When Kendrick Lamar unleashed his fourth studio album DAMN. last week, the star took his show-stopping performance at Coachella as an opportunity to create a short film titled The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny around a classic hip-hop trope: kung fu.
With actor Don Cheadle (whose Rush Hour 2 character Kenny inspired the Compton rapper’s nickname Kung Fu Kenny) in the “DNA.” video, Lamar is the latest artist in a long line of rap superstars to build a creative aesthetic around martial arts, with numerous names throughout the past 30 years finding inspiration in the ancient combative art.
Fists up: Here are some of the most notable kung fu-inspired tracks in hip-hop history.
GZA, “Liquid Swords”
“When I was little, my father was famous/ He was the greatest samurai in the empire,” starts the title track of GZA’s 1995 epic Liquid Swords album, featuring the ultimate team-up between fierce kung fu awesomeness and a hip-hop great. For Wu-Tang member GZA’s second solo effort, the rapper expertly wove martial arts themes throughout the entire project, whether it was the album’s badass artwork depicting an epic fight to incorporating dialog from the 1980 cult classic film Shogun Assassin. It’s a prime example of two art forms melding into one beautiful soundtrack worthy for even the most skilled warrior.
GZA Feat. Method Man, “Shadowboxin’”
Allow them to demonstrate the skill of the Shaolin! GZA’s Liquid Swords was so epic it merits more than one notch on any respectable kung fu hip-hop playlist. Featuring Method Man, “Shadowboxin’” features dialog from the kung fu flick Shaolin vs. Lama and samples Memphis soul singer Ann Peebles‘ “Trouble, Heartaches and Sadness.” Coupled with GZA and Method Man’s unflinching lyrics (“Allow me to demonstrate/ That’s right, you corny a–/ The skill of Shaolin, rap motherf—ers”), the track is another Liquid Swords standout.
Wu-Tang Clan, “Shame on a N—a”
A year before GZA went solo with Liquid Swords, his crew the Wu-Tang Clan firmly based their creative themes around kung fu with their 1993 smash album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Named after the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, the album kicks off with instant classic “Shame on a N—a” and the sounds of an epic fight, only getting more rough and tumble from there. One of the most acclaimed and influential albums in music history (it’s credited for bringing the rap scene back to New York and went platinum within a year), Enter the Wu-Tang served as a harbinger for the numerous hip-hop and kung fu collabs to come.
RZA, “Chi Kung”
Another Wu-Tang member obsessed with kung fu, RZA’s “Chi Kung” is named after a practice otherwise known as “Qigong” which is made up of movements that are repeated multiple times. RZA’s track, however, is a bit more menacing with the the rapper’s on-the-nose rhymes when it comes to specific fighting techniques. “We use tai chi to deflect off our enemy,” he spits on the 2003 track. “Five poisons, from the Clan there’s no remedy.” The song comes courtesy of the rapper’s third album, the humbly titled Birth of a Prince.
Baauer Feat. Pusha T & Future, “Kung Fu”
Bringing a hip-hop-meets-kung fu playlist into this century is this pulsating track that combines the talent of “Harlem Shake” mastermind Baauer with rhymes courtesy of Pusha T and Future, respectively. The second single from Baauer’s debut 2016 album Aa, “Kung Fu” showcases Future’s boasting hook, “Hey and ’bout that boy they ’bout to die today/ Over that girl they ’bout to die today” and touches on themes of drug dealing and fierce fighting with Pusha T menacingly noting, “Counter-clockwise my wrists go.”
Afu-Ra, “Mortal Kombat”
A deep cut courtesy of New York City rapper Afu-Ra, “Mortal Kombat” hails from his 2000 album Body of the Life Force, an ode to kung fu fighting that also features Wu-Tang members GZA and Masta Killa. On “Mortal Kombat,” Afu-Ra goes into detail on how he’d take down an enemy: “To be specific, I’m comin’ through with jiu-jitsu/ Bone crushin’ bone breakin’ as I get into.”
Ghostface Killah, “Mighty Healthy”
Back to the Wu-Tang! Another 2000-era kung fu inspired track, Ghostface Killah’s unrelenting “Mighty Healthy” from his album Supreme Clientele opens with a sample from the battle-heavy Shaw Brothers classic Shaolin Rescuers. The entire Supreme album is angry and raw, perhaps a result of the fact that Ghostface served a six-month prison sentence on a weapons charge in the midst of production.
“The Karate Rap”
So this might not be one of the best kung fu-inspired rap tracks ever — in fact, it may be the worst — but it’s entertaining all the same. A song and video that’s too ’80s for its own good, “The Karate Rap” was released in 1986 and is all sorts of corny, teaching ka-ra-tay using stale rhymes and a generic beat. Perhaps that’s why when the whole bizarre opus resurfaced a few years ago, it proceeded to go viral. And if you’re wondering whether they stooped so low as to rhyme the word “karate” with the phrase “train your body”? Well… they did.