When RZA met Quincy Jones in 1997, the rap producer had just finished taking over the world. Wu-Tang foreverWu-Tang Clan’s unwieldy double album after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 rooms), was No. 1 in the country, and “Triumph,” a hookless cut six-minute band, played alongside the sugary hits of Puff Daddy and Mase on mainstream rap radio. The dense, grimy sound that RZA pioneered forever changed his genre, and the deal he brokered with Loud Records was perhaps the music industry’s most pivotal takeover. It would seem there was nowhere to go next, but the man who called himself the Abbott was in awe of Jones, so he humbled himself. What should I do nexthe asked the super producer, to cross the next wave, climb the next peak? The answer, Jones told him, was to score a movie.
Around the same time, Jim Jarmusch was toying with the idea of a movie about a sympathetic killer. The downtown New York filmmaker crafted the sad-eyed hitman Ghost Dog – played, in his mind, by Forest Whitaker, an actor so inextricable from his role that Jarmusch said if Whitaker had turned him down, the film would never have existed – as a black man living on a rooftop, caring for pigeons and reading about the hagakure, an 18th century text about the Bushido code, as he awaits assignments from his mafia master. When a blow goes awry and the Mafia decide Ghost Dog must die, he takes them all on, one by one.
The story mimicked the structure of many classic noir crime or kung fu films, but Jarmusch wanted to treat the setting the same way he used the western in 1995’s. Dead man: like a bewildered meditation on humanity’s attempts to impose meaning and order on a meaningless existence. His films were as much about sound as they were about sight…Dead man was as much a vehicle for Neil Young’s wordless score as it was for lead actor Johnny Depp – and for the ghost dog score, he only had one man in mind. After sorting out his script and securing Whitaker’s commitment, he called on some mutual acquaintances and requested a meeting with the RZA.
The couple first made strange bedfellows – RZA in military fatigues, Jarmusch in his silver-white pompadour and black sunglasses, as Lou Reed and Andy Warhol remixed into one. But for both of them, the story of Ghost Dog had biographical echoes. Jarmusch grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Akron, on the street where the Gambino family had their social club, at a time when the real grip of the mob was fading as quickly as pop culture’s fascination with it was. booming. RZA, who had gone to school with members of the Castellano family, understood better than anyone the magnetic pull of Mafia culture. He agreed to score the film before Jarmusch had even shot it. The pairing felt like a secret handshake.