“Kung Fu” is the fifth song on Curtis Mayfield‘s 1974 album Sweet Exorcist, released on the Curtom label (founded by Mayfield and his business partner Eddie Thomas). It was also his fifth solo album out of an incredible career that spanned 19 solo records, singing lead with The Impressions, and countless collaborations with artists such as Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Baby Huey, and Chaka Khan. Born in 1942 and raised in the Cabrini Green part of Chicago, he started his musical journey by playing and singing in the gospel choir at his church like so many Black musicians of that time. His first group, The Roosters was a doo-wop group formed in 1956 and would later become The Impressions. Mayfield always had a talent for composing music, infusing it with words that critiqued and reflected the times. From “Keep On Pushing,” “Miss Black America,” to “PusherMan” Mayfield always spoke his mind.
The first thing I recall in hearing “Kung Fu” was its bassline that is deceptively simple, with a guitar loop that is one of the best riffs I’ve ever heard. I rewound it over and over again eventually slipping into a trance. I love this song’s funk, its abstract lyrics, and Curtis. His signature falsetto paired with the originality in his compositions make “Kung Fu” hypnotic. The most incredible thing about this song is the fact that the groove could easily be a funk classic or an R&B radio hit, but the song is abstract. Instead of using the typical love song phrases, he unapologetically takes us through his stream of consciousness in the most funky way. Hip hop heads will remember West Coast groups like Compton’s Most Wanted’s “Growin Up in the Hood” and 2nd II None’s “Be True To Yourself” use of “Kung Fu,” along with artists such as Gangstarr and most recently on Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly album on “King Kunta.” Last month, Kendrick Lamar teased a tune online called “The Heart Part 4” that also sampled the track. Forty-three years later, and “Kung Fu” is still being sampled in hip hop. Check it out below.