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The connection between hip-hop and martial arts is vast and expansive. So much so, that to attempt to cover it comprehensively would take a library’s worth of books. That being said, looking at the ten best lyrical sparring moments can teach us a ton about the histories of both art forms
Much of the attraction was that in the initial emergence of the fusion, hip-hop was in many ways a secret society. It was near-impossible to be down with the culture on your own. You needed to have a mentor, a “master” if you will, who could guide you through the subculture. Style, technique, loyalty, lineage, and most of all the willingness to battle without fear were essential
The earliest memory I have of hip-hop and martial arts being connected is a 1987 record by T-La Rock and Greg Nice. “Having Fun” is not really a song at all. It’s a long, silly skit about a man whose beatbox teacher was killed and who then seeks revenge. Despite its humorous tone, it highlights importance of original style, lineage, and the willingness to battle and represent what one knows. All of these, it should go without saying, are key martial arts concepts
The second wave of martial arts/rap crossover came with a crew of Kung Fu movie-loving dudes from Staten Island. Circa 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan was murdering tracks, many of which were replete with imagery and sound samples from classic movies like Return to the 36th Chamber
Around the same time but on the other side of the country, a collection of what would become some of the most devastating battle DJs in America was rising out of the Bay Area. DJ Qbert, Mixmaster Mike, and DJ Apollo would go on to take over the battle scene around the world. During the same time, there was a quiet release of a series of Battle Break records on a label called Dirt Style Records. They were dropped anonymously, because big record companies were then on the warpath, suing anybody who used samples
Battle Break records had traditional breakbeats extended for DJs to scratch over, juggle, and use for solo scratch routines. The genius of these records was that it was like having a whole crate compressed into two records. Any DJ who did not have these Dirt Style Records in their arsenal would be a victim of those who did. One of their coldest elements was that in some of these records, there were clips from Kung-Fu films. They talk about the theme of style, of the weakness of imitated skill, of the purity of technique and willingness to fight to the end. Many of these Kung-Fu film clips came from Shaw Brothers movies. The success of the Wu-Tang Clan and the Battle Break records prove that the Kung-Fu craze had affected hip-hop on a national level
Bruce Lee, to rappers, is the patron saint of martial arts. To hip-hop culture, he is to martial arts what Malcolm X is to politics. Many of us forget that that DJ for the Beastie Boys Mix Master Mike’s original logo was a remake of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do logo . In fact, it was Bruce Lee with headphones on as if he was cueing a record
As for b-boys and b-girls, so much of their quest for mastery, dedication to the battle, and strategy in combat was rooted in the martial arts. This is highlighted at great length in the book Foundation by Dr. Joseph Schloss, which is a must have for any true Hip-Hop historian
The bottom line is that Kung-Fu films introduced a racially charged America to see beyond black and white. It also gave Americans of all backgrounds an introduction into the benefits of meditation, yoga, nonviolence and vegetarianism
But now, lets get back to the rap
10. One Be Lo, “Rebirth”
1st man: You sir have insulted all my fine fighting comrades, with your bragging!
2nd man: Are you challenging me?
1st man: Yes, I challenge you!
2nd man: I know your skill, but what if you lose?
The role that ego and reputation hold in combat are huge. One Be Lo exploits this psychological element in this song. The rapper does not speak directly to martial arts here. Rather, where the hook would normally be, he uses selections from martial arts films. The clips teach the listener about the power of discipline, battle readiness, and the role ego plays in combat. Additionally, the film clips reinforce his intent on the mic: to be dangerous. Despite never saying anything specific about martial arts, the warrior code here is so on-point and bad-ass that this earns the #10 spot
9. Vinnie Paz, “Cold, Dark and Empty”
The Dim Mak teacher, the Book of Enoch reader
The five deadly venom chest beater, the chess teacher
Vinnie Paz has a voice that’s as deep as his thoughts. This allows him to break into tracks, bringing chaos along for the ride. Despite his words being too violent for my taste, he is always powerful and artistic. “Cold, Dark and Empty” is the perfect Yin and Yang of Kung-Fu technique and spiritual stratagem. From the deadly Dim Mak (poisoned hand touch) to the spirituality of the Book of Enoch, he unveils his intent. Vinnie then closes the verse mentioning the 5 Deadly Venoms, and adds a chess reference to reinforce his sharpness of mind
8. Rakaa Iriscience and Smoke Serpent, “Jiu Jitsu”
Dilated aww yeah, Gracie Veterano first fam
Taught the world to swing that double-edge sword, it works fam
BJJ from GJJ like Kool Herc gave birth to what your DJ play
But despite the lineage I will never be close-minded
Refuse to see beyond the lines you go blind
Rakaa travel to 10th planet, I flow free
I’m welcome on many mats, gi to nogi
Though my branch place is close to the original tree
Roots sprouted from original seeds
Watered with blood sweat and tears, spotlight with sunlight
That shit became a forest vale tudo done right
Then Royce dominated them all in one night
And Rickson hasn’t been beaten in one fight
Flow with the go
Rener, Ryron and Ralek know
That to continue to win you must continue to grow
Full disclosure: I had a hand in how this song was created
If you don’t know about jiu jitsu, then you’d never know that, at the time of this song’s creation, a beef had been brewing between those that train in the traditional kimono (also known as the gi) and those who train nogi
Eddie Bravo is known globally as the creator of the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu system. It focuses on using flexibility to create submission holds. Rakaa Iriscience holds the purple belt rank training with Ryron, Rener and Ralek Gracie (the Grandsons of founder Helio Gracie).The tension between some in the gi and no gi groups was getting out of hand. For those in the know, it was approaching a Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang vibe. I didn’t like the way things were going. I felt, as the warrior monks state in Raekwon’s song, “Kung-Fu doesn’t belong to anybody- it evolves.” Jiu Jitsu is no different.
I could see the spirit of the art was getting out of hand and the unity between Jiu JItsu practitioners was getting fragmented. I called Eddie and said, “You and Rakaa should do a track together, man. It will help unify the game.”
This song was the result. Rakaa and Compella did a great job of connecting the traditional root to the modern innovations made by Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet system. It is not a traditional hip-hop track. Eddie produced it along the lines of a rock/rap fusion (think Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park). It’s dope, and it brought unity to the game
7. Big Daddy Kane & GZA, “Cameo Afro”
Bound to grasp, Samurai, on what they call each other Erasing all errors, get worked to pallbearers
I’m talking caskets, coffins, I’m the bastard swordsman
That cause the loss of massing organs
Fear factor, here after, disaster
Climb like the Stairmaster, coming through, clear a path of
The raw aggression, that’ll take your best on
You start talking Teflon, then you switch to Revlon
Nigga, choose ya weapon, hope you got your vest on
Talking Superman shit when you ain’t got ya S on?
Heh, get ahead of who never, your skills too technical
Leave nothing left for you but residue, the state of vegetable
If you want to hear music and martial arts on an epic level, look no further than the Afro Samurai soundtrack. This track is a MC’s fanatics dream — BDK and GZA?! When epic rappers team up for contrived reasons, it often sounds corny. When, as here, it’s done with a purpose, the result is earth shattering
6. DJ Honda feat. Rakaa Iriscience — “Let It Out”
Kevlar body armor, counterpunch if you bring drama
Cali Rakaa brings it worldwide with King Honda
Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Sinister Brand sponsored
You ain’t built, you’re old aerobics like Jane Fonda
I refrain from puttin’ hands on you, but I wanna — I chill Play the thinker and let my mind wander for real
Rakaa Iriscience is on the list again for two main reasons. He actually murders mics and he trains Gracie Jiu Jitsu regularly. There are many rap artists who train boxing, capoeria, Kung-Fu, escrima, etc. Some are Karate champions, like rapper and producer EA Ski. Rakaa reps the Jiu Jitsu path not as a bragging tough guy, but rather as someone honored to be able to walk it
His verse is compelling because he showcases the ability and desire to strike back, but chooses nonviolence by mastering his own mind. He also shows the responsibility the martial artist has of consistently seeking peace
5. Afu-Ra feat. Masta Killah, “Mortal Kombat”
Paraplegic, my fighting stance too strategic
No shadows on my kicks, too much Chi horrific
To be specific, I’m comin through with jiu-jitsu
Bone crushing bone breakin as I get into
Scorpion styles, with the speed of a cheetah
Hit your pressure points with light skills
I be the blaster, Iron Palms is elemental
Combinations damaging nations in the mental
Cerebral cortex is obsolete
You’ll die ten times if you try to test me
Taoist master, rhyme style disaster
Studied on the cliffs of mountains reading scrolls
Holding it down, Iron Shirt Chi-gung
Apprentice in the temple with Guang Jung Nim
I went through torture, deadly styles I’m the author
Ingested metals, yeah they made me supernova
Triple spinning kicks, side kicks, and hook kicks
They come much iller, so you must be Masta Killa
Afu-Ra (his name means The Body of the Life Force) has always been underrated. DJ Premier loved him, so I love him too. This guy is probably the first solo MC to fuse the path of martial arts with his identity in hip-hop. As for the verse, well, it speaks for itself. Afu-Ra mentions several fighting styles, the importance of Taoism, chi, and ends with three kicking attacks. Ya gotta love it
4. Notorious B.I.G., “Hope You Niggas Sleep”
Catch a body, I got styles like karate
Jujitsu, when I hit you then I split you
Biggie Smalls was always devastating. He reps hard on this one, using martial arts as a symbol for the danger in his style. I also liked how he used karate as the striking reference and Jiu Jitsu for splitting bone and body. Most people think all martial arts are the same, but B.I.G. understood the difference in the arts
3. Ghostface Killah, “Mighty Healthy”
1st man: My God, so they are killers.
I’ve heard lots of people say once a man’s a killer, they just keep
on killing and killing; they sort of develop a taste for blood.
2nd Man: Yeah, that’s right. They kill one man, or kill ten,
it’s all the same (yes). After all, they can only hang you once.
There is something unique about each member of the Wu. For Ghost, it’s the mix of his voice and his sublime aggression. He drops those jewels you return to later. The opening clip of the two men speaking on the philosophical implications of murder always stuck with me. It reminds me of a section of the Qu’ran where it says if a person takes one human life, it is as if they killed all of humanity. On the song proper, Ghostface murders the mic with standard issue Wu-Tang street grit, and then closes with another Kung-Fu clip stressing the importance on breath control. Beautifully executed
2. GZA, “Liquid Swords”
Energy is felt once the cards are dealt
With the impact of roundhouse kicks from Black belts…
I’m on a mission that niggas say is impossible
But when I swing my swords, they are all choppable
The Wu-Tang Clan always brought the ruckus. Here, GZA opens with lines from the movie Shogun Assassin. These samples reflect the simultaneous simplicity and depth of the Wu, and GZA in particular. Bruce Lee once said, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance” and The Genius proved his point throughout this entire album
1. RZA, “Chi-Kung”
We use Tai Chi to deflect off our enemy
Five poisons, from the Clan there’s no remedy
We dispell the smell of wickedness in our vicinity
Bobby, the atomic, Islamic, bomb-droppin'
Appear in your atmosphere like the comet
Heading to the Western Hemisphere, non-stopping
Striking the belly of the seed to make it vomit
Things of beings is unseen by men
In shapes and form, never been dreamed by men
The word of God, always intervene with sin
From insight, my inner-light beams within
Pin-point focus, move silently unnoticed
When you attack, I fall back in the wind like the lotus
Put the soul in the track like my name was Otis
Pain in my heart and your chance is hopeless
For you to win, a change is gonna come
You hear the “suuuu”?, Wu-Tang is gonna come
And my vocals, they gonna bang on the drum
You go against the grain you will hang from ya tongue
There is no way a list like this could exist without the Abbot of Wu-Tang holding the number one spot. The title itself manifests the wisdom and beauty of his intent. The Wu-Tang Clan was his brainchild, and the blueprint for all they have accomplished was done using Kung-fu war strategies, chess tactics, and Taoist, Buddhist and I-Ching philosophies. To illustrate the depth of his commitment to martial arts, he actually went to Shaolin in China
This verse is so cold. RZA uses a laid-back flow, laced with a hoarse tone to spice it with chaos. He opens speaking directly to Tai Chi. In the amazing book The Tao of Islam, Sachiko Murata writes, “The Chinese tradition tells us that before yin and yang came into existence, there was Tai Chi or ‘The Great Ultimate,’ and it was totally undifferentiated. Confucius is reported to have said. ‘There is Tai Chi in Change, Change generates the two primary forces, the two primary forces generate the four images, and the four images generate the eight tri-grams.” Only by carefully by studying the ways of the ancients are you able to understand a fraction of the RZA’s depth
For the record, to find one verse of RZA’s to hold the #1 spot was not easy. Songs like “4th Chamber”, “Samurai Showdown” and many others are equally deep and worthy. While some MC’s use martial arts as a metaphor for their lives, RZA embodies the martial arts path on the mic, off the mic, in business, and on film
Adisa Banjoko is Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. He is and author of the Lyrical Swords book series and holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Contact him directly at http://www.facebook.com/hiphopchess