Still Bringing the Ruckus: Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers turns 20

My original copy of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
My original copy of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.

From the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again

The RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killer and the Method Man.

My grade nine girlfriend (who I’ll call Mable after the Goldfinger song we both listened to) introduced me to the Wu-Tang Clan. It was right around the time the Clan dropped their second classic album, Wu-Tang Forever. That album, and even more so, 36 Chambers, forever changed the way I listened to music and got me back into Hip Hop. At the time I was listening to a lot of alternative and punk music, and Wu-Tang synthesized the hard anti-assimilative sound of punk and alternative I admired, and fused it with incredibly verbose, funny, and cerebral lyrics. Heck, there was even a whole mythos around the group and their incorporation of the Shaolin Kung fu theme.

The distinctive sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) created a blueprint for hardcore Hip Hop during the 1990s. Its idiosyncratic sound also became hugely influential in modern Hip Hop production, while the group members’ explicit, humorous, free-associative lyrics have served as a template for many Hip Hop artists. The caustic and bizarre humour, theatrical personalities, cerebral storytelling, and the variety of lyrical technicians contribute to crafting an album that is full of play: martial arts metaphors, an unlimited supply of pop culture references, and a hyperbolic approach to lyrical violence are negotiated as different emcees trade off verses. Much of the sonic improvisation on 36 Chambers is the result of phonetic dialogism between sounds that mesh surprisingly well. RZA describes that he would start “sampling one note and playing it on different notes of the keyboard [. . .] chopping things down to notes and chords, not knowing which chords they were but knowing them as sounds” (Manual 197). It is this free rhythm and free style that help define the musical/linguistic aspect of Wu-Tang, influenced by African oral traditions of rhythmic talk-singing (signifying), recalling similar musical lines while also absorbing the entire gamut of popular culture.

The group’s de facto leader RZA, produced the album with heavy, eerie beats and a sound largely based on martial-arts movie clips and soul music samples, ensuring that the samples dialogically speak to one another. RZA describes the process of creating the sound on the album as belonging to a tradition pioneered by jazz pianists such as Monk and Bill Evans. He says:

I know that a sound I became known for at the beginning was that detuned acoustic piano zither—those creepy notes that quiver in the air. It’s the kind of sound you hear in ‘7th Chamber,’ ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin,’ and a bunch of other joints. It’s funny when people ask me the inspiration for it, because, to be honest, it was jazz pianists—mostly Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk—but the fact is I played most of it myself. (Manual 191)

To read more about the jazz influences on 36 Chambers, particularly Wu-Tang’s sampling and recontextualization of Monk’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” in their song, “Shame on a Nigga,” check out my article, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers.” The complexity of the music, the unique sound, and the absolute fun of 36 Chambers keep it on constant circulation on my iPod, or spinning on my turntable. I am a devotee of 36 Chambers, and over the years I’ve memorized lines and verses, vocal inflections, and still find the album refreshing after not listening to it for a while. Every track is a standout cut, but “Bring the Rukus,” “Shame on a Nigga,” “Protect Your Neck,” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” display the power and synchronicity of the Clan, and really get me hyped.

While I bought the first four Wu albums on CD, before I got big into wax, I’ve managed to acquire various Wu-Tang albums on vinyl over the years: the “Triumph” single, the deluxe Chess box version of Gza’s Liquid Swords, the original “C.R.E.A.M” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” single, an original copy of 36 Chambers, and my most prized piece of Wu-Tang wax, a copy of “Protect Your Neck”/ “After the Laughter Comes Tears” circa 1992 on Wu-Tang Records pressed in RZA’s basement (limited to 500 copies). As Rza explains: “We pressed five hundred copies and sold it directly to record stores and Djs. This was before the Internet and the whole direct-to-buyer explosion” (Manual 75). Initially Wu-Tang was part of the Tommy Boy roster, but the label made the decision to sign the all-white group, House of Pain instead. RZA describes that when his group was dropped he felt bamboozled, since they “‘chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me’” (73). Not long after on November 9th, 1993, 36 Chambers was released on Loud Records.

My very rare copy of the first pressing of "Protect Your Neck" pressed on Wu-Tang Records.
My very rare copy of the first pressing of “Protect Ya Neck,” pressed on Wu-Tang Records.
Chess box edition of Gza's Liquid Swords (limited to 750 copies, Record Store Day find).
Chess box edition of Gza’s Liquid Swords (limited to 750 copies, Record Store Day find).

In 2010 at the Rock the Bells festival in San Francisco, I had the privilege of listening to 36 Chambers live in its entirety with all remaining members present (with Boy Jones, ODB’s first-born son, filling in for his father). It was, of course, absolutely fantastic. The album is rightfully included in RollingStone’s Top 500 albums (sitting at 387), although it should be higher up, and currently the Wu are touring in honour of the 20th Anniversary of 36 Chambers. A seminal record in the Hip Hop lexicon, 36 Chambers is to Hip Hop what the Beatles’ St. Pepper is to rock. Long live Hip Hop’s original dynasty.

images-4images-4images-4images-4images-4(5 spins out of 5, classic)

 

Works Cited

RZA. The Wu-Tang Manual. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

This post was partially adapted from my article, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers.”

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