Saturday, November 9, 2013

20 Years of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

At this point, twenty years to the day after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out, using the word ‘grimy’ to describe that album or anything that the Wu-Tang Clan has done since has become the hoariest of clichés. Yet watching the video for “Protect Ya Neck,” the group’s first single, it’s clear that no other word so perfectly encapsulates what they were doing. Anything resembling professionalism, like proper lighting or good cameras, is nonexistent, everything looks like a first take, and they apparently couldn’t be bothered to remove the camcorder time stamp from most of the color shots. A bunch of the group members’ names are misspelled (Inspektah Deck, Ghost Face Killer, the Jizah). It’s impossible to really tell, but my guess that there are about forty people in the video seems like a conservative estimate, and all but a few of them are completely unrecognizable.[1] Just how many of them are actually in the group? It isn’t clear from the video. A bunch of them have swords, and there are scary-looking guys lurking in project hallways and alleys in the back of most of the shots. The video is five minutes of menace and a dizzying array of lyrical styles over an intoxicated, haphazardly mixed beat the likes of which had not been heard before.

A few months before the “Protect Ya Neck” video started gaining traction on Rap City, the Wu-Tang Clan got their first break in a way that fits the menace that they projected in that first video perfectly. During an episode of the Stretch & Bobbito Show, which aired every Thursday night on WKCR 89.9FM from one to five in the morning, a few members and affiliates of the Clan either snuck or broke into the WKCR offices, unmarked white label 12” in hand.[2] If threats were made they were no more than implied, but the message was clear: it was in Stretch & Bobbito’s best interest to play the song. “Protect Ya Neck” got its first radio play that night, and it earned the group’s members spots as semi-regular presences on the show until 1998 when it went off the air.

Muscling in, getting heard in exactly the way they wanted by making exactly the kind of music they wanted to make, that was the Clan’s MO. GZA and RZA had been burned before, with GZA putting out the pretty good but artistically compromised and mostly ignored Words from the Genius on Cold Chillin’ in 1991 and RZA, as Prince Rakeem, putting out one 12” single “Ooh, We Love You Rakeem,” on Tommy Boy later that year.[3] RZA was especially bitter about his treatment at the hands of Tommy Boy, and he was not going to make the same mistakes again. The two had no desire to affiliate themselves with any fake ass A&Rs or any A&Rs that spent their time mountain climbing and playing electric guitar. As much as possible, they wanted to work for themselves, with no creative input from label executives. They recruited the six best rappers from Staten Island’s Park Hill and Stapleton Projects[4] and pitched them the now famous five year plan: hand their careers over to RZA for five years, and he would take them to the top of the rap world.

The group was unprecedented in its size, and the contract that RZA demanded from Loud Records was downright revolutionary. They signed to Loud as a group, but all of the group’s members were free to pursue solo contracts with other labels. The Wu-Tang brand spread across hip-hop while remaining intimidatingly insular. Features for and by people outside of the Clan were almost nonexistent during the five year plan. The Clan was one shadowy unit with one purpose, like the faceless ninjas on the cover of Enter the Wu-Tang.

Those ninjas, who perfectly encapsulated the Clan’s group identity as a cabal of verbal warriors while also keeping everything about them hidden and mysterious, attracts the eye to the album, but it couldn’t hope to prepare you for the sounds on the disc within. The samples, culled mostly from 45s from the Stax and Hi Records catalogs, were familiar to many hip-hop fans, but on Enter the Wu-Tang they were warped and covered in a sonic grit that they seemed to have picked up while sitting in the dark, dusty corners of the RZA’s studio. This mixing is actually disorienting at times, with vocals actually drowning out the drums during parts of a few songs. This would be a disaster for pretty much anyone else, but it only adds to the grubby basement vibe of the whole record.

And then there are the voices. Everyone is so vocally distinct, but they all share an urgency and a ferocity that creates a compulsively listenable environment. It doesn’t even really make sense to single out individual verses since there isn’t a dud in the bunch, but every member has at least one career-defining verse on Enter the Wu-Tang. Even U-God and Masta Killa, who only had a verse or two each,[5] manage to completely express who they are as rappers before the album is over. The same goes for the group’s aesthetic. The album opens with a sample from the 1983 kung fu classic Shaolin & Wu Tang, and the record is littered with samples from other kung fu VHS tapes that RZA had accumulated. Between the movie samples and the frequently hilarious skits (the torture skit alone is worth the price of admission), RZA was able to stitch the ragged songs together into a coherent and cohesive whole.

Unlike so many of the people writing about Enter the Wu-Tang this week, I can’t say that I heard the album when it came out. Sure, songs like “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” and “C.R.E.A.M.” were inescapable in the mid-nineties, and I was certainly aware of the group and some of the bigger members (Method Man and ODB, specifically) during elementary school. I remember some of my friends being really excited when Wu-Tang Forever came out in 1997, but outside of the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, who both got play on the alternative rock station in Chicago, hip-hop didn’t really make it onto my radar until The Chronic 2001 and The Slim Shady LP two years later. I missed out on the Wu almost entirely for far too long. I first sat down and listened to Enter the Wu-Tang a little over ten years after it came out. It was one of those too rare album experiences where you can feel your entire perspective on music shifting more and more with each song.

No other group hip-hop or otherwise rewards my obsessive tendencies like the Wu does. Their discography is seemingly endless, and hunting down every affiliate, every side project, and every loose song is incredibly rewarding in spite of all of the chaff. After I worked through every group and solo album by the original nine, I had all of the Killa Bees, many of whom put out great stuff. Every Heavy Mental or Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars made sifting through all of the garbage worth it, and the best of the best offered unique takes on the basic Wu formula. But it’s that original formula in its undiluted form that remains the most appealing, and that’s only found on the original five year plan albums.[6]

The basic formula did more than set out a roadmap for the Wu going forward; it shifted the New York sound as a whole. While there were a few precursors (Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage from the month before being probably the most important), the dark, streetwise sound that came to define New York in the mid-nineties can be sourced almost directly back to that first Wu-Tang album. The jazzy, upbeat sound of New York at the turn of decade spawned more than a few classic albums, but it was clearly losing out to the west coast in terms of both influence and sales. The sonic shift brought on by Enter the Wu-Tang and carried further by Ready to Die, Illmatic, and many others tipped the scales back in New York’s favor.

Even with the sea change that Enter the Wu-Tang caused, to this day no other album sounds quite like it. Even the two Wu-Tang solo albums that come closest, Tical and Return to the 36 Chambers, already showed RZA moving toward the more controlled, less dusted menace that he would perfect on the two best Wu solo albums Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Liquid Swords. The album is so of its time and of the artist’s ages, so much the product of a borough that had mostly been left alone by the hip-hop community at large, that trying to duplicate it would be a fool’s errand. So while Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… have been ripped off so many times that they almost qualify as subgenres of hip-hop themselves, people have mostly left Enter the Wu-Tang alone. I doubt even the RZA could recreate that sound at this point. It’s just as well. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is like a perfectly self-contained movie. A sequel would just be a waste of film.

[1] Hi Cappadonna! He appears briefly during Rae’s verse.
[2] It’s not clear who actually showed up at the studio that night, but people who were there are pretty sure that Ghostface was among them, and ODB and RZA were probably there too.
[3] Cold Chillin’ pressured GZA, then known as the Genius, to record the sub-LL Cool J sex jam “Come Do Me” for Words from the Genius and then released it as the first single. It’s the worst song on the album by a pretty wide margin, and it’s no wonder that the otherwise pretty good album sank like a stone.
[4] Masta Killa didn’t join the group until near the end of the recording process for Enter the Wu-Tang so it was an eight-man group at the start.
[5] I’m counting U-God’s “Protect Ya Neck” bridge as a verse, otherwise they’d both go down as having one.
[6] Those albums are Enter the Wu-Tang and Wu-Tang Forever, plus the solo albums that Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, GZA, and Ghostface put out between 1994 and 1996 and 6 Feet Deep, the great first album by RZA’s side project the Gravediggaz.

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