Wu-Tang Clan and the East Asian Culture Influences on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
The year was 1993. The music scene was dominated by the sounds of classic rock and newer alternative groups such as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Hip-hop had seen critical and commercial success in the beginning of the year with the release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. However, it was on November 9th 1993 that, straight from the slums of Shaolin, a fraternal group of rappers emerged that would change the landscape of not only rap, but the music industry as a whole.
The impact that the Wu-Tang Clan and their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), had on America is almost immeasurable. Furthermore, the method in which the Wu-Tang Clan, and more specifically the head honcho of the group Robert Diggs aka The RZA, went about managing record label contracts and releases were unprecedented for the time and a first in the history of music. What made Enter The Wu-Tang such a critically successful and sonically groundbreaking album was the mixture of cultures, specifically East Asian and African American culture, to create a unique sounding album. The Wu-Tang Clan drew inspiration from a plethora of sources, including “their use of all things comic book, science fiction, kung-fu and Nation of Islam” while resulted in the creation of “perhaps one of the most insular and intricate histories in American music to date” (Ghansah). While many of the groundbreaking rap albums before Enter The Wu-Tang dealt primarily with American themes and sounds, the Wu-Tang Clan went international with their album, combining the gritty day to day to life of poverty in Staten Island with the fantastical, exuberating elements of martial arts. The Wu-Tang Clan took inspiration from the precision and tactics of martial arts, tactics that were further displayed in a hobby of theirs, chess, and the result is the album you hear today.
There are many elements to the album. The names that each member of the Wu-Tang Clan chose as their stage names, the layout and thematic structure of the album as a whole, as well as the samples, lyrics and production all come together to form one cohesive album that draws parallels between the day to day life of the nine MC’s residing in Staten Island, New York and the lifestyle and maneuvers of the monks of Shaolin.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers):
The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chamber) is a 12 song album that is meant to offer a perspective of life in Staten Island, New York with the help of various external sources of mythical inspiration, applying the abstract to concrete life. As Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah noted, the Wu-Tang Clan incorporated “use of all things comic book, science fiction, kung-fu, and Nation of Islam” and the result was “perhaps one of the most insular and intricate histories in American music to date” (Ghansah, *need to find page number*). While influenced by a bevy of influences, thematically the album revolved around kung-fu, specifically kung-fu movies. More specifically, the Wu-Tang Clan got the title of their album “through the martial arts film, “Shaolin and Wu Tang” (Shaolin, The Influence, Think Quest).
While the word clan signifies a close group of people with similar interests, the word Wu-Tang has an origin embedded in Ancient Chinese history and geography, as well as a modern interpretation offered by the group itself. The word Wu-Tang originates from “Wu Dang, the Taoist holy mountain located in the Central China in the Hubei Province” (Shaolin, The Influence, Think Quest). Furthermore, “The word also is the name of the Emperor Yong Le’s Ming Purple Imperial City, which was constructed during the time period of 1404–1420” (Shaolin, The Influence, Think Quest). By referencing the name of a holy mountain, the title “Enter The Wu-Tang” signifies the entrance to a holy location. This could be furthermore interpreted as an invitation to those listening album to enter the world of Wu-Tang, a world composed of elements of Chinese history as well as mythology. Another perspective on the word Wu-Tang is offered by group member Method Man, who “notes that a sword cutting through air molecules results in a “Wu” sound effect and the “Tang” sound effect is the result of contact made with a shield” (Shaolin, The Influence, Think Quest). Again, the use of swords to elaborate on the sound of the word Wu-Tang lends more to the strong influence that kung-fu had on the members of the Wu-Tang Clan while constructing their debut album.
Ghostface, Catch the Blast of a Hype Verse:
The first song of a rap album has arguably more significance than any other song on the album. It immediately shapes your opinion of the album as a whole and affects your mindset going into the remainder of the album. A great example of this is Kanye West’s most recent album, Yeezus. While all of his previous albums had begun with pleasant songs that were easy on the ears, Yeezus opened with brashness, lasers and absolute chaos. The jarring open left many detesting the album. While an intro has the power to affect reception of an album, it also has the power to lay out thematic elements that are to be present throughout the album. NaS beginning his debut album Illmatic with the sounds of the New York subway preface an epic that revolves around life in Queensbridge, New York. Tupac’s post prison release All Eyez On Me beginning with “I won’t deny it, I’m a straight ridah” and Mike Tyson fight samples indicates an album with ruthless aggression. Classic albums start from the first thing the listener hears, which is why the beginning of the first song on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), “Bring Da Ruckus”, is so important. Not only does it start the album off with an instant classic of a song, it furthermore brings forth both marital art themes and motifs immediately.
The first voice heard on the album is not of a member of the group or even a musician, but rather dialogue from the kung-fu film “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.” Immediately heard are the words “Shaolin shadowboxing” (Bring Da Ruckus, Wu-Tang Clan). Shaolin is a word, location, and motif that commonly occurs throughout the entire album, so it’s only fitting the album begins with the word. Shaolin offers a parallel between the world of the Wu-Tang Clan’s home of Staten Island and the land of the Far East. While quite literally the name of many monasteries in China, Shaolin is where the Wu-Tang Clan “hails from,” a fantastical alternate reality to the gritty poverty of Staten Island.
A common characteristic in martial arts culture is the importance of fraternity and loyalty between groups of people, essentially clans. A major part of the Wu-Tang Clan’s charisma and functioning as a tightly knit group is their identification “with the perceived fraternal culture of the martial arts world filled with loyal clans and rival schools of styles” (Raphael-Hernandez, 306). The Wu-Tang Clan is often seen more than a clan, but rather a brotherhood of musicians who have become beyond close. The “rival schools of styles” aspect of martial arts is what makes Bring Da Ruckus the raw, powerful, in-your-face song it is. The entire movie Shaolin & Wu-Tang, a movie like stated before that laid out the thematic structure, revolves around two rival clans, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang, who square off against each other in a battle to the death. The RZA is quoted as saying when he was recording the chorus he “was calling out all challengers” (RZA, 144). So when the RZA is shouting the chorus “BRING DA MOTHERF***IN RUCKUS”, “at the top of [his] lungs” he is effectively leading a clan and challenging all rival clans to try to compete with them and their style. What makes the album particularly fascinating is how many of the lyrics draw parallels between martial arts culture and the rap world. The parallel in the rap world is the Wu-Tang Clan effectively challenging other rappers and rap groups of the time to step their rapping up and try to compete with the Wu-Tang Clan.
Right before the chorus, another kung fu sample, from the movie Ten Tigers From Kwangtung declares “I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style” (Chea). This further alludes to the RZA’s chorus being a calling to other rappers/clans to come at the Wu-Tang while at the same demonstrating the “Wu-Tang Clan style,” loud, brash, and unforgiving.
The parallels between the real life world of Staten Island and the land of the far east of Shaolin continue into the verses. Gone are the swords, fighting styles, and techniques of the Shaolin way. Instead, the listener is treated to a rugged world full of “glock bursts” as well as “P.L.O. style” approaches to the defeat of rival crews in the urban jungle of Staten Island (Bring Da Ruckus, Wu-Tang Clan). The referencing of the P.L.O further emphasizes the cohesiveness of the group and their self-perspective as a band of brothers. The style and weapons are different, but that same sense of loyalty and strength as a crew as well as a desire to eradicate rivals are still there. Shaolin and Staten Island are night and day in terms of aesthetic and literal similarities; however, the Wu-Tang Clan still manages to bring their surroundings to life while still giving off the appearance and way of a martial arts crew from the Far East.
Straight From The Slums That’s Busted:
Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ With captures the mixture of East and West like few songs ever had. Similar in content and structure to Bring Da Ruckus, it’s another flawless demonstration of “Wu-Tang style,” the crew at its loudest and most aggressive, letting everyone know they are a forced not to be reckoned with while at the same time being a full out assault on any competitors.
The song begins with head honcho of the group, RZA, speaking the words “Tiger Style” (Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ With, Wu-Tang Clan). In the kung fu of Shaolin, China there are five animals that equate to five distinct fighting styles. Tiger Style, otherwise known as the Black Tiger Fist or Hei hu quan, is a fighting style that is meant to symbolize strength and power (Shaolin Academy). The aggression and boldness of Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ With embody the characteristics of Tiger Style kung fu, demonstrating how kung fu inspired not only the lyrics but the direction of the entire song. Not only is this aggression heard in the lyrics and tone of the rappers delivering the voice, the production of the song itself is stark and brutal. The beat is composed of a thumping bass line, with drums that match the rush as well as the blunt nature of the song.
The lyrics of the song are just as violent and aggressive as the title and beat would suggest. The concept of “murdering someone lyrically,” a concept that signifies lyrics that are ruthlessly aimed at opposition in order to symbolize the violent nature of murder in a song, is the core of lyrical content in the song. The RZA calls upon martial arts weapons of ancient Chinese dynasties to get his point across, declaring that a “Fatal Flying Guillotine chops off your fu**ing head.” The flying guillotine is a legendary kung fu weapon that emerged during the Qing dynasty. The RZA’s choice of an ancient Chinese weapon over something much more common in his real life, such as a gun, just shows how engrossed and fascinated the Wu-Tang Clan was with kung fu culture. Death by decapitation is also a common occurrence in the martial arts flicks of the 80s, the same movies that members of the Wu-Tang Clan watched as inspiration. The RZA yelling “Chop his head off, kid!” is further allusion to the flying guillotine (the results were instant decapitation) which in itself is allusion to Tiger Style and Shaolin kung fu. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ With is embedded in the roots of Shaolin kung fu and the result is a lethal sounding record that brings the weapons and fighting of Shaolin to the raps and threats of a New York rap group.
Da Mystery of Chessboxin’:
While they may not seem immediately connected, chess and the sword fighting of martial arts culture are both indeed very similar and symbolic for the Wu-Tang Clan, and it’s this love for martial arts as well as a love for chess that brought forth the fruition of Da Mystery of Chessboxin’. The song continues the motif of songs opening with samples of martial arts films that allude to content and style of the song, more specifically the films Shaolin and Wu-Tang and Five Deadly Venoms.
“The game of chess is like a swordfight, you must think first before you move” (Liu). Like stated before, sword fighting is an integral part of the Wu-Tang Clan culture. The word “Wu” sounds like a sword slicing through the air according the Method Man, and they often compare their raps and battles to swordfights, with their lyrics being swords that pierce and attack rival rappers and crews. Thinking before they move, the Wu-Tang Clan are very tactical and precise with their word choice and who/how they attack with their rhymes. Everything from pitch to syllable count to rhyme pattern is thoroughly thought out when constructing songs. What’s relatively lesser known is the Wu-Tang Clan’s appreciation and admiration for the game of chess, completing the simile of chess being like a swordfight. The RZA is the biggest chess aficionado in the group, commentating that “Chess is a very important element of Wu-Tang. It’s an important element of life” (RZA, 93). While seen as just a game to some, chess is a life changing activity for the Wu-Tang Clan and everything they stand for. RZA furthermore points out that chess “teaches you to think multiple moves ahead, to strategize. It teaches you how to attack, how to defend” (RZA, 93). The lyrics of Wu-Tang Clan songs can often be seen as this attack-parry style, with bombarding lyrics against rivals coupled with lyrics promoting the strength and fraternity of the Clan. Outside of music, when it comes to the business model and distribution/promotion of their album and subsequent albums, the RZA took the approach of a chess match, thinking multiple moves ahead and making offensive moves and defensive moves. Furthermore, the comparisons to a swordfight now appear to make more sense, as the RZA sees chess as a game that applies to many situations, and provokes progressive thinking as well as attack and defense mechanisms. Taking it a step further, RZA even goes as far as referring to chess as “a martial art” (RZA, 98). This sentiment is alluded to in the title of the song, Da Mystery of Chessboxin’. Chessboxing today is literally a hybrid of chess and boxing, rounds of boxing alternating with rounds of chess. The sport highlights the parallels between chess and fighting, something that the Wu-Tang hopes to bring forth with the beginning dialogue of Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.
The next sample, from Five Deadly Venoms, is “Toad style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon; when it’s properly used it’s almost invincible” (Shaw). Toad style is a mythical fighting style, whose existence is often challenged and not well known. Those who claim they have seen it support the claims of the film, that it’s a very effective style of fighting and near unstoppable. The Wu-Tang Clan view themselves as the best of the best that can’t be touched, which is why to allusion to toad style makes sense.
The rhymes that follow in the song are some of the sharpest and wittiest rhymes of the group. Each member that raps on the track raps like they’re unstoppable and it shows in their delivery, from the confidence in their voice to the metaphors and similes of the song. U-God opens the song with his only verse on the entire album and one of the best verses on the album, dropping clever similes such as “Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia” and “my hip-hop will rock and shock the nation like the Emancipation Proclamation” in rapid succession (Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, Wu-Tang Clan). Alluding to the significance of the first sounds of the album, the first lines of a song can make or break the entire song. U-God sets the tone that Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ is the rap equivalent of toad style fighting, the Wu-Tang Clan rapping like they’re untouchable while delivering deadly rhymes at the same time.
My Name Is…:
A hip hop artist’s stage name can be have a wide variety of meanings or purposes. Some get inspired by their birth name (Jermaine Cole becoming J. Cole or Marshall Mathers (M&M) becoming Eminem), while others get inspired by pop culture figures (Rick Ross getting his name from famed CIA drug dealer Freeway Ricky Ross or French Montana being inspired by Tony Montana). The bottom line is that a stage name carries weight and usually says a lot about the artist. More than just a nickname, a rapper’s stage name is how they are known not only locally, but nationally and around the world. This makes the martial art themed names of numerous Wu-Tang Clan members all the more fascinating.
Nicknames are a critical part of the Wu-Tang Clan. Every member has multiple nicknames, and many carry these nicknames farther, turning them into
alter egos. These nicknames are abundant and plentiful per individual member. Famed member Ol’ Dirty Bastard himself has 16 nicknames! While he is referred to as “Dirty, the Professor, the Bebop Specialist, the Specialist, Prince Delight, Ason Unique, Unique Ason, Osiris, Cyrus, Big Baby Jesus, Dirt McGirt, Dirt Schultz, Ol’ Dirt Dawg, Joe Bananas, [and] Freeloading Willy” (Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, 10), Ol’ Dirty Bastard chose Ol’ Dirty Bastard as his stage name, the name that would be permanently attached to his name and life. Why is that? Again, the kung-fu influence comes through. When the RZA explains Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s name he cites kung-fu movies, noting that “in every kung-fu movie, there’s always the dirty bastard, the dirty rat; somebody who, no matter what he does, does wrong. Even when does right, his intent is to do wrong. Well that’s Dirty in real life” (Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, 12). While Ol’ Dirty Bastard could’ve chosen many of his nicknames that originated from Staten Island origin, it was the name that was related to kung-fu movies that he chose, further proof of the immeasurable influence kung-fu had on the WTC as a whole.
Symbolism and significance of martial arts film characters also became prevalent in the names of some Wu-Tang Clan members. Low key member Masta Killa derived his name from various aspects of a very specific character. The title Master Killer itself is “a very coveted name to martial arts film fans” (Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, 36). The significance of martial arts titles is carried over to the gritty urban culture of Staten Island, New York, further displaying how the Wu-Tang Clan helped bring together East Asian and African American culture. In the film The Thirty-sixth Chamber Gordon Liu players the Master Killer, a “young Shaolin monk who trained on each successive level until he attained the thirty-sixth chamber of invincible martial artistry” (Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, 36). The film character was very reflective of Masta Killa himself, who didn’t even rap before he became a part of the clan. Similar to Gordon Liu’s character, Masta Killa became a student of the game and ended up mastering the art of rapping. This draws another parallel between the ways of kung-fu and the ways of the rap game. What further enhances the importance of martial arts is Masta Killa’s alternate nickname. While describing Masta Killa, RZA concedes “there’s another side of him too, the street side. That’s why he also goes by Noodles, after the Robert De Niro character in the mobster epic Once Upon a Time in America” (Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, 36). Even though both nicknames were inspired by films, Masta Killa ultimately went with the martial arts inspired stage name over the mobster inspired nickname, proving kung-fu’s dominance over the Wu’s culture and style. By having martial arts influenced names, the influences went beyond the sound of the album, the lyrics, and the samples, and to the structure and fundamental basis of the group as a whole.
I was introduced to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) around 5 years ago and before I wrote this paper I completely dismissed the martial arts aspect of the album. I thought of the group as a bunch of rappers from New York who enjoyed kung fu flicks. But I had never gone into detail about how those kung fu flicks, the trips to China the RZA took, simple games such as chess, and more all shaped what was at the end of the day, a rap album about life on Staten Island. However, after completing copious amounts of research and re-listening to the album while doing said research, I realized that his album wouldn’t be possible or even exist without the martial arts aspect. So much of what the Wu-Tang Clan was, the group of family and friends closer than brothers, the crew that sought to challenge any and every rapper that stood in their path, and what they stood for, the loyalty and fraternity that came as being part of a clan, treating life like a game of a swordfight or a game of chess, always thinking steps ahead and making precise and tactical decisions, was influenced by martial arts culture and the way of monks from Shaolin. The lyrics were heavily rooted in the weapons, fighting styles, and way of Chinese martial arts. The samples provided thematic content, structure, and style to the songs. The names of every member were rooted in martial arts culture. All of the elements of the album were heavily influenced if not shaped by martial arts.
What I also learned a lot about while researching was the mixture of African American and Asian culture, a phenomenon known as Afro-Asian culture. Gina Marchetti makes the connection that “black music and Chinese kung fu share a common cultural currency that circulates internationally” (Louie, Kam, Low, 13). The parallels between Staten Island and the land of the Far East are a worldwide occurrence and one that the Wu-Tang Clan embodied and capitalized off of. Their cultural fusion of African American and Asian culture led to an album that become a global sensation and changed the landscape of the music industry. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is not just a remarkable rap album, but furthermore, an extraordinary display of how different cultures can have many parallels and similarities and influence each other.
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