The Wu-Tang Clan is a hip-hop empire built on a foundation of kung fu movies — and last night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the RZA detailed some of the connections. First on the bill: a screening of the 1978 Shaw Brothers classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which had a resurgence of popularity in 1993 because of the Wu-Tang debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Then the Wu-Tang’s producer/leader and Elvis Mitchell (curator of the presenting organization, Film Independent at LACMA) engaged in a half-hour conversation about the movie’s influence on the musician’s life and art. The RZA, looking sharp in a fresh white button-down shirt and dark blue jeans, discussed how he had spent a lifetime studying every aspect of kung-fu movies; here are 10 highlights.
1. Birth of a Shaolin Warrior
The RZA saw The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, then called The Master Killer, for the first time when he nine years old, on a local New York TV channel. “We’d all be watching the kung fu movies and come out and start fighting each other,” he remembered. But the film awakened a social and historic awareness in him: “Beyond the kung fu, there was something about the reality of the situation.” The story of fighting against an oppressive government particularly resonated with him: “As a black man in America, I didn’t know that story existed anywhere else.”
2. Name That Tune
The RZA knows the movie so well that when he was backstage at LACMA’s Bing Theater, he could identify a fight scene just from the soundtrack. “Without seeing it, from music cues,” he said, he could tell that “San Te was fighting with the axe against the monk.” He also noted the subtitles had been revised in this particular film print: “They changed some of them, but I can work with that.”
3. Bring da Ruckus
The RZA’s favorite fight in the film: “When [San Te] loses the second fight, as far as choreography — the butterfly knives against the crescent blade. He had a plan to beat him, but he countered every move.”
4. Secrets of Shaolin
Before the Wu-Tang Clan released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group had adopted “chamber” as an all-purpose noun; in context it could be applied to an attractive girl or a bottle of Olde English malt liquor.
5. Early Ambitions
“When Wu-Tang first came out, there were no DVDs ; my goal was to put a cassette in your car, and have an audio movie.”
6. Chinese Raps
The kung fu influence on Wu Tang was not just lyrical but musical, as the RZA pointed out: “We always used these horn hits and percussion” that borrowed from movie soundtracks. Or as Raekwon once complained to him, “You’re still playing that Chinese shit.” RZA shrugged, and compared the Chinese five-tone musical scale to the musical vocabulary of the blues.
7. Shaolin vs. Julliard
The RZA has worked as an actor now and again, in films including American Gangster, Coffee and Cigarettes, and GI Joe: Retaliation. He said that there’s a unifying quality to his performances: “I act like a Chinese kung fu guy.”
8. Commissioning Gordon
The RZA directed the reverential 2012 kung fu film The Man with the Iron Fists; Mitchell touted an upcoming sequel, The Man with the Iron Fists 2. The RZA wanted Gordon Liu, the star of 36th Chamber, to appear in his film as an aged abbot. Liu was reluctant, the RZA said, until they met and he told him how his movies had changed his own life and he wanted to provide the same inspiration to a new generation. The clincher was the character’s dialogue, which RZA had to show him in person, because the lines “weren’t in the screenplay, only in my BlackBerry.”
9. Protect Ya Neck
“The Wu-Tang Clan, you’re looking at nine individuals who needed to come up for air. It was either swim or drown,” the RZA said. He spoke respectfully of Salt-n-Pepa and Run-D.M.C. as hip-hop pioneers who went to college, but opined that the difference with the Wu-Tang Clan was that seven of the nine members were felons, and were supposed to be dead or imprisoned.
10. Wu-Tang Forever
The RZA said he had internalized the movie’s themes of sacrifice, brotherhood, and “the self-discipline of building yourself.” He cited the five-year saga of self-improvement that San Te went through, and compared it to the recording of “Ice Cream” (the 1995 Raekwon single), when he was willing to stay up all night in search of the right sound while other producers might have gone to sleep. The Wu-Tang Clan’s DJ, Mathematics, had come over to observe the session, but fell asleep. At 7 A.M., the RZA said, he completed the track — and when Mathematics woke up, and heard how it had evolved “from a snare to one of Wu-Tang’s biggest songs,” he was inspired to become a producer himself.