Janice Headley looks back at the 1983 kung-fu film Shaolin and Wu Tang, and its influence on the iconic New York hip-hop collective, Wu-Tang Clan.
We’re going back to 1983 with the release of the kung-fu film Shaolin and Wu Tang and its influence on the iconic New York hip-hop collective, Wu-Tang Clan.
KEXP’s Janice Headley leads a roundtable with content producer Martin Douglas, DJs Gabriel Teodros, Mike Ramos, and Larry Mizell Jr., and very special guests, Jeff Chang, author of the award-winning book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, and Sophia Chang (no relation), regarded as the “first Asian woman in hip-hop" and author of the memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room.
Written and produced by Janice Headley.
Mixed and mastered by Roddy Nikpour.
Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, kung-fu films were experiencing a heyday here in the United States. Not only were they dominating the grindhouse theatres from Hollywood to Times Square, but you could catch them on TV, usually on the weekends, under a series name like “Kung Fu Theater” or “Black Belt Afternoon.”
In 1983, a new film from Hong Kong hit the streets, titled Shaolin and Wu Tang.
The movie captures the rivalry between two martial arts schools: the Shaolin – one of the oldest, largest, and most famous kung fu – and the Wu-Tang – a style of Chinese martial arts focused on sword fighting, named for the Wudang Mountains.
A decade after its initial release, Shaolin and Wu Tang opened at a grindhouse cinema on Manhattan's 42nd Street. In the audience were Robert Diggs and Russell Jones, later to adopt the monikers RZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Along with their friend Gary Grice, aka GZA, they would go on to form the highly-influential hip-hop collective, the Wu-Tang Clan.
In 1993, Wu-Tang Clan released their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The title borrows from two other kung fu films, 1973’s Enter the Dragon and 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But the collective drew influence not just from movie titles, but from kung-fu movies themselves. They sampled the English-dubbed dialogue, the score, and kung-fu terminology like “tiger style.” They re-named their hometown of Staten Island, New York “Shaolin.” And they adopted the Eastern philosophies they picked up from kung fu movies. RZA even released a book titled The Tao of Wu.
But at what point does appreciation of Asian culture become appropriation? Is there a line? And if so, do the Wu-Tang Clan cross it?
For this roundtable discussion, we’re joined by KEXP staff and DJs, like Larry Mizell, Jr.
LARRY: Afternoon Show host and Creative Director of Editorial here KEXP.
GABRIEL: I'm the Early host. I host a show every weekday, 5 to 7 AM. I'm an Associate Music Director. Sometimes I help out with podcasts with these lovely people.
MIKE: DJ on KEXP, I do an overnight variety mix. Also, I got my start kind of covering on Street Sounds.
And Content Producer, Martin Douglas…
MARTIN: I write for the website. I contribute audio pieces to Sound & Vision. And I offer my, sometimes, very strong opinions to these roundtables.
For this roundtable, we were blessed to be joined by two very special guests… including Sophia Chang, author of the memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room. A pioneer in the hip-hop industry, Sophia managed A Tribe Called Quest, Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip, and members of Wu-Tang Clan such as RZA, GZA, and Ol' Dirty Bastard.
SOPHIA: I was the first Asian woman in hip-hop and closely associated Wu-Tang. And then I did Shaolin Kung Fu. And then I moved into screenwriting and authorship and public speaking.
And Jeff Chang — no relation — journalist and historian, and author of the award-winning 2005 book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Jeff is currently working on a book about Bruce Lee.
JEFF: a listener down here in the Bay Area and just super stoked to be able to be here to talk about one of the greatest crews of all time.
So, just to start, who here has seen the movie Shaolin and Wu-Tang? And did you watch it because of the Wu-Tang Clan?
JEFF: I did watch it because of the Wu-Tang Clan. I grew up with a lot of the kung-fu movies on TV and stuff like that. And I grew up in Honolulu, and this is the type of stuff that was always on in my grandfather's house and my uncles' places and that kind of thing. But by '83, I mean, I was a little bit older then and had probably moved on to to other things, so I would have missed it the first time it came around. But after Wu-Tang came out, definitely, it was one of those things, Oh, wow, we've got to find out all about this. And yeah, I mean, I got to go back to the movie because of this, and it's just it's just as good as it ever was. It's amazing, the choreography, everything. The story itself to actually super dope. Super, super dope. It holds up for sure.
LARRY: Yeah. I've definitely seen Shaolin and Wu Tang, and it absolutely happened because of 36 Chambers, for sure. That kind of like reconnected me with really early love of, you know, kind of Saturday, Sunday morning kung fu movies on like, I don't even know, KTLA or something like that back in the day. So, yeah, they really opened that up and made me give me a lifelong appreciation of the form.
MARTIN: Yeah, I've seen Shaolin and Wu Tang because the the Wu-Tang Clan. I've seen Five Deadly Venoms because of the Wu-Tang Clan. I've seen Master of the Flying Guillotine because the Wu-Tang Clan. All of those movies like have this cultural embodiment for me as associated with this group. So yeah, there was a period when I was a teenager where me and my friends, like, basically studied these movies because of what we heard on Wu-Tang Records.
MIKE: Yeah, absolutely. I was going to say kind of the same thing. I went through the whole Shaolin and Wu-Tang, you know, Five Deadly Venoms, Lone Wolf & Cub from like the GZA Liquid Swords intro. I remember delving into the genre, just watching a bunch of random movies, and I was watching Duel to the Death...
...and I was like, "Triumph" sample, there it is, right there like that. Of course, that's where they got it.
And yeah, that's so I definitely went through like several periods where I was kind of just digging into all these other cultural kind of like points works because of Wu-Tang stuff. And yeah, definitely put me on to a lot through that.
LARRY: I want to thank Martin for mentioning the Flying Guillotine. That was such a scary movie when I was real little. I wasn't supposed to watch and it has, like, lived in my head forever. And when I heard RZA invoke that on 36 Chambers, I was just like, that took me to such a place. And that's just the power those cats have. I think they're one of the most adept pop culture, you know, kind of just mixers of all time, for sure.
Sophia, in your memoir – The Baddest Bitch in the Room – you talk about how the members of the Wu-Tang Clan actually helped you appreciate your own Asian culture.
SOPHIA: Look, I mean, I was born in 1965, but came of age in the seventies, right? I'm a first gen Asian immigrant. I was very much a yellow girl in a white world who wanted to be white. And when people say, why would you want to be white? My answer is, why the fuck would I not? Why wouldn't I? Everything I fucking see — every image of power, beauty, allure, intelligence, all of that — is all whiteness. And here I am on the outside. So, I want to be white.
It was hip-hop — and then more surgically, it was Wu-Tang — that even opened the door to the possibility of being proud of my heritage, where I was embarrassed about it. I was embarrassed about my parents' names. I was embarrassed about my parents' accents. I was embarrassed by our food. I mean, I wholesale rejected my culture. And then here I go through this chamber of Wu-Tang Clan, who were basically like, your folks — broadly Asia, right? — are fucking dope. And it's amazing. I mean, I didn't watch any kung-fu movies, I didn't study taekwondo — I'm Korean. No, none of that. And absolutely, it was Wu-Tang that made me interested not only in kung-fu movies, but also in the Hong Kong action movies. And John Wu is my favorite director and Chow Yun-fat, my soon-to-be-future-husband-in-my-head, is my favorite actor, and it was really an epiphany for me to come around to this place.
LARRY: That's just sparked something for me, Sophia. That kind of like, something outside of your own native culture, pointing you back towards home in a way that is really profound. My brother Ishmael Butler — Digable Planets, Shabazz Palaces — you know, he sampled Mizell Brothers stuff on the second Digable record. And, you know, my dad was in my life. I was mostly raised by my mom, but I didn't have a super deep appreciation for the work of the Mizells, you know what I'm saying? But I love Digable. So, when I heard that and I saw the names of my uncles and my dad in the credits, it jacked my head up and it made me go to it and really connect to it on a different level and gave me a different kind of appreciation. So, that really took me there, Sophia.
How do you personally define appreciation versus appropriation? And while I think I already know the answers, in your opinions, where do the Wu-Tang Clan fall?
SOPHIA: I'll talk about cultural appropriation. My very smart friend Kevin Bruyneel, he teaches critical race theory at Babson College. He has an acronym for it: DEE: Denigration, Exploitation, and Erasure. And that's kind of my barometer of it. Obviously, I don't think Wu-Tang did any of that. I think they did quite the opposite. And in terms of cultural appropriation, I can't put a fine point on it because again, I'm not smart enough to talk about it and I'm not a sociologist, but it feels really different to me when white people do it and people of color do it. It does, you know.
So, Migos doing a song called "Stir Fry." Yeah. You know what? There are things that kind of make me go... But I watched the video that they shot in Hong Kong with an Asian director. Right. And is it Nicki [Minaj] that did "Chun-Li"? I look at that video and I look at all of the Asian stuff and everything, and I kind of go, Oh, but I'm telling you, I'd feel different if fucking Miley Cyrus did. No question. No question in my mind. There is something about the difference between the imperialist and the colonialists, and the dominant culture doing it. It just feels really, really different to me. And it's absolutely about power, right? It's about history. And that's as sophisticated as I can get about it.
LARRY: I feel like you really nailed it right there. When I think of cultural appropriation, I think of... your girl from No Doubt. Gwen Stefani. I think of Madonna, you know. I mean, that's dead on. And you talk about your guy's DEE acronym, like that was active in how like Madonna spread these ideas that she pilfered. You know I got into a conversation with a cat, a gay brother, a few years ago, and we were talking about like ball culture or something. And he was just like, yeah, that's all because of Madonna or something. I was like, What are you talking about? He was like, No, like Madonna really put on for queer culture and queer people of color. And I was like, You never heard of Sylvester? Have you never seen Paris is Burning? What's wrong with you? And Madonna like did that, I think consciously to a degree. She really embraced these elements as she used them to, like, burnish her style and, you know, like maybe really cement her reputation in certain circles. So, it is about power and, you know, always is like punching down when I see appropriation.
SOPHIA: When Wu-Tang did it, they had... you know, if you look at the "Method Man" video, they had fucking kung fu swords, you know. And there was no part of me — then and now, right? — in retrospect that makes me go, Oh fuck. Because it never felt like a fucking accessory to me. It never felt like a temporary tattoo — this is how I feel with that bitch Gwen Stefani — that she can scrub off at night. It never felt that way with Wu-Tang. It was so deeply ingrained and written into the DNA of them, right?
GABRIEL: To Sophia's comment about, it feels different when it comes from people of color -- because I feel the same way. It feels real different. And I was asking myself, why is that? And I'm reminded of a quote my friend Thenmozhi [Soundararajan] said, I always think about. She said that solidarity starts with knowing yourself. Wu-Tang was big on knowledge of self. That's something you hear in every song, you know what I'm saying? And for people of color, no matter where you're from, whether you're black, whatever country you come from, an immigrant native, you stand on a culture and there's things in your culture that are clear.
White people in America are the only group of people that gave up their idea of culture in exchange for power. And I think because of that, you have a whole group of people that are grasping at any form of culture because there is a void that they gave up. It's a very human thing to want to feel connected, to feel like a part of culture, but also because of power, right, there's this culture of entitlement that they're in, feeling like they're entitled to everything. You know what I'm saying? So, it's a lot of stuff that white people have to work on in themselves to get to know themselves, to get to a point where they can actually appreciate and give reverence. Because I think there's a level of self-knowledge that you have to have to appreciate and show reverence without appropriating.
SOPHIA: There's one thing that I want to say about Shaolin and Wu Tang, and those movies in general. I'm sure a lot of people know this, but there are probably a lot of folks that don't. Wu-Tang Clan wasn't into those movies just for the action. You know, there were themes that resonated with them very deeply. Brotherhood. Loyalty. Few against many. Right. And again, that was very much their world of brotherhood. And how they stood together. And I think it's a reflection of how they felt about each other as brothers, you know, that they did feel like they were in a fight, that they did come up through a lot of shit together, that they really faced a lot of things together, like our heroes do in those in those movies.
MARTIN: My dad grew up in the Bronx, so I heard stories about the $1 kung fu matinees that everybody in his neighborhood would go to. And running up on the Wu-Tang style, they adapted the martial arts aesthetic to essentially say that their rap style was the highest form of combat. Like, you know, we're battling in the park, we're battling in rec rooms. This style is the highest form of this martial art. And so I thought that was that was always a very interesting way to show appreciation to the form.
JEFF: The reason that that your dad was exposed to those films in the first place is because of segregation and racism, actually. Like these movies, you know, were able to break in because we had these grindhouse distributors and they distributed to like three different kinds of theaters. And they're all in the same places, right? Porn theaters, Black theaters, and Chinese theaters. Right. They are all in the inner city. And during the summer, like, that's the place where you got air conditioning. You can hang out all day, right? So, the folks who are fans of blaxploitation movies go to the kung-fu movies and they see the same types of like connections between like what Soph was talking about earlier, like, you know, these whatever these Confucian, Daoist, and Zen-like principles and values, and these ideas of loyalty and brotherhood. All of that stuff like comes together and that starts creating these worldviews that folks can kind of share with each other and stuff, years later when they're really trying to pit us against each other. Right. Because that's what racism will do. It'll segregate us. It'll make us fight each other, right? It'll make us compete with each other. And then you get these cultural movements that take competition and put into a positive type of thing where we're kind of pushing each other further, right? And Wu-Tang comes out… it's like competition gets turned into this beautiful cultural building type of thing.
MIKE: I just remember when I was super young listening to them, they were interweaving all these other like teachings, like the Nation of Gods and Earths, or the Five Percenters, or stuff like that was in there. Almost just as heavy as these little sound clips from these from these Grindhouse films. And I remember hearing about that kind of stuff from Wu-Tang for the first time, and looking more into that and kind of learning about those kind of principles and philosophies as a direct result of that. And I think that was like just kind of that moment, that era. It was so much cultural exchange, especially between black and Asian, black and brown, kind of like communities.
My grandpa was from the Philippines, and he had to live in south Seattle. They had to live in the Central District, where it was mostly, you know, either Black or immigrant families. And yeah, so it just kind of resonated with me a lot when I was first listening to them. That kind of element of cultural exchange. We were all in it together, at the same bus stops, going to the same stores, going to the same schools, or whatever. It was just really cool and really different to see that back then. And I think that's definitely what stuck with me when I first, you know, were listening to them.
JEFF: The conversation is really interesting to me. But the thing that I don't like is when we start freezing things, like you can't do kung-fu because you're not Chinese. You know, RZA knows more kung-fu than I do, than most — I think I would wager — Chinese do. You know, RZA's been deep in it and stuff. He's studied. And here's me, you know, trying to basically talk about Black freedom culture because of what I learned from hip-hop. So you know, I just subscribe to that old hip-hop thing, which is like, if it works, like, it works. And mainly it should be about encouraging a dialog or a multilog or folks having a way to be able to get to a higher understanding of each other. But that's the whole piece, right? What you said about denigration, exploitation, extraction, erasure. Like, you know, that's... but it's ill. I'm also going to make this further argument. One of the early hip-hop records that's not recognized as a hip-hop record was this record by Malcolm McLaren called Duck Rock.
JEFF: Exactly. Which, hey, we're in that '83 thing, that's great. I'm glad we got back around to the peg. But like, Duck Rock to me still is one of those things that endures despite the fact that this guy was so obviously trying to denigrate, exploit, and erase the merengue culture from Dominican Republic, the Yoruba chants and the Santeria chants, and not to mention like The World's Famous Supreme Team, you know, and hip-hop and, you know, all of that kind of stuff, right? Like he was trying to do all of that, but the culture exceeded that. You know what I mean? And that's why this stuff, like you can hear it now and listen to this like South African jive music and just be like, Yo, that's the Mahotella Queens, getting down, you know, getting down. And that exposed me and made me want to become part of the anti-apartheid movement just as much as any of the other stuff did. So I feel like, you know, that's part of the weird thing about culture, is like sometimes folks can have bad intent — or not even bad intent, but they could just be having privilege, the white privilege of being able to erase stuff, and the stuff still shines through. Right. Like the Black freedom culture pieces of it still shine through. Like the root stuff about Asian culture will still shine through. And that's really important because we've got to be able to keep these knowledges going to the next generation and stuff.
LARRY: Yeah, like you can tell when motherfuckers are on safari and have their pith helmet on and like, Malcolm McLaren is like that, but he's also such a like kind of a brilliant marketer and processor. That's a great record, you know what I mean? And it's like how a lot of people outside of New York are familiar with the Supreme team, you know, for one reason. But man, this conversation has touched on so much, so close to home. You know, like I grew up in South Central. I left L.A. right before the uprising. I got disenchanted with hip-hop when I moved to Seattle and saw all these white kids appropriating big time. And I was coming from like the Jungle, you know what I mean? And I'm not using like a metaphor. I mean, the neighborhood, the Jungle and Crenshaw. And I wasn't high up on that. I didn't think it was fresh, that these were the environs that me and my family lived in. So when I saw these kids appropriating it, I was like, Fuck that. And I remember seeing some rock videos and I was like, Damn. I saw a Spin Doctors video and they had a black bassist and I was like, Damn, these motherfuckers are having fun. And there's a brother there. And I was just like, Damn, we deserve to have fun like that. What the fuck? So I started listening to rock, hardcore. But you know what brought me back to hip-hop? Enter the 36 Chambers. When I heard "Shame on a Nigga" and I wrote down all the lyrics, I was just, like, obsessed again. Brought me back into the world like a comet, you know what I mean? So it's a crazy thing, this hip-hop thing. And Wu-Tang has meant so much to all of us. I know, obviously.
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