Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Christopher R. Weingarten

By Christopher R. Weingarten

on 02.21.12 in Reviews

Enter The Wu-Tang

Wu-Tang Clan

Enter The Wu-Tang is the Velvet Underground & Nico of ’90s hip-hop a glorious muddle that made it safe not to merely color outside the lines but to scribble in the margins. Like a punk-rock response to Dr. Dre‘s baroque gangsta-pop arrangements, the raw-no-trivia Wu-Tang Clan emerged from out of nowhere at the tail end of 1993 or seemingly out of nowhere, as their home borough of Staten Island hadn’t contributed much to rap beyond the pillow-soft Force M.D.’s. Hip-hop was becoming lush enough to sample the THX woosh, but Wu-Tang producer Robert “RZA” Diggs was dead-set on keeping it ugly, borrowing dust-worn VHS clips of kung-fu flicks. The Wu was equal parts cinema and free-association mind-bending poetry and skits that detailed drug sales, crime narratives and blood on the hot concrete so the sonics had to be grimy, lo-fi, flickering, grim, real. The sound of their drums alone, rusty thwomps mutated by distortion, would push once-popular rollicking James Brown breaks into the old school, setting the gnarled tone for a half-decade of New York rap. And, oh yeah, there were nine nine! phenomenal MC’s without a bit of deadweight in the bunch, each one with style as unique and realized as the comic book characters they worshipped: Method Man’s hissing drool-suck, Raekwon’s effortless word-tumble, Ghostface‘s nasal scattershot, GZA’s musky matter-of-factness and the screeching, atonal dementia of class cut-up Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Not to mention RZA, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa thorny wordsmiths, each strong enough to be stars in their own right, though quickly overshadowed by the crew’s more oversized personalities. Raised mostly in the Park Hill and Stapleton projects of Staten Island, the Wu-Tang Clan were isolated from Manhattan by a 90-minute ferry-and-subway trek. In response, they created their own universe. They redubbed their borough “Shaolin,” and by the time they released their debut, the crew had built an entire mythology: a swirl of kung fu flicks and mobster lore, Five Percent Nation teachings and Eastern philosophy, dozens of colorful nicknames, slang so impenetrable that even the most classic tracks need annotated notes (see RZA’s book The Wu-Tang Manual). And, of course, there’s a hazy blend of samples taken from records RZA pillaged from East Village record store Beat Street and sidewalk sales. Classic soul, funk, jazz, even the Underdog theme, were dragged across his smudged-microscope slides. RZA’s ear for the moody and unprocessed created an ethereal vibe that turned hardcore street narratives into film noir.