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Hip-Hop and Martial Arts

    The HHCF’s Chinese Connection series takes a deeper look at the connections between Hip-Hop and martial arts. We look particularly close at the role the Asian Kung-Fu cinema explosion had on Hip-Hop subculture. This series will look at how these films affected rap, aerosol art (graffiti), B-boying and all forms of Hip-Hop dance as well as DJ’ing. In part 2, we look at the art of B-boying commonly referred to as “breakdancing” in mainstream America. Here we speak with Dr. Joseph Schloss. Dr. Schloss is one of America’s most insightful writers when it comes to explaining how art and culture evolve, as well as the why behind it. Most notably his books Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York and Making Beats: The Art of Sample Based Hip-Hop are must haves for any true student of urban art and lifestyle.

    His book on b-boy culture really refined how martial arts culture impacted the art of dance in America and the world.

    HHCF:  In chapter 4 of your book, Alien Ness makes a short, but deep statement about how he connects the I-Ching and various Taoist philosophies to his approach to dance. How much do you think those kinds of ideas are in the culture of B-boying and Hip-Hop dance?

    JS: I think it varies by individual. I think what is significant is that people devote this much mental energy to developing philosophies to guide their actions. But whether or not those philosophies come directly from Taoism or Buddhism or from somewhere else, I think the idea of having a philosophy is still a significant one in b-boying, and one that resonates with martial arts.

    HHCF:  How impactful do you believe the Asian Kung-Fu cinema was on opening the minds of young Bboys, poppers, lockers etc.?

    JS: I know Asian Kung Fu cinema was extremely important to the development of hip-hop dance, because the pioneers straight up say this. Not only that, I think it was influential in several different ways. The most obvious influence was on specific moves: people directly copied moves from movies and brought them into the dance. But those films were also influential on the general aesthetic of hip-hop dance. What I mean by that is just that they present a way of doing flashy, complex, acrobatic moves in a way that still looked tough. And I think that really appealed to a lot of people.

    Also, those classic Kung Fu movies presented a lot of philosophical ideas about discipline, self-education, and battling. If you think about it, the plot of many of those films involved someone losing an important fight – often due to arrogance – then going away on a journey of self-education and self-discipline where they learned an important technique or philosophical idea that enabled them to come back and triumph. That is basically the story of breaking in a nutshell!

    Finally – and I think it’s easy to overlook this in retrospect – they were action movies with non-white heroes, which was very rare in those days. The only other place you really saw that was in Blaxploitation movies.

    HHCF: Bruce Lee seems to represent so much in the Hip-Hop psychology. What do you think he means to Bboys?

    JS: Part of it was all of the stuff I spoke about above, but there was also a lot that was specific to Bruce Lee as an individual. First of all, he wasn’t just a movie star, he was a real martial artist, and people knew that at the time. The line between the characters he played and his real persona was very thin, which was appealing. You felt like he could really do the things he did in his movies, which meant that maybe you could do them – or something like them – too.

    Also, because he was a teacher in real life, he made many public statements about his philosophy, style and approach to martial arts, which is not something movie heroes usually do.

    I think another aspect of his appeal was that he was both Chinese AND American at the same time, which made him kind of the best of both worlds culturally: Americans could relate to him as an American, but they also felt like he was a legitimate representative of Chinese culture at the same time. And I think his kind of “in between” identity probably also spoke to the marginalization of people of color in general, and b-boys and b-girls probably related to that as well.

    HHCF: I’ve always believed that the themes of knowing ones historical style, regional leaders and originators of styles and moves in Bboy’ing is largely related to Hip-Hop. Do you agree?

    I honestly never thought about it before, but it makes a lot of sense. My only hesitation on that would be this: If we say that the idea of being committed to upholding the legacy of a historical style comes from Asian martial arts, it almost implies that that idea didn’t already exist in African American or Latino culture. And I think it did. But it’s clearly coming from a similar philosophical place, which is related to apprenticeship systems in general. Your teacher gives you knowledge and in return to implicitly or explicitly promise to carry on their legacy. So I think those two traditions probably resonated with each other and eventually combined in hip-hop dance.

    HHCF: In chapter six, you write about the relationship between Bboying and African martial arts.

    JS: The actual question got cut off here, but I assume you are asking me to talk about that relationship. I think the most important part of this discussion is 1) that such a thing as African martial arts existed: and 2) even if the details have been lost to history, there’s not reason to assume that those traditions weren’t influential. Incidentally, the best source on this tradition is Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World by T. J. Desch Obi, which I highly recommend.

    HHCF: What are your personal favorite Kung Fu films?

    Good question! Of course, I love “Enter the Dragon,” that’s really the one that started everything for me. After that, I think my favorites are probably “Five Deadly Venoms,”  “Magnificent Butcher,” “Wing Chun” and the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. I remember seeing “Five Deadly Venoms” on TV when I was a kid and trying to imitate the different styles. I actually got pretty good at running up walls. Modern era, I’ve really been enjoying the Detective Dee series. Epic, but also fun!