Apr 25 2017

INTERVIEW: The (Re)Mixed Martial Arts of Shaolin Jazz

What do Jazz, Classic Kung Fu Cinema, and Hip-Hop have in common? A lot more than people think, and Shaolin Jazz has the mix-tape to prove it!

This month I attended a couple of events for the Kungfu Wildstyle pop-up exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Asian Art (this exhibition is awesome–check it out before it goes April 30th!). At the Kung Fu Wildstyle kick off, I had the pleasure of meeting two mix masters of cool, Gerald Watson and DJ 2-Tone Jones, also known as Shaolin Jazz.


DC’s Dynamic Dojo Duo, Gerald Watson and DJ 2-Tone Jones, photo courtesy of Shaolin Jazz.

Imagine this: Hanging out with some cool art blerds and geeks watching the Kung Fu classic Five Fingers of Death remixed to Wu Tang Clan with a jazzy backbeat–oh, and did I mention, Mr. Fab 5 Freddy was there? Yeah, it’s everything a Nerdy Venom could want! So I caught up with Shaolin Jazz for an interview to discuss their genre-blending experiences in music and film and how a little bit of Wu Tang makes everything better!


Lakita: How would you describe your approach–what’s the philosophy of Shaolin Jazz?

DJ 2-Tone Jones: One way to put it– Shaolin Jazz is an exploration of the connections and intersections between jazz, culture, hip-hop culture, and martial arts. It was just mostly a mix-tape concept at first. But when we’re talking about jazz and hip-hop, there’s so many similarities in terms of how they evolved. You know, in jazz, you have certain kind of rhythmic patterns and things like that that you actually hear from MC’s sometimes. It also goes deeper than just sampling hip-hop records. Both art forms evolved out of hardship, lack of resources, and not so nice environments. Jazz wasn’t birthed out of the homes of classically trained musicians–it came out of brothels, bars and, and speakeasies. Hip-hop came out of the streets down when crack-cocaine was about to hit and heroin was still popping. So when we examine or we even thought of initially the idea of fusing jazz and hip-hop, and more specifically Wu Tang Clan and jazz music, it wasn’t something that we thought was so farfetched. One of things we cover in our multimedia lecture presentation is how visually, hip-hop has paid the biggest homage to jazz than any other genre of music. Funk musicians didn’t do that. Rock musicians didn’t do that. Soul didn’t do that. Country didn’t do that. Blues didn’t even do that. Before Miles Davis passed away, the person who co-produced that album with him was Easy Mo Bee, the dude who produced Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear”, and “Warning” by Biggie Smalls. He’s a hip-hop legend. Russell Simmons linked them together. That’s jazz history, right there. One of the most iconic jazz artists finished out his career with the album co-produced by a hip-hop producer.

Gerald Watson: There’s a lot of ways it can go.

DJ 2-Tone Jones: There’s tons of examples of cats working together, collaborating, but also taking cues from other cats. Look at dance trends. I mean, think about Kid ‘N Play. The Kid ‘N Play dance is based off of one of the most iconic dance moves ever, the Charleston. So hip-hop was, in a sense, the evolution of jazz in a way different form. The medium of the instrument has changed from the trumpet and piano, to the MC and the DJ. That’s jazz and hip-hop for you.

So now enter the Wu…Wu Tang Clan!

DJ 2-Tone Jones: And that all ties in even with Wu Tang and that whole essence of Far East Asian culture that they derived from watching Kung Fu flicks. When you look back at hip-hop and the influences, and people who were fans of hip-hop, especially going through the ’80s and the ’90s–it was almost common knowledge that a lot of cats who like hip-hop also like watching those Kung Fu flicks. But with hip-hop, Wu Tang was the one group decided to do more than just reference it, they embodied it. Almost all of the names of Wu Tang Clan members come from Kung Fu flicks and characters.

Lakita: Can you talk a bit about what you’re using when you’re out there performing? Your instruments, I should say!

DJ 2-Tone Jones: It’s a unique set-up that people aren’t used to, it’s just different. But what we do, is normally we have the movie audio running through the turntables. And then they go out to the speakers. So basically, we control when you hear any sound from the movie. So whether they’re talking or fighting in the movie, we bring that volume up and down accordingly based on what we want. So we can cut it out completely and you just hear a what we spin on the turntables, or there’s a scene where there’s dialogue, and we turn that up but there’s instrumentals still playing beneath it on the turntables. Everything is still orchestrated from the turntables. So yeah, that’s like our core instrument of sound in Shaolin Jazz is the turntable. 


The “Can I Kick It?” Kung Fu Wildstyle kickoff at Hyphen Gallery, DC.

Needless to say, I was beyond convinced about this jazz and hip-hop and Wu Tang mix. And so is the world–Shaolin Jazz has been taking their brand of beats, lyrics and imagery– global. I asked them about their recent performance in Ethiopia.

Lakita: I love the international attention with what you do because because  the arts really are a way for humanity to have an ambassador. What was the reception in Ethiopia when y’all were over there? And what did you learn from that experience?

Gerald Watson: It was cool. I mean, certain situations looked like being here, being around the way. Obviously a different vibe because you’re on a different continent—it just adds to what kind of experience you’re going to have. And the cats we got out with were definitely some of the illest cats out there. They were definitely digging what we were doing. In Ethiopia, to bring hip-hop and jazz together, in a place where there’s no connectivity between the two genres whatsoever… I think what we were doing was maybe the first time, or one of the first times that Ethiopian and hip-hop artists and jazz artists actually performed together.

DJ 2-Tone Jones: Again, it’s the whole concept of Shaolin Jazz live–forget being in another country, even here (in the US) it’s almost an unheard of concept, having a DJ leading a live band. So you have a four or five piece band, maybe six piece band, and the person leading the show is the DJ. And I’m cutting in lyrics over what they’re playing, I’m soloing when we take turns soloing, and scratching and cutting. And we don’t have sheet music that we’re all sharing. It’s like in Jazz where artists take cues from one another just based off where they’re at in the song or the vibe, or look to one another. Not only did people experience Shaolin Jazz live we even did some workshops on hip-hop at the African Union. So we got a chance to network with or work with, talk to, educate a variety of different folks.

Gerald Watson: Yeah, like skaters, with skateboards. We ended up linking up with Ethiopia Skate.

DJ 2-Tone Jones: We also had an embassy event with almost 150 to 200 people including the US Ambassador to Ethiopia and all these other dignitaries. The Embassy doesn’t even let cats roll up in there like this. Our guest list, I mean, we had only been there a week…was over 50 people for the embassy event. By the time we got to the end of the week, that many people were hitting us up, like, “Yo, I want to come” including the owner of the hotel we stayed at, her brother and all these other folks. Everybody was like, “Yo. Can we go? Can we go?” And we got everybody up in there, for the most part. It was dope. And both the jazz artists were killing it. The MC’s killed it. And it was a great vibe. Music transcends culture, barriers, language. If there’s a pocket, if there’s a groove, we can all talk fluently together through the music. So that’s basically what happened. And the show was on point.

Lakita: Y’all are doing a lot of different things. How did you move from, “Okay. Here are these events with Can I Kick It film screenings, with the lecture series” ..to now, “Here’s the Shaolin Jazz experience”?

DJ 2-Tone Jones: From everything that we’ve done up to this point, as we say, our focus has been a completely organic process. It was just, “Hey, it’d be cool if we took Wu Tang and jazz music and just put it together?” That’s really how it was. But from there, it was just a thing where Gerald and I have been working together so much that we have a good sense of our thought processes and an understanding of the access to resources that we have. Again, this is our art–how the wheels turn in our minds together when we have something that we feel is of interest, that people would be interested in. We don’t like to waste that opportunity. At the same time, we like to be smart about how we put stuff out–we want to captivate the audience and create an experience as much as we can. We have customized fortune cookies that we give out, we have drink specials that tie in the with a character or plot point of the movie. And we sometimes to movie trivia based off the film. You know, a lot of thought goes into the design work for the promotional stuff. Gerald has created these series of movie posters for when we do these. So there’s always a movie poster, not just a regular 4×6 postcard flier designed to the movie poster.


Promo Poster for the April 25, 2017 “Can I Kick It?” Screening of Ong Bak 2, courtesy of Shaolin Jazz.

Gerald Watson: I mean, we definitely have a lot of ideas on concept and making sure that that is recognized in the experience. Because otherwise, it’s just a happy hour.

Lakita: Linking it back to watching Kung Fu movies—it’s all about discipline. You have to be disciplined and you live your life according to a discipline. This level of creativity and collaboration mode you two operate in is all part of the Shaolin Jazz discipline. But I have to know, what are your Top Five martial arts flicks? Is that easy?

DJ 2-Tone Jones: No. Not at all. Golly. Five?

Gerald Watson: There’s still so many more we haven’t seen. When we did Master of the Flying Guillotine, I just saw that for the first time just a couple months ago. I think of all the films we’ve shown, that has the illest intro. Then there was the one joint we showed, not too long ago, Come Drink With Me.

DJ 2-Tone Jones: That’s like the only female lead martial arts film that I’ve ever seen that was made before the ’90s  or 2000’s. Because really, after that, it’s like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s Kill Bill, which is a white-washed version of the martial arts stuff, but still. They paid homage to the lead woman (Pei-Pei Cheng) in “Come Drink with Me” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Back in the day, she was one of the first big female leads in martial arts films. But yeah, there’s so many films. So we try to mix it up so there’s no way if you’re a fan of any kind of martial arts film, you feel left out by what we’re doing. We cover everything.

Gerald Watson: I guess it’s just us wanting to push Shaolin Jazz to another level. No matter what it is, we want ideas behind it that make it something special for people and a really creative atmosphere. And you’re like, “Okay. Cool, I’m glad I attended.”


You can kick it with Shaolin Jazz in the digital dojo in a few places:

Twitter: @SHAOLIN_JAZZ37 ; Instagram, and definitely hear them out on Souncloud.

And if you have the good fortune to find yourself in Washington, DC on a Fourth Tuesday of the month (hmmm, today would be great!)–catch Shaolin Jazz live with their Kung Fu/Hip-Hop crossover experience “Can I Kick It?” at DC’s SongByrd Music House.

About the author

The Shadow Scout

Lakita’s geek force within was first publicly observed when she bopped to Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” video as a very young child. This same said force was nurtured in adolescence through many weekends watching “Star Trek: Original Series” with her father and VHS binge-reserving “The Twilight Zone” television series from her nearest nerd sanctuary, the public library! Lakita also considers herself a public service “lifer” and supports youth voice inspired and empowered by the arts. A live tweeter and competitive trivia leaguer with dreams of learning esperanto or coding one day (whichever comes first), you can usually find her on twitter: @artshumana

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