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Kung Fu and Hip Hop: A Love Affair

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Kung fu and hip hop may seem like an unlikely couple, but when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that they were always meant to be.

In recent years, film, TV, and music have given us countless collisions between the two art forms, but the relationship goes back much further. In the first half of the 20th century, East Asian forms of combat had already landed squarely in the United States — just not kung fu.

Post-WWII, Japan found a foothold in the American consciousness, and martial arts like karate and judo started to become popular, even drawing attention from big name stars like Elvis Presley.

Years later in the ’70s, kung fu started to catch on. New York audiences lined up outside Harlem’s dollar theaters, where pocket change granted entrance to double features of pornography and badly-dubbed Shaw Brothers flicks. Those community-based theaters would turn out to be an enormous force of inspiration for a young RZA, who soaked up the foreign imagery and ultimately carried himself and his friends out of poverty and into international stardom as Wu-Tang Clan.

But it wasn’t until the 1973 release of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon that American audiences were exposed to Chinese martial arts en masse. The film posthumously catapulted Bruce into the Hollywood spotlight, and for a generation of moviegoers, it also inextricably linked kung fu with the black experience.

Certainly, seeing an Asian man in the hero role was new for viewers at the time. Audiences were shocked by Lee’s physique and masculinity, characteristics which had previously been the exclusive domain of white actors.

But beyond that, it was also Jim Kelly’s performance as Williams, a fiercely independent leader at a black martial arts academy, that inspired the connection.

In a flashback scene, Williams is seen at his dojo. He emanates with passion for his community; clear Black Panther imagery leaves no room for ambiguity. When two racist police officers try to stop him from boarding his flight to the tournament, Williams simply opens up a can of whoop ass. With the officers subdued, he drives their car to the airport.

Related:

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All these pieces of history created room for a connection and room for understanding between Asian-American and African-American communities. It’s no surprise that in the following years, kung fu found its way into hip hop culture in various ways, and vice versa.

Kung Fu and Breaking

In hip hop’s early days, the advent of breaking preceded the true development of MCing.

When Jamaica-born DJ Kool Herc first innovated the technique of using two identical vinyl records to loop the “break” — the part of the song where the vocals cut out, leaving just high-energy drums and instrumentation — he didn’t realize he was inventing something that would later be called DJing.

A young Donnie Yen explores the intersection between martial arts and hip hop dance in Mismatched Couples (1985)

With extended breaks on the menu, dancers flocked to the floor, trying to one-up each other and win the respect of the room. The resulting style was dynamic and acrobatic, referred to simply as “breaking.”

Terence McKenna, renowned anthropologist, psychedelic advocate, and lecturer, pointed out an inherent novelty in breaking:

“You’re fully set up to do it, and people have been for millennia. But until someone actually does it, it only exists as a formal possibility in the organism… it shows that after five, six, seven thousand years of civilization, you can come up with a behavior that nobody has ever seen before.”

Well, almost. These techniques — freezes, powermoves, ground-based footwork — do remain the original intellectual property of breaking. But in those early days, the dance’s pioneers had to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Those influences came from around the world. African tribal dances, the Lindy Hop, and Ukrainian cossack folk dance all found their way into the new “it” dance. But kung fu’s special influence on breaking stands alone.

Headsprings, flips, and kick-ups — all popularized by the Shaolin Temple — became foundational components of breaking.

But beyond physical imitation, there was something less tangible connecting these two worlds. Developing your special skill, honing it, and putting it to the test in battle is a classic kung fu trope, but it also describes the spiritual aspect of breaking, an individual art form whose identity was honed in the fires of “battle.”

Wu-Tang Clan

No assessment of the relationship between kung fu and hip hop would be complete without Wu-Tang Clan.

Wu-Tang Clan was formed in Staten Island in 1992. Consisting of eight original members, the group is considered one of hip hop’s all-time most important acts.

Wu-Tang helped solidify the connection between kung fu and hip hop. Albums such as Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and solo efforts like GZA’s Liquid Swords painted a clear overlap between martial arts and the group’s unique hip hop ethos.

Decades later, that current hasn’t slowed down. In 2012, RZA directed the feature film The Man with the Iron Fists, and in 2016 the group released the controversial album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Only one copy was sold, purchased by pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli, and ultimately seized by a federal court when Shkreli was convicted for securities fraud.

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Wu-Tang Slang: An Abridged Glossary of Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Group

As leader of the group, RZA penned a whole book on the deeper connection between his life and kung fu. In the book’s foreword, Shaolin monk Sifu Shi Yan Ming summarizes his impression of RZA:

“Before I met him, I mostly listened to Buddhist music. Now I listen to the Wu-Tang Clan every chance I get. Wu-Tang is known as the most famous group ever to practice rap as a martial art, which, in RZA’s case, happens to be the absolute truth.

“In kung fu, martial art and philosophy are the same, no difference. When the RZA makes music, it’s just like that — his philosophy and music are as one. Some of his sounds and lyrics might seem simple, but they’re not. He’s a very funny guy, but his understanding is also very deep. And even when he’s not making music, that philosophy is in everything he says and does — like a true Cha’an Buddhist.”

Hollywood Infatuation

Hollywood latched on to hip hop right from the start, pumping out films such as Breakin’ and Beat Street to capitalize on the surge in public interest.

Similarly, kung fu also had its moment in the limelight after the success of Enter the Dragon. The blaxploitation subgenre that emerged in the ‘70s was heavy on martial arts action, and the following decade would see western filmmakers exploring similar themes in films like The Karate Kid and Bloodsport.

So it was only a matter of time before film execs got wise and started combining the two.

When it comes to black culture and kung fu together on the silver screen, we have to mention the Rush Hour franchise. It may not be hip hop, but the fish-out-of-water buddy cop trilogy was a game-changer; Kendrick Lamar’s nickname “Kung Fu Kenny” was based on Don Cheadle’s character in Rush Hour 2, if there was any question as to the series’ enduring cultural legacy.

Romeo Must Die took a different approach, casting Jet Li as a Triad-connected martial artist on the hunt for revenge, and R&B artist Aaliyah as his star-crossed lover from a rival gang.

It was — and is, to this day — the most iconic representation of an onscreen love story between an Asian man and a Black woman.

Mainstream media depiction of Black-Asian couples is still rare, but in 2000, it was near-unheard of. The combination of American familiarity and “exotic” flavor proved a hit — even though Li and Aaliyah’s kissing scene was cut because it “didn’t test well” with audiences, that same dynamic of curiosity managed to push the film to No. 2 at the US box office. There was even an award-winning Romeo Must Die album, featuring Aaliyah, Timbaland, DMX, Ginuwine, and Destiny’s Child.

Ten years later, audiences were ready to do it all over again… but different.

The next big Black-Asian love story didn’t happen on-screen until 2010’s Karate Kid reboot, once again punctuated by kung fu and rapping.

Jaden Smith stars opposite Jackie Chan as an exchange student in Beijing. Early attempts to woo his schoolyard crush via freestyle dance moves are cut short by evil sanda-fighting classmates, and Jaden’s only choice is to learn kung fu.

All three of these films lean on a fish-out-of-water dynamic. For Hollywood, hip hop and kung fu seem to constitute a Yin and Yang of sorts — woman and man, Black and Asian. Two seemingly opposing elements which, when combined, yield something that resonates with people.

Jay Chou

While centuries-old fighting techniques from China hit home with audiences on the other side of the globe, hip hop was about to do the same in China.

We’ve dedicated a lot (like, a lot) of discussion to the history of hip hop culture in and around China. So we’ll cut to the chase and address the patron saint of Mandarin-language rap, who also happens to be a kung fu visionary in his own right.

Jay Chou released his debut studio album Jay in 2000, and shot to fame via Fantasy a year later. What followed was a string of successes for the star, who has been on top of the game ever since.

Chou’s signature style is a blend of East and West, and when it comes to expressing the former, kung fu became a medium of choice. The song “Nunchucks” is literally entirely about martial arts, with a chorus chant that goes “quick, use the nunchucks,” while the song “Huo Yuanjia” was the official soundtrack for Jet Li’s 2006 film Fearless. There is no shortage of Jay Chou martial arts moves in these videos.

But American audiences might know those moves from somewhere else. Before his supporting role in Now You See Me 2, Chou had introduced himself to US theatergoers as Kato in The Green Hornet.

In the original Green Hornet TV series, Bruce Lee’s Kato was underused, remaining a support device for the white lead. The 2011 reboot tried to rectify this in its own way, painting Chou’s Kato as a suave and lethal foil to Seth Rogan’s bumbling hero.

No matter how you slice it, Jay Chou is kung fu hip hop royalty.

Rapper as Knight Errant

While Jay Chou may have defined Mandarin pop and rap in the early 2000s, the game is clearly somewhere else now.

Reality TV competition Rap of China single-handedly changed the country’s hip hop landscape. Pop-friendly rap ballads were switched out for a grittier, more authentic hip hop vibe that was in touch with the sensibilities of China’s younger generation. And for many, that means knight errant imagery.

The knight errant is the leading figure in the wuxia genre of kung fu storytelling. Warriors bound by codes of honor, who traverse lawless lands and win the day through supernatural martial arts skills.

In China, rappers have struggled to reconcile the twin demands of audiences and censors. After the first season of The Rap of China, the hammer came down, and the State Administration of Radio and Television issued a media directive to deny exposure to acts representing hip hop culture.

Regulators had complained from the start — why isn’t this more Chinese? Why isn’t there more “positive energy?” As a way to localize hip hop, and to address its inherent themes without angering censors, rappers adopted knight errant imagery.

The natural development was also diabolically genius. How could censors disapprove of such a traditional, upright representation of Chinese manhood? The knight errant became a tool that allowed Chinese rappers to be authentic in their own culture, while also addressing themes of conflict and “realness” which otherwise may have been deemed too controversial — and it didn’t hurt that the trend overlapped with rising public interest in costume dramas and hanfu.

In C-BLOCK’s “The Flow of Jianghu,” the title refers to the fictional realm of Jianghu where wuxia tales are said to play out. The music video opens on a riff of the Golden Harvest logo, as Rap of China Season 1 co-champion GAI chants poetic lyrics atop a lone riverboat:

Leave me to venture into the Jianghu
My life is like a song

I can’t take anything with me, anyway
The causal cycle flows in the Tao

Colorful references, whether honoring local liquors or broaching the “supernatural power” of betelnut and cigarettes, draw out the connection between the “vagrant” rappers and the martial arts heroes they identify with. GAI would later ham up this connection in a significantly-less-cool way in his “Great Wall” music video, much to the horror of his underground fanbase.

Related:

“Rap of China” Champion GAI’s New Music Video is a Desperate Attempt to Make Censors Happy

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Kung fu and hip hop go hand in hand — we’ve done our best to explain why, but honestly, there’s no true answer. They just do.

Kung fu is far from an exhaustive representation of Chinese culture, just like hip hop is far from a thorough representation of African-American culture. But something about these two cultural envoys struck a chord, opening the doors for outsiders to participate.

We wouldn’t be able to write this article if kung fu hadn’t resonated with the Black community, and if hip hop hadn’t landed with a splash in China. While these are just a few of the moments where kung fu and hip hop collided, we expect many more, and so should you.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a US-based writer, producer, multimedia artist, and former associate editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school to train at the Shaolin Temple but now uses it to interview rappers. He blogs about China and Asia on Instagram: @this.is.adan