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Dissecting the Chambers: Wu-Tang Clan’s Debut Opus Turns 25
"From the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again. The RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and the Method Man…"
Depending on which hip-hop purist you consult, the year 1989 is often regarded by most as the year that the Golden Age of hip-hop truly kicked off. By 1993, every corner of the culture was occupied by new talent experimenting in the hopes of reinventing a constantly evolving wheel. It was the year that Snoop Dogg (then Doggy Dogg), Onyx, Mobb Deep, Fat Joe, Digable Planets, The Roots, and many other burgeoning legends would drop their debut albums, along with classic collectives like Black Moon and Souls of Mischief.
Artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur, Cypress Hill, Run-D.M.C., and Naughty By Nature were seasoned by this point—on their second and third albums—toying with the idea of penetrating the impenetrable mainstream. Think “Electric Relaxation,” “U.N.I.T.Y.,” “I Get Around,” “Insane In the Brain,” “Down With the King,” and “Hip Hop Hooray,” respectively. We wouldn’t meet Nas until the following year, Jay Z until two years after that, right before we would lose Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in fatal shootings within six months of each other in 1996 and 1997. We could call 1993 the calm before the storm, though the year was far from timid.
Right before the year closed out, a super posse from Staten Island hit the scene with a vengeance. In one breath they were masked, referencing Kung Fu flicks and nods to textbook academics turned street philosophies. In the next, they were dressed for New York City’s frigid elements, detailing hardships with poise, yet punctuating their pain with pure threatening bars. They were the mighty Wu-Tang Clan, and they were "nuthing ta F' wit."
Their collective debut album Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was far from a novice introduction. Members like the GZA already had some entry level success back in ’91 under the name Prince Rakeem with his cheeky single “Ooh I Love You Rakeem.” RZA was perfecting the first layer of his production aesthetic, while other members had already been toying with lyricism for years and street life that would later birth the album’s intimately epochal bars.
Recording the album was like the Hunger Games. Years back, I spoke with Masta Killa—who only appears on the track “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”—and explained it was a matter of who jumped in the box and brought the best bars. The winners showed up on the track. His cleanup verse is arguably the stuff of legend, but his other more experienced counterparts at the time ended up with the stronger presence.
Sonically, the album was purposefully cinematic. In my interview with RZA for Playboy, he explains that intention, thanks to new technology:
One thing about the album that a lot of people don’t know is that Pro Tools was new. We were able to take that album after all the songs was recorded, and I was able to stitch it together like a movie. And it was only because I was able to go to a Pro Tools studio—I think it was called Magic Studio or something like that down in SoHo/Chinatown border. Because I was able to do that, I was able to take any sound, stitch any Kung-Fu sample to the song, and put the sword slices over the words. I was able to do that in a poignant time where maybe a lot of producers wasn’t thinking like a movie editor would think. Pro Tools gave me that ability.
Track-by-track, the project rewrites hip-hop history in its own unique way.
The deepest album cuts are arguably the first four tracks “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame On a N***a,” “Clan In Da Front,” and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber”: all rooted in boom-bap, volleying between knockin’ beats, menacing horns, and precise record scratches. The result is a collection of tracks that all demanded head nods. The album closes in a similar way as it begins, with “Wu-Tang 7th Chamber, Pt. 2/Conclusion.”
But the in-between is the heart of the project. “Can It Be All So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” and “Tearz” all utilize soul samples in a way that had previously never been done before, creating a trifecta of tracks that detail everything from the harsh realities of coming up poor to losing loved ones to violence and AIDS. The soul in the production is used for an added layer of emotional emphasis.
“That was the first attempt to show, like, the emotional flow of an emcee,” RZA told me of “Tearz,” as the Wendy Rene (“After Laughter (Comes Tears)”) sample assists in what RZA calls a “gut-gripping sound.”
Other songs like the aforementioned “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” and “Protect Ya Neck” are all threatening in their own rights, challenging opponents either lyrically or physically with flecks of Kung Fu. The intro to the album’s biggest single “Method Man,” makes light of those threats, despite being titled “Torture.”
All of these pieces formed the perfect puzzle, set to the backdrop of 1993. Harnessing the power of the street life that Mobb Deep was first learning to perfect, coupled with the aggression of Onyx, the soulfulness of A Tribe Called Quest, the humor of Snoop Doggy Dogg, mixed with unintentional commercial appeal, Wu-Tang Clan created the album that embodied that era. By the next year (and the ones thereafter), everything would change. The Clan would begin their solo runs, only to reunite for Wu-Tang Forever in 1997, which earned a nomination for Best Rap Album for the 40th GRAMMY Awards. And as for the rest of hip-hop, well, those “same damn ‘Lo sweaters” would be traded for shiny suits before the turn of the century.
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was a period piece that played out like a movie, plotlines, action scenes, and all. And it’s one that true fans would still pay admission to witness, even 25 years later.