November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan’s landmark album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and the Three Dudes (Liam Green, Jacob Roeschley and Colin Neagle) are here with knowledge and reminiscences on the rap collective that quite literally changed the music world. While reading, we’d highly advise listening to the following Spotify playlist, which contains 36 Chambers and three hours’ worth of choice cuts from Wu members’ solo albums.
Colin and Jake, word is bond. Let’s get busy. While reading, we’d highly advise listening to the following Spotify playlist, which contains 36 Chambers and two hours’ worth of choice cuts from Wu members’ solo albums.
Happy Wu-versary to you guys, to everyone reading this, to my man Kelly Woo from the Gavin, Will Strickland, Jason Staton. May you avoid the Black Land and may your cup runneth over with fuckin’ Killer tapes on this, the holiest of days.
Oh wow, I just wrote 750+ words on Wu-Tang as a cultural movement. I’m Colin, by the way.
The first Wu-Tang Clan song I ever heard was “Protect Ya Neck,” but it wasn’t while listening to Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. I was probably 14 at the time, in the midst of The Great War of the Parental Advisory Sticker with my parents. I was with my mother browsing used CDs at a comic book store in my hometown, and I found the X-Games Soundtrack Volume 2. It didn’t have a parental advisory sticker, and the track listing boasted several cool names I could drop later in my middle school cafeteria, so it was a win-win.
I should add that I wasn’t into hip-hop at all at that age. If you were a younger teenager in the late 90s, you’ll remember that you weren’t allowed to listen to both hip-hop and punk/pop-punk/alt-rock. In middle school, lines were drawn between fans of certain kinds of music. Gravitating away from the pop-punk that most of my friends at the time listened to meant ostracizing myself from those friends. I knew this very well when I bought the X-Games Soundtrack Volume 2, but I bought it fully planning to listen only to Sublime and Bush and The Prodigy.
So I popped this album into my portable CD player and let it ride every time I walked my dog. For whatever reason – maybe my hands were busy scooping up dog shit with a plastic bag – I didn’t skip over “Protect Ya Neck” one time, and I found myself liking it. None of my friends were around, so I let my defenses down and allowed myself to like something genuinely for what it was. That’s a rare thing for a teenager.
I remember hitting the repeat button one day and rapping along with my Southpole hoodie up as I walked the family Standard Poodle around our white suburban neighborhood. It was the edited version, which is why that CD didn’t have a Parental Advisory sticker. To this day, I can sing along to that song without swearing once. I particularly remember the breaks, pauses, and record-scratch effects played over the curses in Ol’ Dirty’s verse. For a long time, it was the only version of the song I knew, until I met a friend who had Napster and sold me copies of 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Forever and Iron Flag for $10 a pop. Not everyone listened to Wu-Tang that much where I grew up, but everybody knew what the Wu was. It was by far the most popular symbol carved into study hall desks or scribbled on bathroom stalls. Even if you didn’t know their music, you knew Wu-Tang was a big deal.
What’s amazing is that Wu-Tang still has this is the kind of impact. Drake made a track called “Wu-Tang Forever” on his latest album Nothing Was The Same, just months after RZA released a kung-fu movie he directed (The Man With the Iron Fists). Action Bronson is simultaneously criticized and praised for his similarities to Ghostface Killah, which culminated in a collaboration between the two. A$AP Rocky showed admiration for Danny Brown by comparing him to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Danny Brown reluctantly accepted it. Raekwon and RZA were both featured on several albums released this year. In an article for Grantland on RZA’s career arc, Sean Fennessey provided context to Wu-Tang’s peak by declaring, “There is no Kanye West without this period.” Few would disagree.
Wu-Tang makes no sense as a popular rap group, even less when considering they emerged at a time when rap was overtly gangsta (NWA, Dre, etc.), obnoxiously vapid (Bad Boy), or deep and poetic (Tupac Shakur, although Pac had his obnoxious/thug moments). Here, you get a group of 20-something-year-olds who make-believe that they’re a ninja collective, and named their rap group after an obscure martial arts flick. Their music is great, but it’s so gritty that it seems to disregard commercial appeal entirely. Listen to 36 Chambers and remember that it was made in the age of MTV dominance and Tipper Gore, and you’ll find it hard to believe Wu-Tang would go further than groups like Onyx or Dilated Peoples.
Whatever you may think about the quality of any of the above-mentioned modern homages to Wu-Tang, or even about Wu-Tang itself, is irrelevant. They could be good or they could be trash. Either way, people today still know it’s a big deal.
My Wu-Tang Clan introduction came at 14, through a super-stupid compilation disc that paired Loud Records rappers (like the Wu) with nu-metal bands in the early 2000s to do covers. It boasted a System of a Down cover of “Shame On a Nigga” that featured a bizarre RZA verse about bringing some white dudes with hockey sticks along on a trip to whoop somebody’s ass. (Or maybe to Woodstock? It’s weird.) The SOAD take on “Shame” wasn’t complete shit, though, if only because it prompted this skinny white and (at the time) gothy motherfucker to type “Wu-Tang” into Kazaa’s search window. (Yeah yo, who remembers Kazaa?)
Starting with “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit,” I went down a rabbit hole full of cinematic, religious and cultural references I only began to understand much later, pristine wordplay, a unique ability to intersperse menace with devastating humor and – perhaps most interesting to me – poignant storytelling prowess that put me in the moment of every song as closely as if it were a great novel.
Did I mention humor? The first time you hear the “torture, motherfucker!” skit that begins “Method Man,” you don’t know whether you should be appalled or laugh your ass off, but quickly you realize it’s the latter. Raekwon and Method Man are clearly high and describing truly disgusting punishments for each other. I always thought “I’ll fuckin hang you by your fuckin dick out a fuckin 12-story building in this motherfucker” takes the cake for pure ridiculousness, even more than the “feedin’ you” bit. Listening to it, it’s like all the lame history of rap skits that came after 1993 is erased because long ago, dudes knew how to make them funny and work within the context of an album.
Enough people have talked about 36 Chambers itself on countless sites, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it’s a perfect record. IN EVERY WAY. It’s so great people barely remember that Wu-Tang has two more great records that follow it (Forever, The W), and two decent-to-good ones after that (Iron Flag and 8 Diagrams). (Yes, I just said that 8 Diagrams is actually pretty good, because it is. Listen to “Unpredictable” – it’s on the playlist – and shut up.) Then there are at least a dozen solo records from various members that are good to great – some, like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx I and II, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale and Supreme Clientele, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers and arguably Method Man’s Tical, capable of standing next to or near Enter the Wu-Tang on the list of the greatest rap albums of all time.
The storytelling in the Wu’s best work is probably what drew me in the most. Look at “Tearz” or Inspectah Deck’s verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” from 36 Chambers, or the unflinchingly detailed crime narratives that make up both Cuban Linx albums, or Ghostface Killah’s second-to-second account of a heist gone wrong on “Shakey Dog,” off Fishscale. It’s unmatched, in my view – most of these guys could be novelists or screenwriters if they wanted to. And for a group known for its griminess, there’s plenty of earnest emotion within the catalog – see Ghost’s “All That I Got is You” or Method Man’s “All I Need.”
As Colin explained, the importance of the Wu extends far beyond their music. They emerged fully formed, with a distinct sound, universe and mythology that quite literally has no precedent, and that is what has guaranteed their longevity. It’s why people can quote whole skits and rap along with intricate verses line for line. It’s why fans often get smiles on their faces when they remember the first time they heard this wholly unique rap group.
Will people still be celebrating Wu-Tang Clan 30, 40 or 50 years from now? I can say they most likely will, and that the only hip-hop figures that would deserve that type of canonization (among living rappers) would be Jay-Z, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, OutKast and possibly Eminem and Kanye West. Among the current crop of genre stars, only Kendrick Lamar even comes close to showing that level of potential. The Wu reached for and attained transcendence, not stardom, and even if we never hear another new group album or legendary solo record from them, our culture is all the better for their contributions to it.
I’m going to keep this one short. Instead of 500 words of Wu-praise, I present to you a recording of the GZA’s “Liquid Swords” with all vocals by me, all music/beats by my Casio, all movie samples by me. This is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever posted on the internet.
*Gently places the mic on the ground*
Always a show-off, Jake. Next column, we should take your suggestion and invent absurd fictional scenarios to explain the mystery of Raekwon’s missing Killer tape.
Liam, Jake and Colin can be most easily reached on Twitter at @liamchgreen, @jroeschley and @colinneagle, or in the comments section.