Martial arts and hip hop share an interesting history together, although their similarities are not obviously discernible. Helping to bridge these two worlds together is SHAOLIN JAZZ.
SHAOLIN JAZZ’s creation was sparked by a ‘light blub moment,’ according to co-founder and local creative Gerald Watson. His love for various types of music, notably his admiration for Wu-Tang Clan and jazz, became the cornerstone of the project, which aims to spotlight the lesser-known parallels between hip hop and martial arts cultures.
Watson and Trey Wallace (aka DJ 2-Tone Jones) host several events a year until the SHAOLIN JAZZ name, which includes their popular CAN I KICK IT? residency at Adams Morgan’s Songbyrd. Each month the duo screens a classic martial arts film while Jones remixes the entire movie with his own hip hop score. High-energy action scenes are given an extra dose of intensity with hard-driving 808 beats. The contemporary score weaves its way organically into every film, enhancing the viewing experience for both die-hard fans of these movies and new viewers alike.
Starting next week, SHAOLIN JAZZ will temporarily move CAN I KICK IT? from its subterranean setting to Freedom Plaza’s big screen. Before its first screening on Tuesday, June 6, we spoke with Watson about SHAOLIN JAZZ and its innovative contributions to hip hop and martial arts.
Where did the idea for SHAOLIN JAZZ come from?
Gerald Watson: The idea for SHAOLIN JAZZ stems from an album cover art exhibition series I used to produce called The Classics, where I’d exhibit what I felt like were some of the dopest album covers from my favorite genres of music, ranging from rap, soul, reggae, rock and jazz. Every two months, I’d hang maybe 80-90 album covers, from DJs that I’m cool with, on the walls of Lounge of Three on U St.
In addition to the exhibitions, I developed a series of cultural projects, such as having a notable D.C.-area DJ (DJ 2-Tone Jones) create a mixtape of music for that genre as well as interviewing a notable album cover designer for that specific genre. My goal was to educate people about that genre of music beyond just having album covers on the wall.
I deliberately scheduled jazz to be the final exhibition because I wanted to do something special for it. Jazz was always being played throughout my childhood. In terms of doing something special, I interviewed a graphic designer by the name of Logan Mills who created a series of jazz-inspired Wu-Tang album covers called Wu-Note. While doing research on Logan, I discovered that he designed an album cover for a Beatles/Wu-Tang mixtape, and that’s when I had my ‘light bulb’ moment.
I thought, instead of having 2-Tone create just a jazz mixtape, what about having him create a mixtape featuring Wu-Tang acapellas and jazz instrumentals? When I did get this idea, I researched to see if a mixtape like that existed, which I discovered one did not, and in my line of questioning to Logan I asked him if he had ever created an album cover for a Wu-Tang jazz project. His response to me was, “No, but I would if anything like that ever existed.” Upon getting his response, I reached out to 2-Tone about the idea, who immediately told me that he was down. Then, I circled back to Logan and told him that it’s time to create a cover for that mixtape.
When did you realize SHAOLIN JAZZ had the potential to be more than a one-time mixtape?
GW: 2-Tone and I realized SHAOLIN JAZZ could be a more expansive project while we were discussing ideas for the listening parties that we were planning for D.C. and NYC. The first project came from 2-Tone, who had the idea of developing a series of SHAOLIN JAZZ-inspired artwork, which covers the themes of hip hop, jazz and martial arts, so he reached out to an artist that we’ve worked with by the name of Aniekan Udofia who created a pretty extensive line of works. At that point, the floodgates opened and we continued to conceptualize where we wanted to take SHAOLIN JAZZ. Projects are carefully planned to ensure that originality and quality are tangible.
How do you come up with the ideas for the multiple creative extensions of SHAOLIN JAZZ?
GW: Collectively and separately, 2-Tone and I are always coming up with different approaches for SHAOLIN JAZZ. We, ultimately, choose to expand on ideas that we feel are organic to the brand, which allows us to frame SHAOLIN JAZZ in different lights (art, fashion, music, design, music). We then carefully craft experiences, including product, that is genuine to the SHAOLIN JAZZ voice.
With CAN I KICK IT?, why mix martial arts culture and hip hop music?
GW: My love of martial arts and the art form’s corresponding flicks comes from when I was younger, where on Sunday afternoons I watched a show that came on channel five called Kung Fu Theater (there was also another show called Kung Fu Cinema). The show would feature all of the classic ’70s (and some 80’s) martial arts films.
Beyond that, there have always been numerous synergies between hip hop culture and martial arts. It’s like different disciplines between both art forms (fighting styles, rhyming styles, etc.) that can still speak the same language. When I went away to school, my friends and I would hang out and watch classic martial arts movies while listening to the newest albums from our favorite artists like Mobb Deep, Redman, and Boot Camp Clik, which is where the idea for CAN I KICK IT? originated.
How has the turnout for CAN I KICK IT? been? What sort of crowd does the event draw?
GW: The turnouts for CAN I KICK IT? have been good. The crowd is really diverse in age, gender and profession. It’s hard to pin it, but we also get film enthusiasts, martial artists, music heads, martial arts movies aficionados and more. It’s always cool to meet those who attend and come to find out that they work for the United Nations or something. Our demographic is illmatic.
What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on so far?
Trey Wallace: It’s honestly hard to say because of the cool range of concepts we have developed and executed. They all stem from our own ideas which are mostly based on things that both Gerald and I are into. As of right now, though, I may have to go with CAN I KICK IT? I am such a big fan of those engagements because I have a lot of fun developing the score for the films that we show, and I feel rewarded in the moment when people in the audience become engaged in the movie and react to different songs and sound bites I play for certain scenes. Even some of the bad films that have poor dialogue and story lines end up being really cool to watch when we put our spin on them.
Is there anything that has occurred as a result of your projects that you did not intend? If so, what?
TW: Most definitely. A good example is when we hosted an online album cover graphic design contest. We offered a prize to the person who could come up with the best-redesigned version of the cover of our first mixtape, entitled SHAOLIN JAZZ: The 37th Chamber. We really didn’t expect to get but so much participation out of it. We would’ve been content with at least five contestants. But as it turned out, we received a total of 37 submissions from graphic designers representing over 10 different countries from around the world. Surprisingly, we didn’t receive any submissions from anyone in the D.C. area. We then went on to use a handful of our favorite design submissions to then create our first line of SHAOLIN JAZZ apparel items. Without those designs and the contest itself, we might not have ever had or thought of developing our own line of shirts, phone case, tote bags and more.
What is the most challenging part of bringing together these worlds?
TW: The main challenge is simply figuring out how to make them make sense together. For example, our music catalog is based off of fusing Wu-Tang Clan lyrics with jazz originals and breaks. The approach for the music is not just to find acapella and instrumentals that match in tempo. Our aim is for the songs to sound like Wu-Tang actually rapped over those jazz selections. The lyrics have to move along with the music and be in the same key whenever necessary. We use this same approach for everything we do that involves combining two different styles or cultures. We pay close attention to the little intricacies and make sure it all fits smoothly into place, as opposed to just mashing things up.
What do you enjoy the most about SHAOLIN JAZZ?
TW: I enjoy doing something unique and different that no one else that we know of has done or even attempted, and, most importantly, doing it well. I don’t believe that what we have done involves the combination of two things that are completely unlike one another. In various ways, we play with things that have some sort of connection, but they have not yet been connected in the way that we’ve done it. In essence, it’s like using pieces from two different puzzles and finding the pieces that seamlessly connect together and somehow create a new image that people can make sense of.
Anything else you would like readers to know about SHAOLIN JAZZ?
TW: I just want readers to know that SHAOLIN JAZZ is only getting bigger and better, so don’t sleep. Check for us regularly on our website because you never know when we may be dropping some new music, releasing new apparel designs or hosting together a cool engagement in your city. And for all our peoples in the D.C. area, or at least within driving distance, you don’t wanna miss the outdoor film screening series throughout June. It’s gonna be crazy!
CAN I KICK IT? will take place every Tuesday in June at Freedom Plaza. Event 6 p.m./Screenings 8:30 p.m. FREE. More information on the film schedule can be found here.