Ok, now that we have all had over a month to listen to DAMN and watch the visual treatments for the first two singles, we can take a minute to appreciate ‘DNA’ and marvel at its brilliance. Not only is ‘DNA’ heavily laden with pop culture references, as well as biblical allusions; the second video from Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, DAMN, also incorporates elements of Asian cinema and the martial arts aesthetic. These familiar themes are arguably more in line with the roots of hip hop’s history, than visuals of young men shooting dice or being interrogated by the police, which are also in the video.
This long standing connection between hip hop and martial arts was also showcased earlier this year when Netflix released the second half of The Get Down, a series chronicling the emergence of hip hop culture in 1970s New York, as told through the eyes of a group of teenagers led by the larger than life, Shaolin Fantastic. Despite Fantastic being a fictional character, his affinity for Bruce Lee films, the honour code of Kung Fu Masters and love of music represents a general attitude that was prevalent throughout the Bronx at the time. Of course, this was reinforced by the availability of Kung Fu movies, which played around the clock in every cheap theatre that wasn’t showing soft core porn from Times Square to 42nd Street.
During those formative years, the concepts of discipline, honour and loyalty which are integral to the plotlines of old Kung Fu movies helped shape the foundation of hip hop. Challenging the dominant media which was predominately white, the world of Asian cinema offered an alternative form of representation, and stories about ordinary people achieving greatness through discipline and practice. Martial arts also heavily influenced the world of B-boys and B-girls who used the melodic and explosive movements from the movies to inspire break dance moves and routines.
While its been noted that as hip hop has matured it has moved away from those simple ideas of honour and loyalty towards materialism and excess, every decade or so there is an artist, or collective that reintroduces the foundational bond between hip hop and martial arts.
In the 90s, martial arts imagery again became a powerful tool in hip hop, although this time it was less about the cool, mystic and measured moves that master’s like Bruce Lee exhibited, but more about the power and violence that is a byproduct of martial arts training. If the relationship between hip hop and martial arts had been one of artistic inspiration prior to the 90s, the 1993 release of Wu Tang Clan’s, Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers, cemented a deeper bond.
Wu Tang has become synonymous with hip hop’s affection for martial arts and this is most evidenced on their first album where the recurring themes and motifs of escapism, loyalty, honour and martial arts-styles where punctuated with the promise of violence and the realities facing young black men.
Thanks to founding member and group producer the RZA, who could be described as the personification of hip hop and martial arts, Wu Tang’s inclusion of these repetitive themes came across as fresh and new. This authenticity came as result of The RZA looking beyond the genre of Kung Fu and Martial Arts cinema to study Buddhism and the Art of War.
For The RZA, who ironically is the is the closest thing we have to an actual Shaolin Fantastic, Staten Island is Shaolin, his friends, the clan, are warriors and need to protect their hood and honour. In fact, he still incorporates his brand of martial arts influenced hip hop into the soundtracks of films like, Kill Bill and The Man with the Iron Fists.
While Wu Tang was asserting themselves as hip hop’s power group that should definitely not be F***ed with, Kendrick Jeru Davis a.k.a Jeru the Damaja was also using the familiar imagery of Asian cinema to set his New York based raps apart from mainstream artists like Nas and Biggie whose albums dominated 1994.
Unlike Wu Tang, who used broad themes and witty word play, paired with hoodies, Timberlands and Wallabees to portray their martial arts inspiration, Jeru wore a traditional Chinese outfit and raped about self-discipline and righteousness.
By the early 2000s, as hip hop became mainstream and began to take over as the dominant culture the influence of martial arts shifted from music to film, with movies like Romeo Must Die and the Rush Hour franchise. As Jackie Chan and Jet Li introduced a new generation to the beauty and subdued force of martial arts, the soundtracks to their films relied heavily on the connection that had already been forged between hip hop and martial arts.
In Rush Hour 2, released in 2001, Don Cheadle, who also plays the cop in Lamar’s ‘DNA’ video, is Kung Fu Kenny a Crenshaw Avenue Chinese restaurant owner with ties to illegal gambling. Kenny wears a familiar Kung Fu inspired jacket and has a love of Chinese culture, he also engages in an even handed spar with Jackie Chan.
All of this imagery from Nehru collared Kung Fu jackets, to the association of hip hop, martial arts and violence are at play in ‘DNA’. Kendrick’s interpretation isn’t all about paying homage to a bond that is decades old though, it also moves the connection to the forefront and establishes an association between West Coast hip hop and martial arts, something new for a discourse that has always centered around East Coast hip hop and the culture coming from New York.
Throughout ‘DNA’, whether he is practicing the restraint of Bruce Lee when dealing with Cheadle, or lyrical shadowing boxing like the Wu in the second half of the video, Kendrick is showcasing his versatility and attention to nuance and detail. By donning the personae Kung Fu Kenny he is also reaffirming his connection with the deep roots of hip hop—because presumably hip hop and its many facets are in his D.N.A.