Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Brief History of the Wu-Tang Clan and Live Instrumentation

On Tuesday, Soul Temple Records will be releasing Twelve Reasons to Die, the new collaborative album by Ghostface Killah and producer/multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge.[1] The record’s been streaming for nearly a week now, and it’s great. It’s definitely the best Ghostface album since Fishscale, and I’m tempted to go back even further and place it third behind only Supreme Clientele and Ironman. I’ll be putting up a review of the record later this week, but in the meantime, I thought I’d look back at the Wu-Tang Clan’s previous endeavors with bands and live instrumentation.

When the Clan first came on the scene in 1993, RZA’s warped sample-based beats were a big part of their appeal. The dust and grit of old records was a palpable part of their grimy sound. Throughout the initial run of Wu-Tang solo albums, RZA gradually refined this sound, culminating in the cinematic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords and the soulful Ironman. When it came time for the Clan to reform like Voltron for their second group album in 1997, RZA had begun moving away from this strictly sample-based sound. Most of the album’s twenty-seven songs have samples, but quite a few of them are spiced with keyboards. Notably, “Reunited,” the first song on the album (after the extended opening skit that is “Wu-Revolution”) is built almost entirely from some incredible live violin.

RZA debuted a few songs featuring a new keyboard-driven sound in mid-1998 on The Swarm compilation, but his sample-free songs rank among the weakest on the record. Instead, RZA’s keyboard production reached maturity on his first solo album Bobby Digital in Stereo and his soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, both of which came out in the year after The Swarm. RZA’s beats on these two projects are cold and uninviting but they maintained the cinematic vibe of his earlier sample-based work. Both are great records, and if they have any failings it’s from the weaknesses inherent in RZA’s Bobby Digital persona and subpar guest rappers.[2]

For close to ten years after Ghost Dog, RZA incorporated samples into his work once again, most notably on The W in 2000 and Masta Killa’s No Said Date in 2004.[3] In 2007, live instrumentation became his priority once again, spawning “Chamber of Fear” and the mixed bag that was 8 Diagrams. On “Chamber of Fear” RZA worked with a full orchestra to craft one of his best beats of the 2000s. The orchestra lends an epic gravity to the song that reinvigorated RZA as a rapper and served as a perfect platform to introduce one of the most talented of RZA’s many protégés, Reverend William Burke. This song was so successful artistically that RZA changed the course of the fifth Wu-Tang album in the middle of recording, dramatically changing the production and alienating Raekwon and Ghostface in the process. Some of the songs that prominently feature instrumentation by RZA and his buddies work really well, such as “Campfire,” “Wolves,” and “Unpredictable” (on which System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian plays), but for every one of those good songs there’s a “Get ‘Em Out Ya Way Pa” or a “Gun Will Go” that just doesn’t work. The album’s first single “The Heart Gently Weeps,” which has guitar work from John Frusciante and Dhani Harrison and an interpolation of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," is pretty damn good, but it doesn’t sound like a Wu-Tang Clan song at all and ends up being a jarring tonal shift in the middle of the record. That “Windmill,” a song with prominent samples, is one of the best on the album is telling. Even after ten years, RZA struggled when trying to integrate his own instrumentation into his production. This would be borne out a few years later when he stepped back into an executive producer’s role for two compilation albums.

Before those two albums, however, an instrumental soul band named El Michels Affair took a break from writing material for the second album of original material to record an album of Wu-Tang covers titled Enter the 37th Chamber. Like on 8 Diagrams, results were mixed. The best songs on the album are “Heaven and Hell,” “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Glaciers of Ice,” “Criminology,” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” and it’s unsurprising that all of these hail from RZA’s peak as a producer, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords. By contrast, songs like “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” and “Can it Be That it Was All So Simple” are stripped of most of the qualities that made the original songs so memorable. Even worse, El Michels Affair turns “Cherchez La Ghost” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” into shells of the former selves, and the latter features perhaps the worst children’s chorus in music history. As a whole, the project illustrates RZA’s strengths as a producer and the connection with movies that has been at the forefront of the Clan’s music since the opening skit on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). RZA is so in tune to film as a medium that so much of his music could double as evocative soundtrack music. El Michels Affair was just the wrong band to directly translate his beats into that form. Still, a few members of the Clan responded positively to the project, and Raekwon even did a few shows with the band.

After the Raekwon/Ghostface/RZA spat surrounding the release of 8 Diagrams, it was kind of surprising that all three would appear on an album together so soon after, but that’s exactly what happened with Wu-Tang Chamber Music in early summer of 2009. Chamber Music is not an official Wu-Tang Clan album. Instead, it’s probably best classified as a compilation album featuring most of the generals (GZA, Masta Killa, and Method Man are noticeably absent) along with a cast of great NY rappers who all had their respective heydays in the nineties. A soul band called the Revelations provided the music which was then chopped up and fashioned into beats by Fizzy Womack (aka Lil’ Fame from M.O.P.), Noah Rubin, and Andrew Kelley. The resulting beats have the fuzzy grit of sampled beats while still sounding like they were performed by a live band. RZA oversaw things as executive producer, controlling the overall direction of the project while letting others handle the actual performance. The results are great. The album is broken up by too many RZA skits—the skits are all pretty cool, but there are more of them than there are songs—and while the album barely hangs together as a cohesive whole as a result, the songs are almost all great. None of the generals drop a weak verse,[4] and with the exception of Sadat X, none of the guests do either.[5] The beats are the album’s main draw though, showing that RZA’s best place these days is as an executive producer.

When the Revelations, Womack, Rubin, Kelley, and RZA reunited in 2011 for the sequel Legendary Weapons, RZA was so busy making his movie The Man with the Iron Fists that he really phoned in his executive producer duties. It shows on pretty much every song on the album. The main problem is that the songs sound much less like the product of a band than Chamber Music does. Without that live vibe, we’re left with a bunch of fairly average Wu-Tangesque beats. The best thing about the record (and Chamber Music, for that matter) is that Ghostface is all over this thing, turning in more of his reliably good verses. Also, Legendary Weapons features the triumphant return of Killa Sin, former member of Killarmy and arguably the most purely talented Killa Bee. On “The Black Diamonds,” he more than proves that the years he spent in prison throughout the 2000s did nothing to diminish his abilities as a rapper, as he ably holds his own against Ghostface and Roc Marciano, who has been one of the rap MVPs of the last few years. Along with RZA, Killa Sin is the only person to get a solo track, and while he spits venom across the entirety of “Drunk Tongue,” the beat is an insubstantial retread of the more muted tracks on Chamber Music. I listened to Chamber Music a lot in the first few months it was out, and it still gets play on my iPod to this day, but while Legendary Weapons is two years newer than its predecessor, I was struck by how little I remembered of it when I returned to it this week. Without RZA taking control, the remaining producers were unable to put together a memorable record.

The Clan’s history with bands and live instrumentation has been spotty to say the least. When it was announced last year that Ghostface was recording an album with Adrian Younge, it was cause for both concern—for all the reasons listed above—and excitement, as RZA was executive producing the album and it was hinted that the album would be a concept record. Outside of the Black Dynamite soundtrack, Younge mostly struggled with his projects, with the results often sounding flat and forced, as if he didn’t yet know how to translate his musical goals into great music. He overcame that problem on his collaborative album with William Hart of the Delfonics, and refined his abilities even further on the Ghostface record. Apparently having an older artist such as Hart or RZA to guide him is exactly what Younge needs to create his best material. Moreover, his desire to build on the work of soundtrack and library music musicians from the sixties and seventies makes him a natural fit for the Clan, whose best work, as stated previously, is heavily cinematic. With Younge, the Clan has come full circle back to the filmic sounds of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords, and the storyline of the album—which I’ll tackle in depth in my review—has given a focus to album guests Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, U-God, and Cappadonna that they haven’t had on their recent projects. Like Younge, these generals have struggled to create solo projects of lasting quality in spite of their obvious talent, and they benefit greatly from some executive production. Younge seems to be growing into his musical vision and he could really help some of these guys attain the same career revitalization Ghostface has had on Twelve Reasons to Die. Take Younge’s sound on Twelve Reasons to Die, and especially on the last track, and throw in a dash of Goblin and other Italian horror soundtrack masters, and Method Man could tap into the old Tical headspace for a horror/crime concept record.[6] Masta Killa could put together a subdued kung fu story record along the lines of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. GZA could either follow the sci-fi muse that he’s tapping into for his upcoming Dark Matter project or return to the Shogun Assassin darkness that fueled so much of Liquid Swords. What I’m saying is that the Younge/Wu-Tang combination, with RZA serving as the abbot overseeing and teaching without directly involving himself unless it’s absolutely necessary, is such a winning formula that it would be a damn shame if more of the Clan didn’t try to make lightning strike twice.

[1] I reviewed Younge’s most recent album, a collaboration with the legendary Delfonics, here.
[2] Why Islord was allowed to rap on so many songs is a mystery to me.
[3] The incredible “I Can’t Go to Sleep” which features a sample from Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By” and guest vocals from Hayes himself, and “Hollow Bones,” which has a killer Syl Johnson sample, are the best examples of RZA’s sample beats in this era. Unfortunately, these were increasingly few and far between.
[4] Although U-God probably could have avoided comparing himself to Seabiscuit on “Sound the Horns.”
[5] Sadat X is my favorite member of Brand Nubian, and for my money his first album Wild Cowboys is the best Brand Nubian solo record. Still, over the last few years the most obnoxious aspects of his voice and flow have been amplified on too many of his verses and too much of his stuff has been basically unlistenable as a result (see Wild Cowboys II). Thankfully, he’s balanced out on this record by Cormega, Sean Price, and the other guests.
[6] That Meth still has verses like this in him shows me that he should be next in line for working with Younge, as long as Younge lets a bit of Goblin into his sound. Meth rapping over Suspiria-type beats would be perfect.

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