FOX’s new hour-long serial drama, Gang Related, tells the story of an incoming Los Angeles Gang Task Force agent (Ramon Rodriguez) and his loyalty to a notorious Latino gang. The show features a multicultural cast (Terry O’Quinn, Cliff Curtis, Jay Hernandez, Sung Kang, Inbar Lavi, Rey Gallegos, Shantel VanSanten) but provides new avenues in network television for two of hip hop culture’s most influential talents.
Legendary producer RZA stars as Cassius Green, a tough, street-savvy police officer who is out to bring down some of Los Angeles’ most brutal gangsters. The Grammy award-winning musical genius has made remarkable transitions throughout his career from producing groundbreaking music to composing film scores, directing feature films and acting. Gang Related, RZA believes, adds another extension to his versatility.
His dedication and commitment to the series led him to undergo numerous lifestyle changes. He moved to California away from his family, cut out weed smoking and stopped partying. “I’m learning more, getting better and I’m not afraid to show it or experiment with it,” says RZA in his New York accent. “I like to keep advancing. I’m never gonna force certain lines. It’s unnecessary. When people watch me on the show, they’ll see I can be the guy who is a pitbull when I have to.”
Filmed entirely on the West Coast between Sept. 2013 and Feb. of this year, RZA, born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, initially wasn’t going to take the role. One of his best friends, actor Bokeem Woodbine, told the Wu-Tang Clan founder and resident beatslayer to avoid television acting. Once RZA received a call from director Allen Hughes, who was directing the pilot episode, about being on the series, Woodbine told him that if he was going to act on television, then this was the job. Woodbine told him to jump on the opportunity.
Gang Related creator Chris Morgan, also a developer behind the Fast & Furious franchise, was a fan of RZA’s acting on Californication and The Man With the Iron Fists. In Atlanta at the time to test screen the pilot during #aTVfest, Morgan elaborates on how immediately captivated he was by the native New Yorker’s ingenuity. “He came in, and he was being himself,” says Morgan. “He was up for the challenge of every good character having a dark side and every villain having something heroic. He had a vision and really brought something special to his role. It feels very accessible. When he comes on-screen, you’re behind him no matter what.”
Known for directing gritty urban-themed features like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and American Pimp as well as blockbusters The Book of Eli and Broken City, Hughes’ detail-oriented style and vision made quite an impression on Gang Related’s crew. “He knows L.A. and wanted to present it as a character,” says Morgan. “He was brought in to define the look and feel for the series. He wanted to capture it in a way that people who lived there could see it.” Like RZA’s co-stars, he was able to relate to Hughes’ interpersonal savvy.
The producer even demonstrates the filmmaker’s mannerisms and vocally mocks his communication style. “[Allen] has great shorthand of communicating with actors,” he says seated relaxed in a hotel lobby armchair. “He can connect. He was always telling me at the right time when to throw the business in there. Our synergy really worked well on-set.”
Aside from talking about Gang Related, RZA would periodically chronicle his evolution concocting bombastic Shaolin-inspired bangers to his steadily increasing acting credits. He remembers borrowing a friend’s Roland TR-606 drum machine before he got his hands on a Casio RZ-1. When he got an SP-1200, he realized there was a very small frame of sample time.
Investing in an ASR-10 and EPS-16+ were the tools that fully allowed RZA to patent his sound because of the extended second allotment he had to select the parts he wanted. The concept artist drew parallels between finding his voice as a producer versus acting on film and television. “It started with the language of the drum machine. Film and television are two different things,” says RZA leaning forward in his chair.
“Acting in film is working three days to capture one minute. On television, you don’t get that kind of time. You gotta have your sword sharp. Sometimes, that’s a little difficult to find that personality or energy, but you have to maximize that time.” RZA also believes up-and-coming producers don’t apply that same level of critical thinking to their output.
“Kids are missing that now because all of the production is from computers,” adds RZA. “They don’t have the same technical knowledge. They’re not getting simple things and certain messages. It’s easier to make music now, but it’s also dumbing down the imagination.”
As Gang Related prepares to make its debut, FOX executives have generated buzz for the show with various advanced screenings across America. Morgan and executive producer Scott Rosenbaum, who also produced The Shield and Chuck, anticipate that the show will find a following and serve television audiences with something refreshing.
“A lot of network television shows have fallen into fairly predictable storylines,” says Rosenbaum. “We’ve created a rich, character-driven serialized tapestry. We hope people will watch.” Morgan concurs. “FOX was willing to embrace diversity so much. It’s a chance to reach out and go global. Being able to bring that to television and really explore different cultures and communities is a dream come true.”
As for RZA, he was proud that Gang Related’s cast and crew could relate to one another. “In all of our personalities, we enabled each other,” he says. “It helps to deliver certain lines. People that watch will see that I take it seriously. I promise you that.”
Gang Related premieres on May 22 on FOX at 9:00 p.m. EST/8:00 p.m. CT.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.