RZA Enters ’36th Chamber’ And A Fresh Model For Touring
Wu-Tang Clan founder Robert “RZA” Diggs sometimes goes by the alter-ego Bobby Digital, but the origin of his latest venture — live scoring an iconic martial arts film — is decidedly analog.
“The true foundation of this dates back to VCR tapes,” says RZA, recalling his early days as a DJ in Staten Island, working alongside his pal Jon “DJ Skane” Lugo. “We had another buddy named Tom Shannon (who’d take) a couple of VCRs, connect them together, and he would pit breakbeats against animation. Like, you’ll see Road Runner chasing Wile E. Coyote, falling off the cliff, to a James Brown beat. That was the coolest thing. And he was the master of that.”
Later this month, Lugo and Shannon will join RZA in using their audiovisual talents to create a live soundtrack for “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” — with help from a pair of DJ decks, synthesizers and drum machines. RZA likens the three-performer arrangement to a New York City garbage truck with two steering wheels; only one person can drive at a time, but the switch can be made at a moment’s notice (“I’ll be driving the main bus,” he says).
This setup should help RZA do proper justice to a film that helped inspire the creation of the Wu-Tang Clan itself. The plot, which features a young student rebelling against the draconian Manchu regime, resonated with RZA during his early days in Staten Island as he observed harsh local authorities and their interactions with his cohort in the 1980s and 1990s. The live-scoring medium itself goes back at least a half-century earlier.
“That’s how movies were watched,” says RZA. “So it’ll be interesting to see that return. It’s not cost-efficient right now to have a whole orchestra, but I would love to reach it to a level and to a venue that we’re actually scoring with an orchestra to the movie as they did in the ’20s and ’30s. That would be an incredible reemergence of art, talent and experience.”
RZA’s live-scoring concept came about after he befriended Alamo Drafthouse chief Tim League, who partnered with him and Celestial Pictures — which controls the rights to 36th Chamber — on a live scoring of the film in 2016. RZA brought on Lugo and Shannon to round out the latest iteration.
The production also marks a twist on the current model for DJs. The electronic music boom, long on thump and short on live instrumentation, has created demand for increasingly elaborate visual setups. Zedd, for example, offers a feast for audiences’ eyeballs whenever he takes the stage, bringing out videogame-style graphics synced to his music.
“My live show is not a DJ show at all,” Zedd told Forbes last year. “Essentially, what’s most important for me is for the crowd to go home and think that was an incredible experience … and that involves, of course, the music choice, but also the visuals you see: the lights you see, the lasers, the special effects, and that’s all very choreographed. And that’s still all made live.”
If audiences are increasingly attracted to DJs playing live shows over videogame-esque visuals, why not martial arts flicks live-scored by one of hip-hop’s greatest producers? RZA will continue to test this thesis when his mini-tour begins on April 17 at the Paramount Theatre in Denver before continuing on to the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 18; The Anderson in Miami on April 20; the Palace Theater in Los Angeles on April 24; and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on April 26.
RZA’s excursion should be lucrative, too: many of the venues on his list routinely take in more than $75,000 in ticket sales per night. He envisions ramping up to 20 shows per year if the Wu-Tang faithful flock to the production, which he believes they will.
“We have a fixed format that includes a lot of Wu, a lot of rare versions of things that you don’t normally hear,” explains RZA. “There’s no telling what we would throw in, based on the vibe we’re feeling.”
So should fans expect to hear music from Wu-Tang Clan’s one-of-a-kind secret album, “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin,” which continues to make headlines despite the fact that it can’t legally be released for over 80 years? Says RZA: “Nah, I don’t think so.”
Fortunately for all, there’s plenty of other material with which to work.
For more on the business of music, get my new book, “3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise“, and follow me on Twitter.
Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — business news you need to know about economic empowerment for the digital age, delivered to your inbox.