12 Days of Early 90’s Hip Hop – Day 8

12 Days of Early 90's Hip Hop

We’re onto Day 8 of 12 Days of Early 90’s Hip Hop and we’re entering the 36 Chambers tonight…

Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers – Wu Tang Clan
Produced by RZA, ODB, Method Man and Ghostface Killah

We live in an age where superlatives are passed around like corporate bribes at the annual Tory party conference. In the era of social networking and new media, someone need only take a shit before several thousand, heavy-fringed sixteen-year-olds poke it on Facebook and herald it as “awesome.” People are using the word awesome to describe cakes and work colleagues, these days. Let me tell you a little something about awe. Awe is an overwhelming emotion of reverence, fear and excitement. You don’t feel that when you eat a Subway sandwich, or when you find turquoise eyeliner, so stop saying awesome. It makes you look simple. Unless – and this is one of the few caveats under the awesome umbrella – you are discussing the relative merits of Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers. In fact, I’m going to be straight with you, if you are familiar with this album and not compelled to render it sublime I don’t really think you should ever be allowed to vote for anything.

Let me make two outlandish claims.

  1. This is the greatest Hip Hop album ever made.
  2. This is a top ten contender for best album ever, regardless of genre.

Now let me explain why.

You know when you look at athletes (in any sport) from over forty years ago and they all look to be wheezing, fat, unhealthy looking men who just happened to have picked up a basketball/ football/ javelin or whatever and are doing it in their spare time? Be honest with yourself. Set aside sentimental nostalgia. I’m right and you know I am. Then you compare those athletes with the athletes of today who are eating macrobiotic food and training 16 hours a day? That right there is the difference between this first Wu record, and everything that came before in Hip Hop. This album changed everything.

That is not to say that great music did not come before it. It did. PE had a greater political impact, 70’s and 80’s Hip Hop Godfathers established the genre, Prince Paul (drool) is Prince Paul… But this album is something else. As established in the previous album selections, the early 90’s was an era of Jazz and Gangsta Rap, of which both sub-genres had some classic albums you should own. But The Wu approached Hip Hop differently. The first impact this record made was financial. The Wu held out for a recording contract that would allow them to release as a group under one label, then constituent members under others. Granting each group member financial and creative autonomy which had never really been seen in prior to that. There was a financial strategy. That strategy was outlined even on this first album; RZA had a global domination plan. The Wu are mostly in control of their own financial affairs, including publishing, a fund in which all members (even during solo projects) contribute, a groundbreaking merchandise and clothing empire (which shaped all of the P-Diddy/ Jay-Z shit you see today), and creative ownership. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs, but what I will say is that musicians (even commercially successful ones) get the shittiest end of the stick in the music industry, unless they are very smart. The Wu Tang Clan seem to have avoided much of this and it is to their testament, even before you look at the music, that this album was the first step in their own strategy. You see this exemplified in the relatively commercially successful C.R.E.A.M., released from the LP.

The next thing about this album is that none of the MC’s are weak. On the contrary, every single member of the Wu (9 in total) has their own flavour, each of which is entirely delicious. Whenever you listen to a rap album from a group, you are usually trying to zone out on the weaker performers, or trying to distinguish between them when they all sound the same. Not here. From ODB’s singsong insanity, Method Man’s rasp and Raekwon’s narrative mastery, each member had something incredible (and I mean incredible, not just fine) to give. With the exceptions of Clan in da Front and Method Man, most of the tracks aren’t dominated by individuals, and instead come off as a sort of rap battle with a chorus hook performed by all members.

Inspectah Deck gets overlooked a lot, but his contribution to this album – particularly on my favourite stand-out track Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ (perfect song) – was phenomenal. But it’s wrong to single out Ghostface or Raekwon or any other member when it comes to this album, because (as previously outlined) there are no cluggers. The album is produced almost entirely by RZA, and it is not a tight over-produced album like we would see today. There is some shady drum programming, and in general a very under-produced sounding record. If anything, this makes it better. The theme of the album, the band name and even the mystical album title (allegedly) relate to 70’s martial arts movies, a passion which RZA has returned to on a number of occasions, and later expanded on while working with Tarantino on the Kill Bill Soundtrack. Albums which have been released by the group in the form of solo projects, or smaller bands (e.g. Gravediggaz) may be seen to be as important as this record, at least in a musical sense. But you know, even if level 16 on Super Mario is everyone’s favourite, no one gets there without first getting past level one.

This album is the starting point. This record is level one.

It’s also worth noting that Staten Island is the shithole borough of New York City. It has none of the kudos or cultural glamour of any of the other four boroughs and is essentially an entire island built on a refuse dump. And yet, The Wu have managed to elevate this shithole by re-branding it Shaolin and affording those who reside there a greater sub-cultural kudos, at least in terms of my appreciation when I was a 14 year old impressionable teen. Most people dreamt of Brooklyn, I wanted the rubbish dump. The album is cut with samples of dialogue from martial art films, cultural references, cartoon violence and extreme wit. Amongst these themes, there is an unquenchable energy in which the group seem to bounce off each other and fuel each other’s creativity. You rarely hear about Wu in fighting and whilst none of us are naïve enough to think there haven’t been flare-ups, they maintain a position of unity. This adds to their creative and financial appeal and power.

A debut album is like a swordfight: you must think first, before you move… but don’t take my word for it. Own it and wonder how you ever felt spiritually whole (ok ok, slightly excessive) without it.

  • Shaolin

    Staten Island is not a shithole. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, lady.

  • H

    Finally! Quality piece and makes me want to listen again to whole album!

    • H

      Meant finally 36 Chambers!