Music

How RZA & DJ Scratch’s Love of Martial Arts Films Led to ‘Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater’

We spoke with RZA and DJ Scratch about their new album Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater and the important role that martial arts cinema has played in their lives.

The lives and work of RZA and DJ Scratch have been shaped by a shared cultural touchstones of soul music, Blaxploitation films, early hip-hop scenes, and kung fu movies. From the Times Square theater screenings on 42nd Street in Manhattan and the widespread underground distribution of bootleg VHS tapes to WNEW channel five’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts, kung fu films were everywhere in New York and it was only natural that the dynamic physicality and rich philosophical and metaphorical undertones of these films would seep into hip-hop culture.

DJ Scratch and the RZA’s new album, Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater (Out March 4th), is a tribute to this cultural exchange and the era that nurtured it. With dark, organ and piano-heavy cuts like “Pugilism” and the dusty, cinematic samples on “Kaiju,” Scratch’s production pays homage to the Wu-Tang sound while allowing RZA to hold it down on the mic. (Don’t worry, there’s also an an abundance of kung fu dialog on the album.)

Days before the album releases, we spoke with RZA and DJ Scratch about making this record and got some insight into the important role that classic martial arts cinema has played in their lives.

When people hear the phrase, Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater, what image do y’all want to spark in people’s minds?

RZA: For those who are in our generation, we want them to get that spark of going back to your crib at 3:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon and watching those movies and escaping your day to day strife and getting that entertainment. I’d say for the younger generation, it’s like turning them on to something that they missed, because they didn’t get a chance to live through that. So now they can live through it through the music. 

DJ Scratch: Yeah, Saturday afternoon, Channel five, 3:00 PM. No matter what you was doing throughout the course of the day. If you’re doing chores or you playing sports outside, everybody — my whole projects — was inside at 3:00 PM on Saturdays. When those movies go off, we was all outside, trying to do everything we seen in them movies. So we just trying to just bring that feeling back sonically to this album. 

Did y’all just watch the films on Channel five back in the day or were y’all going into the theaters and, and checking out these joints too?

RZA: Both. 

DJ Scratch: Yeah, both and for me it was the Regent theater on Fulton street in Brooklyn. That’s where they used to show all of the Kung Fu movies back in like 1975. But then when they started putting them on TV, shit, that was it for us.

RZA: Then the video stores opened, right? Then we used to go video hunting because every store didn’t have every title. You know what I mean? Me, Masta Killa, True Master, GZA, [and Ol’ Dirty Bastard would] go from Staten Island to Queens ’cause [we] heard, “Yo they had [Shaolin Invincible Sticks] at this spot in Queens — only place in New York that got it.”

I’ll ask you this specifically RZA. When you were first building up your knowledge of these films that were coming out of Hong Kong, did you have an idea that this was something that you were going to use later?

Ever since I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade, I was already imagining myself as a martial artist. I’m the kid that walked to school and would make a movie in his head. Before I was making beats, I created maybe a dozen martial art characters and names all in my head. That’s how I walked to school. So I was really enamored by it. They always showed up in my lyrics. There was always a Kung Fu reference in my rhymes ever since I was probably 11, 12 years old. 

“I already had a whole Wu-Tang album right in my hard drive,” DJ Scratch said. “So [RZA] was like, “Yo, send them joints.” Photo Credit: Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

So once you started making records it was nothing to be sampling the dialogue and using the metaphors and all of that? You were already in the practice of incorporating the martial arts into hip hop?

It was in my imagination, but to finally have the idea to quantify it and identify it as Wu-Tang, that didn’t happen until after 42nd street had died down. I think I might have been 18 years old, so this is before Prince Rakeem. Forty-Second Street street only started showing pornos but on some nights the porno theater would have a Kung Fu movie there too.

DJ Scratch: Facts

RZA: And those theaters were open ’til daylight. So me and Dirty would be drunk in Manhattan, and wasn’t going home that night and we had two more [40oz beers.] We was like, “Yo, let’s just go crash in the theater.” So we went in the theater to finish the 40s off and pass out and they had Shaolin and Wu Tang. So, that movie came out in 1982. They had it on the screen probably ’84, ’85 and when I saw that it moved me in a different way than I was ever moved by a martial art film. I was looking for it for years, and then it finally came to VHS. Their sword style and that movie was the best. And I was like, that’s like my lyrics. The lyrics were like the Wu-Tang style. And it eventually it grew into a slang: Ghostface using it as a slang to describe his beer, me using it as a slang to describe the crew. It became a part of our culture. At the same time, I’m learning how to make beats. You know what I mean? I’m learning how to create, and then I just started incorporating it.

That’s the greatest opening fight scene in any movie.

It was incredible. Especially back then, you know, before your John Wicks

What was it about these films that really appealed to y’all’s generation?

DJ Scratch: It just seemed like it was actually possible. Like you’re seeing dudes jump from one place to another, you see dudes doing pushups on one finger. Everything that we seen in the movies as kids, we tried it. So, it wasn’t like when Star Wars came out in ’77. We knew that wasn’t possible at that time. But when we saw human beings actually fighting and somebody was stronger than the other, somebody had a different skill set. We knew that was possible. So that resonated with me. 

RZA: Yeah. I made a big mistake jumping off the roof. (laughs)

DJ Scratch: I tried to jump up into a tree. That shit ain’t work but I jumped outta the tree. 

RZA: Asian culture was inspiring Black culture and Black culture was inspiring Asian culture. A lot of people don’t realize some of Bruce Lee’s first students was brothers and they also gave him extra swag on how to navigate American life and all that swag and that coolness in his martial skill and his philosophy. It all spilled into those movies. And when he made Enter The Dragon it was a phenomenon. It, made America open up its doors for the floodgate of those movies to come in. Somebody wrote in an article that the same time Enter The Dragon hit 42nd street was out was when they say hip-hop was born [August, 1973]. That’s incredible to think about that. It takes three years for me to get involved with either one. My first hip hop experience was 1976, just hearing it and immediately becoming enamored and fanatical about it. It was my calling. The rapper who was on the mic, the DJ was spinning it back and everybody was dancing but the rapper said, “Dip dip dive. So-socialize. Clean out your ears and open your eyes.” And that was spiritual for me because now I have to be able to listen and now be able to see and after that, I never stopped doing those things. 

Scratch, I’m curious, what was your first memories of getting into hip-hop specifically?

DJ Scratch: It was before the actual birthdate, man. What was going on in the Bronx was going on in the Bronx and what was going on in Brooklyn was similar. I can remember as far back as 1970. I’m number five of six boys and my older brothers were DJs. When cats stopped playing sports outside, they were just DJing in the house. I would say around 1970, 1971 was when I would see DJs outside at the jams in the park. Grandmaster Flowers was my first experience in hip-hop and two crews in Brownsville — Electrified Sounds and Nutcracker. And they had custom made DJ coffins, crazy speaker systems.

Do you remember what records they were playing?

I remember the song clearly because it was a sound clash. It was like a DJ battle, but a sound clash, one crew on one side of the park, another crew on the other side, and the DJ played Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s “Blow Your Head” and when that beat dropped, the whole park went crazy. So that was the first song I remembered that made the crowd go crazy. And that actually made me want to be a DJ at that moment. Just playing music can make people happy. I wanna do that when I grow up.

RZA: That’s a crazy track to hear loud like that back in those days. For me it was (Incredible Bongo Band’s) “Apache.” And hearing “Apache” I understand why break dancers try to spin on their head because you’re trying to express this feeling of the music as much as you can.

So thinking about putting these songs together what was it like making a record like this? Y’all both have unique skill sets could you walk me through the process of bringing those skills together?

DJ Scratch: Man, it was easy because we already know each other’s sounds. RZA wanted to do the album with me because he respects the sound and I love Wu-Tang. I submitted three beats for the 8 Diagrams album that weren’t used. But he gave me a call like in the beginning of the pandemic like, “Yo, you still got that beat? I wanna do an album.”

I’ve been trying to do a Wu-Tang compilation album with Wu-sounding beats and my favorite MCs but I couldn’t get verses from everybody. So, I just put those beats away. And then like maybe around 2018, 2019, I was gonna take those beats and put out an instrumental beat album called If The Wu Was Here. I was gonna call RZA and ask him to get his blessing before I put it out. So, I already had a whole Wu-Tang album right in my hard drive. So he was like, “yo send them joints.” So I sent them and in like three or four months, he sent back the magic on top of him. He put the magic vocals on top of him and that’s the album was created. 

RZA: And I think the one beautiful thing about it too is that hip hop started with the DJ and the MC. They got together and made music. They put those two things together. It was no agenda. It was no business. It was simply creativity and the artistic expression of the culture of hip hop. And that’s what we did. There was not one clash during the creation of this project. I understand what a producer must do. And I understand the headache that an artist could give a producer, so, you didn’t get no headaches from me. 

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John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.

John Morrison

John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.

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