A Game of Chess: How Kung Fu created Wu-Tang Clan
Teddy Bellamy - March 5th 2023
"Toad Style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon. When it's properly used, it's almost invincible." - The Five Deadly Venoms.
That quote, from the cult classic Kung Fu film The Five Deadly Venoms, will be familiar to all fans of nineties hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Having featured as a sample in the opening of their 1993 B-side Da Mystery of Chessboxin', the quote has become synonymous with the aggressive yet poetic rapping that Wu-Tang have become famous for.
While not the first sample from an old Kung Fu movie to feature on the group's masterfully produced first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the utilisation of the sample conveys one clear thing: Kung Fu movies are the lesser-known backbone of the success of Wu-Tang Clan. It's even safe to say that without cheesy 70's Kung Fu movies, there would be no such thing as Wu-Tang. Meaning, the world of hip hop would have been completely altered if forgotten films like Enter the 36 Chambers never existed.
The Five Deadly Venoms, 1978
Sounds strange right? Surely a group of fairly hardcore rappers from Staten Island, with certain members even having a dedicated FBI file on them, don't owe their careers to cheaply made niche Kung Fu cinema. You would think so, until you look into everything from their lyrics to their album names.
It all starts with the name of the group itself. 'Wu-Tang' is a name directly taken from the 1983 Hong Kong martial arts film 'Shaolin and Wu Tang', which is arguably the most influential film in the Wu-Tang Clan mythology (bar one, which will be discussed shortly). Group member RZA has stated that 'Shaolin and Wu Tang' is potentially his favourite movie of all time, telling Vanity Fair that the film "comes out, and this changes (his) whole martial arts ideology and became (his) favourite film..." Thus meaning that the iconic name printed on hoodies and snapbacks across the world derives from this relatively unknown martial arts movie.
The sheer magnitude of Kung Fu cinema's influence upon Wu-Tang Clan becomes even more apparent when looking at the titles of their music. The aforementioned track 'Da Mystery of Chessboxin' is another example of a Wu-Tang name sharing the same title as a martial arts film. This time, the song's name coincides with the more grammatically correct film title, 'The Mystery of Chessboxing'. Then, the group's first album 'Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) takes its name from the amazing 1978 action-packed film 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin'. We can even hear the film's title referenced throughout the album, with RZA exclaiming "Up from the 36 Chambers!" in the opening of 'Clan in da Front'. ODB's debut solo album also magpies a title from this same film series, with 'Return to the 36 Chambers' getting its name from the 1980 sequel of the same name.
Even a majority of the iconic names of Wu-Tang members originate from classic Kung Fu films. Ghostface Killah gets his wonderfully unique alias from the previously mentioned 'The Mystery of Chessboxing' (clearly a Wu-Tang all-time favourite), Method Man adorned his name in honour of the 1979 aptly-titled film 'Method Man'. Ol' Dirty Bastard, the group's craziest and most profane member, also found inspiration for his gloriously iconic name from an immensely niche film, titled 'Ol' Dirty and the Bastard'. It's quickly made apparent that Kung Fu wasn't only instrumental in the naming of the group's music, but also incredibly integral in the creation of their own individual images, as several of the most iconic aliases in hip hop derive from this obscure corner of the film world.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1978
But it's not just the image of Wu-Tang clan and all that encompasses that references Kung Fu, as the music itself takes many samples from these films. 'The Five Deadly Venoms' and 'The Mystery of Chessboxing' are sampled in, of course, 'Da Mystery of Chessboxin'. We can hear audio from the revenge film 'Executioners from Shaolin' in the intro of the cathartic 'Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit', as RZA echoes the repeated sample of "Tiger Style!" Any average listener will also notice the use of sword swipes and Kung Fu masters grunting throughout the Wu-Tang discography, whether in the group's albums or their respective solo ventures.
So the music itself is also built around being a homage to these classics. Meaning Wu-Tang and Kung Fu are intrinsically linked to the point where their main art form surrounds itself in references to the latter. Everything from the surface level personas the group embrace to their lyrics and instrumentals are formed through their love for their childhood movies, and there's no separating them. The messages of revenge and protecting one's family, or clan, that feature so prominently in the Kung Fu movies of old is equally prevalent in the themes of Wu-Tang songs. While the group have undoubtedly spun their influences into their own unique and personal ways, we can certainly see their work can't be severed from them entirely, as the very makeup of Wu-Tang owes itself to these movies.
If there's one thing the Wu-Tang and Kung Fu codependency shows us, it's that all great art comes from other great art. While this is by no means a shocking revelation, it's an example that arguably displays this point best. Wu-Tang have taken bits and pieces of these movies throughout their career(s) and have used them in a way that not only elevates their art to a fresh one-of-a-kind status, but also keeps the memory of old Kung Fu cinema alive. Like all art, the great sounds and visuals of Wu-Tang came from the great sounds and visuals of Kung Fu cinema. Without one, it's unlikely the other would be remembered to this day.