Remembering Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
There are certain albums in Hip-Hop that were complete game-changers. Run-DMC’s 1983 self-titled album ripped the Disco out of Rap and, with a new look of Kangol hats, leather jackets and shell-toed Adidas along with crossed arms and boasts of college pursuits, took ownership of the culture. Five years later, Kool Keith and Ced Gee’s Critical Beatdown combined a fragmented, unconventional delivery with kitchen-sink sampling that made Rap music explode with all the color and angst felt in the final days of Reaganomics. Dr. Dre re-injected melody into Hip-Hop with The Chronic, taxiing George Clinton’s Funk spaceships into post-Riots Los Angeles, all with a cocked Glock on hand. In the 2000s, Jay Z ushered in a level of soul to the sound and lyrics of Hip-Hop with his appropriately-titled Blueprint. Eight years later, Kanye West paved a runway for Drake, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, and Future with 808’s & Heartbreak, a lusty break-up album that could be described as a modern Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, if mixed with a completely inward-looking What’s Going On?
Within that 30-year spectrum, one album not mentioned above, but deserving infinite praise is Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Released 20 years ago today, the Loud/RCA Records LP was a sucker-punch sneak-attack. Like the swarm of bees they reference in the music, the troop of Witty Unpredictable MC’s bum-rushed the sound, style, culture, and approach of Hip-Hop in ways that live through to this day.
In the mainstream era, Hip-Hop has seen some big facelifts. The New Style went from dressing like R&B hopefuls to the padlock-sporting Naughty By Nature. Dr. Dre morphed from a post-Disco Dance artist with World Class Wreckin’ Cru to a “Natural Born Killa,” while KMD’s Zevlove X masked his appearance and his message as MF DOOM following the death of his twin brother, DJ Subroc. All of that said, few artists can match the transformation taken on by the Wu-Tang Clan.
Prior to 1993, GZA (as The Genius) was the first person from the nine-man collective to get put on. Signed to Cold Chillin’, GZA was label-mates with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and Grand Daddy I.U. Over three years before 36 Chambers, the Brooklynite dropped Words From The Genius. Amazingly, the man often touted as the best technical MC in the Clan dropped an album amidst the golden-era that largely downplayed those abilities. Produced by would-be 2Pac/Notorious B.I.G. hit-maker Easy Mo Bee, W.F.T.G. flopped in its day and in its place in history, as many often wrongly consider 1995’s Liquid Swords the proper first words from the Genius.
In mid-1991, if you were a fan of Words From the Genius, and happened to purchase its sophomore single, the title track, you would have gotten a b-side remix by Prince Rakeem. Signed to Tommy Boy Records, Rakeem released an EP, Ooh, We Love You Rakeem in July of that year. Also produced largely by Mo Bee, you’ll hear a “Wu-Tang Mix” to “Sexcapades” among the maxi-single’s six songs. With much dirtier drums than the polished original, this is the first, uneventful mention of the name that would uproot Hip-Hop.
Twenty-two months later, the world could not have seen it coming. The careers of The Genius and Prince Rakeem appeared to be casualties of the “see if it sticks” approach to music-making that labels large and small were heavily relying on in the days of record pools, varying radio programmers, and promotional tours.
Out of nowhere, a single called “Protect Ya Neck” hit record pools. Eight MCs swarmed on a contagious, Bomb Squad/Ced Gee-influenced beat of raw noise. Six of those MCs would have seemed unfamiliar to anyone who had not heard or seen the group perform live. However, within the participants were The Genius (as GZA) and Prince Rakeem (as RZA) unlike they’d been previously heard. With a rugged delivery, RZA employed a new slang, unafraid to curse or attempt unusual wordplay. The Brooklyn DJ who allegedly learned to sample from Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and dug records with Lord Finesse and Diamond D was now a Rap Lazarus, freed from traditional label pressures. Passing the mic to “the g-g-Genius,” GZA immediately took a swipe at Fly Ty Williams’ Cold Chillin’ imprint for missing out. Taking a page from Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” shot at Ruthless, GZA’s entire verse is an attack on the White/mainstream influence on the Rap industry, and its pursuit of clean acts. With his true style unveiled, GZA said “I’m the dirtiest thing in sight.”
From the fledgling label of Loud, the single circulated “again and again” across radio stations and 12” single sales throughout the summer of ’93. With the exception of Masta Killa, all the Clansmen were on the single. A low-budget video followed, notably with misspelled names of members, and a masked Ghostface Killah. Seemingly dodging individualism, the Clan established just that. Through their own distinctions, people learned the voices, and if possible, the faces associated with the underground “dart.”
The industry paid notice. RZA had made connections throughout the early ‘90s, and the aforementioned producers he worked with played the single through appropriate channels. Loud’s founder, Steve Rifkind, was to the “street team” what Henry Ford was to the assembly line. Subversively, the Clan’s stamp literally was plastered across major Northeast cities, only complementing their imagery as raiders, who, to quote Mike Tyson, were practiced in the art of “skullduggery.”
By the time Fab 5 Freddy and “Yo! MTV Raps” caught up with the Shaolin crew in late ’93, an album was on the horizon. Despite the fact that Fab 5 Freddy was essentially the Funkmaster Flex/Sway Calloway of his day, the Wu seemed to have little use for pleasantries with the Wild Style co-creator. Ol’ Dirty Bastard sized up the camera with a stick-up kid’s grimace, Raekwon could hardly be bothered even stating his name, and G.F.K. was noticeably menacing behind the nylon mask. The “Unpredictable” was very apparent, as the group presented themselves very differently from the rehearsed West Coast gangsters, or the smooth New York lyrical giants of the day.
In another video, filmed in the label lobby by a German film crew, Ghostface Killah (whose identity at the time was not yet revealed) and RZA were noticeably warm, if not curious. You could see the makings of a Clan that just as easily could chill with Bill Murray in Coffee & Cigarettes or take MTV in a limo to get food stamps with O.D.B. Then again, there was also a real level of aggression and menace present. After all, this is the crew that was quick to pull Joe Budden’s card on camera after he made disparaging comments, openly took shots at collaborator Biggie, and notoriously threatened and badgered press on assignments from ’93 to ’03 (myself included).
Was it a calculated act? An artful take-back of rugged Rap? Or, was this just a multitude of men with a multitude of attitudes? Who really knows, but it felt raw and authentic. At a time when Hip-Hop seemingly was turning it on for the cameras, the Wu-Tang Clan made you wonder what they were up to when nobody was watching.
Much of Enter The Wu-Tang is a reclaiming of Rap as it was once known. Within those nine voices are many unique styles. Inspectah Deck opened many songs on that debut album with crisp vocals, perfect timing, and elite technical MC’ing for which he so rarely gets proper credit. GZA, in his toothy delivery, scratches away at the song with flows that were inventive and clever and with concise wordplay that has become a constant in his work 20 years later. O.D.B. is a free-form prodigy, with zero regard for convention or microphones. On “Shame On A Nigga” he charges in with a well-timed march, while on other songs, he interrupts a verse with a vocal spasm that reminds the listener that the Clan comes from the edges of sanity, and nothing is safe or predictable. Raekwon, Method Man, and Ghostface Killah, in their three highly-distinct voices, defy the notion that rappers emulate other rappers. Seemingly, all three MCs are the square root of themselves, influencing litanies of artists since.
While “Protect Ya Neck,” “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame On A Nigga,” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With” are built on the legs of Rap bravado, the Clan had more to say. Enter The 36 is also remembered for its wisdom. Before “Juicy,” the Clan was able to discuss the hardships of poverty as an elaborate justification of material pursuits. “C.R.E.A.M.” might serve nicely as a prep school yearbook quote, but within Deck and Rae’s verses is an insatiable hunger to turn a tough upbringing into a status symbol of success. In turn, Hip-Hop had its low-key 1993 version of “The Message,” and a true, immortal classic. When Rae says, “Figured out I went the wrong route, so I got with a sick-tight Clan, and went all out,” it’s the whole film in one scene. Along with “C.R.E.A.M.,” songs like “Tearz” and “Can It Be All So Simple” are essays. These are the songs that attracted Tupac to the group, and Bone Thugs, and Biggie, and Nas, and many years later, Jay, Kanye, and Drake.
As far-reaching as the subject matters and deliveries of Enter The Wu are, so is the sound. The same producer who took a backseat to Easy Mo Bee on his own first project found sample sources in many places. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ To Fuck With” sounded familiar to many who heard it on first listen. The song includes the hum of the theme song to “Underdog,” mixed with the infectious snap of Janet Jackson’s breakthrough hit. Unless its broken down for you, you never know this. The rest of the album draws on the Memphis sound. While Public Enemy celebrates James Brown, and Dre P-Funk, RZA basked in the Stax/Volt catalog that produced stars like Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Mel & Tim, The Bar-Kays, and more. To buy that label’s own nine-disc compilation is to assume the mind of RZA. With tears and slices, RZA made a funky Soul, accented by his second to none drum-programming. Throughout the mid-‘90s, RZA made songs sound like they were being played live. His dirty mix, his unique style of filtering samples, and his programming brought the unease to life. The fuzziness of “Wu-Tang 7th Chamber, Pt. 2” is a haze of uppers, downers, and movable Funk.
To complete the sonic journey, RZA took the colorful interludes used by his (would-be) Gravediggaz production partner Prince Paul on De La Soul’s first three albums, and used them differently with Wu. From cantankerous Rae looking for his VHS of a John Woo film, to Method Man pre-supposing torture on a vic, to just intermittent discussions, it was more persona than music. The Clan was more than a group, and the interludes asserted a gang-like loyalty. These nine men were seemingly orphans in Hip-Hop, and bound together, they were out to conquer it, despite their varying styles, tastes, attitudes and influences.
Twenty years later, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) endures as the Hip-Hop prototype for how to shatter the status quo. Like Transformers, over the last two decades the Clan has splintered and re-assembled periodically, all in the pursuit of world domination. Through film, clothing, management, group projects, solo projects, a multitude of labels and ventures, the Clan lives on. That razor sharp “W” remains one of Hip-Hop’s most recognizable logos, and as the Wu-version of the adage goes, “together the [killer bees] conquered the elephant.”
What’s your favorite moment from Enter The Wu-Tang?
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