Be Water

Wu-Tang’s RZA on the influence of Bruce Lee

How martial arts flows throughout the work of the influential hip-hop group

Perhaps it was nothing more than a coincidence. Aug. 11, 1973, is widely acknowledged as the day hip-hop was born at a back-to-school jam thrown by DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, New York. Eight days later, on Aug. 19, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was released in theaters, a box-office hit that helped launch a national fascination with mixed martial arts. So, if nothing else, both cultural tsunamis were born in the same humid and chaotic summer air.

“I didn’t even notice that! Things happen like that,” RZA, the legendary Wu-Tang beatsmith, told The Undefeated. “Bruce Lee melded so many different styles of martial arts with moves from Muhammad Ali, philosophies from Taoism and Buddhism, but he was also conscious of [people like] Malcolm X and the struggle of black America. It shows up all in his work and his persona.”

The waves crashed together two decades later, when the Wu-Tang Clan used Lee’s movie as partial inspiration for the title of its influential debut studio album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Beyond Lee’s magnum opus, the nine-member Staten Island, New York, conglomerate was omnivorous in its martial arts inspirations. All the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, but most notably RZA, admired Lee’s fearlessness and abstract thinking and the creativity and discipline that came with Eastern philosophies.

“As a kid, you imagine yourself being in a movie,” RZA said of “Be Like Water,” the new track that dropped Friday with the ESPN 30 for 30 film airing on Sunday. “To be part of the culture and someone who is allowed to create elements of that culture, it’s a blessing. A young Bobby Diggs [RZA’s legal name] definitely would’ve only seen it as imagination.”

RZA of Wu-Tang Clan performs during the 36 Chambers 25th anniversary celebration.

Rick Kern/Getty Images

Besides rapper and producer RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan’s original nine members included MCs Method Man, Ghostface Killah (named after a character from 1979’s Da Mystery of Chessboxin), Raekwon, U-God, Cappadonna, Masta Killa (named after Master Killer, the 1978 film also known as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), Inspectah Deck and the incomparable Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B.), who died in 2004.

The group itself is responsible for eight albums between 1993 and 2017, including the world’s most valuable album, 2015’s controversial Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Many of the group’s members, such as O.D.B., GZA and Raekwon, also found solo success via projects such as Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Ghostface Killah, in his work with the Wu-Tang Clan and on personal albums such as Ironman, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, is unquestionably one of the genre’s finest verbal architects. Method Man, too, found fame with his ’94 debut Tical — and a robust career in Hollywood in movies such as Belly and How High, and TV series like HBO’s The Wire and later The Deuce, Netflix’s Luke Cage, TBS’ The Last O.G. and the upcoming Power Book II: Ghost.

We can argue whether the Wu-Tang Clan is the greatest faction rap has ever produced. What isn’t debatable, however, is the group’s cultlike following across the world. Which makes sense, because in Wu-Tang Clan lives influences spanning the globe, from the Nation of Islam and Five Percenters to comic book mythology to the myths and traditions of Eastern martial arts.

RZA’s introduction to martial arts came via a double feature of 1976’s Fury of the Dragon (which posthumously featured Lee, who died of cerebral edema on July 20, 1973) and the blaxploitation flick Black Samurai, featuring Jim Kelly. RZA became fixated on the ideologies, patience, discipline and leadership portrayed in these movies.

His top five martial arts films are The 36 Chamber of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms, The Eight Diagram, Pole Fighter, The Mystery of Chessboxing and, as he told a New York City crowd in 2016, “any Bruce Lee [movie].” What he learned in these movies became the framework for how he approached the music industry and life.

The Wu-Tang Clan used Bruce Lee’s movie as partial inspiration for the title of its influential debut studio album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

RZA

Which helps explain the impact of 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). At its core, 36 Chambers is as gritty a rap record to ever exist, predating other Big Apple time stamps such as Nas’ Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die a year later. Much like N.W.A., the Wu-Tang Clan housed a maniacal producer in RZA and a crew of diversely influential MCs. And much like the characters in the movies that had come to form RZA’s creative and philosophical blueprint, every artist was stylistically unique.

Of New York’s five boroughs, Staten Island had no true authentic hip-hop identity until 1993. Queens already had LL Cool J, Kool G Rap and Rev. Run from Run-DMC. Manhattan had Kurtis Blow, Biz Markie and Teddy Riley. DJ Kool Herc, KRS-One, D-Nice, Slick Rick, Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel all hailed from the Bronx. Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Jeru the Damaja and Jam Master Jay repped Brooklyn. Even Long Island boasted Public Enemy, Bumpy Knuckles and Rakim. Enter the Wu-Tang changed the legacy of hip-hop forever on Staten Island.

The aesthetic of 36 Chambers shouldered the gritty anger the Wu-Tang Clan felt from years of racism on the island. And martial arts films were portals to a world that didn’t feel physically tangible, but RZA desperately wanted to explore. “[Those movies] were a total escape at the end of the day. I actually played hooky from school inside movie theaters,” he said, laughing. “Just a young mind who was supposed to be absorbing the education of the world and here I am absorbing a different kind of education. And it was just as useful, if not even more.”

The influence of Lee and a legion’s worth of martial arts films and Eastern influences bled into the project’s DNA. Most obviously, Enter the Wu-Tang is a direct homage to Lee’s final movie, Enter the Dragon. And 36 Chambers, of course, name-checks The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Films have the power to capture and make worlds, he said. And when a young mind deciphers that world properly, the film does more than its original intent. Which is how Shaolin ended up in Staten Island.

“Those films together were pivotal sources of inspirations for me,” RZA said. “Think about it. [In Enter the Dragon], there’s an incorporation of the white karate guy with John Saxon, the black martial arts brother with Jim Kelly and Asian with Bruce Lee. They were all working together against the oppressor who was poisoning the people. If you add in a few other elements, that’s our country, bro!”

A poster for the British release of the 1973 martial arts action film Enter the Dragon, starring (from bottom to top) Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly, John Saxon and Ahna Capri.

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

The album also samples from or includes lyrical homages to 1976’s Master of the Flying Guillotine and Executioners of Shaolin (“Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ to F Wit”), 1978’s Five Deadly Venoms (“Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ”), 1979’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (“Bring da Ruckus”) and 1983’s Shaolin and Wu Tang (“Shame on a N—a”).

The Wu-Tang Clan’s fascination with martial art flicks wasn’t a one-off homage. Lee and many other stars from the genre became part of who they were and, by proxy, an irreplaceable part of hip-hop culture. Method Man and Raekwon’s 1994 “Meth vs. Chef” on Tical, O.D.B.’s “Intro” from his 1995 debut and the RZA-directed 2012 film The Man with the Iron Fists all contained samples from 1978’s 36th Chamber. RZA also produced the score for 2003’s action-thriller Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Ten Tigers reared its head on Method Man’s 1994 “I Get My Thang In Action.” That same year, Raekwon’s “Guillotine (Swordz)” intro sampled 1983’s Shaolin vs. Lama. GZA’s 1995 “4th Chamber” featured an excerpt from 1980’s Shogun Assassin. Ghostface Killah’s 1996’s “Poisonous Darts” drew inspiration from The Mystery of Chessboxing.

“I turned Ghost on to that movie, but he always loved that one scene where the guy is like, ‘The clouds are high, the sky is low,’ ” RZA recalled. “Every time he’d watch that movie smoking weed, he’d be like, ‘That’s my s— right there!’ When it came time to do his album, I put it in there. As a producer, I always retained what somebody liked.”

Using these martial art movies as intros and outros, lyrical kites or samples, and a deep devotion to a foreign culture made the group worldwide counterculture heroes. And in a long and often knotty history between the U.S. and China, people in both countries champion the Wu-Tang Clan.

“If we pull the skin back further, we’ll see it’s more commonalities,” RZA noted. “Bruce Lee was a man who represented what both of these superpowers people represent. He has diversity all in him and he’s still pure to his culture! Us as people, we most likely already have the common denominator, which is our humanity. But the people in positions of leadership, they put humanity on the back burner.”

He continued: “The fact is that it’s so many things from their culture that’s swelled our culture and so many things from our culture that’s swelled into their culture. It’s always been a cross-pollination.”

The Wu-Tang Clan poses for a portrait on May 8, 1993, in Staten Island, New York. From left to right: Raekwon, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA and Method Man.

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For many years, martial arts films didn’t get Hollywood’s complete respect. The industry had been resistant to casting an Asian leading man, for example. That’s why the legacy of Lee and the legions of Asian actors before and after him remain an indelible fixture in hip-hop. Their influence is felt even today. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN Tour featured 90 minutes of martial arts-inspired videos with the Pulitzer Prize-winning MC donning an all-black uniform in the spirit of the craft.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s willingness to embrace that culture both expanded their influence and impacted their work. “I’m definitely proud that Wu-Tang and our art shows exemplifies this cross-pollination of culture,” RZA said. “I’m glad that we’re living examples of it and I hope that our music and legacy continues to represent that.”

Make no mistake, the legacy that Wu-Tang will leave the world is already set in stone. There’s no way to discuss the lineage of hip-hop without talking about this bloc from Staten Island. Yet, they won’t allow their story to be told without acknowledging the impact of one man who challenged conventional entertainment wisdom in America. Could the story of the Wu-Tang Clan be told without Bruce Lee? RZA’s almost offended such a question could even be asked.

“Nah,” he said, “that world don’t even exist. Bruce Lee is a prophet.”

Lee preached what the ESPN documentary, 47 years after his death, is titled: Be Water. The Wu-Tang Clan did just that. Except that in hip-hop, they were a tidal wave.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.