When Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA was a teenager, he and his cousin, the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, would skip class and head to the grindhouse to watch grainy, second-run B-movies. Of the countless films, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a 1978 flick about a young renegade training in the martial arts to take on the dictatorial Manchu government, resonated the most. "Me and Dirty were probably the most fanatical about it," RZA says. "36th Chamber to me has had a strong spiritual connection that set me and Dirty on the path." Now, the producer is showing his appreciation for the movie by taking it on the road for a run of special screenings and scoring it himself with songs from Wu-Tang's oeuvre.
RZA first held one of the screenings, officially known as Live From The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in 2016 at the behest of his friend and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League. He'd done shows DJing to video in the past and was in the middle of a deal with Celestial Pictures, which restored the film, so the duo came up with the idea of combining the two as a way to reintroduce the movie to American audiences.
The producer says the film has a deeper meaning that should connect with people all over the world. "Beyond Greek mythology, history just didn't have a strong resonation with me," he says of why the movie is important to him. "The history of black America was from slavery, oppression, civil rights, and you felt kind of isolated as an entity in our country. But then this film showed me that oppression was worldwide. Here I am seeing the Manchurians oppressed, and it was a bunch of college kids standing up, trying to get involved with the revolution, risking their lives, destroying the school, and then this kid now has find a way to get revenge to uplift the people. It was that story within itself."
Moreover, the film inspired Wu-Tang's whole "Shaolin" mythology, which goes back to the samples on the group's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debut album to its infamous, single-copy Once Upon a Time in Shaolin LP. "There's a scene where a guy breaks open this wooden box to get a message out of it, and all the other young guys – just nerdy college kids – go, 'What, where'd you learn that from?' And the guy goes, 'From Shaolin.'" RZA laughs. "The thing that was magical was hearing that one word. This one kid, after his father is killed and his family is burned down, he's like, 'What are we gonna do? Let's go to Shaolin.' That always resonated with me. I went on to name Staten Island 'Shaolin.' All you need sometimes is to hear one word and it could direct you."
In 2016, RZA did a run of screenings around the country, breaking down boundaries along the way. "Hip-hop had never been at the Town Hall in New York City, and this got in," he says. "It was successful and then this year, CAA took it over and they had some more people interested in doing it, so here we go."
But the new shows won't be a repeat of the last tour. Since RZA is live-scoring the film, he'll keep his song selections fluid, with only about 80 percent of the playlist fixed. "It depends on the vibe we feeling," he says. And he says it should be a richer experience overall since he now has a better print of the movie. "In the past, we had either a version with subtitles or one dubbed in English; this year I have English dubbed with subtitles," he says with a laugh. "We also had an issue where the audio would clash with the music, and this year we're able to adjust that at least 30 percent better."
As for the song selection, fans should expect tracks from the entire Wu-Tang universe – sometimes tied into how they appear in the movie. When one of the Shaolin characters says, "If you want to fight, fight with me, one to one, man to man," a snippet of dialogue he sampled on Method Man's "Meth Vs. Chef," he plays another song off Method Man's Tical album, "Bring the Pain." "You see these guys doing kung-fu to that track, and it changes the rhythm of the fight," he says. "It just elevates the experience of watching the martial artists. It ain't just percussions or sound effects; it actually looks like they're creating their own new dance based on the tempo."
The greatest reward from holding these screenings has been seeing the reaction in the audience, which he says tends to applaud after kung-fu sequences he's beefed up. "It's like they feel the energy that was given," he says. "To me, it's a great movie, but it wasn't really scored. The music was more esoteric. By adding hip-hop to it at the right tempo, it takes it to another level."
So now that he has to see it professionally over and over again, does RZA ever get tired of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin? "It's one film I've never gotten sick of," he tells Rolling Stone. "I've probably seen this movie more than any other, especially now that it's something I perform with, but I don't get tired of it. More than anything, I love watching people discover it. When I was in California doing it at the Egyptian Theater, that was the first time my son, 10 years old, watched the movie. And he loved it. Turning somebody onto a film that's so dear to you is, to me, for me, the coolest thing."
RZA: Live From The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Tour Dates
4/17 - Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
4/18 - Washington DC @ Warner Theatre
4/20 - Miami, FL @ The Anderson
4/24 - Los Angeles @ Palace Theater
4/26 - San Francisco, CA @ Castro Theatre