11: The Creation of Shaolin

In his essay The Power of the Particular, David Brooks talks about the strangeness of Bruce Springsteen’s universal appeal, how European crowds sing along to lyrics about New Jersey; few of them have seen the Meadowlands, Stone Pony or Highway 9, but the songs still resonate.

Brooks refers to ‘paracosms’ the imaginary worlds we build as children: “These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orientate ourselves in reality.” For Brooks, the need for such environments continues into adulthood. Brooks refers to the paradox where artists who create “local and distinctive story landscapes” have the widest reach, referring to JK Rowling’s visions of a boarding school or Tupac’s Compton. Audiences are captivated by focussed, detailed realities.

Hip-hop has always been about celebrating places. Growing up, I listened to songs about Compton, Crenshaw and Long Beach. One of the revolutionary things about the Wu-Tang clan was that they didn’t merely talk about their neighbourhoods but transformed them. They renamed the borough of New York they grew up in, Staten Island, as Shaolin Island, and merged their locales with the mythology of the Kung-Fu films that they loved.

RZA (who also goes by the name The Abbot) talks about watching Kung Fu films on 42nd street with his cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The band took the name Wu-Tang from films, as did some of the members – inspiration includes 1978’s Master Killer and the character Ghost Faced Killer from Mystery of Chessboxing. The first album’s title, Enter the 36 Chambers, was inspired by the film 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The lyrics are a stew of references to local landmarks and obscure slang, dramatised through Kung-Fu samples. The band don’t simply promote their neighbourhoods but fill them with myth. Mundane blocks are turned into stories, which are then listened to around the world.

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