I think the success is the aftermath of the drive.

If I look at somebody that’s on a business level, if this was to be a question for a business course, I would tell the entrepreneur that success can be repeated because there is a formula. The formula is creating a product that will entice the masses that only you can supply. As a rapper, I know that my product is creativity and I’ve added various forms of that creative expression to my menu.

You’ve had an amazing Hollywood career. Let’s talk about some of the highlights. What’s it like working with Bill Murray?

Well, you know, he’s one of the funniest guys in the world, but also, I have to say, one of the most generous artists. He’s very personal and private, but when it comes time to shine a light on art, he’s just openhearted with that. For me, being a fan of his, having watched all his movies — Caddyshack, I probably know by heart — was a blessing and pleasure for me.

What was it like working with Quentin Tarantino?

That relationship was the spark of me being able to be in the film world with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Quentin was the log and gasoline on that fire. Because me being able to work with him and observe him.

To answer how someone continues to regenerate their career: Steel sharpens steel. Even though I was at the pinnacle of my career, I saw someone who was rising to the pinnacle of his career and I saw a semblance in what he did and what I did. So I saw a semblance in producing albums, that had a semblance to directing films, but I didn’t know anything about directing films. Always being a student is important.

I was able to become a student of his. I was hired, and we got nominated for a few things. It was great for both of us. I also was old enough and humble enough to become a student of the craft of filmmaking, and he was generous enough to accept me as a student and pour his brain into my brain. He wanted me to teach him how to make beats. That was part of our trade, but he’s never sat down to take in that offer.

I will say, I think that during that period of time when we were around each other, he has learned much more about music and much more about the barriers that he can escape. Quentin always has great music in his movies. It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that you would see that the time barrier of music was broken.

It wasn’t until Django Unchained that you see that in the middle of a Western, there is a hip-hop track. Of course, me learning from him that you can do what you want in a film and pull in many elements, like in The Man With the Iron Fists. I was the first one brave enough to put in Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa, rapping in a film that’s based in 1850.

Those types of barriers — cross-pollination — is important for artists. You may know what you know, but somebody may know more. And if you will adjust and absorb what they know, it can rejuvenate you.

Do you still relate to hip-hop? Do you still listen to the folks who are out now, or does it sound a little foreign to you?

I have an 18-year-old son who has been listening to hip-hop since he was 9, so I get to listen to it through his ears. I would say, of course, I’m enjoying it because I’m hearing it through his ears. I also enjoy it because I’m a hip-hop fan. But, of course, as an OG, I see what it lacks. What it was lacking even more three years ago was substance. But I will say that the lyrics are getting better and better.   

"Hip-hop is always informative. Let’s not forget to always inform."

— RZA

This is youth culture, and you broke in when you were young. Now, being a little older, do we know what an older 50-something rap star is supposed to look like? We know what a 50-, 60-something rock star looks like. We’ve been seeing that for a couple of decades, but the older rap star we haven’t seen much of yet.

I think you are seeing it. I think you see it in me. You see it in Kanye; he’s in his 40s now. You see it in Jay-Z. You see it in Dr. Dre. You see it in Diddy. You see that some of these elite men remain elite men and are able to keep their energy and relevance. I say intelligence is always relevant. They’re able to keep a market share of something always valuable.

Do you have to behave differently?

If you look at me now, you’ll see me on a normal day with a button-up shirt. But when I go on stage, I put on my costume. It’s a performance. It’s Elvis now. It’s James Brown now stepping on that stage. Some artists’ music is tied to that.

I think that the artists are evolving. There are some things that we should let go. I was telling Wu-Tang Clan about this. I said, “Listen, what we should be definitely focusing on is being able to let the youth know how it felt in the days we experienced it. It’s good if they can hear that young man who is now a man, who is a father or who may have a wife, rap about his life. Hip-hop is always informative. Let’s not forget to always inform.

RZA, 50, is the leader of Wu-Tang Clan, which whom he still performs. But he also turned to filmmaking as his second act, working with Quentin Tarantino and Bill Murray, among others. He directed The Man with the Iron Fists, a 2012 movie starring Russell Crowe.

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