It's all in the name. The influence of Kung-Fu films is deeply intertwined within the storied saga of the Wu-Tang Clan. Beginning with their introduction to the scene in 1993 with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the clan from Shaolin established their penchant for Shaw Brothers productions and Eastern philosophy. From cheap Kung-Fu dubs to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, Wu-Tang Clan brought what was once niche into the ears of the street.
"Staten Island was the type of place that had its own style; where our slang became isolated; we had our own thing." - RZA
The Wu hail from the lands of Staten Island, the most overlooked of New York City's five boroughs. Isolated by water, the only way off the Island on your feet is by ferry. To the streets there was a shroud of mystery surrounding these seemingly far off lands. New Yorkers didn't typically venture there unless having good reason to go out of their way. The same goes the other way for Staten natives, according to RZA, "There's a lot of guys that could have been on that block for eight years and never left." The borough's geography bred seclusion. In Rap most of the East coast love went elsewhere in New York; The Bronx was the birthplace, Harlem was the Mecca, Queens was Nas, and Brooklyn was the throne of The Notorious B.I.G. But where was the love for Staten Island? Enter the Wu-Tang.
The late 1980s saw three cousins unite their talents; Prince Rakeem, The Genius, and Ason Unique. But you may know them as RZA, GZA, and Ol' Dirty Bastard. The trio originally organized under the name Force of the Imperial Master, or the All In Together Now Crew. Astute ears can place this reference at the end of "Shaddowboxin'" of GZA's later album Liquid Swords, "All in together now, things are looking good getting better now." They garnered little interest from labels as a group, but their de facto leader RZA and his fellow cousin GZA were both signed to respective underground labels. When RZA was shortly dropped by the now defunct Tommy Boy Records (which cameos in my past article), he reflected, "They made the decision to sign House of Pain over us. When they dropped me, I was thinking, ‘Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me. ".
I'll let you try my wu-tang style
Before his days as RZA, a young Robert Diggs would spend his truant days paying pilgrimage to the grindhouse theatres on 42nd street in Midtown Manhattan, when late 70s Times Square was a red light district straight from the screens of The Warriors and Taxi Driver. The journey for the nine year-old and his older cousin became routine, the ferry was the rite of passage before a few train stops arrived in cinema heaven. Cheap, second-run grindhouse theatres would typically have continuous features for a flat rate ticket, and although this provided a haven for city dwellers to shoot up in peace, it exposed to a young RZA the niche taste of Kung-Fu and Blaxploitation films.
The 1978 Shaw Brothers production Five Deadly Venoms was the first film for RZA to kindle his love for Hong Kong cinema. The film can be taken as an adaption of an ancient Chinese folktale Ten Brothers, which also struck a childhood memory for him. These stories in their different forms over the centuries showcase a band of brothers each with a unique ability that equals greater than the sum of its parts. The seeds of unity are planted here in the mind of young Robert Diggs.
Unity is also behind Hong Kong's most historically significant production company, Shaw Brothers Studios. Runje, Runme, Runde, and Run Run founded what was originally Unique Film Productions in 1925. Over the decades the humble operation grew into a centralized studio system of writers, directors, editors, and sound stages. Creating a library that reaches close to one thousand films, Shaw Brothers Studios and martial artist actors like Gordon Liu cemented the Kung-Fu genre worldwide before the arrival of Bruce Lee. Lee and Jackie Chan became the flagship stars of the Shaw Brothers' rival, Golden Harvest Productions. Golden Harvest originally splintered off from the company they would soon surpass in undisputed dominance over Hong Kong cinema.
RZA trafficked VHS tapes back to Staten Island and held screenings to expose his friends to art they otherwise would not have heard of. Distinctly resonating with the projects was the 1984 Shaw Brothers film The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Here do we see another formative display of brothers in arms, fighting through the trials of their environment. According to RZA, "Films like The 36th Chamber, for example, show government oppression—they show a foreign government oppressing the local people. You see people defending their nationality, joining the revolution. And in the projects we were babies of the 1960s-70s revolution." Viewing this together, a sixteen year-old RZA and Ghostface Killah were bonded in brotherhood.
After being dropped by their labels, those three cousins now set out to unite the best underground MC's of Staten Island and Brooklyn. In 1992 they linked up with old friends Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, and Masta Killa. They approached their first single, Protect Ya Neck, with a grass roots zeal. In an era before streaming they pressed just 500 copies and sold them directly to record stores and DJs. By the following year, Wu-Tang's de-facto leader RZA had secured the group a deal with Loud Records/RCA while also maintaining solo rights for each member. The grand strategy was to release a hot album and follow it up with projects centering around each member. Strength in numbers.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was not merely a hot album, but a cornerstone of hip hop that established the group's unique and irresistible Eastern aura onto both the contemporary scene and for generations to come. Beyond the 1983 Gordon Liu picture Shaolin and Wu tang, the name of the collective of MC assassins spawns from the Wudang mountains. Among the secluded hills of the Wudang is home to a complex of Taoist temples and monasteries. And for the sobriquet of Staten Island, Shaolin, it originates from a Bhuddist temple of the Song Mountains in China.
1979's The Mystery Of Chessboxing is another pivotal film to the lore of Wu-Tang clan. The film's obscure blend of chess and Kung-Fu reflects both the cerebral nature and mix of cultures that Wu-Tang combines. Beyond the classic track "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" bearing the film's name, Ghostface Killah takes his alias from the main antagonist, The Ghost Faced Killer. While Masta Killa assumed his name from the alternate title of the 1978 Shaw Brothers film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
The influence of Kung-Fu cinema on Wu-Tang Clan is in more than just their name, RZA's countless samples of English-dubbed lines, or obscure lyrical references. It is about their transcending of cultures, weaving together Taoist and Buhddist principles with the experienced street teachings of Black American poverty. The Wu-Tang Clan from the lands of Shaolin embody the essence of the Eastern discipline.
Your soul has just been taken through the 36 chambers of death, kid.