Wide Angle

RZA and Jim Jarmusch Talk the Music of Ghost Dog

Jarmusch’s 1999 samurai story gets the Criterion treatment. Here’s how RZA’s score got made.

RZA and Jim Jarmusch.
RZA and Jim Jarmusch. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Hulu and Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 masterwork Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a film that’s strange in the most beautiful way. The plot, as it were, follows the journey of a trained samurai and assassin for hire named Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) after he whacks a mobster he wasn’t supposed to. Yet the wonder of the movie is less about its story than its atmosphere: the creeping shadows of the night, the illicit underworld of the city, the stealth and agility of the samurai’s moves, the conflict between the old traditions and the new modern world arising. This collision of forces is soundtracked by RZA—the founder and primary musical backbone of the legendary rap posse the Wu-Tang Clan—in his very first film score. RZA’s trademark tinkling pianos and synths, sweeping strings, and thumping drums provide a haunting soundscape for this universe of gangsters and swordfighters. Ghost Dog is getting a new Criterion special edition release in the U.S., and its score, which was originally exclusively released in Japan, is finally coming stateside as well. I spoke with RZA and Jarmusch by phone about how their collaboration came about, the transition from producing for rappers to scoring movies, and the myriad cultural influences on Ghost Dog and its soundtrack. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nitish Pahwa: Jim, when you were conceiving of Ghost Dog, which is a movie about Japanese culture and samurai philosophy, what made you think of RZA specifically for the score?

Jim Jarmusch: Well, I always start with a few things when I’m imagining a film. In this case, it was writing something for Forest Whitaker. The other two really important elements for me while just imagining and preparing and writing the thing were the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, that 18th-century text by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and RZA’s music. I didn’t know RZA yet. I didn’t know if he would even want to do such a thing. But I was a fan of Wu-Tang Clan from before: Enter the Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang Forever, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and of course, the first two Gravediggaz records—all of these were already out because I started this writing in 1998.

I was gathering up DJ vinyl of Wu-Tang music because often it would have instrumental tracks on the B-side. I had “Ice Cream,” I had “C.R.E.A.M.,” I had “Can It Be All So Simple.” I had these beautiful instrumental tracks that helped me visualize things because RZA’s music is atmospheric and visually inspiring. There’s something in his style that is—I don’t feel comfortable using words to describe music often, but there’s something sort of stuttered in the beat sometimes, something slightly damaged in the sound that’s not sonically sanitized, you know? I love these elements. I was using this music while I wrote and thought of the film in my head. Then I was like, “Oh man, what if I can’t get to him? What if he just says ‘I’m not interested in this nonsense’?”

I had a really interesting path to find RZA because Dreddy Kruger, who’s a longtime mutual friend, worked with the Wu-Tang—was he Sunz of Man or Killarmy?

RZA: He was Royal Fam. He was GZA’s dancer for years.

Jarmusch: I loved Dreddy, but I didn’t know Dreddy either. My nephew—not by blood, but by my family—is Nemo Librizzi, who was friends with Dreddy. He introduced me, and then Dreddy got me to meet RZA. So, I got hooked up to meet RZA and fell in this idea.

It’s really that music, man, that music, and I still have all my vinyl and my instrumental booth. RZA made a great record from Ghost Dog, getting different people to write songs after the fact, but the actual score of the film was only released in Japan and became a kind of cult thing. Now 36 Chambers is going to rerelease that and I’m really excited.

How come the film score was only released in Japan, and then the album with the inspired songs became a domestic release?

Jarmusch: I can’t afford to do the normal thing with the composer and say, “Here, I’ll buy your music as work for hire and pay you all this money upfront.” So, with RZA or Neil Young or Tom Waits or some people in the past, I said, “How about you own the music, we get to use it in the film, but you can release it however you want and you own that.” I think that’s a fair thing to do. And RZA said, “Well, you already have the music I wrote in the film. So how about I do a little offshoot thing and make something new?” RZA went out to some really interesting rappers and musicians to have them write things inspired from the film and that was his choice to release that. In Japan, they put out the score, and now that we’re rereleasing the film and have a beautiful new master and transfer, it just seemed like, “Why don’t we put out that score?”

RZA, were you always interested in getting into movie scores, considering how many movies you sampled for Wu-Tang?

RZA: I couldn’t say that I was always into it. I didn’t know I had that trajectory. I was blessed to have a conversation with Quincy Jones about a year before Ghost Dog. He said he scored his first movie at the age of 30, and for him, it was also at a time when Blacks were not getting the opportunity to score a movie. And I’m looking at Quincy Jones as an aspiration—maybe one day I’ll create a piece of art that’ll be like Quincy Jones. I also had a challenge in my heart, like, can I beat that? Because that’s the hip-hop in me. And I actually did beat it. Jim gave me Ghost Dog when I was 28. That was like an affirmation for me: I can do it. I’m going to beat Quincy.

You’ve mentioned you had to switch your style up a little when it came to making music for a film as opposed to music for rappers. Were there other film scores that you looked to specifically? Was there anything from stuff you’d sampled for Wu-Tang that had been an inspiration?

RZA: No. At the time, after doing Wu-Tang Forever, I had been reading music theory books. On “Triumph” or “It’s Yourz,” you’ll notice my chord progressions going over four bars, maybe six, maybe eight bars. By the time I got to Bobby Digital, I’m doing 20-bar progressions and nobody wants to rap on it. Composing was starting to make more sense because before it was about stringing four or five samples together and playing some melodies on top of it—but now I actually knew my circle of fifths. My palette started expanding.

When Jim came to me, I never scored a film before, so I definitely didn’t know nothing technical. He could tell you so many technical problems that we had. The first was the normal, civilized schedule of getting the work at 9 to 5. That didn’t exist in my brain. And Jim did come to me early, before he had a cut of the film. I wasn’t going to take on this job without preparing myself. So, I studied Peter and the Wolf.

Jarmusch: Yeah. Sergei Prokofiev. Russian.

RZA: Right. And Tchaikovsky did Swan Lake. Between those two, I understood that I could apply instrumental themes to characters. That information became the foundation of me understanding composers: Like, in Peter and the Wolf, he used the flute for the bird, for the wolf he used the trombone. If you notice in Ghost Dog, when it first comes on and you see that bird flying in the air, there’s a hip-hop beat, but the melody is being played by a flute.

A couple of the themes I just got from studying what other great composers had done. You get in the 100-year-old tried-and-tested ideas. I applied them to my technique and they actually opened my brain up to Leonard Bernstein, Mancini, and all these guys. I started buying their books and studying them as well.

Jarmusch: And you did some very specific themes in there. There’s the general Ghost Dog theme. There’s a kind of sad music when he finds his birds dead. There are a lot of beautiful little variations of themes throughout.

And I got to say, RZA was really open because we weren’t scoring it to the picture so much as talking atmospherically. I would say, “Look, this music seems to go here well,” but we would play with it in the editing room and sort of finalize it. RZA had a really good sense of certain tonal things representing elements of the film. I love this music so much for the film. I’m really glad it’s coming out again.

RZA, for the preeminent “Samurai Theme,” did you make that a beat after watching the film? Had you come up with it on your own and then retrofit it to the theme? How did the writing of that go about?

RZA: Jim had early cuts, VHS versions, that he sent me. There’s about three themes that to me, on the spot, belonged where they belong. That “Samurai Theme” that appears a lot, it appears when you hear the Hagakure being spoke. Then it goes into Ghost Dog’s lair.

I handed Jim a DAT full of tracks that I worked on for the film—everything I gave him was, back then, not even on your laptop or computer. I basically had a small TV with a VHS built in it. I had that set up with my equipment and my keyboard and my beat machine, and I would play the VHS and then create.

Jarmusch: It’s funny to think of that technology now—I’d give you VHS tapes and then there were these middle-of-the-night rendezvous where you’d tell me to meet you somewhere and hand me a little DAT tape. I’d go do the editing room the next day and say, “Look at this shit. It’s on a little DAT tape, man.” Now you could Dropbox it and just digitally send it, but back then I’d have to go and get it from you. Like you’d say, “Meet me in the Wu Van at 10:30 in the morning on 53rd off Eighth Avenue,” or something.

RZA: Like with ODB and a 40 ounce, right?

Jarmusch: Yeah. What a different world. It’s funny because I’m upstate in my house in the Catskills and I’m in the same little room where I wrote the Ghost Dog script, 22 years ago now.

RZA: Wow, 22 years. That’s right. I also got the same table here.

Forrest Whitaker and RZA look at each other, in profile, in a movie still.
Forrest Whitaker and RZA in Ghost Dog. The Criterion Collection

RZA has a cameo in the movie, that scene where he crosses by Forest Whitaker on the sidewalk. RZA, were you there for a lot of the filming of the movie, or just that part?

RZA: No, I only came by the set, what, once or twice, Jim?

Jarmusch: Yeah. He wasn’t around very much. He was busy doing all kinds of other things.

RZA: Exactly. How did you decide to give me that scene? I don’t remember.

Jarmusch: Because we wanted Forest’s character to not be the only samurai out there, you know? We had this idea of the other samurai, if he could just pass in the street. We wanted to see if RZA would do that because in a way you were the other samurai for me in terms of inspiring the film. You guys say something. What do you say?

RZA: “Power, equality, always see everything.”

Jarmusch: Which spells P-E-A-C-E. RZA and Forest actually worked out what they were going to say. You guys came up with that little coded, cryptic exchange between the two of you. I just thought it was a nice thing for the film to have woven into it the two samurai characters that inspired the film and the real people that did too. Forest and RZA are so important to this film even existing.

RZA: I’ll tell you one thing, that was my first real film appearance. I actually walked my first red carpet with Jim for Ghost Dog. The thing about the film was, it opened me to a whole new world and put me in a composer field. Jim took that chance with me. You don’t try things with untested hands sometimes—it’s a risk, and obviously, you took that risk.