When RZA met Quincy Jones in 1997, the rap producer had just finished conquering the world. Wu-Tang Forever, the Wu-Tang Clan’s unwieldy double-album follow-up to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was No. 1 in the country, and “Triumph,” a six-minute posse cut with no hook, was playing alongside sugary Puff Daddy and Mase hits on mainstream rap radio. The dense, grimy sound RZA pioneered forever altered his genre, and the deal he’d negotiated with Loud Records amounted to perhaps the most decisive industry takeover in music-business history. There would seem to be 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 next, he asked the super producer, in order to crest the next wave, to climb the next summit? The answer, Jones told him, was to score a movie.
Around that same time, Jim Jarmusch was toying with the notion of a movie about a sympathetic killer. The downtown New York City filmmaker conceived of the sad-eyed hitman Ghost Dog—played, in his mind, by Forest Whitaker, an actor so inextricable from his role that Jarmusch has said that if Whitaker turned him down, the movie would never have existed—as a Black man living on a rooftop, tending to pigeons and reading from the Hagakure, an 18th-century text on the Bushido code, while he waits for assignments from his mob handler. When a hit goes wrong and the Mafia decides Ghost Dog must die, he goes up against them all, one by one.
The story mimicked the structure of many classic crime noir or kung fu films, but Jarmusch wanted to treat the framework just as he used the Western in 1995’s Dead Man: as a bemused meditation on humankind’s attempts to impose meaning and order on a meaningless existence. His movies were as much about sound as they were sight—Dead Man was as much a vehicle for the wordless score by Neil Young as it was for lead actor Johnny Depp—and for the Ghost Dog score, he had only one man in mind. After settling his script and securing Whitaker’s commitment, he tapped a few mutual acquaintances and requested a meeting with the RZA.
The pair made strange bedfellows at first—RZA in army fatigues, Jarmusch with his silver-white pompadour and black sunglasses, like Lou Reed and Andy Warhol remixed into one person. But for both of them, the story of Ghost Dog had biographical echoes. Jarmusch grew up in 1950s and ’60s Akron, on the street where the Gambino family had their social club, during a time when the mafia’s real-life grip 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 the magnetic pull of mafioso culture better than anyone. He agreed to score the film before Jarmusch had even shot it. The pairing felt like a secret handshake.