His commitment to staying on top of the latest music technology has fed a career that only seems to be expanding as he's moved from the hip-hop and rap producer behind the Wu-Tang Clan and all its various spinoffs and side projects into a successful solo performer and songwriter, film and television composer, actor, and, most recently, screenwriter and film director.
One of the attributes that has helped keep him at the peak of the game is an endless curiosity about the tools of the trade. "What I really want to learn is why they made it," he says. "What made them move the technology to a new level. What's different between the different models. I want to know, because knowing these things can free up your creativity."
This approach is reinforced by RZA's belief in planning and visualizing a project. The ability to, as he puts it, "choose your weapon," comes from thinking it through in advance of setting foot in the studio. "Preparation is key. As an example, I've known a lot of guys in my day-hip-hop producers-who'd buy equipment and never read the manual. They'd just mess around with it and try to figure stuff out. I'm a guy that, one day, decided to read the manual. When you read a manual-a good manual-you become familiar with the language that the machines all use, and once you learn that manual, you're able to move it to other platforms. Now, every time I buy something, I read the manual to learn what the parameters are, what they do."
When we sat down to talk with him about the state of production technology, he made it clear that this style of preparation is something he urges aspiring producers to tune into. "If you buy something new," he says, "take the first day to read the manual and to figure out what it does. Go through the tutorials before you start creating on your own. By doing so, you'll have more knowledge of what the machine can do and you'll be more prepared to make your own creation. For example, reading the manual and learning how to do re-triggering on a hardware drum machine helped me figure out how to do the same thing on plug-ins in different software packages like Pro Tools and Logic. By spending the time to learn the language of how it's done, it helped me figure out how to do the same thing in a different environment."
After years of acquainting himself with what's available, RZA knows just what he wants to see in the gear he chooses to add to his arsenal. Tight integration of MIDI and audio is important. A user interface that's familiar and intuitive enough that it allows you to work without thinking about the machine is essential, but there's one more thing RZA looks for in his gear. "It needs to have fun to it," he says. "When DAWs first came out, they lost the fun of it because it was all about a mouse dragging and dropping. Then they started becoming more compatible with controllers and it became more fun. Now you have things like the Akai MPK49 that's
becoming more compatible with controllers and it became more fun. Now you have things like the Akai MPK49 that's got pads and keys and is small and fully compatible with different software. Those different things make the fun of making the music. Hitting the pads is more fun than using a computer keyboard or clicking a mouse."
With the expansion of his career into acting and filmmaking, RZA often finds himself working on several projects at once, and having to create new music in unusual locations. "When I was working on the Afro Samurai score, I was working in a movie as an actor at the same time," he explains. "A lot of the cues were written in my trailer on my laptop and with a little MIDI keyboard. That would have been impossible in years before. You wouldn't have had the quality, or even the ability to do that."
This ability to work wherever the inspiration strikes is something RZA's been pursuing for years. "I remember building a vehicle for myself with an MPC hooked up to the radio so I could sample and make music while I was driving," he says. "That never worked all that well, but technology today has advanced to the point where you can create in any space, at any time. To me, that's one of the best advantages of modern technology."
With his increased schedule of acting and filmmaking, including the recent release of his The Man With The Iron Fists (inspired by his love of classic Hong Kong Kung Fu films), we had to ask if there were any lessons he learned from directing such a large production that he can take back to the recording studio.
"I'd say that directing is like conducting an orchestra, only an orchestra is 40 pieces, maybe 80 pieces max, whereas on the film, at one point we had over 700 people all under my control. What it gave me was a way to think more cooperatively, more as a whole, and that does help me back in the studio." Pressed for an example, he says, "I just wrote a song for the end title credits of Django Unchained, and the way I wrote the song was so cool compared to the way I used to work. I wrote it first in my head and then I basically strummed it on a guitar, just a chord progression. I just hummed the beat-beat-boxed it-over the chord progression, and on the second take I just played single chords, no rhythm strumming and tapped out the beat on the guitar as well. I told the guys what I wanted and went and had dinner. When I came back, I just had to tweak this and tweak that, do my own thing to it, but it was like ‘We got it guys, this is how we do it.' It happened in a third of the time it would have normally taken me, because I've learned to use more than one part of my brain and how to use more than one part of somebody else's brain. It's like working with actors. You have them rehearse, learn their lines, and then the day you shoot, you don't take 20 takes. I'd rather take the preparation time instead of wasting time while filming. It's the same thing with music now. I'm so much more efficient in my songwriting process, and I think it came
from what I've learned as a director. It's opened my mind to a lot of things. It opened my mind to efficiency."
When asked about what gear he'd recommend for aspiring producers and beat creators, he doesn't hesitate. "I would definitely suggest getting MASCHINE and a laptop and whatever program you wanted to use, whether it was Pro Tools, Ableton Live, or Logic. It would be totally capable of whatever you wanted to do, for not much of an investment. If you wanted to start a little smaller, most people don't even need a laptop. Once somebody gets a MASCHINE, they're good. I think it's definitely a revolutionary piece of equipment. Just plug it into your laptop and you've definitely got more power than we had with an SP1200 [early EMU sampler/drum machine] or an MPC3000 in the sense of memory for sounds, audio manipulation and a huge MIDI library. If I would have had MASCHINE back when I started making beats, I would have been so advanced because of the power of the technology-putting the power in the hands of the producers at an extreme level. And I think that's a good thing. It's a good way to enter. A laptop, headphones and a MASCHINE, and a guy is good to go."
As an example, he cites the world of freestyle rap. "Supernatural, who's not known as a producer, but as a rapper, recently got MASCHINE to use with his laptop and now he's making all the beats for his new album, where previously he'd always had to rely on outside producers. That's how powerful the technology has gotten. If you have the patience and time, even the vocal performer can figure out how to be a songwriter. Now, there are limitations to that, of course. You have to have the music knowledge. Music knowledge really increases songwriting ability."
RZA's recommendations about gaining the musical knowledge were reinforced for him just recently, courtesy of a major natural disaster. "During Hurricane Sandy, when nobody had any power, and you wanted to hear some music-a good old acoustic guitar would have been perfect to calm down your spirit. That's actually what I had. I had bought an acoustic guitar just before the storm hit and I was in my hotel room, me and my wife. I was just playing music on the guitar and we had a great night with some candlelight and some wine. So, let me say this to somebody going to Guitar Center: As long as you're there, I would always suggest that you get a guitar, as well. Even though we have all the software and a vast amount of power, the one thing that's missing in the world of music is the physical knowledge [of music]. I would suggest that to anybody. Please, pick up an instrument at Guitar Center, not just some electronic gear."