Like many of you, I wasn’t in that handful of people who can say they were the of the first few to listen to the Wu-Tang Clan. I wasn’t even born at the time the iconic Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released and throughout my upbringing I had primarily spent my back firmly turned against hip-hop thanks to mainstream hits which were dominating airplay at the time.
It all changed at the bright age of 14, almost 20 years after the album was originally released. Having a selection of the Clan’s hits passed on to me, it was a rollercoaster ride into hip-hop and a peek into street life on Staten Island, a place which seemed a world away.
It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before – and was unlike anything at the time of its release too. While 1993 contributed some incredible hip-hop albums, Midnight Marauders, Buhloone Mindstate and Doggystyle to name a few, the mainstream was still firmly cemented in RnB, making Enter The Wu-Tang all the more impactful. In that year, the Billboard top single was I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, to give you an idea.
Nothing musically represented the crack era as much as Enter The Wu-Tang. Rough, gritty, raw and eerie, telling the untold tales of these young black teens. No-one had even heard a crew this large on record before, bringing their own slang, their own sound and wrapping it all up in kung fu imagery and samples from old martial arts movies. To put it simply, it was revolutionary.
As you enter the 36th Chamber, you’re first greeted by Bring Da Ruckus, a shock to the system to say the least. Brutally raw, boom-bap instrumentals showed off RZA’s skill to the fullest. Joined by some of the clan’s finest in Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and GZA, it’s not long until you recognise that every single emcee has their own unique style, flavour, and approach to their rapping – a chemistry many crews can only dream of achieving.
Going on to redefine emceeing on record entirely, Wu brought the live show directly to the record. Tracks like 7th Chamber, Protect Ya Neck and Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit’ play through like live cyphers, with one of the most pivotal being Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’. Seven of the nine original emcees feature, including a crucial showcasing of less prominent members Masta Killa and U-God. Backed by a revolutionary video which pulled you right into the crew’s kung fu universe, it’s a melting pot of styles which can only be described as insanity.
Protect Ya Neck shares this same vibe, but was even more revolutionary as the Clan’s first ever single to be released. Funded by $100 payments from each member, Wu pressed their own records and generated their own street buzz, a pivotal move which inevitably lead them to being signed to label Loud Records. With eight emcees all taking aim at the businessmen in the music industry, it’s ironic, but this brutal track is nothing short of a classic.
Something that stands out on 36 Chambers is the sheer complexity of each track, and how different each one is to the next. From the vicious and energetic Bring Da Ruckus, setting the bar high in terms of gritty production and slamming lyrics, tracks like Shame On A N***a and Can It Be All So Simple peer through the cracks, boasting a cleaner, slicker sound.
Can It Be All So Simple in that respect separates itself from the pack. Bookended by 7th Chamber and Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit, rather than have violent, in-your-face rhymes, Raekwon and Ghostface deliver thought-provoking bars into this narrative based track, reflecting on their past and evaluating what is really important to them.
Wu-Tang’s game changing single C.R.E.A.M. gets its success in this vein too. With its classic chopped soul sample, down to earth, raw and genuine sound and lyrical content, C.R.E.A.M. doesn’t shy away from telling the truth in any way. Many have since tried to voice their own struggles, but few can deliver a narrative quite as vivid as Rae and the Rebel INS.
In comparison, for an album known for it’s grittiness, Shame on a N***a makes an impact as the cleanest track on the LP. Instead of an eerie or dark sample, this instead showcases a smooth, trumpet driven beat, brilliantly contrasted by rough and tough lyricism from the likes of Method Man, Raekwon and the late great Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a favourite of the clan.
Named after the emcee himself, Method Man is the track which ended up catapulting his career and bringing him to the forefront of Wu. As one of two tracks which showcase just a single emcee, Method Man’s unique rhyming style bodied the track, going on to referencing popular culture and music all while he pieced his bars together with immense precision.
On the topic of Wu classics, you can’t get much further without mentioning Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin Ta Fuck Wit. Arguably the roughest and hardest track of the album, RZA, Inspectah Deck and Method Man all come together to make one of the most energetic East Coast releases to date. Banging drums snapping over this terrifying ensemble, it’s almost a war cry in some senses.
As the album comes to a fierce close, Tearz and 7th Chamber, Pt.2 complete the album with as much energy as it started with. One of the most saddening and evocative tracks, Tearz is driven by a classic Stax soul sample and sees RZA and Ghost reminisce on the good times which soon turned bad. Where on the other hand the second half of 7th Chamber closes the curtains with a head shuddering beat, driven by gritty bass synths and organ stabs, topped off by the last back to back verses from only the Clan’s finest.
Few groups in musical history have created as much of a stir with their debut album, yet alone bringing forth an entirely new style. The Wu-Tang Clan paved the way for the likes of Nas, Jay-Z and even The Notorious B.I.G., Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has transcended the status of an album and, thanks to RZA’s master plan, every member of the crew have reached a worldwide status which is now untouchable.
Image: Daniel Hastings