I've written before about the countless CDs littering my car, about half-cracked cases and fraying cardboard covers I hold on to because of their vitality. I'm unwilling (or unable) to part with them because they all occupy a special place in my cluttered musical brain. Some are recent additions like Yeezus or Wise Up Ghost, while others have been around for a minute; surviving countless scratches and lost cases. Anchoring one of these cluttersome piles in my car is the Wu-Tang Clan's debut 1993 record Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). For me it's the foundation, the enduring anchor. Still in its original case, it's stuck with me like the gum under the table of bulldozing posse-cut "Protect Your Neck". When I first purchased the album, I'd already been orbiting hip-hop writ large, but Enter the Wu-Tang was my entryway into the underground. A ticket to a sideshow of: comic book villainy, wanton violence, and kung-fu flicks. With the record turning 20 over the weekend, I decided it was time to return to the land of Shaolin.
As a gateway into the warped world of the W, "Bring Da Ruckus" decaying drums and deadly-accurate snaps remain an all-time classic. For quotable samples, few in the annals of rap rival "Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style...". When two close friends and I pilgrimaged to Chicago's Congress Theatre to see the crew, the whole crowd was in unison repeating the line as it blared out the house speakers. Ghostface Killah's gusto-filled introduction has become mantra in my mind. Self-assured and frenetically paced, his threats "causing terror, quick damage your whole era" were harried, like he had another hit to scurry off to across town. In terms of one-two acts, few in any context can rival the Ghost/Raekwon pairing that sends this track into the stratosphere. Ghost is the rabid attack dog and Raekwon the Mafioso figure holding the muzzle. GZA's warning shot to the world is assassin caliber. His next level internal rhyme-scheme delivered on the promise of the “God MC” Rakim and had the salvo of a bitter veteran whose debut LP met the sound of crickets. And that's just the opening track.
An album spilling this much viscera circa 1993 was almost unthinkable. Sure hip-hop was littered with promises of violence before, though never quite this joyful. When Method Man's dusty voice resolves to "sever the head from the shoulders" over the infernal horns of "Shame On A N****" it’s the by-product of there being nothing good on TV that night. As a marble-mouthed U-God rushes in to announce a shooting outside, Meth is still concerned with a missing tape. A full two years before Mobb Deep promised to stab brains with nose brain, the Wu was concocting skits focused on banging nuts with spiked bats and force-feeding unwilling participants (assholes sewn shut of course). When hip-hop critics derisively label it "cartoonish violence" this is the album they mean to cite, but never do.
And there is an almost cartoony or comic-like way in which these nine MCs joined together for a hostile takeover. The origin story begins with two cousins, the RZA and the GZA each nursing their own wounds from failed record deals. While GZA put pen to paper and crafted dense tales of "God squad that's mad hard to serve, come fronting hard, then Bernhard Goetz what he deserves", cousin Robert Diggs began scouring the depths of soul/funk samples with the fervor of a gravedigger who loves his job a bit too much. If it were ever possible to hear dirt on a record, RZA made it so. Vocals don't crisply travel through speakers, they float in disembodied fashion. "Can It All Be So Simple" offers its own origin story as told by a ghost. Elsewhere, drums rattle and clank like bones. Guitars, pianos, and keyboards travel in broken loops, decaying in real time. Frequently the group was just shooting the breeze, but fitted atop RZA's atmospheric production even the endearing lines register as threats. Here "the sound of the underground" is more literal than figurative.
Slowly the seven other crew members gathered together, "forming like Voltron". Rap groups were commonplace when the Wu began, but never this unwieldy or spirited. There was: "Genius" GZA, spliff-puffing/s***-talking Method Man (whose rugged amiability guaranteed he'd be the first with a solo record), Raekwon weighing grams in the backroom with a fierce scowl, Ghostface's full-speed ahead delivery. U-God's leaden voice only appeared on the drunken double-dutch of "Da Mystery of Chessboxin" (he was incarcerated for much of the recording), but his sole verse packed a mighty wallop. The criminally underrated Inspectah Deck made up for a less-than-stellar personality through an eagle-eyed rap perspective. Few hard knock tales have ever expressed as much anguish as Deck's legendary second verse in "C.R.E.A.M." where jail bids are served at 15 and stray bullets become commonplace. Masta Killa's ferocious turn on aforementioned "Chessboxin" corroborates the now mythic-story he stayed up all-night writing to gain entrance into the group. And then there's the Ol' Dirty Bastard, named so because "there ain't no father to his style". In an alternate write-up, I'd spend its entire length and breadth fawning about the now-deceased ODB. In a group bursting at the seams with oversized personalities, his looms largest. The man known as Russell Jones' rap "style" has been described as everything from "drunken" to "seesawing" and "sing-song". More frequently he stumbles, composing himself only to bark out a threat or recount the time he got burnt by gonorrhea. More than a feral animal anthropomorphized and taught to rap, he was the group’s irregular heartbeat.
All those stray elements and fragments coalesce into the alien Enter the Wu-Tang. Debut albums have rarely come as insular as this. Not sure what "jakes" are? Then you're out of luck. Never seen a kung-fu film or B-movie schlock; this fraught world will make no sense to you. And yet here we are celebrating its 20th anniversary as it’s routinely heralded as one of the greatest hip-hop records released. Wu-Tang didn't kowtow to the prevailing wisdom of the era (innovators rarely do). We met them on their own terms. Two decades later and they still "ain't nothing to f*** with". If Wu-Tang really is forever (and recent in-house fighting calls that into question), this was the album that ensured their eternality.