Thursday, February 21, 2008

[009] Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Album: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Release Date: November 1993
Label: Loud/RCA
Producers: The RZA, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard & Method Man

“It's been twenty-two long hard years of still struggling
Survival got me bugging, but I'm alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world 'cause shit is deep
A man with a dream, with plans to make C.R.E.A.M.
Which failed - I went to jail at the age of 15
A young buck selling drugs and such, who never had much
Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacing - going upstate's my destination
Handcuffed in back of a bus, forty of us
Life as a shorty shouldn't be so rough
But as the world turned, I learned life is hell
Living in a world no different from a cell
Everyday I escape from jakes giving chase, selling base
Smoking bones in the staircase
Though I don't know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that's the time when I'm not depressed
But I'm still depressed, and I ask what's it worth?
Ready to give up, so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
and stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty's running wild, smoking sess, drinking beer
And ain't trying to hear what I'm kicking in his ear
Neglect it for now, but yo, it's got to be accepted
That what? That life is hectic."
- Inspectah Deck, from “C.R.E.A.M.”

"First of all, who's your A&R?
A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar?
But he don't know the meaning of dope
When he's looking for a suit-and-tie rap
that's cleaner than a bar of soap
And I'm the dirtiest thing in sight
Matter of fact, bring out the girls and let's have a mud fight"
- GZA, from "Protect Ya Neck"

In honor of the nine members of Wu-Tang…
Nine Reasons Why 36 Chambers Is One Of The Best Albums Ever!

- There are fuckin’ NINE of them muthafuckers!!!
It’s not like there hadn’t been any groups in Hip-Hop. There just hadn’t been any this big or this good. Actually, the make up of the Wu-Tang Clan is most similar to the earliest outfits in Hip-Hop’s history, like Funky Four + 1 or The Furious Five, mostly because the Clan takes their style from the playgrounds and street corners where Hip-Hop began. Through the 1980’s, the superstar groups became trios and duos, maybe you had a group with only two or three MC’s, and a couple DJ’s or dancers or some nonsense. N.W.A. was probably the closest thing to Wu-Tang, but again, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and MC Ren were the only MC’s; Dr. Dre only rapped every once in a while. Wu-Tang took the N.W.A. plan, and tripled it, also seeing the rise of the posse cut – from “The Symphony” to the Native Tongues on “Buddy” and “Scenario”, through to The Chronic – as license to expose the world of Rap to their extended family, paving the way for the Dungeon Family, Cash Money, Dipset, etc etc. Furthermore, Wu-Tang introduced the idea of the MC as a character, the inverse of Run-DMC’s long-followed straight off the street method. Wu-Tang wanted to be the heroes (or villains) from their old Marvel comics, or the Kung Fu masters from all the old Shaw Brothers movies they saw in the old Times Square, and so they fashioned their monikers and on-the-mic personalities to be larger than life. One look at the schizophrenia of Eminem and his D-12 posse, and you can see the message was received.

- Almost all nine of them are really fuckin’ good!!
OK, so you have a group of nine MC’s. So what, right? But what if I told you that the best four – The GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man – could be included in the 20 best MC’s of the 90’s? That’s one fifth, a ridiculous level of dominance during the strongest decade of the music’s thirty years on wax. Not to mention that Inspectah Deck, The RZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard wouldn’t be far behind; Deck’s verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” is one of the few perfect verses in Hip-Hop. Wu-Tang ruled Hip-Hop for three solid years in the mid-90’s because they were good enough to hold on to the top of the mountain. Shit, when 36 Chambers was released, GZA had already been rapping for 17 years, since he was 10 years old, so there’s no wonder why he busts out the most memorable lines – remember, Wu-Tang “forms like Voltron, and GZA just happens to be the head” – from the baseball metaphors on “Clan In Da Front” to hilarious record industry one-liners on “Protect Ya Neck”, like “niggas so stingy they got short arms and deep pockets.” And, as they all had their characters, those characters came with distinct styles. When I got the album, I was almost immediately able to differentiate between all seven of the regulars, and so not only did they present an intriguing cast of characters like no one had ever heard, but they put themselves out there in a way that was easy to comprehend and digest.

- As MC’s, Wu-Tang were as raw as they were original
Just because you could tell them apart didn’t mean what they were saying would go down easy. Not only were Wu-Tang putting out there the same grim project realities as Nas was about to – the dangers of crime on “C.R.E.A.M.”, the HIV cautionary tale of “Tearz” – but they mixed it with their twisted slang pulled from those Kung Fu flicks and comic books, as well as 70’s TV, numerology, chess tactics, and teachings from the Islamic Five Percenters and Eastern philosophy (The group’s name comes from the Wudang holy mountain in central China, steeped in Taoism, ancient medicine, and martial arts). It was all woven so seamlessly into the style of the group right from the start, heavy duty darts for your brain that made Death Row sound one-dimensional. I think that’s why Method Man became the breakout star – because he had the most conventional sounding flow and the most lazy charisma of the group; he couldn’t be bothered most times to make a checkmate metaphor or even pull a jack move because he was way too fuckin’ baked out of his mind (Even still, an MC whose voice is defined by his omnipresent cottonmouth was still pretty revolutionary). On the “Torture” skit, you can’t take Meth seriously cuz you can tell he was laughing the whole time. That puts him, for the most part, in contrast to the rest of the Wu; he’s the jester to their knights in many ways. Ghost, Rae, Deck and GZA manage to cram a couple dozen threats into the first four minutes of the album, and “Bring Da Ruckus” definitely sets the tone for the rest of the record. Raekwon’s half of the “Torture” skit paints him as a deranged individual, the “literate, tight asshole” with his cracks and weed making his eyes bleed. If there was an Eazy-E in Wu-Tang, it was Rae, a wild stick-up kid and street-corner hustler with a Napoleon Complex who would eventually transcend his gimmick when his solo debut showed that he was more a genius of street business. Elsewhere, GZA “provokes niggas to kick buckets”, and ODB will “bite your muthafuckin’ ass”, while they both manage to talk about shitty drawers. Ghost is “hittin’ like a spiked bat” and “jettin’ like a runaway slave”, The RZA has you “open like fallopian tubes”, also noting that the Clan increases “like Black unemployment”, and Deck “slams tracks like quarterback sacks from L.T.”

- 36 Chambers wants to fight you
There were always rumors and legends of N.W.A. fuckin’ shit up, but looking back, why were they so dangerous? Cuz they were holding gats on their album covers? Eazy-E was just this little dude – not scary in any way, Dr. Dre was tossing Dee Barnes around, but you never heard of him throwing down for real, and Ice Cube looked real mean, but if he could be civil enough to make a Hollywood movie, he couldn’t be all that bad. When Wu emerged, their threats felt like when you first heard N.W.A., like you really didn’t want to know these dudes. While there definitely is some gunplay on the album – my mind immediately snaps to Raekwon’s cold-blooded shooting of a rival’s mother on “Can It Be All So Simple”, even as the rival begs him not to pull the trigger – it seems like every Wu MC just wants to beat your ass up, steal your sneakers, and stomp you one last time for good measure before taking off. The aggression on the album is palatable, a fascinating illustration of the defense mechanisms that ghetto males develop to handle day-to-day life; these men have brilliant enough minds to construct the various imaginative metaphors and similes on this album, but they haven’t figured out how to translate that quick thinking into a strategy for life instead of being menaces to society.

- The success of 36 Chambers gave underground Hip-Hop a jumpstart
This is the type of record that got pushed off of commercial radio in a second, forever relegated to the underground. But The Wu was too good to be ignored. Maybe it was the NYC fans wanting their own version of what the West Coast was proud of. But whatever the case, after the “Protect Ya Neck” single hit, Wu-Tang was wildfire. I think the platinum success of such a rough New York Hip-Hop act showed the country, and the world, that maybe there was a place for rough, left-of-center Hip-Hop on the charts. Before 36 Chambers, most of the Hip-Hop underground consisted of Rap albums either released or distributed by a major label that just didn’t do that well. But in the years following Wu-Tang’s arrival, all kinds of self-starting MC’s and producers started to take Wu’s lead, from No Limit to Rawkus. It was about not compromising what these artists felt was ‘true Hip-Hop’, not wanting to conform to major label expectations in order to make a career. And their gambles succeeded, even internationally, helping to spur on a healthy UK Hip-Hop scene that built through the late 90’s, culminating with Dizzee Rascal and the “Grime” sub-genre.

- Wu-Tang threw verse-chorus-verse structure out the fuckin’ window and just rhymed
I was talking about this album to a guy at work one day, and his complaint was that Wu-Tang never had any choruses, but that’s bullshit. The R&B hooks on 36 Chambers may be samples, but they’re still hooks, and they had choruses too – they’re just chants though, guys shouting in unison over the beat. To me, that’s more natural and organic. It’s been said many times that 36 Chambers sounds like everyone’s in one recording booth, knocking all the songs out in one weed-stimulated night, and the rhymes reflect that, more like a freestyle battle than anything – and where else would you have a bunch people standing around rappers, shouting along, but at a freestyle battle? This isn’t an accident – RZA had the Clan battling each other for the right to get on his beats, and so for each track, you’re hearing the best of the best for that beat, one of the many reasons that 36 Chambers is one of the few Rap classics with no weak cuts.

- 36 Chambers is the Hip-Hop Appetite For Destruction
In Rolling Stone’s original review for 36 Chambers, journalist Touré pointed out that the Wu-Tang Clan was breaking through on the back of their videos flooding the old NYC music video request channel The Box, and that, at the time, the Wu were to The Box what Guns N’ Roses were to MTV. Now, Touré was probably making a simple statement about the saturation of the groups’ videos, but his observation runs even deeper, and goes some way to explaining the power of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. The first thing a listener is confronted with when pressing play on 36 Chambers are some mysterious dialogue samples from a Kung Fu film, followed by The RZA yelling “BRING THE MUTHAFUCKIN’ RUCKUS!!” over and over. The shock is not unlike Axl Rose’s scream that opens “Welcome To The Jungle”. “Bring Da Ruckus” is one of the most terrifying songs of all time that first time you hear it in all the same ways that “Welcome To The Jungle” is. They are scary. They make you want to run. They are both confrontations of the new, putting all that came before on notice. The comparisons for the rest of the albums can be just as aligned. Commercial breakthroughs “Sweet Child Of Mine” and “C.R.E.A.M.” share a tension of uncertainty. “Clan In Da Front” and “Nighttrain” have the same darkness and forward momentum. The angry rush of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit” is easily parallel to “My Michelle” or “You’re Crazy” – take your pick. The all-encompassing roar of “Paradise City” equates to the onslaught of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”. And most telling, the aggression of “Protect Ya Neck” and the sensitivity of “Tearz”, sequenced successively, represent the duality of the two halves of the epic “Rocket Queen”. Of course, for both groups, what made them great on these albums was their hunger, and once they achieved success – as Raekwon puts it on the “Intermission”, “Once we get a little something, that’s when you know it’s on!” – their pretentious tendencies blew out the flame in the music and made the attempts to return to the ghetto seem somewhat hollow.

- 36 Chambers kickstarted the ‘Grimy Era’
That’s my name for it at least, that time from late 1993 until sometime in 1996; most people would call it ‘hardcore’. It ended when its proponents – Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang’s Raekwon, along with Jay-Z – became more interested in being seen as rich, black mafia than the product of the projects they used to scream allegiance to. It was a new permutation of ‘Gangsta’. Wu-Tang didn’t talk about gangs and colors like the West Coast, and the mob (and Tony Montana) comparisons didn’t come until later. Even talk of hustling drugs is marginalized because the Wu MC’s spend so much time talking about the myriad of ways they’re going to beat the shit out of you. Listening to 36 Chambers was a clear message: if you come to Shaolin (aka Staten Island), prepare to experience Hell courtesy of these street corner thugs, dubbing themselves the Wu-Tang killa bees because they swarm on their victims. It’s important to note that seven of the nine members are felons. U-God and Masta Killa barely register on the album because they were incarcerated during recording, though both turn in excellent verses on “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”. Unlike the sunny Funk that Dr. Dre was piecing together, The RZA, who was beating an attempted murder charge during the making of the album, created his beats to reflect not only the brashness of the lyrics, but of the gloomy world that inspired those lyrics. And that sound was appealing to a lot of new talent that was looking for their way in the door. Nas’s Illmatic definitely benefited from 36 Chambers being out for a few months in the marketplace, and after Nas, Mobb Deep snatched up the Wu-Tang vibe, and used it to forge their great “The Infamous…” Even Wu-Tang’s gritty videos informed the new movement, parodied in The Roots’ classic “How We Do” video – the beatdown shot, the mansion rented for the shoot, the massive posse of thugs in the background, posing with Beemers and Benzes, etc.

- The RZA’s production style became the template for Hip-Hop beats in the mid-90’s
Listening to 36 Chambers, I can’t help but think that in some way, Dr. Dre missed an opportunity. His solo debut and introduction of his protégé Snoop, the title track for the Deep Cover soundtrack was everything that RZA would prefect – brittle, obsidian funk highlighted by sharp piano stabs and an atmosphere of creeping doom. I’d imagine that “Deep Cover” was Dre’s attempt to keep up with the brilliance of Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs. Muggs was, in late 1991 and into 1992, making the best tracks in Hip-Hop. In their pre-Wu careers, RZA and GZA were trying to do a 180, and there’s no doubt that they heard stuff like Cypress Hill, “Deep Cover”, and even Redman’s debut, Whut? Thee Album, as a sign that it was time to make music that they wanted to make. RZA’s landmark production sound has a few sonic signatures; the first is of course the piano. Heavily influenced by Jazz giants like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, his playing acts as both melody and punctuation, sometimes sounding like he’s just banging away, and the piano is frequently treated to sound slightly out of tune. That piano spread across all of Hip-Hop and R&B for years – Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” springs to mind. RZA’s beats were as dusty and cracked as he could get them, almost taking on a churning, industrial quality, much like the car plants of Detroit influenced Motown; to move the rhythm, he used the massiveness of the Wu posse, whether chanting “Wu Wu Wu” in “Clan In Da Front” or piping off with the ‘doo ahh’s of “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”. The soul samples on “Can It Be All So Simple” and “Tearz” were direct influences on Kanye West and Just Blaze. RZA favored mournful organ, detuned zithers and thriller strings, chopped and left with jagged edges, while the bass was huge, blown out and buzzing. Finally, he soaked the tracks in the analog murk of early Funkadelic, a claustrophobic fog that spread around the genre and touched anyone producing or rapping in the mid 90’s, from the drama of 2Pac and Eminem, the thuggery of Mobb Deep and DMX, the twisted funk of Redman and Biggie, not to mention the dozens upon dozens of one-hit wonders and forgotten MC’s, from O.C. to Jeru The Damaja.

- 36 Chambers saved New York Hip-Hop
In the early 90’s, New York Hip-Hop was at a stage when all the new school artists that had broken through in the late 80’s were settling into their careers. They had lost their hunger, the charts littered with tepid third or fourth albums by artists who had revolutionized the genre with their first two albums getting passed by Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Public Enemy and LL’s Mama Said were hittin’, but most of the advances were made by the forward looking Native Tongues (36 Chambers was released the same day as Tribe’s Midnight Marauders). Dr. Dre had finally taken the focus of the entire genre off P.E., and put it on the West Coast, now at the top of the Hip-Hop game with The Chronic. And it looked like Dre’s G-Funk era was going to be a long reign, but as his refurbished P-Funk synths and rubbery bass glided across the airwaves, there were rumblings in NYC. EPMD’s Hit Squad had yielded the ‘funk doctor’ Redman, and the Boot Camp, led by Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun, were stirring the pot for the coming filth. RZA and GZA went through the dark days in NYC, signed and releasing forgettable Pop-Rap that their A&R men told them to. They flipped their lives around in order to follow their artistic hearts, and in the process realized the answer was to roll around in the figurative mud. Hammer’s Pop and Dre’s sunny BBQs didn’t reflect their everyday lives. 36 Chambers was a watershed moment because it was shocking to a Hip-Hop world that had stopped being shocked. Before Wu, almost no one in NYC was talking about the drug trade and gang violence; they drew a new map for East Coast MC’s. And one thing’s for sure, no one expected Wu-Tang to bury the West Coast, but they eventually did just that, opening the flood gates for New York to prove its mettle. The next six months saw a Hip-Hop Renaissance, from Ready To Die to Illmatic, straight from the basements and street corners of the 5 boroughs that birthed the music, and Wu-Tang were the ones that lead the charge.

– Shaolin Introduction
01. “Bring Da Ruckus”
02. “Shame On A Nigga”
– Wu-Tang Killa Bees interlude
03. “Clan In Da Front”
– Raekwon’s Killer tape interlude
04. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber”
- Back in the day interlude
05. “Can It All Be So Simple”
– Intermission
06. “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”
07. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit”
08. “C.R.E.A.M.”
– Torture interlude
09. “Method Man”
– Radio request interlude
10. “Protect Ya Neck”
11. “Tearz”
12. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber – Part II” (remix)
– “Conclusion”

"Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'" [video]

"C.R.E.A.M." [video]

"Method Man" [video - version 2]

"Protect Ya Neck" [video]

- BONUS: "Bring Da Ruckus" [live in NYC, 07.07]
- BONUS: "Bring Da Ruckus" [audio]
- BONUS: "Shame On A Nigga" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Shame On A Nigga" [audio]
- BONUS: "Clan In Da Front" [GZA solo; live in NYC, 12.07]
- BONUS: "Clan In Da Front" [audio]
- BONUS: "7th Chamber" [audio]
- BONUS: "Can It Be All So Simple" [video]
- BONUS: "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing To Fuck Wit/Shame On A Nigga" [video]
- BONUS: "C.R.E.A.M." [live on The Arsenio Hall Show, 1994]
- BONUS: "Method Man" [video - original version]
- BONUS: ODB ranting/"Protect Ya Neck" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Protect Ya Neck" [live on Uptown Comedy Club, 1993]
- BONUS: "Tearz" [live in Cali, 07.04]
from the Disciples Of The 36 Chmabers DVD
- BONUS: "7th Chamber, Part II" [audio]
"C.R.E.A.M./Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit/Shame On A Nigga" [live in Cali, 07.04]
from the Disciples Of The 36 Chmabers DVD

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