This might be a bit off the beaten track for the Tracking Board, but every once in a while, you’re offered an opportunity to interview someone you just can’t say “no” to. That was the case when Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA offered to discuss his sophomore directorial effort Love Beats Rhymes, which is currently playing in select cities.
Written by Nicole Jefferson, the movie stars recording artist Azealia Banks in her first acting role. She plays Coco, a Brooklyn rapper who takes part in rap battles and who decides to take a master class in poetry taught by Jill Scott’s Professor Dixon. There, she encounters Derek (Lucien Laviscount), a poetry major going for his masters, who frowns upon Coco’s hip hop roots and attitude.
It’s quite a departure for RZA after directing the 2012 martial arts movie The Man with the Iron Fists and more recently, an episode of Netflix’s Iron Fist, but the movie allows him to explore his own roots as a rapper while helping supply some of the music for various performances in the film.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with RZA over the weekend to talk about the movie, music and more.
This seems like somewhat a departure for you, so how’d you find Nicole’s script? Was it something you knew about beforehand or something sent to you?
It’s actually the weirdest thing. I’ll see if I can get the story to you quickly, paraphrase it. So right after I finished that album A Better Tomorrow with the Wu, my agent, while I was working on the album, he sent me this script written by Nicole that Lionsgate was doing. He said, “You know, there’s something I want you to take a look at. I know it’s not your forte, but I think it’s a really cool script and since it’s hip hop and poetry, maybe you’ll find something in there that you like.” I kind of put it to the side. Would you believe that after A Better Tomorrow evolved, I was really going through I guess a creative depression. I’ll never forget this day. It was Wu-Tang Clan scheduled to do the cover of Rolling Stone and nobody showed up.
No, seriously, so I have to fly back to LA now. I flew in to do it, so now I’m flying back and I’m feeling a lot softer than I normally am, kind of internally hurt, and I wanted to read something, so I read the script on the plane. This has to be like December 5th or 6th of 2015, and all of sudden, the emotions of the film were mixed with my emotions, so after I land, I text my agent and he called me, and he set a meeting up with me and Lionsgate and the producer Paul Hall the following week. I told him what I felt and what I thought, and there were a couple of directors they had in mind but I think around December 19, they had one final meeting before the year ended, and they thought that I could be the guy to help bring it. They saw the passion that I had and they gave me the job.
The movie reminds me a bit of John Singleton’s movie Poetic Justice but more with a female turn, but it also involves romance in a similar way as that film.
You’re absolutely right about that. Actually, John Singleton gave me a lot of advice on this movie, to be honest. During the pre-production, I spent some time with him just talking film. I’m a big fan of his work, and he gave me some good advice and some positive energy also that helped me before I got started. So I can see what you mean about some of the energy transferring over a little bit.
This movie explores the relationship between poetry and hip hop, which I’m sure must have been interesting to you. Usually when I think of poetry, I think of a teen girl reading a poetry book under a tree, but in this movie, we see how poetry can be performed and be as powerful as any rap.
I agree with you. For me, the opportunity of being a film maker, whether you’re in front of the camera or behind the camera, you actually get a chance to explore things because of the character’s journey. A lot of people in my cast had never been to a poetry slam before, and when we filmed the poetry slam, they were able to see how potent and poignant those poems were. So we actually went to the Nuyorican Café, we went to events just to learn about it.
Then another cool thing was if you look at the hip hop cipher, you see Loaded Lux there, you see Murda Mook, and these guys, especially that year, Murda Mook was considered the best freestyle battle rapper in the city. And having those real guys come through and create a real cipher was also cool for my cast. Especially my buddy John David Washington, who loves hip hop but never got a chance to be a part of it, and some of the cast seeing the real thing happening was kind of cool, so I got to learn more about poetry, which I was not fully aware of. And even some of the poets got a chance to get a taste of hip hop, so it was really cool.
That was your background before Wu-Tang, doing rap battles, right?
Yeah, battle rap was my sh•t. I actually wanted to get into the cipher at one point, but I was the director so I had to stay behind the camera.
Did you have time to work with Nicole on developing her script?
Oh yeah, guaranteed. We spent a lot of time together. We prepped the film for at least about four months, me and her. We started in California just having dinners and eating out at vegan restaurants and talking through the characters, me getting an idea of what she really had in mind and what inspired her. She’s a unique individual. I’m looking forward to more of her work being brought to the screen. She has a nice style of writing, and also, she’s from Brooklyn, so she has the female perspective of Brooklyn, and I think we’re a generation apart, so she has this perspective that’s different than mine so it was good to get that perspective. You’ll see that kind of playing out in the characters of Professor Dixon and Coltrane. That’s the “brownstone Brooklyn.” I’m from the projects of Brooklyn, know what I mean? It’s two different Brooklyns in all reality, especially in my day. Now I think it’s been gentrified, but in my day, those were two separate worlds, and I’m glad that she brought that element into her writing, and I think we captured it.
Is this Azealia’s first acting role, too? She did pretty amazing, and I’m not sure I would have known that acting wasn’t her first profession. You have a lot of other musicians/actors in the movie like Jill Scott and Common, who has acted a lot at this point.
In her case, when we were looking for cast and looking at different people, and we got a chance to interview her, she mentioned that she’d studied acting in Harlem during high school and stuff like that, so she had some study, and some people have a natural ability. She was very responsive to direction, which I was happy with. She responded well to … you know I’m the type of director that may want you to play the same scene a few different ways, you know. I might want to play it aggressive. I might want to pull on the emotional string. She was very responsive to any direction I wanted to take it in. I would say that she allowed herself to be that instrument.
When you direct a movie, I assume you don’t need a music supervisor because you have enough experience doing that yourself, so do you generally know what you want to do musically or do you work with other people?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been fortunate to work in both roles. As soon as I started, I did think about hiring somebody for this particular job I felt that there was almost no need. I already had a tab on it. Before pre-production, I kind of had a taste of some of the vibes, but I could see myself in the future, of course, hiring somebody else to handle that task. The more I do film, the more I realize that collaboration is so important, as well as clear vision. It’s really a give and take. I think if I would have hired a music supervisor, it would have given me more hours of rest, you know what I mean? Taking on multiple jobs sometimes is very taxing on the brain, so next time, I’m thinking, do I do that again or do I just let it go? If you look at my editing on this particular film, I had to go through a couple of different editors, which is all good. But I think that’s all part of this process that I’m still learning. I’m good enough to do it, but to be that master, I haven’t gotten there yet, so I’m learning when to let go, and when to hold on.
Did Nicole have any of the poetry or raps written in the script or is that something you developed with your actors including Azealia?
No, we actually went down to Nuyorican Café, and we got some of the top snap poetry winners to come in and help write the poetry for the actors. Also, for a lot of the hip hop and extra words, we had Murda Mook. We put him on staff to help write lyrics for the battles, so I definitely surrounded myself with people from that world and have them compose the poetry.
One of my favorite poems is a poem that Lucien, who plays the character Derek, does. He says something about how his father was “quick to tie knots like jumping over a broom, only to keep falling for infidelity” or whatever. Some of the imagery that was given. He said something, he said “I wonder what God feels like to see his old son die due to a flaw in his system.” Then he said, “I wonder how my father feels to see his son not going to be an image of him.” Basically, that’s a very powerful line, to say it like that. To compare the same father and son relationship to the Almighty Father to yourself, and to see how both contrary to what the father is. I thought that was very great poet writing. And every poet that we brought in, they brought some great lines in.
It surprised me there was so much prejudice against hip hop in the poetry circle. Do you find yourself still facing that or has that passed?
It still exists. I actually think my relationship with some of the poets over the course of making this film had eased some of that tension with them. What happened was all of us got a chance to see not just the words performed but to see it written down. If you can’t see it written sometimes you don’t see it. It’s like pick a great writer, like Leonard Cohen. He may sing in a drowsy voice and have his thing, but when you read what he says, if you read the lyrics to “The Stranger Song,” you will see that that’s poetic, it’s hip hop, it’s any other lyric written. So I think that during the course of this film, for the people that were involved, I think we all gained a higher respect for each other because we got a chance to not just see each other perform it, during rehearsals and all that, but we got a chance to read it.
As far as you know, has anyone ever put out a book of hip hop lyrics similar to a poetry book? Something like that could possibly open more eyes in some ways.
The Wu-Tang Manual did put a chapter dedicated to Wu-Tang lyrics. But I don’t think there’s been a definitive hip hop lyric book done. I could see a website like Genius being the ones that do it because they always got the lyrics. They got imitations and commentaries on their website.
I’m gonna ask about some other stuff. First of all, did you see the Netflix show The Get Down by any chance?
Yeah, I love The Get Down.
I was thinking of that because you were around at the time, although you would have been 11 years old. Did you experience or witness some of the stuff shown on that series?
Yeah, I witnessed a lot of that, man. I love that show. It’s kind of like almost reliving my childhood. As soon as I see some of the inspirations from — you know, not being egotistical — but I see some of the Wu-Tang inspiration in the show as well. I see how the producers and the writers have really incorporated the foundation of hip hop but also incorporated other elements that help tell that story, so yeah, I love that show, yo.
What about Patti Cake$? Have you had a chance to see Geremy Jasper’s hip hop film?
Well, Patti Cake$, I didn’t see the whole film down at Sundance. I was actually with Jasper and I didn’t see the whole film because he had played it so early, but I seen some pieces of it, and once again, I think he did a great … Well, I can’t give it a full critique, but from what I have seen, and from the lyrics I saw. I actually got a chance to see some of the cast perform it. I think he did a great job as well. He took a long time to do that film, too, you know what I mean? And I think he delivered as well.
Were you at Sundance for the Roxanne Shanté movie?
Yeah, I did some music for that, but I don’t know what they’re doing with it, to be honest with you. I know Pharrell’s probably working on it still — he was adding some flavor to it. I think it’s a cool movie. I think it’s another good asset for hip hop, and I think the actress Nia Long did a great job with it.
I missed it at Sundance and haven’t heard anything since. A friend of mine who is a Wu-Tang fan gave me this question for you. He wanted me to ask about the influence Wu-Tang has had on other genres of music besides hip hop, particularly indie rock and pop. Is that something you’ve noticed and how do you feel about that?
It’s an extreme honor and respect when I see other genres define Wu-Tang to be inspirational. I think hip hop has been inspired by so many forms of music, and it’s an amalgamation of music itself. It’s good that now a lot of people find their inspiration from hip hop, and Wu-Tang being one of those pinnacles, I’m more than flattered by that.
Love Beats Rhymes is now playing in select cities and On Demand, plus it will be released on DVD/Blu-ray on Jan. 2.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor