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Wu-Tang Clan's RZA Discusses How 'The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin' Inspired Him
After last night's Film Independent at LACMA screening of the The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan member and de facto leader RZA spoke of the influence and inspiration of it and other wuxia films would have on himself and his legendary hip-hop group.
It went beyond simply using the character names and rapping about chopping up rival emcees to pieces with swords. RZA, who mostly acts as the producer on the Wu's albums, says he tried to emulate the cinematic qualities of the martial arts movies by using snippets from the English-dubbed versions and having roughshod beats that imitated rhythms of the fights. The group's first album, 1993's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), opens immediately with dialogue to bring you into the world of the Wu. "I wanted people to be listening to an audio-movie. That was my vision," said RZA.
The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is generally regarded as the gold-standard of the genre, and was made by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio, whose immense catalog introduced Western viewers to the genre. It also made a star of its lead Gordon Liu, who will be familiar to most Americans for his dual roles in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films (as the leader of the Crazy 88 in the first volume, and the Bride's kung fu master in the second). The title refers to the different levels a monk had to conquer on the way to becoming a kung fu master. "We named our first album 36 Chambers because we realized there are many ways and levels to express your music."
At least for RZA, the film resonated with him at a level that went beyond the pleasures of watching a highly choreographed and colorful spectacle. "It was beyond the kung fu and beyond the fantasy of it. It was something about the reality of the situation that struck me," he said. Watching the film inspired him to buck up on his Chinese and kung fu history, and even dive into the world of Buddhism. It feels appropriately Buddhist that these roles would go full-circle and switch places not too long after RZA saw these films as a youngster on Staten Island.
Asian-American youths have a tendency to be drawn towards aspects of popular culture that would be associated with the urban and African-American. Without any yellow faces in the media to associate with, the children of the Invisible Minority looked towards the other Other for identity. In aftermath of the infamous Jeremy Lin/"Chink In The Armor" headline, Jay Caspian Kang wrote an essay for Grantland exploring these notions of cultural identity and association. "Like many of the Asian American kids of my generation stuck somewhere between white and black, I filled the vacant parts of my identity with basketball and hip-hop," wrote Kang.
For RZA, it went the other way: he saw a reflection of himself in Gordon Liu:
This film took us back to a place called Shaolin. As a black man in America and feeling the oppression of poverty, I didn't think that kind of story existed everywhere else. When I saw this and I see this college student fighting for a cause, becoming a rebel, hearing just one single word, "Shaolin," and changing his life... it resonated with me very differently. I'm a history lover, but I was into Greek mythology and the Persians and Babylonians. I had no clue what happened over there [in China]. So that gave me a different kind of energy and speculation: artistically, emotionally, socially. Everything. It just opened my head up.
I was able to absorb the creativity of this world, and translate it through hip-hop. Some people collect comic books. Some people collect albums. I made it a mission to collect these movies. Each one inspired me in a certain way and I found a way to translate it through my music.
When you see something that resonates with yourself, it's OK to translate it.
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