Although he has scored several films since, when indie director god Jim Jarmusch hand-picked The RZA to create the overall sound of his movie, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, it was a big deal. At the time, Prince Rakeem was merely a well-respected producer with an affinity for kung fu flicks, weed, and dressing up like a cartoon superhero to play a role he called "Bobby Digital" as his own response to where he felt rap music was heading.
But creating the score and selecting all of the music for Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai legitimized him in the eyes of Hollywood, as this film led to The RZA being offered other projects, such as Kill Bill Volume 1, the Afro Samural series, the score for The Protector (on which he redid the entire score to the previously-released film at the behest of Harvey Weinstein), and many others. Somehow, this also led to a bunch of acting roles for The Abbot, not counting his brief scene opposite star Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai itself: although he's most fondly regarded for that scene in Jarmusch's Coffee & Cigarettes where he and his cousin, the GZA/Genius, talk to Bill Murray at length, The RZA has popped up in many other projects, such as Funny People, Californication, American Gangster, Due Date, and Chappelle's Show.
And, because this is how this kind of thing always goes, all of this work he put in eventually led to The RZA finally being offered the opportunity to make his own movie, The Man With The Iron Fists, on which he is credited with writing, directing, lead acting, and writing the score. Full circle, and all that, and none of this would have happened without Jarmusch taking a chance and throwing him head-first into Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai.
As with a lot of stories that feature hitmen, the film itself is an existential journey into the mindset of Forest Whitaker's title character, a hired gun for the Mafia, although, as the movie's title suggests, he's a samurai, and he has a way about him. I haven't seen the film in years, so that's about as far as my synopsis can go, but The RZA took the ideas from the movie and implemented them into the soundtrack. He took a hands-on approach, producing every single track and choosing the guest artists personally; unfortunately, in 1999 The RZA was also focused on the business side of the Wu-Tang empire, so he filled the roster with a steady stream of b-teamers in an effort to give them some shine, while the actual Wu-Tang Clan takes a backseat for the most part.
1. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #1 (FOREST WHITAKER)
The soundtrack is filled with sound bites such as this. These work better if you're actually familiar with the film itself: otherwise, it's just kind of funny to hear Forest Whittaker narrate a Wu-Tang Clan album. Either way, enjoyable.
2. STRANGE EYES (SUNZ OF MAN, 12 O'CLOCK, & BLUE RASPBERRY)
A fairly random way to kick things off. A repetitive RZA beat stretches the boundaries of patience for over five minutes, most of which are dedicated to the hook, sung by both 60 Second Assassin and Blue Raspberry. Weirdly, Blue Raspberry also sort-of spits a fucking verse near the start of the song, giving neither 12 O'Clock nor Sunz Of Man's Prodigal Sunn the home field advantage. I assume this song was recorded before 12 O'Clock and Prodigal decided to form the duo 2 On Da Road, since that particular credit would have made much more sense than “Sunz Of Man”. Anyway, the rhymes were okay, but not strong enough to really introduce anything.
3. 4 SHO SHO (NORTH STAR, THE RZA, & BLUE RASPBERRY)
Blue Raspberry appears on this song, too, although she only harmonizes in the background: she may as well have been wallpaper laid on top of The RZA's beat. Forest Whitaker's lengthy intro leads into two verses from both halves of North Star: the acquired taste Christ Bearer and the bottomed-out GZA flow of Meko the Pharoah, who is a bit more accessible. The RZA's vocal contributions are limited to a terrible hook, one where he claims that all of his besties are ready to murder for the cause without explaining exactly what the alleged cause is, and some random ad-libs that will cause the listener to realize that North Star somehow squandered a RZA cameo by not having him rhyme. Groan. Well, at least the instrumental was alright.
4. ZIP CODE (BLACK KNIGHTS)
Although the Black Knights and North Star used to be one combined group, their respective contributions to Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai couldn't be more different. “Zip Code” is catchier, more energetic,, has a better RZA beat (one built in a foundation of a quick audio snatch from Wendy Rene's “After Laughter Comes Tears”, which also inspired the Clan's “Tearz”, looped to high hell), and is generally the better track. Doc Doom, Crisis, and Rugged Monk ride the beat with ease, which is more difficult to do than it sounds, especially as The RZA switches it on them halfway through. Even though I liked this track, it's saying a lot that none of the core Wu-Tang members have joined The RZA on this sonic journey as of yet.
5. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #2 (FOREST WHITAKER)
6. CAKES (KOOL G. RAP FEAT. THE RZA)
So instead of enlisting assistance, Bobby Digital chose to select himself as Kool G. Rap's collaborator on “Cakes”, which remains an odd choice of a single from Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, since it has fuck-all to do with the movie. (I seem to remember an awful video shot for this clip, which may be one of the special features on the DVD of the film, I think.) Sadly, this song is not about the trials and tribulations of a small-town bakery, but the wordplay from both The RZA and the always-game-for-a-quick-paycheck Kool G. Rap never makes it entirely clear what we're even talking about. Is it drugs? Female asses? Drugs snorted off of female asses? Stacks of cash? There are too many mixed metaphors on here for any of it to ever truly resonate. Also, the song sucks.
7. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #3 (FOREST WHITAKER)
8. DON'T TEST / WU STALLION (SUGA BANG BANG)
The RZA seems to keep vocalist Suga Bang Bang in his back pocket for occasions when he feels a reggae influence could be beneficial, which isn't by itself a bad idea, but it also sometimes leads to songs such as “Don't Test / Wu Stallion”), a Suga solo track that takes place over a RZA beat that (a) never fucking changes, and (b) features a vocal sample that is louder than absolutely everything Suga Golden Crisp says. The song itself wasn't terrible, but after a while it all starts to sound like white noise, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that you two fell asleep during this track, since you're obviously listening to Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai and following along with the review, because that's what every reader does, right? Hello? Bueller?
9. WALKING THROUGH THE DARKNESS (TEKITHA)
Tekitha, the Clan's main go-to hook singer when Blue Raspberry is out to lunch, receives a solo showcase of her own, one that was quickly bogarted by Ghostface Killah for a Pretty Toney-revisited version on Bulletproof Wallets. The beat threatens to stomp all over her, as it runs at a speed that doesn't seem to fit Tekitha's range, but to her credit, she handles that obstacle like a champ. I don't personally believe that the Wu-Tang Clan has any business trying to break into the R&B world, but I'll accept one-off tracks such as this one every once in a while.
10. THE MAN (MASTA KILLA & LORD SUPERB)
It wouldn't have been my first choice to pair Masta Killa with Lord Superb, but sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest of places. For what it's worth, “The Man” is the song I immediately gravitated toward when Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai was released, but it's difficult for me to explain exactly why today. RZA's instrumental isn't bad, although I grew weary of it as the song continued (save for the break in between verses, it quickly approaches Ghostface Killah “Stroke Of Death” territory), and Masta Killa needs to book some more work, because he isn't bad behind the mic. Superb lacks the wow factor today, though: his flow sounds too much like he's deliberately aping the aforementioned Ghostface Killah, and his entire verse is distracting because of it. Hard to recommend today.
11. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #4 (FOREST WHITAKER)
12. WALK THE DOGS (ROYAL FAM & LA THE DARKMAN)
Although The RZA tried to make this project sound fairly consistent, none of the songs on this soundtrack adhere to any specific theme, and as a result, neither do the participants, who choose to bullshit about whatever they want, leading this soundtrack to come across as one long-as-fuck posse cut where the backing instrumental changes every four minutes or so. On “Walk The Dogs”, a song on which dogs are briefly mentioned, Timbo King (since he is Royal Fam, for all intents and purposes) and La the Darkman each contribute a verse where each man seems unaware that the other was also scheduled to record to the same beat, none of which matters because Prince Rakeem's work behind the boards is dull as shit. Sigh.
13. STAY WITH ME (MELANIE FEAT. 12 O'CLOCK)
This shit goes absolutely nowhere, not unlike the lover Melanie begs to stay with her after their tryst. The only moderately intriguing aspect of this song is the fact that the role of said lover seems to be played by 12 O'Clock at the beginning of the song, who spits a verse and, at times, sounds almost disturbingly to his brother Osirus. And the Wu thinks we need a Boy Jones why?
14. EAST NEW YORK STAMP (JERU THE DAMAJA & AFU-RA)
Having already filled the position of “off the wall non-Wu-affiliated guest star” with Kool G. Rap, The RZA turns to Jeru the Damaja and Afu-Ra (who has worked with the Wu in the past) for a quickie on “East New York Stamp”, a song built over a loop swiped from the ending of Method Man's “Sub Crazy” (from Tical) that actually seems interesting enough. It's far too short for either artist to make much of an impact, and my copy seems to include a weird audio error at the beginning of the Damaja's verse, but it's entertaining enough as a diversion, I suppose, since Forest Whitaker's distorted intro and the dark and twisted beat add to the unnerving climate.
15. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #5 (FOREST WHITAKER)
16. FAST SHADOW (WU-TANG CLAN)
The RZA forced Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and U-God to acknowledge the existence of this soundtrack, as he joins them and Masta Killa (who already put some work in on this project) to spit quick verses over an instrumental that everyone and their mother's side piece claimed was a sped-up snatch of audio taken from the GZA/Genius classic “Shadowboxin'” when Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai hit the Interweb. I guess I can hear the resemblance, but I never cared much for this track anyway, so maybe I never really wanted to connect the dots. Ol' Dirty Jesus's unhinged performance is the only off-kilter portion of this program: Meth, Bobby, and Masta Killa all play it straight on their not-bad-but-not-great verses, while Baby Uey is stuck holding the hook. It's fine, but it isn't anything special.
17. SAMURAI CODE QUOTE #6 (FOREST WHITAKER)
18. SAMURAI SHOWDOWN (THE RZA)
Predictably, The RZA gives himself a solo song on a soundtrack that he spearheaded. However, it sounds really fucking good, so I'll let it slide. Bobby's beat is subdued and yet energetic at the exact same time, even when it suddenly shifts, which seems impossible, but I just listened to this shit and it happened. The RZA sounds alert and seems to give a damn, which is much more than you could say about some of his Bobby Digital tracks elsewhere, but the true star of “Samurai Showdown” is the instrumental, which he was nice enough to let play out, uninterrupted, at the end. I want this shit to be my background music every time I'm trying to plan something. Anything. A heist, dinner, my budget, anything.
19. SAMURAI CODE FINAL QUOTE (FOREST WHITAKER)
And we're done.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The soundtrack to Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai doesn't hold up nearly as well as I had hoped. Thanks to his focus on the lesser-known facets of the Wu-Tang diamond, a good majority of these tracks aren't memorable in the least, and some of the songs spin off in wild directions that, while proving that The RZA was and continues to be fairly versatile, doesn't necessarily mean that the listener will agree to participating. The film itself is existential but not bleak: Forest Whitaker's character follows his personal code of ethics (as if you couldn't tell by all of his interludes on the album) as a way of life. However, The RZA turned in a soundtrack that is unrelentingly dark at times, which isn't by itself a problem, as I live for the dark, but were the artists he chose really the best ones for the job? It seems that The RZA may have gotten this soundtrack confused with The Swarm Part Two; there's no other way to explain why the likes of Timbo King, North Star, 12 O'Clock (twice!), and La the Darkman appear, nor is there any rationalization for Suga Bang Bang, Tekitha, and Melanie getting their own solo songs. Now that I think about it, though, I didn't spin this album all that often after I bought it, either; I suppose I was disappointed even back then.
BUY OR BURN? You can burn this one. The RZA's film soundtracks have gotten much better over time, but this project should only be sought out by stans who want to know how it all started.
BEST TRACKS: "Samurai Showdown"; "Zip Code" "East New York Stamp" (if I'm feeling charitable)
The RZA - Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (Music From The Motion Picture) (November 20, 2001)
In a move that I'm still not a big fan of, The RZA released two separate soundtracks for Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. The version with all of the b-teamers and the actual songs is available everywhere, as that was the official release. However, his score was only released in Japan, apparently two years after the release of the movie itself (which doesn't sound right, but I'm going with what Wikipedia says for now).
The score represents the work that The RZA actually put into the film itself, since the other soundtrack is merely made up of songs he selected for inclusion. Back when it was released, I apparently had a ton of disposable income, so I immediately purchased this (along with Method Man's Tical: The Alter Ego Remixes and Ol' Dirty Bastard's O.D.B.E.P., also import-only albums) from CD Japan, because, as a Wu stan, I just had to have the actual product; mere mp3s were not acceptable at that time. That shit easily cost me over one hundred dollars. Kids, don't be an idiot like I was: spend your money more wisely.
However, just because I way overspent on this film score doesn't mean that it wasn't any good.
1. GHOST DOG THEME (WITH DOGS AND EFX)
Also known as "the music playing the background during Forest Whitaker's interludes on the soundtrack". Pleasant enough (except for the creepy ethereal barking dogs), but I can't shake the feeling that something is missing.
2. OPENING THEME (RAISE YOUR SWORD) (INSTRUMENTAL)
An instrumental (of sorts) for "Samurai Showdown", albeit one that plays the song elements out of order and fails to follow the one unwritten rule hip hop instrumentals to previously-released songs mush adhere to: it has to, I don't know, actually be the goddamn instrumental for the song in question. To hear the best part, fast-forward to the one-minute-and-forty-one-second mark, put your feet up, and enjoy.
3. FLYING BIRDS
I enjoy how all of the musical pieces on this score are short and sweet. I realize that The RZA was merely trying to locate his comfort zone, but the end result sounds like the work of a master who simply wanted to get to the point and then move on to the next scene as quickly as possibly, as he did on "Flying Birds", whose melancholy beginnings contrast with the dope drum break, the combination of which signifies peace and contentment, harmony and balance. Sounds damn near perfect, too. Added bonus: in no way does it sound like it needs a rapper's touch to make it seem complete. Nice work, Prince Rakeem.
4. SAMURAI THEME
Sounds like a smirking samurai warrior who enters each battle with a smug, triumphant look on his face even though nobody's actually started fighting yet. But it sounds good anyway, so I'll allow it.
5. GANGSTERS THEME
I always tend to skip this track. Its repetitive nature will prevent anyone from ever really getting to know the gangsters it was ostensibly created to represent.
6. DEAD BIRDS
Sounds about as depressing as you would think something like a title like that would sound. No real surprised here.
7. FAST SHADOW (VERSION 1) (WU-TANG CLAN)
Weirdly, The RZA allowed two alternate takes of "Fast Shadow" to appear on this import release. This one, earmarked as "Version 1", uses the same beat, but features only Method Man and an unmastered Ol' Dirty Bastard, each performing with the same lines as on the version you two are probably more familiar with. Osirus delivers a couple of ad-libs at the end of his performance that never made it to the final product, so that was nice, but considering that this track runs for just under a minute-and-a-half, it's clear that Prince Rakeem was just clearing out his vault while putting this score together. Those ad-libs were pretty charming, though, in an "Ol' Dirty always was a team player"-kind of way. Still, you've heard this shit already.
8. RZA #7
Entries one through six in this series were complete fucking garbage, I guess, since RZA never bothered to let them loose. "RZA #7", however, finds our host hitting his stride, mixing goofy instruments and a dominating vocal sample with what kind of sounds like the drums from the Jungle Brothers classic "Because I Got It Like That". As a quick instrumental interlude, it works okay, although it gets a bit exhausting when Prince Rakeem slows the drums down a bit. As a piece of the score, though, I'm not convinced that it fits. Then again, it's been years since I've watched the actual movie, so I could be mistaken.
9. FUNKY THEME
Essentially the instrumental for "Strange Eyes".
10. RZA'S THEME
My track of choice from this score, which doubles as an intermittent instrumental version of the Sunz of Man song "Inmates To The Fire". The RZA's musical work on here is goddamn brilliant, and the samples laid within disorient the listener, quickly getting you familiar with the man's state of mind without the aid of honey-dipped blunts rolled up in hundred-dollar bills or whatever the fuck the man is into these days. Shit, I would name this song after myself, too. This shit was awesome.
11. SAMURAI SHOWDOWN (RAISE YOUR SWORD) (THE RZA)
Trims a tiny bit of the unnecessary intro found on the version of "Samurai Showdown" found on the soundtrack, but is otherwise the exact same (great) song (save for the new subtitle, I suppose).
12. GHOST DOG THEME
Without the dogs and the "EFX" this time around.
13. FAST SHADOW (VERSION 2) (WU-TANG CLAN)
The fuck? This second alternate take on a song that didn't deserve to have its life extended this long is essentially the same as the "official" take, except for the fact that The RZA's verse has been eliminated entirely. If Bobby's intent was to show the listener his creative process by means of trial and error, then at least this track is a noble failure, in that his heart may have been in the right place even though the music wasn't. However, if the inclusion of this track is solely because the guy was trying to fill up space, then this song was utter bullshit.
14. UNTITLED #8
Simple, straightforward, and, honestly, kind of boring. Far too boring to deserve a proper title, anyway.
15. UNTITLED #12 (FREE JAZZ)
Unlike this instrumental, which should be upgraded immediately. The RZA pulls out all the stops on this dope-as-shit beat, which isn't really all that jazzy, but it does meander in a free-yet-disciplined manner that will make your next drive downtown much more appealing. This shit was nice.
16. WU WORLD ORDER (VERSION 1) (WU-TANG CLAN)
A bizarre way to end the project. On virtual paper, it seems like The RZA chose to close this chapter with a whole new song, one featuring himself and La the Darkman (yes, that guest list above, taken from the score itself, is more than a bit misleading in this case) each spitting a verse over a swooping instrumental. The thing is that this song isn't new: hardcore Wu stans who picked up the group's Playstation game Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (or Wu-Tang: Taste The Pain, for those of you on the other side of the pond) will remember "Wu World Order" to be one of the songs that pops up when you throw the disc into a regular CD player. Other than sounding a bit incomplete (hence the "Version 1" qualifier), there's essentially no difference between this song and the one from the game. Still, it's a decent track (with an admittedly badass title), so it's nice that it finally found a proper home (sort of).
FINAL THOUGHTS: With the score to Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, The RZA proved adept at capturing specific moods and translating them for the audience. He keeps things short and sweet, which made me spending tons of money on this album even more ridiculous, but my attention span was satisfied, and it never gets dull. The tracks with actual rappers on them were more questionable, more for their inclusion than anything else, since The RZA's solo song was already available elsewhere, and there is no reason for anyone to own two additional versions of "Fast Shadow" that actually take elements away from the officially-released track. Still, I found this score to be much more consistent than the soundtrack album above.
BUY OR BURN? I can't with good conscience recommend that anyone buy this, unless you're a reader that happens to already be in Japan. A burn would be more than sufficient, but just to make things right, you may want to go watch The Man With The Iron Fists two or three times, just to help The RZA eventually make a tiny bit of money off of you.
BEST TRACKS: "RZA's Theme"; "Samurai Showdown (Raise Your Sword)"; "Flying Birds"; "Unitled #12 (Free Jazz)"; "Wu WOrld Order (Version 1)"; "Opening Theme (Raise Your Sword) (Instrumental)"
Over one hundred Wu-Tang posts can be found here. You know, maybe I have focused a bit too much on these guys, but it's too late to care now.