“Toad style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon. When it’s properly used it’s almost invincible…”
– “‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” by the Wu-Tang Clan, sampled from Kung Fu movie Five Deadly Venoms
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), had on hip hop when it was released in 1993. The Staten Island crew’s debut sprung from seemingly nowhere – a fully formed gang of exceptional rappers with their own flavour, style and mythology that has been emulated but never rivalled in the quarter-century since.
A massive part of that mythology came from the influence of hardcore low-budget Hong Kong martial arts movies. Indeed, even the name of the Clan and their first album’s title are lifted from these films. While the movies have always enjoyed an underground cult following in the West, Wu-Tang Clan opened these films up to a brand new audience, and Clan leader, The RZA, has never lost his love for the genre – even trying his hand at directing his own.
According to Shaolin legend (erm, well, this interview) the young Bobby Diggs (aka The RZA) saw Five Deadly Venoms at the cinema in 1979 with his cousins Ol Dirty Bastard and GZA (or Russell and Gary as they were known at the time) and it changed their lives forever. With a VCR crudely plugged into his Ensoniq ASR-10 Sampler, RZA would eventually give these old films a new lease on life that added layers of mystery, violence and drama as key signature elements of the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Shaw Brothers’ legacy dates back to the earliest days of cinema, with their first production company, Tianyi Film Company, beginning operations in 1925 in Shanghai. They would go on to produce over 1,000 films using a system similar to the classic Hollywood studios, with actors and directors exclusively signed to the studio.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and low-budget English overdubs of the Hong Kong Kung Fu films by British company Omni Productions (with prominent work by voiceover artist and broadcaster Ted Thomas) that the work of the Shaw Brothers managed to find its way to American kids, and eventually influence American cinema, creating a progression of huge action stars from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan to Jet Li.
In pockets of America, including the aforementioned Staten Island, the youth and specifically the black community were lining up to spend their pocket money at seedy cinemas in the red-light districts, desperate for the escapism these Kung Fu films offered. Indeed, when the Clan’s debut album was released, those who had grown up alongside young Bobby Diggs and his cousins were certainly not as surprised at the references to these films as the rest of the world may have been – it actually seemed very natural.
“Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?”
– from “Bring Da’ Ruckus” by the Wu-Tang Clan, sampled from Shaolin vs. Wu Tang
After the success of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, The RZA produced an initial round of solo albums from various Wu-Tang members, famously getting them all signed to different record labels to spread the word of the Clan as widely as possible. This run of records is legendary – RZA’s production was still rough around the edges, raw, angry and dangerous – the same qualities that make the Shaw Brothers’ movies so compelling.
Liquid Swords by GZA is drenched in dialogue from Shogun Assassin, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… digs into Shaolin vs. Lama, Method Man’s debut Tical borrows from Master Killer (aka The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) and Ten Tigers from Kwangtung, and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman hooks into Mystery of Chessboxing (aka Ninja Checkmate). ODB’s debut Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version goes one step further, positioning itself as a sequel to the Clan’s debut, transporting RZA and ODB back to their childhoods and where it all began with samples from Five Deadly Venoms.
Although RZA didn’t exclusively sample from the films of the Shaw Brothers, this extensive list of dialogue from films that appear on Wu-Tang Clan albums shows that they formed the vast majority. Even the films that weren’t sampled from directly provided other creative inspiration, from track names and visual cues through to references in the lyrics.
In 1991 when RZA was signed to Tommy Boy Records as Prince Rakeem, the label marketed his debut EP with a goofy cartoon and imagery similar to the Fresh Prince. Despite this, one of the remixes of the single was labelled as the ‘Wutang’ version. Even if the record industry wasn’t ready for it, he was.
Indie film director Jim Jarmusch gave The RZA his much-desired entry into the movie business, hiring him to compose and produce the soundtrack for his 1999 ode to Japanese Samurai cinema (and mafia films) Ghost Dog. The influence of the soundtrack from the Shaw Brothers is prominent – a scratchy undeniably RZA loop accompanies the protagonist wherever he goes.
His work on Ghost Dog and his obvious love of the Shaw Brothers’ movies caught the attention of Quentin Tarantino at the peak of his popularity. He brought RZA on to produce the soundtrack for Kill Bill – the foundation of a relationship that would culminate with Tarantino producing RZA’s feature film directorial debut The Man With The Iron Fists in 2012. Ironically, the film was criticised for playing it too close to the original films that inspired him; he was accused of keeping it too real.
Whispers of cultural appropriation or, more accurately, questions of why they have escaped this minefield have arisen over the Wu-Tang’s incorporation of these Chinese artifacts. But it’s clear these films were a part of the culture they grew up with as kids. The magic of this universe gave them a sense of something bigger than their own lives in Staten Island when they were young and dreaming of the world outside they were destined to explore and conquer. RZA’s reasons for including the samples are not just aesthetic, but represent a starting point for the group’s philosophies, which he takes very seriously.
The dialogue lifted from the Shaw Brothers’ films brilliantly threaded the Wu-Tang Clan’s records together thematically and created stepping stones and pointers to the solo albums that are still in use to this day. It gave the rappers subject matter outside the street violence, drugs and money that had erupted from gangsta rap, and added drama, storytelling and fantasy to the genre like never before. It also introduced a whole new generation to these incredible films, and will no doubt continue to do so long into the future.