Kendrick Lamar is a man who, for a rapper, has a comparatively short list of nicknames. But on his new album Damn, his new video for “DNA,” and particularly during his set this past weekend at Coachella, he’s introduced a brand new one: “Kung Fu Kenny.”
At Coachella, Lamar started his set by unveiling a short film titled The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny that was modeled after the kung fu films of the 1970s. Similar imagery, including the phrase “Kung Fu Kenny” spelled out in Chinese characters, appeared in the “DNA” video. The moniker itself seems to be inspired by Don Cheadle’s character in Rush Hour, who goes by Kenny:
But why? Why would a rap star associate himself with Hong Kong actions films released well before he was born?
As it turns out, Kendrick is continuing a tradition that dates back to the very beginnings of hip-hop. Martial arts—in particular, martial arts as depicted in the films of the 1970s and ’80s—had a seminal influence on hip-hop culture from the start. The New York City of the 1970s that birthed hip-hop faced an economic crisis. The same forces that were burning the Bronx were also having their effects felt in the theaters of midtown Manhattan.
Joseph Schloss, a scholar and author who wrote the book Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, explains that the movie theaters were feeling the pinch, so they went for the cheapest programming they could find.
“Their best economic alternative was to buy packages of these cheap Hong Kong action movies, and just show them all day long. It was that and porno movies, basically, on 42nd Street,” he tells Complex. Starting in 1981, this programming was mirrored on television as well. WNEW, channel 5 in the city, broadcast Drive-In Movie every Saturday. The program showed primarily kung fu flicks, and was a huge hit with kids. “Pretty much every single hip-hop artist that I’ve met from that era used to watch that show religiously,” Schloss notes.
So kung fu movies were in the theaters and on TV. But why did the kids of the era—the ones who were, as Schloss puts it, “developing their own culture”—love the films so much? What did they see in those stories?
Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation and the author of the book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess, has made a life-long study of the connections between hip-hop, martial arts, and the game of chess. To him, the affinity between black youth of that era and martial arts makes perfect sense.
“People often forget that hip-hop was born out of the ashes of the civil rights movement, and so much of that was tied to a reclamation of black male dignity,” he says. “These films—Bruce Lee movies in particular, and a lot of the Shaw Brothers films—often dealt with one man going against an organization, or one man going against an unjust state. Because so much of this was done with just the hands, it was also a tool of the poor. You didn’t have to…