Kendrick Lamar is a man who, for a rapper, has a comparatively short list of nicknames. But on his new album Damn, his new video for “DNA,” and particularly during his set this past weekend at Coachella, he’s introduced a brand new one: “Kung Fu Kenny.”
At Coachella, Lamar started his set by unveiling a short film titled The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny that was modeled after the kung fu films of the 1970s. Similar imagery, including the phrase “Kung Fu Kenny” spelled out in Chinese characters, appeared in the “DNA” video.
But why? Why would a rap star associate himself with Hong Kong actions films released well before he was born?
As it turns out, Kendrick is continuing a tradition that dates back to the very beginnings of hip-hop. Martial arts—in particular, martial arts as depicted in the films of the 1970s and ’80s—had a seminal influence on hip-hop culture from the start. The New York City of the 1970s that birthed hip-hop faced an economic crisis. The same forces that were burning the Bronx were also having their effects felt in the theaters of midtown Manhattan.
Joseph Schloss, a scholar and author who wrote the book Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, explains that the movie theaters were feeling the pinch, so they went for the cheapest programming they could find.
“Their best economic alternative was to buy packages of these cheap Hong Kong action movies, and just show them all day long. It was that and porno movies, basically, on 42nd Street,” he tells Complex. Starting in 1981, this programming was mirrored on television as well. WNEW, channel 5 in the city, broadcast Drive-In Movie every Saturday. The program showed primarily kung fu flicks, and was a huge hit with kids. “Pretty much every single hip-hop artist that I’ve met from that era used to watch that show religiously,” Schloss notes.
So kung fu movies were in the theaters and on TV. But why did the kids of the era—the ones who were, as Schloss puts it, “developing their own culture”—love the films so much? What did they see in those stories?
Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation and the author of the book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess, has made a life-long study of the connections between hip-hop, martial arts, and the game of chess. To him, the affinity between black youth of that era and martial arts makes perfect sense.
“People often forget that hip-hop was born out of the ashes of the civil rights movement, and so much of that was tied to a reclamation of black male dignity,” he says. “These films—Bruce Lee movies in particular, and a lot of the Shaw Brothers films—often dealt with one man going against an organization, or one man going against an unjust state. Because so much of this was done with just the hands, it was also a tool of the poor. You didn’t have to be rich to have these skills. You just had to be disciplined and be willing to work, and you could have it.
“That was one of the main reasons that the martial arts resonated with African-American males who, people conveniently forget, had all of their warrior traditions literally beaten out of them on slave plantations and in sharecropper/Jim Crow America. So these films were supremely inspirational to masses of black males who felt culturally robbed of their warrior spirit, and inspirational on a philosophical perspective, because of the responsibility that having the skills demanded.”
On a very direct and literal level, kung fu films also gave young black and brown kids heroes who were not white (“it’s hard to understand looking back on it how revolutionary that was,” Schloss says). But there was also a new model of learning—crucial for children who, like kids everywhere and at all times, mostly hated school. People in kung fu movies learned from a master, practiced their skills obsessively, and developed new styles, all practices that made their way into hip-hop culture.
“What martial arts really did for hip-hop was to provide a model for an apprenticeship system that showed how you could respect a teacher or a mentor without diminishing your own self-respect,” says Schloss. “It was a model where you could be like, ‘I’m going to learn to be humble and disciplined, and let this guy tell me what to do, but that doesn’t mean that I’m letting him disrespect me.’ That’s a big part of what allowed the art form to develop, because when people put themselves in that situation, they were able to learn a lot of important things and push the art form forward by being open to that instruction.”
Banjoko agrees. “It gave all of these renegade artists a blueprint for mastery, because they were innovating and trying to master something that was completely new,” he says. “And so when you’re looking at films like 36 Chambers and you’re seeing all the times they have to practice one kick, all the times that they have to practice one punch—these guys are practicing that scratch, they’re practicing the headspin, the freeze, with that same ferocity.”
But at root, the reason martial arts is so deeply embedded in hip-hop is because it was deeply embedded in the lives of the kids who created hip-hop. Schloss sums it up:
“Hip-hop was a combination of everything working-class teenage kids of color in New York City were into in the ’70s. So martial arts was just naturally a part of that.”