20 Years Later: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
In 1993, an album was released that shattered all preconceptions. It set the standard for everything that was to follow, and it did so in a way that seemed so effortless, so easy, and so well-constructed, that it was less of a revelation and more of a realization: “Man, we should have been doing it this way the whole time.” I am, of course, referring to Kenny G’s compilation album, aptly titled The Collection.
But there was another album, another very special album that did all of that, and more, and it dropped on November 9, twenty years ago tomorrow: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It kicked the door in, drank all your beer, and banged your girlfriend before stealing your car and driving off into the sunset. It was a lyrical assault, and nobody would testify against it for fear of reprisal. Every copy of 36 Chambers had to come with a tarp to catch the wet chunks that used to be your brain before it got blown [Citation Needed]. If 36 Chambers was a person, it would be the Wu-Tang Clan, and that’s not as stupid as it sounds. Actually it is, because 36 Chambers would clearly be Voltron (GZA is the head, you see). But seriously—36 Chambers isn’t just one of the most perfect hip-hop albums ever recorded, it’s the only one those guys could have recorded. If you were to lock nine broke, pissed-off lyrical geniuses in a room for twenty years and feed them entirely on a diet of comic books, grindhouse kung-fu movies, and Five-Percenter mumbo-jumbo, you’d get Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. The fact that it’s never happened before or since should tell you just how rare genius is.
These Men, These Rhymes
If there’s one thing you need to know about the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s this: They are nothing—NOTHING—to &%$* with. But if there’re two things you need to know, I guess it would be that the Wu-Tang Clan is made up of nine of the craziest, devious, and bizarre MCs to ever put rhymes to mics (well, eight of them and U-God). They’re about as far from the West Coast “gangsta rap” image as possible, which is not to say they don’t have street cred; when Raekwon and Ghostface rap about selling drugs on street corners, you know they know what they’re talking about. They’re more like superheroes, pulling what had been the mundane, the street-level, into something transcendental and larger-than-life.
It isn’t just that their lyrics are commanding, their flows masterful, and their rhymes unorthodox, it’s that they use all of the tools at their disposal not to glorify the street life, but to make it, and them, seem mythical. There’s an element of wish-fulfillment to their lyrics, of a hope of elevating themselves above the dirt and the grime of their lives. You can hear it in their references to Spider-Man, Voltron, and Dr. Doom, fantastic figures with phenomenal powers, unstoppable forces with colorful gimmicks and wild costumes–is it any wonder the Clan name-drops comics so much? Even Staten Island becomes “Shaolin,” no longer just a place but a concept, a dream, a lost city inhabited by hip-hop assassins.
And they were assassins, MCs with lyrics sharper than swords. The RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, the Method Man, and the Masta Killa combined intricate wordplay with a sheer aggressiveness that can only come from nine kids (and when I say “kids,” I mean it–most of the Clan was barely older than 20) who’ve been pissed on all their lives. Their rhymes don’t always fit, especially in the case of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who’d grunt and squeal until he’d muscled his lyrics into shape. But somehow, these nine guys from Shaolin made it work, put together an hours worth of the tightest beats and words you’re likely to hear even if you listened to nothing but ’90s rap from now until Armageddon. And some–not all, but some, definitely an impressive share–of that success can be laid squarely on the shoulders of Wu-Tang Clan architect the RZA. Speaking of…
Upon your first listen (“exposure” might be a better word; you don’t listen to the Clan, you meet them) to 36 Chambers, you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled across some lost vinyl from the dawn of hip-hop, not a professionally recorded album from the ‘90s. Enter the Wu-Tang is the most triumphant example of what has been termed “Wu-Tang Style:” crackly, creepy, more like a badly-dubbed kung-fu movie than a hip-hop album. Its percussion is insistent and unstoppable, the strings are sharp as blades and staccato, more like wuxia foley effects than music.
What’s so important about Enter the Wu-Tang, and its principle architect, the RZA, isn’t what it does—it’s what it doesn’t do. Compare Enter the Wu-Tang to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders (which dropped on the same day). MM is a solid album, no doubt about it. Phife and Q-Tip are good at what they do, and that album ended up hitting number one–NUMBER ONE–on the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B charts. It’s smoothly produced, with a certain crispness and enough complex beats to keep your head bouncing for the whole hour of the record.
But listen to Midnight Marauders, and then listen to Enter the Wu-Tang. Enter the Wu-Tang makes Tribe Called Quest sound like two gentlemen having a pleasant conversation while on a stroll down a sun-dappled lane. It makes Tribe Called Quest sound like the kind of group that would use the word “dappled.” Enter the Wu-Tang isn’t an album, it’s a back-alley brawl between nine lyrical street samurai. That’s the first thing you should notice, the raw aggression of the album. This album is pissed off at you. You know what you did. It’s raw, rough, and unpolished, because all of that fancy nonsense would just get in the way, like a Formula One car with heated seats and a cup holder.
It’s not fancy. It doesn’t have guitars, record scratches, or even choruses. The album is stripped down to the point of austerity, usually a single beat layered with a creepy, crawly piano doing scales or a single warbling synth note. RZA will throw in the occasional clip from a kung-fu flick to keep things interesting, but other than that, the Clan lets their lyrics carry the whole show. And it’s a good thing that they do, because I believe that the Clan would explode if they couldn’t let themselves loose like they do on this album. They’re crafting lyrics and spitting them out as fast as they can for the simple reason that their mouths can’t keep up with their brains. For twenty years, life had been piling hardship after hardship on their backs, and when they finally got a chance to let it all out, all their pain and anger and grief, they were determined to pile it all back on life a hundredfold. Is it any reason that their later group efforts lacked that edge? If you rap about wanting to have it all, what are you supposed to rap about once you get it?
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is the kind of record you don’t see any more–guys with nothing to lose giving every single oozing drop of sweat and talent into their one shot at immortality. Now, every YouTube channel has enough money behind it to afford a multi-album deal. I don’t want to sound like an old man, but…well, I’ll get back to you on that when I get these damn kids off my lawn. Let me just put it to you this way: if Enter the Wu-Tang never got made, we would still have heard most of these rappers. After all, RZA and GZA both had solo record deals before the Clan, and the rest of them were too talented to not get picked up by somebody. But if they hadn’t gotten together and pushed each other, inspired each other, and elevated each other, they might never have shown the world what they were truly capable of, and the world would be poorer for it. When you get nine geniuses together, what you get is something that people are going to talk about for a long, long time.
So happy 20th anniversary, Wu-Tang Clan. May you bring the ruckus for another twenty.
Cash rules everything around Ross Hardy. He recently reviewed one of two comics that deals with the Wu-Tang Clan–you can read that review here. He knows more about the Atomic Knights than anyone on the Internet. It probably isn’t worth following him on Twitter.
Ross once Jell-O wrestled a roller derby babe for science, and pared down your home bar to the five essential mixers for a good time. Efficiency, baby! It’s what’s for dinner. (And for dessert: Jell-O.)