An Ode to 'Kung Faux'—the Show That Married Martial Arts and Hip-Hop

'Kung Faux' offered a window—albeit a distorted one—into the material so often stripped down to sound bites and homages.
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In the early ‘80s, cable channels such as BET, MTV, and CMT broke onto the scene and established their dominance in the music television space. By the time MuchMusic USA became Fuse in 2003, music videos began migrating to the internet, and so the channel inaugurated itself with a curious program entitled Kung Faux, a unique and transgressive comedy composed entirely from pre-existing footage. 

Kung Faux's immediate hip-hop connection came via the voice cast, which featured a rotating roster of legends such as Guru, Queen Latifah, Masta Ace, Afrika Bambaataa, and members of De La Soul, and culturally aligned figures such as KAWS, Steve Powers, and Harold Hunter. English dubs were laid atop old martial arts films, which were re-edited into contemporary American stories using sound, comic-esque transitions, and the written word.

While the show could lazily be described as "reverse Wu-Tang"—which would be a fair diagnosis—there’s more to Kung Faux and hip-hop’s longstanding martial arts infatuation than RZA’s loving pastiches, Kung Fu Kenny, and Lupe’s brushing up on his sword styles. Whether they know it or not, all these artists have contributed to the cultural crossover.

Chinese martial arts and hip-hop first became intertwined in the mid-‘70s when both crafts began to seep into the American cultural consciousness. The advent of hip-hop, which occurred on a hot summer night in 1973, happened against a backdrop of increased interest in kung fu. Inner city cinemas began showing the films—exotic, foreign and cheap—immediately attracting an audience taken by the perplexing customs and physically impressive feats within.

The early disciples of hip-hop, raised on both block parties and mystical fighting styles, found ways to fuse their interests. South Bronx native Joseph Sadler was nicknamed “Flash” for his dexterous hands and innovative turntable techniques, but it wasn’t until his career took off that he prefaced his moniker with "Grandmaster," a title inferring proficiency. Interestingly, "master" was a mistranslation of "teacher," a word that took hold in the States following the Korean War, which film distributors capitalized on for the promotion of their films.

Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Caz, the de facto leader of the Cold Crush Brothers, was an early fan of the term, which appeared in the rhymes Big Bank Hank stole from Caz for the first hit rap single, “Rapper’s Delight.” For good measure, Hank also mentioned karate on 1981’s “8th Wonder.”

“I don't think I'm bad don't box in no karate / Just an MC to put the boogie in your body…” —The Sugarhill Gang ("8th Wonder")

This novel collision truly came to the forefront in 1993, with the blockbuster debut from the Wu-Tang Clan. Much of the group's mythos was directly inspired by and lifted from the films of Shaw Brothers Studios: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was named for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a 1978 film in which the titular chamber is “a special martial arts class for laypeople to learn kung fu.” 

One of RZA’s foremost honorifics, The Abbot, was obtained from the same film, which the legendary producer used to flip superficial references into full-on samples, pulling elements from these films and using their familiar tropes to better furnish the world of the Wu. The group might be named after a fighting style, but their kung fu affection runs far deeper than just references; the clashing of swords cut through the English dubs. When sampling was seen as tantamount to theft, RZA furnished his sonic world with the sounds of his childhood, uplifting an otherwise languishing phenomenon and re-injecting it into the zeitgeist.

The first generation of the Wu-Tang Clan, from 1992 to 1997, found this movement reaching critical mass. Almost every solo record from the camp featured some element of fantastical Wu-Tang combat. While the most prominent was Method Man’s Tical (“Tical,” “Meth Vs. Chef”), fleeting references also appeared on more crime-oriented efforts Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (“Guillotine (Swordz)”), and Ironman (“Poisonous Darts”). GZA’s Liquid Swords was steeped in Japan’s Jidaigeki genre, invoking the exploits of samurai and Shogun, while Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers (The Dirty Version) was named for the 1980 sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

“This is the first generation of African Americans [to] not be extending the range of music,” R&B legend James Mtume lamented in the late ‘80s. Indeed, though hip-hop was bringing in a wider audience with each passing year, it was taking and re-purposing elements of other cultural phenomena—soul, funk, disco, rock, films, speeches and so on—more than ever before. This behavior inspired the wrath of establishment musicians, including, most notably, Mark Volman of The Turtles, who famously argued that “anybody who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.”

Mic Neumann, the “cultural engineer” behind Kung Faux, began working on the program in the late ‘90s. Neumann described the process as treating the original film “like a DJ treats a record," with a specific focus on “the melting pot of music” that crops up in each episode. 

What is hip-hop if not a collision of sounds and palettes, assembled by producers and furnished by samplers?

While the program incorporated elements of comic book culture–namely, superimposed text and supernatural embellishments–it was edited in a cut-and-paste style reminiscent of hip-hop production techniques. If the original film is a record, then the 30-minute edit is a coherent sample: though comprised of mere elements, it still tells a cohesive story, like the best flips. 

The inspired transitions and overlaid frames are scratches on the wax; the thrilling punctuation that breaks up the sample. The dubbing is the rhymes themselves, loaded with regional slang and cultural references, and delivered in a distinctive drawl.

For example, take the above episode. As the title Boxcutta—a tongue-in-cheek martial arts style—appears on the screen, a fleeting sample of T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours” ushers viewers into our kung fu story. The use of “It’s Yours” taps into the rich history of sampling; the record itself samples Uncle Louie’s “I Like Funky Music,” and the 1984 Rick Rubin production has since been flipped on more than 300 separate tracks. This motif returns throughout the show as Neumann uses the same sound bite as a punched phrase at the 2:45-minute marker.

Though there are many satisfying moments throughout the episode, a particularly great comedic edit at the 3:47 mark makes good use of a few well-worn hip-hop staples. First, there’s that familiar scratch that punctuates the joke. Recognize it? The sample is taken from Beside’s “Change The Beat (Female Version),”—Fab Five Freddy says, “Ah, this stuff is really fresh”—which, over the past 30 years, has become a classic scratching texture; the omnipresent sample appears again at the 5:42 mark. The second hip-hop reference—the “Shook Ones” caption that overlays the fleeing warriors—needs no explanation.

Kung Faux is many things, but first and foremost, it is hilarious. Irreverent modern concerns collided with serious ‘70’s martial art sensibilities, a distinction which separated the show from the oft-serious invocation of kung fu in hip-hop. Nonetheless, Kung Faux adhered to the spirit of hip-hop by recontextualizing familiar tropes using sonic and visual embellishment.

The show spoke to the culture’s propensity to reuse and recycle otherwise antiquated cultural moments but did so in a quietly radical way: by exporting the tenets of hip-hop to an unconventional medium. 

Hip-hop has—for better or worse—been viewed by some as a cultural cannibal, one which takes bits and pieces from other art forms and makes them their own. But in exporting hip-hop instead of importing kung fu, Kung Faux offered a window—albeit a distorted one—into the material so often stripped down to sound bites and homages. 

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