STATEN ISLAND, NY – When the outside world thinks of Staten Island, a few things come to mind: pizza, scenic parks and the Wu.
A native of the Park Hill section of Clifton, RZA (born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) curated one of the greatest rap collectives of all time – the Wu-Tang Clan. Inspired by kung fu and Asian culture, RZA and Wu-Tang gave boom-bap hip-hop a distinctive sound while putting Staten Island, or as they call it, “Shaolin,” on the map.
In the years since, RZA has become a force in the music, business and film industries. Despite it all, he’s made sure to protect the city’s neck of the woods — whether it’s donating much-needed technology to Stapleton’s PS 78, or welcoming Islanders to the Alamo Drafthouse’s kung-fu-inspired Flying Guillotine bar.
The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did your love for cinema begin?
I think it started as soon as I saw a movie in a cinema. The experience of watching something on a big screen just took me to another world. But as far as fanaticism goes, I was probably like 9 years old, watching a kung-fu movie in two features, and I was just taken.
What is your favorite action or kung fu movie of all time?
This is a tough question, but if someone wants to watch a kung fu movie and has never seen one, I’ll give them two choices. I would offer them Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon because Bruce Lee is one of the greatest, fair and diverse of that cast. It is one of the first to have such a diverse cast. But I would also give them The 36 Rooms of Shaolin, because of the tenacity of a man who goes through oppression and finds himself, finding skills and giving back to help his community. It’s a beautiful story.
How did the partnership with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas come about?
Well, first of all, I’m a fan of [founder/executive chairman] my [League] and Alamo Drafthouse. When I first met Tim, he had two of these theaters. I was in Austin, Texas, just enjoying myself as a moviegoer. I just sat there – people were taking my order, writing it down, and sitting down and coming back and bringing it to me [food and drinks]. He had bottles of wine at the time; they needed to get a cork! So I had a great time and also enjoyed the selection of movies that were playing.
I met Tim through my friend, Quentin [Tarantino], and we became friends and built our relationship. When he said he was going to build one in Staten Island and reached out to me, I said, “Yeah, I’d love to help in any capacity to help make that vision a reality.”
And as we started talking about it, I think every Alamo Drafthouse has a theme – the wax museum, of course, the arcade in LA, North Carolina has a theme, but [we wanted] a Shaolin kung-fu theme. We sent a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of persistence to bring it to life.
When you were growing up, where did you go to the movies?
Well, here in Staten Island, we had the Paramount Theater and we had the St. Louis Theater in the beginning. It was like the early 80’s and maybe the late 70’s. I remember seeing “Rocky” at the Paramount Theater, so whatever the year was (1976). And, then, we end up with the UA Theater on Hylan Boulevard. In this area, the last time there was a big thing for me was, I think, they had “Higher Learning,” the John Singleton movie, and it was just one of those things where it really resonated with all of us because Staten The island at the time had a lot to figure out.
Yes, I’m a movie buff, I’ve been to all the theaters. I will honestly say that, and no disrespect to Staten Island, we have never had a theater like this. A theater like this has never existed on Staten Island. Look, a theater like this hasn’t existed in many places; they need that, don’t they? A place where you can come and watch current Hollywood production movies, [or] you have an independent film that might not be in 2000 screens that you can find here. But most importantly, [you’ve got] films curated by staff and people who love film, put in front of an audience that will educate the public.
Here, martial arts movies are the theme – the posters, the Flying Guillotine strip, and every Saturday will be Shaolin Saturday Kung-fu. We will have a film every Saturday to bring this kung-fu atmosphere to the public. And maybe there’s another kid who will figure it out and become another RZA right out of Staten Island.
When watching movies, what is your favorite snack?
I will give you two appetizers. I’m a vegan and they make some of the best Beyond Burgers in the business [at Alamo Drafthouse], so you should get that and craft popcorn. They have a large menu; you will have a great time. But for me, a bucket of popcorn and a Beyond Burger with fries.
Every true Staten Islander has a favorite pizza joint. What is yours?
Well, listen, I can say that it takes all pride and courage. For many years, Brother’s Pizzeria in Port Richmond has been my go-to. We drove from Park Hill to Port Richmond for that pizza.