Friday, October 9, 2009

I Make Moves Like Iron Monkey: Kung Fu Films & Their Influence on Hip-Hop

When the Wu-Tang Clan burst onto the hip-hop scene in 1993, they looked and sounded like none of their contemporaries. Their sound was undeniably gritty, often stark beats laced with minimal samples. Traditional hooks or chorus were rarely seen. The group, which consisted of nine emcees, each with their own larger-than-life persona, spoke in such dense, self-invented slang verse after verse, that initially their music was impenetrable. It took many listens for one to differentiate the styles of each member and the intricate logic behind their inimitable rhymes.

Philosophically as well the Clan approached their music from a wholly different perspective from their fellow artists. While the rap stations of the day overplayed Dr Dre's pop-centric, glossy glorification of the ghetto, which embraced partying and violence over most everything, the Clan mingled their infinitely bleaker vision of growing up in poverty with celebrations of autodidactic education, mostly through their celebration of chess. But it was with their embracement of Kung Fu films that really set the group apart. Their co-option of these frenetic foreign films could have been dismissed as an affectation had the members of the Clan not been so unbridled in their enthusiasm, or so deep in their knowledge. It was clear that these young men gleaned many life lessons from their childhood marathons of Kung Fu films, which played on their local New York City television stations as well as at many of the grindhouse theatres that were around at the time.

From these films the Wu-Tang Clan learned about patience and diligence. The cinematic story of monks training night and day both in body and mind was transposed to the slums of Staten Island (which the Wu would from then on refer to as "Shaolin", after the home of the fighting monks). The Clan called their tongues swords and their daily rap battles, where they honed their craft over several years became their martial arts showdowns. Two members even took their name from characters in these films, Ghostface Killah and Masta Killa. Their debut album, the masterpiece Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, starts not with yet another P-Funk sample but with a piece of dialog from the 1981 Kung Fu flick, Shaolin & Wu-Tang, the amazing Gordon Liu's directorial debut.

Liu's previous starring vehicle, the phenomenal 36th Chamber of Shaolin not only gave the Wu-Tang Clan the title of their debut but the idea that within hip-hop there were 36 steps, or chambers, one would have to go through to become a true master of the art form. The film had such a profound effect on the group that Clan mastermind/producer/chess-champion the RZA provided informed audio commentary for the Dragon Dynasty DVD.

RZA also flexed some of his kung fu knowledge when he directed a music video for his Wu-Tang side project, the Gravediggaz.

On the eve of the fifth Wu-Tang Clan album, the underrated 8 Diagrams, RZA spoke with WIRED Magazine about some of the most iconic Kung Fu samples to crop up on the five Wu albums as well as the plethora of solo works the group has released. Much of RZA's subsequent work has involved Kung Fu in one way or another, the most prominent being his soundtrack work on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai, both films that deal with themes similar to their Kung Fu forefathers.

So where does Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon fit into this? I'm afraid only tangentially. The Wu-Tang Clan was, as they are with most everything, interested in the Kung Fu film in its purest form. For praise of Lee and his outstanding work, one must look to other artists in the world of hip-hop. Hip-hop pioneer Kool G Rap has a great track that steals its title from this week's Classic.

There is also a Korean breakdancer named Bruce Lee. He's pretty good.

But I'm afraid I must leave you where we started. All of the themes, ideas and passions I tried so pitifully to express in the opening paragraphs are conveyed ever more effectively from the mouths of the artists themselves. Enjoy.