Last year, the Wu-Tang Clan released a new double album to a one-time auction, where a single buyer could own “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”
In a perverse distortion of the group’s artistic wishes, pharmaceutical villain and frequent online vlogger Martin Shkreli bought the album for around $2 million and then vowed to release it if Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Shkreli followed through on that promise after Trump’s victory by filming a stream of himself listening to the new Wu-Tang music.
The group’s founder, RZA, has remained silent about Shkreli’s recent decision to stream his music after Trump’s win, but was frustrated originally when it was announced that Shkreli was the buyer. RZA told Bloomberg that the deal was made before Shkreli’s “business practices came to light.” Shkreli was the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which increased the price of a pill used by HIV patients from $13.50 to $750 in September 2015.
A rumor about the deal started going viral shortly after Shkreli’s involvement was revealed, claiming that Wu-Tang had hidden a clause in the sale agreement that stated the group could steal the album back in a heist as long as the comedian Bill Murray was involved. This ended up being a hoax, but RZA played into the joke by tweeting:
So despite a Trump presidency facilitating the release of new Wu-Tang tracks, the group’s music certainly should not be associated with the president-elect’s coming inauguration and ascendency.
In fact, the Wu-Tang origin story is a model for us all as we grasp at ways to express ourselves and come together amid the coming struggles our country will undoubtedly face.
Thursday night, RZA will be performing a live musical score for a screening of “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin,” a 1978 kung fu movie that influenced the artist in the formation of his group. The Huffington Post spoke to RZA about kung fu movies and “The 36th Chamber” specifically, as well as how these movies inspired him to create Wu-Tang.
“Overcoming oppression and spreading the culture [was] the united theme of that whole sequence of films,” said RZA. “It resonated with me.”
RZA spent much of his childhood years watching kung fu movies, skipping class on Fridays to spend the whole day in a Times Square theater with his cousins, including fellow Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
“The theater was run-down, grimy, people in there were shooting heroin, sniffing glue,” said RZA. “The floor was sticky.” Sometimes he’d watch five movies at the theater in one day.
A local New York television channel would also broadcast kung fu movies, so RZA and his friends in the Staten Island housing projects would watch them together and then try to reenact the moves outside. “Some guys would bring out dirty mattresses and do flips,” said RZA. “It was kind of magical in its own way.”
The action sequences and the other-worldly quality of the settings these films took place in is what first appealed to RZA. But as he got older, RZA began to notice the recurring theme that these were stories of a protagonist trying to save dying beliefs from tyrannical governments.
“The element that resonated with me was people being oppressed by the government and young people just wanting to make a difference,” explained RZA. “I guess around the same time I was becoming conscious of black consciousness and the struggles of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Realizing the differences in the world of how we’re treated.”
The stories were about spreading culture. “This guy who could have just kept to himself [but] he wanted to break it out and share it with the people,” said RZA.
Although the protagonists of these movies typically acted out their goals in violence, this did not become the Wu-Tang model. Despite surrounding themselves with violent themes, such as calling affiliated projects the Wu-Tang Killa Bees, the group believed that if they came together, they could achieve triumph through artistic means.
RZA famously created the group with his family and friends from Staten Island and built a mythos around Wu-Tang steeped in kung fu iconography. The group’s debut album, 1993’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” is a nod to the movie. The album became certified platinum and Wu-Tang’s message became ingrained in the culture.
“Brotherhood was one of my strongest foundations,” RZA said of the biggest influence he took from kung fu movies to shape Wu-Tang.
“The truth of it is this, when [the protagonist] left the temple, he taught the regular people. But because he taught the regular people, the temple became a threat to the government. That’s what led to it being burned down. But if he hadn’t left and taught the regular people the [temple] would’ve [eventually] burned down without it being spread and kung fu wouldn’t be in the world today.”
If you deeply believe in your cause, you still need to be the one to affect the change.
RZA’s performance is at Town Hall, New York. Alamo Drafthouse and Celestial Pictures are sponsoring the event. Purchase tickets here.