20 years on: how the Wu-Tang Clan changed hip-hop
This week, ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, the debut album by New York hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, turned 20 years old. Surfacing at a pivotal moment for the genre, the album marked a step-change in the sound of east coast rap for much of the next decade.
Although some of the nine-strong outfit had grown up in Brooklyn, the group—comprising Method Man, The Gza (also known as the Genius), Ghostface Killah, Raekwon the Chef, Masta Killa, U-God, Inspectah Deck, the Rza (the producer and central figurehead of the band) and of course the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard—was formed in New York’s forgotten fifth borough, unfashionable Staten Island. Traditionally a hip-hop no-man’s land, this immediately lent the Clan an outsider status in a perennially territorial genre where Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and, by November 1993, Los Angeles routinely battled for supremacy.
The group’s mystique was further bolstered by an apparent obsession with old Hong Kong kung-fu flicks: they renamed their Staten Island stomping ground Shaolin in a nod to Gordon Liu’s 1983 movie Shaolin And Wu Tang (from which they also sampled snippets of dialogue). They declared themselves “Wu-Tang killer bees on a swarm” and compared their rhyme styles to deadly martial arts techniques. Yet between the kung-fu violence and frenetic raps, the album was loaded with black humour: wonderfully daft skits about torture fantasies sat next to gags about hopeless A&R officials and useless record labels. The presence of human hand-grenade Ol’ Dirty Bastard didn’t hurt either.
The album’s standout track was ‘C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)’, which was built around a timeless piano loop pulled from The Charmels’ ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’ (1967) and was perhaps the most vivid and compelling get-rich-or-die-trying street narrative since Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo’s ‘Road To The Riches’ from 1989. Coupled with the Clan’s self-released debut single ‘Protect Ya Neck’—which contained some fairly caustic barbs aimed squarely at the record industry—it made the group’s plans for rap domination sound like pretty gripping stuff.
But if the Wu-Tang strategy for an industry takedown wasn’t bold enough, the accompanying soundtrack was possibly even more radical. Five years earlier, Public Enemy hadn’t so much rewritten rap’s rulebook on their landmark ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ album, as put it through the shredder and glued it back together, rendering it unrecognisable. Public Enemy’s music piled sample upon sample, drum break upon drum break, which created a dense barrage of noise unlike anything else heard before. The Rza’s weird lo-fi collage of dusty drum beats, often-muffled vocals, off-key piano snippets and defective guitar stabs from old obscure 70s soul records had a rough, demo-like quality which, like Public Enemy in ‘88, set it firmly apart from the rest of the rap pack. The production was a million miles away from both the pristine sun-scorched G-Funk of Los Angeles’ production kingpin Dr Dre and the breezy jazz-funk loops which dominated east coast hip-hop at the time.
The Clan’s rough-and-ready back-to-basics approach would ultimately shape the sound and style of east coast rap for much of the 90s. ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’ emerged at a turning point for US hip-hop and, together with Notorious B.I.G. and Nas in 1994, helped wrench the music’s centre of gravity back eastwards to New York—hip-hop’s de facto capital city—following a few years of dominance by L.A. artists such as Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill. The Clan’s haunting-piano-loop-welded-to-a-minimal-drum-beat signature sound pretty much became east coast street rap’s calling card for some years after.
With rap’s history books crammed full of tales of artists being messed about and ripped off by crooked record labels (both the Rza and the Gza had solo record deals that had collapsed some years prior to the Wu-Tang’s formation), the group took charge of their own affairs and helped kick-start the idea of the rapper-as-music-mogul, long before Jay-Z and P. Diddy’s boardroom power moves. A unique clause in the Clan’s contract with Loud Records permitted each of the nine band members the freedom to pursue separate contracts with rival record companies and create their own independent labels, effectively making them competing artists in the marketplace – a move then unheard of in the music industry.
Indeed, dig a bit deeper, and you’d also quite likely find traces of the Wu-Tang’s anti-industry, anti-commercial ethos in the boom in independent hip-hop during the late 1990s, which threw up celebrated cutting-edge underground labels like Fondle ‘Em, Rawkus and Hydra.
Each group member went on to release solo projects in the years to follow, with both Ghostface Killah and Raekwon delivering their own classic albums. ODB tragically died of a drug overdose in 2004, and subsequent group works from the Clan, while still solid, lacked the verve and immediacy of their debut. Their grimy, roughcast sound would be supplanted by Timbaland’s futuristic sonics by the turn of the millennium, and the following decades saw superstars like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem far surpass the Wu-Tang at least in terms of commercial success.
Yet, 20 years after its release, ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’ remains a striking debut album by any measure, a certified masterpiece of the genre, and a genuine ‘90s pop music landmark. Bring the mother-f***ing ruckus.Tagged in: Ghostface Killah, hip hop, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, music, Raekwon the Chef, The Gza, the Rza, U-God, Wu Tang Clan
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