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Dissecting the Chambers: Wu-Tang Clan’s Debut Opus Turns 25

Wu-Tang Clan

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Dissecting the Chambers: Wu-Tang Clan’s Debut Opus Turns 25

Throw it back to 1993 as we examine how Kung-Fu, street philosophy, Pro Tools, and creative competition shaped a pivotal piece of hip-hop history on 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)'

GRAMMYs/Nov 9, 2018 - 07:26 am

"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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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New Documentary To Celebrate 25 Years Of Wu-Tang Clan

Nothing To F With: How 'Enter The Wu-Tang' Established One Of The Greatest Rap Groups Of All Time
(From left) Ol' DIrty Bastard, GZA, U-God, Method Man, Raekwon, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan

Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Nothing To F With: How 'Enter The Wu-Tang' Established One Of The Greatest Rap Groups Of All Time

In 1993, Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan laid the ground for hardcore hip-hop acts to follow. Their weapon of choice: 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)' — a debut LP with an outsized impact on hip-hop and the trajectory of its members.

GRAMMYs/Nov 9, 2023 - 02:21 pm

In the early 1990s, hip-hop was on the verge of being its broadest. 

Hip-hop had grown far beyond its origins in the Bronx, as acts like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul drew listeners outside New York’s five boroughs. Elsewhere, a legion of MCs from L.A., the Bay, and the South were cementing their legacies. 

Amidst the plethora of sonic riches of hip-hop's golden age, Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan stands out. Comprised of lyrical spartans GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Masta Killah, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, later Cappadonna, U-God, master producer RZA, and the late, charismatic force Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the group laid the ground for hardcore hip-hop acts to follow. 

Their weapon of choice: 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — which celebrates 30 years on Nov. 9. Enter The Wu-Tang sparked a new brand of hardcore, gritty street rap that transported listeners with its dark sonic landscape. 

Filled with martial arts and comic book references, loogie-spitting posse cuts, and mystifying street tales, Enter The Wu-Tang drew audiences to the borough of "Shaolin." The album's darkly-brewed beats and mixes had an amateurish charm, but all nine tracks were laced with RZA’s early musical wizardry and ear for ominous, hard-hitting instrumentals. 

For every musical or budgetary limitation, Enter The Wu-Tang boasted some of the best lyrical assaults the genre has ever heard. Now-classic songs like "Da Mystery of Chessboxin’" and "Protect Ya Neck" and conjured visions of the Shaolin streets, and added to New York’s stronghold on the genre. 

Unlike the more socially conscious and jazz-influenced sounds of New York rap at the time, the influential album was marked with soundbites from kung-fu flicks and sped up soul samples with an eerie, grudgeful echoe. Among the gallery of inspiring cuts, "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)" features a sample of the Charmels’ 1967 song "As Long As I’ve Got You." 

Despite the group’s size, every member had a stand out moment on the project. And most, with the exception of Masta Killa, have several. Method Man goes full nuclear on his self-titled track, Raekwon and Ghostface show early flashes of their collaborative magic on "Can It All Be So Simple," and the infectious charm of Ol' Dirty Bastard runs wild on "Protect Ya Neck." 

The album was off-kilter in design, but Wu-Tang carved a path for hard-edged acts to follow. The album even inspired New York instrumental soul group El Michels Affair, which released their own version of the album, Enter The 37th Chamber, in 2007 in echo of the legendary beats sampled on Wu-Tang's the classic project. 

Since its release, Enter The Wu-Tang has sold more than 3 million records and landed on countless all-time best album rankings. As of June 2023, the album is at the No. 27 spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Of All Time list. For its relatively short length, Wu-Tang Clan's debut has had an outsized impact on hip-hop — both in terms of influence and the trajectory of its members. 

With Enter The Wu-Tang and their subsequent releases, Wu-Tang cornered the rap market in the 1990s. Before Wu-Tang, there were no other notable rap acts from Staten Island. While Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx held most of the industry’s grip, Wu-Tang helped blaze the path for acts outside of those regions to flourish. 

While groups like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A. and Run-D.M.C. are certainly influential, the star power within Wu-Tang is unique. Between the group’s debut and follow-up album Wu-Tang Forever — which was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 1998 GRAMMYs — GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and others released critically acclaimed solo albums.

Method Man even received a Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group GRAMMY for Tical’s "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By" at the 1995 GRAMMYs. Outside the accolades, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Links and Ghostface’s Ironman lit up the New York streets in 1995, and GZA’s Liquid Swords remains one of the more acclaimed outings from the group’s more withdrawn characters.

While some were more commercially successful than others, they all added to the group's influence and arguably proved its distinction for best rap group of all time. 

Read more: RZA’s Constant Elevation: From Wu-Tang to 'Kill Bill,' The Rapper/Producer Discusses His Creative Process And History Ahead Of Bobby Digital Reprise

Method and New Jersey legend Redman brought their comedic chops to the big screen in How High. The pairing was like a hip-hop Cheech and Chong, and the film went on to become a cult weed movie classic. Like Meth, RZA and other members appeared in TV shows and films for decades. 

In 1995, Wu-Tang Clan established the apparel brand Wu Wear, one of the first artist-inspired lines in music history. It opened the doors for hip-hop culture in retail, and inspired a global interest in Wu-Tang's simple, raw style. The group and the apparel line helped usher in the militant street style of the era, complete with baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, Timberland boots, durags, gold fronts, sports jerseys, and puff jackets. 

As the group grew in popularity, the members joined forces with business partner Oliver "Power" Grant and opened four Wu Wear stores across the country, including one on Victory Boulevard in Staten Island. The line was carried by retail giants such as Macy’s and renamed Wu-Tang Brand in 2008, and Grant discontinued the Wu-Wear line. But after RZA joined hands with Live Nation Merchandise, the brand was relaunched in 2017. 

The cult interest in Wu-Tang's image continued. In 1999, Powers developed a video game centered on the group, called Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. The 3D fighting game for PlayStation featured characters based on the group members’ stage personas and mirrored the martial arts themes in their music. They also provided voiceover work and music contributions to the four-player game. 

Other artists followed Wu-Tang's blueprint in the decades since the group debuted. Acts like Mobb Deep, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and others adopted the hardcore rap style mastered by Wu-Tang — but none harnessed the same manpower or presence as the group over the decades. But the 2010s saw the re-emergence of rap supergroups. 

In Harlem, the Diplomats and ASAP Mob captured the same collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit of Wu-Tang, but with a more varied musical approach. Out West, the Tyler, The Creator-led Odd Future surpassed the 11-member group in scale, but their work and impact haven’t matched that of the Staten Island collective. 

The closest to mirror Wu-Tang was Pro Era, which adopted the classic, boom-bap sound of the '90s. The mega group also pursued an assortment of branding and entertainment ventures, and one of the group’s founders, Joey Bada$$, even played Inspectah Deck in the Hulu biographical series "Wu-Tang: An American Saga." The group’s presence also inspired future Staten Island products like Killarmy, G4 Boyz, and Cleotrapa.

Given the group’s accolades and cultural impact in the decades since their debut, it’s true: "Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to f— with." Its members have redefined longevity in rap by continuing to have a hand on the pulse of popular culture, both in music, film, TV, and entertainment. Few other groups have matched their successes, and as the collective continues to etch its path, there’s no telling how many more barriers they will break. 

A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island

GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island
(Clockwise) Notorious B.I.G., Cardi B, Jay-Z, Nas, RUN-D.M.C., Wu-Tang Clan, Salt-N-Pepa and Beastie Boys

Photos: Larry Busacca/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water; Kimberly White/Getty Images for Hennessy; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Bob Berg/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island

The culture and art of hip-hop would not exist if not for NYC. Take a trip through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island to learn how hip-hop developed sonically by the borough.

GRAMMYs/Aug 3, 2023 - 03:42 pm

New York is indisputably the birthplace of hip-hop, but which of the city's five boroughs has dominated the genre continues to be a spirited debate among its scholars and natives. 

The "Boogie Down" Bronx is the origin point of hip-hop history. It’s here Clive Campbell a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc threw a rec room party in 1973 that put hip-hop as we know it in motion. The city's northernmost borough is the home of groundbreaking artists from OGs Grandmaster Flash and Slick Rick, to contemporary stars including Cardi B.

The case for Queens — home of Def Jam Records and a host of GRAMMY-winning and nominated rappers from  Run-D.M.C. and Salt-N-Pepa, to LL Cool J and Nicki Minaj — is often made. 

On her 2005 track "Lighters Up" Lil' Kim declares Brooklyn "Home of the Greatest Rappers." It’s hard to argue. Marcy Projects alone would give us Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.

Manhattan also plays a role in hip-hop’s evolution as a playground where rappers intermingled with punks, rockers and the thriving art scene throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Elements of each of these developing artforms culminating in the music of the Beastie Boys. And because he is so often referred to as a West Coast rapper, it’s easy to forget Tupac Shakur was born in Manhattan.

Staten Island is, of course, home to the one and only Wu-Tang Clan and its diverse cosmology. Even the suburbs can boast major contributions — Long Island is the home of Public Enemy and Erik B & Rakim; head north of the Bronx to Westchester County, and you'll enter the home of the late rapper DMX.  

What’s clear when we look at each borough, is that the culture and art of hip-hop would not exist  if not for New York. Without the contributions,style and unique cultures of neighborhoods within Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Staten, the artform would not have developed into the juggernaut it is today.  Press play on the Amazon Music playlist below — or visit Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music — to take an auditory tour of the best of the boroughs.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, hop on the train and travel from borough to borough for its unique history and sounds.

As you examine the breadth of NYC hip-hop, you’ll find artists with a deep and complex relationship with the city. Biz Markie, for example, was born in one area of the city, raised in another, and claimed membership to a crew for a whole other borough. His story, and that of others who deserve many flowers, demonstrate that while hip-hop can be dissected by region and subway line, it’s the Big Apple's density, multiculturalism, an urban innovation that has made it arguably one of America's greatest art forms. 

Hip-Hop By The Borough bronx

Mass immigration from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the 1950s made the Bronx the first majority Black and Latino borough in NYC by the mid-'70s. It’s not a coincidence that the Bronx was also woefully unserved by the city government, resulting in bleak economic conditions.

"Kids with little or no resources created something out of nothing," the Funky Four Plus One’s MC Sha Rock told ABC News said of hip-hop's origins. "No matter what was going on around us in New York City at the time, we looked forward to the park jams." 

These jams featured breakdancing, DJs mixing, and MCing — all key elements of hip-hop that emerged from house parties and underground venues into a city-wide consciousness. "Hip-hop wasn't called hip-hop in the ‘70s, was called 'going to the jams,'" Sha Rock continued. 

A few years before the park jams took off, DJ Kool Herc’s August 1973 rec room party put hip-hop as we know it on the map. Herc took classic records and popular hits, broke down the beats, and invited MCs to chime in over them invoking the Jamaican style of delivery, talking or chanting, usually in a monotone melody, over a rhythm known as "toasting" in reggae.

In 1975, the Bronx Boys Rocking Crew (or TBB) fostered another element of hip-hop when they organized late night tagging sessions. These young graffiti artists brought the color and life of their borough to the rest of the city, as painted subway trains provided moving canvases and controversy. 

By the time the park jams were happening, some graffiti crews had expanded into competitive dance. With moves drawn from martial arts, gymnastics, and modern dance, "breaking, popping, and locking" would see b-boys and b-girls become as important as music to hip-hop as an art form. Breaking as an art has continued to flourish and will soon be an Olympic sport.

Bronx-born artists such as the Funky Four Plus One, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow became pioneers of the genre in the 1970s, and helped define hip-hop in the '80s

The borough would go on to boast Kool Keith, KRS One, Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Cardi B, among many others, as acts who have innovated the Bronx’s place in hip-hop culture. The borough is now home to the Universal Hip-Hop Museum and will host events at Sedgwick and a 50 Years of Hip-Hop concert at Yankee Stadium.

Hip-Hop By The Borough brooklyn

In 1990, Brooklyn was New York’s Blackest neighborhood, with 73.1 percent of its Black residents native born. The previous decade had seen Brooklyn rappers rise to prominence in hip-hop, by the end of the 1990s the world’s ear was tuned into Brooklyn.  

Known for his use of three turntables, Cutmaster DC's early tracks "Brooklyn's in the House" and "Brooklyn Rocks the Best" were the first to mention Brooklyn as a force in hip-hop music. These early '80s tracks also featured DC's pioneering technique of cutting breaks over Roland TR-909 beats, a marked moment for hip-hop's technical advancement.

Combining speed, style and humor, few would influence hip-hop's syncopation and cadence like Big Daddy Kane. In their 2012 list of The Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time Rolling Stone called Kane "a master wordsmith of rap's late-golden age and a huge influence on a generation of MCs." Within a few years Brooklyn flow would be redefined by the slow deliberative annunciation of the Notorious B.I.G., whose delivery would become one of the most interpolated in rap history. 

The styles of both would be emulated and refined by a young Brooklyn rapper named Shawn Carter. The artist later known as Jay-Z attended George Westinghouse High School in downtown Brooklyn, where his classmates included Busta Rhymes, Biggie and DMX all of whom would play a critical part in the evolution of rap’s delivery styles

The borough wasn’t only a boys club. MC Lyte, Foxy Brown, and new rappers like Young MA continue to put Brooklyn on the musical map.

On Aug. 11, 2023, Brooklyn locals (and GRAMMY winners) Digable Planets will headline Celebrate Brooklyn! festival's 50th anniversary of hip-hop event

Hip-Hop By The Borough queens

The largest Borough by area, Queens boasts the Guiness World Record for most languages spoken and gained the nickname "The World’s Borough" for its diverse population. Whereas Bronx hip-hop was derived from Black American and Caribbean cultures, Queen’s hip-hop samples the world. While the 1970s saw the Bronx give birth to hip-hop, the 1980s saw the eastern borough of Queens mature the art form.

Queen’s hip-hop history has roots in two specific areas: the Queenborough Projects and Hollis. The Queensboro Projects, a.k.a. "The Bridge," were one of the few unsegregated projects in New York. It was also home to Marley Marl, who accidentally discovered sampling while working on a Captain Rock record as a studio intern in the early ‘80s. 

"I was actually trying to get a riff off of a record. I made a mistake and got the snare in there before the sound came," he recounted to NPR. "The snare sounded better than the snare that I had from the drum machine when I was popping it…I was like, "Hold up!" This will enable me to take any kick and a snare from any record that people love and make my own beat." Marls’ use of the 808 pulse to trigger different samplers was revolutionary, and he would become a pioneer for his ability to blend sampled and 808 drum sounds. 

Marl’s contribution would extend beyond the technical. As a member of the Juice Crew, he brought the voice of 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté to the world. She created a new lane for women in rap as well as the blueprint for the diss track on the seminal "Roxanne's Revenge." 

About a half hour east on the F Train in Hollis, Queens, brothers Joseph and Russel Simmons (a DJ and promoter respectively) founded Run-D.M.C. with friends Darryl Mc Daniels and Jason Mizell. Run-D.M.C.'s sound featured a synchronized, aggressive delivery over simple but memorable rock hooks and beats. Later, the group established Def Jam Records, the label that would prove rap could sell millions of records to Top 40 audiences and bring rap to the mainstream as the first rappers to be featured on MTV.

As valuable as the musical contributions of Run-D.M.C are, they are equally vital to the development of fashion as an element of hip-hop. Street style, as it would come to be known, is born in Queens: Kangol hats, unlaced Addias, Carzal frames, and thick gold chains are now as synonymous with hip-hop as beats and samples. Today, fashion is so central to hip-hop, and vice versa, that New York's FIT Museum recently held an expansive exhibit on hip-hop style.” 

Complex proclaimed Nas’ Illmatic "set off a seismic shift in rap geopolitics" and added that the 1994 record "galvanized Queensbridge hip-hop and by extension East Coast rap as a whole." His introspective and poetic approach to writing is credited for bringing the best out of his contemporaries and inspiring next generation rappers like Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar, challenging them to meet his lyrical bar.

Hip-Hop By The Borough manhattan

Though "The Fly Borough" is the most densely populated, the majority of its hip-hop history is concentrated in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. 

Home of the legendary Apollo Theater, the neighborhood was well rooted in Black music when World War II vet Bobby Robinson opened Bobby’s Records in 1946 — one of Harlems’ few Black owned businesses at the time. The record store would evolve as would Robinson’s involvement in music. He would become a producer and label head whose 1970 imprint Enjoy Records released music by hip-hop's earliest innovators, including Grandmaster Flash, the Treacherous Three, and Doug E. Fresh. The label would also feature Master Don, whose signature use of a "Funk Box" percussion synthesizer and its crispy digital hi hat is still heard in trap music today.  

Harlem was also home to Dapper Dan, the first designer to "borrow" designer goods and modify them with hip-hop flair. His boutique operated from 1982-1992 and was essential to the merging of luxury brands and hip-hop culture. Although brands like Gucci first sued for copyright infringement, they eventually saw the value of hip-hop's branding power on high end fashion sales. In 2018, Dapper Dan and Gucci collaborated on a capsule collection.

Also during this ‘80s culture boom, three high schoolers from Manhattan applied the ethos of punk rock to the emerging street sounds of hip-hop. 

The Beastie Boys began by pirating rap, self-admittingly "Rhyming and Stealing" for their 1986 Def Jam debut License to Ill, and went on to forge a new lane for the medium. They broke  all the rules of sampling and production with their seminal Paul’s Boutique, which Rolling Stone noted is often dubbed "The Sargent Pepper of hip-hop" and lauded for its layer sampling technique. In their ranking of Paul’s Boutique Consequence of Sound wrote, "Paul’s Boutique sat at a finish line waiting for the rest of the world to catch up." 

While the outer Boroughs would enjoy most of the attention musically throughout the '90s and 2000s, the 2010s would see Harlem again centered in hip-hop with the arrival of young rappers like Azealia Banks and the ASAP Mob collective. 

Hip-Hop By The Borough staten island

RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and later Cappadonna would find success as both a group and  as solo artists. infiltrating the "big six" 1990s major record labels by design. You can also hear the influence of RZA on modern acts like El Michels Affair, which draws inspiration from Wu-Tang's melodic take on instrumentation and released two albums of instrumental soul covers of Wu-Tang Clan songs.

Their impact would go far beyond music however. Hip-hop biographer Will Ashon recounted Wu’s influence on fashion, noting that the group were part of a trend of simplification.

"Their whole modus operandi was to present themselves as real and unmanufactured, so their clothing choices had to reflect this. The rawness and directness of the music was supposed to be echoed in the rawness and directness of their clothing. They were a big part of the early 1990s move towards baggy and oversized clothes. Huge combat trousers or sweatpants, Timberland boots, hoodies, puffas, do-rags, gold fronts and so on. A ‘street soldier’ look." 

As you’d expect, Wu’s presence looms large over future  Staten Island artists, including G4 Boys and Killarmy. New artists like Cleotrapa, a spicy, no-holds-barred femme rapper, also counts Wu-Tang as an influence and is helping define Staten’s next chapter.

The history of the intersection of New York City and hip-hop culture is as big and diverse as the city itself. We could only touch on a handful of artists and creators in this piece, but the topic has been explored at length in books like Cant Stop Wont Stop by Jeff Chang and The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop. Documentaries on hip-hop can be found on almost all streaming platforms Netflix’s notable Hip-Hop Evolution and Ladies First: The Story of Women in Hip-Hop

Listen To GRAMMY.com's 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Playlist: 50 Songs That Show The Genre's Evolution

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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