When the debut album for the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang dropped onto the scene on 9 November 1993, the shockwaves it sent through popular culture was akin to that felt when the Krakatoa volcano had its violent eruption some 110 years earlier. The album was a gritty, soulful and unabashed declaration of a new day in hip-hop across the board.
For years, the influence of 36 Chambers has been dissected and debated at length. But one aspect of influence that hasn’t been fully explored ironically finds its roots in a major source of inspiration for the Wu. And as a result, popular culture as we know it wound up being changed dramatically. That influence? Helping to bolster the rise of Asian cinema in the United States and other Western nations.
To begin, you have to recapture a certain time period in New York City. The late ‘70s saw a city reeling from economic struggles to the point where then President Gerald Ford effectively told the mayor and the city to drop dead. The blackout of 1977 left some neighborhoods reeling, most notably the South Bronx.
Hip-hop as we know it today was born in the Bronx, art and ingenuity sprung from the rubble of burned-out buildings and welcoming spaces of city parks. Times Square wasn’t the pristine tourist hub that it is today. The area was full of XXX movie theaters, sex shops and peep shows. Not to mention countless prostitutes, pimps and johns. The theaters had begun to run other movies, however, in triple feature bills. First run films, usually horror flicks would lead off, followed by two kung-fu movies. Among these films were two that would heavily influence RZA once he saw them: Shaolin & Wu-Tang (1983). These two movies led to the inception of the Wu-Tang Clan as we know it today thanks in part to the Clan’s embrace.
What has to be taken into account here is that these two films wound up being highly important to the Wu’s birth, but they represented the last jewels of a dwindling movie empire in Hong Kong at the time. The Shaw Brothers Studios is perhaps the most recognizable Asian production company in the world, having first made movies in 1934. Their movies thrilled audiences from Hong Kong and Taiwan to enclaves of Chinese emigrants in San Francisco and other US cities. They even had a bit of broad art-house movie success with Come Drink With Me in 1966, starring Chang Pei-Pei.
The movie was a success as a version of wuxia, a grand ballet of action and drama involving martial arts. Due to Come Drink With Me‘s success, Shaw began to dive heavily into these films. Other studios followed suit, most notably a brand new studio created in 1970 known as Golden Harvest. It would prove to be rivals to Shaw, and landed Bruce Lee just as he began his meteoric rise to stardom. Lee’s films for Golden Harvest gave him a triumphant return to America after a successful run as Kato in ABC’s The Green Hornet TV series. His tragic death made him legendary, and sparked a craze for everything kung-fu stateside. Which brings us back to those 42nd Street theaters for a bit.
By this time, the theaters were being shut down, thanks in part to newly-elected Mayor Edward Koch. But the kung-fu flicks that captured RZA and his cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard wound up being shown on television via syndication. Before Fox 5 came to be in New York City, it was a locally owned network known as WNEW. Every Saturday at 3PM back in the ‘80s, you stopped whatever you were doing to get in front of the TV to catch the Drive-In movie. This was the place to catch all of the Asian martial arts movies in their chopped-up, badly dubbed glory.
In two books by RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu, he speaks to how struck he was by the particular airing date of The 36th Chamber. That date? 6 June. Numbers that figure heavily into the philosophy of the Wu.
He and the rest of the Clan got their fix like many of us did back then, via videotapes. By 1989, classics like Shaolin & Wu-Tang could be had on tapes sold at different spots like Albee Square Mall and video stores in Times Square to name a couple. These were the same versions that were seen on TV back then. (Side note: I had one movie that literally still had a piece of the commercial break lead-in on tape. Cracks me up to this day.) So when Enter The Wu-Tang dropped, chock full of sound bites from Shaolin & Wu-Tang, heads understandably flipped.
The album’s wild success saw a great demand for martial arts films just like these Shaw Brothers classics. The Thirty-Sixth Chamber of Shaolin was widely viewed in Hong Kong as a watershed moment for both its star and director. The fictionalized account of the story of legendary Shaolin monk San Te brought Gordon Liu Chia Hui to superstar status, and forever dubbed him the “Master Killer”(which is what the film was marketed in the US as, and also what gave Masta Killa his Wu name).
The director, the late Lau-Kar Leung was a pre-eminent actor, writer and fight director who is a direct descendant of one of China’s greatest heroes, Wong Fei Hung. The two’s joint success led them to be sworn brothers and work together on other great Shaw films in later years. Eventually, the success of these films led to interest in other martial arts films, spurred on in part by the Wu-Tang Clan’s outspoken affection for them. Having included sound clips on their debut album, RZA then proceeded to do the same on other Wu members’ solo efforts. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the most outstanding example because of their choice of film for sound samples: The Killer by John Woo. That album would do for Woo in an indirect way what the Wu’s first album did for Shaw movies.
Woo enjoyed a full career in Hong Kong, refining his director’s skills with Shaw as well as other independent studios. Last Hurrah for Chivalry, done in 1979, was a critical if not commercial success. But he had experienced burnout, which affected his work. It wasn’t until 1986 when another director/producer, Tsui Hark helped him get funding to do a pet project, A Better Tomorrow. The film about two brothers, one a cop and the other a criminal was a smash success in Hong Kong.
He followed that up with a sequel, and then The Killer in 1989. This film, featuring veteran Shaw actor Danny Lee and the renowned Chow Yun-Fat as cop and assassin at odds was the movie that announced him to the West. Bloody, exceedingly violent with heavy gunplay as the motif, it had a lot of appeal for cats in various ‘hoods Stateside. The demand for all of his films led to greater buzz which got Hollywood’s attention. Woo took the opportunity to then move to the United States in 1993.
After directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in the action piece, Hard Target, Woo found some difficulty working with Hollywood. He then found footing with Broken Arrow, featuring John Travolta and Christian Slater, and cemented his position as the first Asian director to have a mainstream commercial base with Face/Off in 1997.
Meanwhile, the same martial arts movies that had inspired the Wu were popping up on VHS, and subsequently DVD thanks to distribution companies like Black Belt Theatre, PanMedia, and others. Even Dolomite, the Blaxploitation icon himself had a kung-fu series he hosted. The quality of the movies was getting better, and in a more important twist, fans were getting to see the uncut versions with subtitles. Of course, there were cheap companies out there who rushed to capitalize on the indirect influence the Wu-Tang had with bringing these movies to the forefront. (Raise your hand if you remember the Brooklyn Zoo line. Don’t front.) But what this onslaught brought was a cult following that transformed itself into a knowledgeable fan base.
That fan base began to seek out original prints, complete with subtitles. People copped video compact discs of rare films. Film festivals and retrospectives flourished in abundance. While this was going on, two companies took notice: Fortune Star, who owned the film libraries of Golden Harvest and D&B Films among others, and Celestial Pictures, who had recently acquired the entire Shaw Brothers film library in a merger. Both companies began massive restoration efforts of these older films to satisfy the demands of this surging fan base. And so, a new generation of martial arts movie fans are getting the chance to see these films as they were initially shown. Hip-hop, always the trailblazing culture, showed love to these films well after the Wu. Examples include Jeru The Damaja’s remarkable video for “Ya Playin’ Yourself” set in Hong Kong as well as superstar Jet Li’s rise as a Hollywood star thanks to Romeo Must Die with DMX as a co-star.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) deserves not only some mention but should be well-regarded as a major influence in the rise of Asian cinema and its relative influence on the current climate of popular culture. Think of it like this: the inclusion of movie samples is now a current staple in today’s hip-hop. RZA, Method Man, Raekwon and other Wu members have made their presence known in Hollywood, most recently with RZA directing and joining forces with producer Quentin Tarantino to film The Man with the Iron Fists. Tarantino himself arguably wouldn’t have been so emboldened to make the Kill Bill films without that fire set forth by the Wu’s debut.
Thanks to The Killer being a part of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Chow Yun Fat got a bit of notoriety in the ‘hood which helped bolster US appeal to see him in films here. Gordon Liu still enjoys great acclaim as the Master Killer thanks in part to that always-superb skit between Rae and Meth at the beginning of “Wu-Tang:7th Chamber”. Make no mistake, that first album is a prime example of just how subliminal and powerful ideas and inspiration can be when applied right. And the world has the Wu to thank for this chamber of thought brought forth 20 years ago.