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Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chamber) is an album that my mum probably wouldn’t let me listen to if I knew who Wu-Tang Clan were when I was younger. There’s swearing, violent lyrics and a lot of yelling. That’s the surface level review of Enter the Wu-Tang, and what many middle aged white families would have thought in the 90s when this album was released, and when their thirteen-year-old son/daughter came home from school rapping ‘Bring da motherfuckin’ ruckus’. And parents thought listening to the heavy metal was bad.
Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal debut album is classed as one of the most important and influential hip-hip albums of all time. It changed the landscape of hip-hop and no other band has really been able to shake the influence that Wu-Tang made back in 1993; one of the best years in hip-hop with A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album Midnight Marauders released as well. Wu-Tang revolutionised what it meant to be a group in hip-hop, straying from the West-Coast gang vibe that N.W.A perfected in the late 80s, and reinvigorated the West Coast hip-hop scene that would later influence Nas, Jay Z, Biggie, and even MF Doom and Kanye later down the road. Wu-Tang’s cacophonous and ruthless energy is so visceral on their debut, mostly thanks to the large amount of members in the group, and the fact that many of them around the mic at the same time. In ’93, Wu-Tang consisted of their leader RZA (pronounced rizza/ˈrɪzə/ RIZ-ə), GZA (Jizza/ˈdʒɪzə/ JIZ-ə), Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Masta Killa, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B), Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, 4th Disciple, and U-God. What was more impressive was the mindset of each member. They understood the importance of the group and reinvented what it meant to be a hip-hop group. Wu-Tang would act as a launching platform for their own albums or solo careers. They proved this to be successful after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), many of the members signed deals to separate record companies, though Wu-Tang remained signed to RZA’s label Razer Sharp Records. RZA called it a financial movement. It’s interesting to understand in the context of Enter the Wu-Tang, as upon first listen many people think of it to be another gang-banger-affiliated record. Yet the idea of a financial movement in hip-hop, and sticking around as a collective is something we’ve seen again with the likes of Odd Future and now recently BROCKHAMPTON. But enough of business talk, is the album really that good?
Opening the album is Bring Da Ruckus, beginning with a sample from the Kung Fu flick Shaoilin and Wu Tang. Kung Fu samples play a vital role in Wu-Tang Clan’s music, they frequently sample quotes from various martial arts movies giving their music a dangerous energy; a technique that MF Doom would go on and adapt. A simple break beat plays as RZA raps the hook, “Bring da motherfuckin’ ruckas, bring da motherfuckin’ ruckas”. Any mid-west white family in 90s USA would be kneeling in front of their hanging cruxifix, rosary beads in hand, praying the hip-hop away. Ghostface chimes in, “Ghostface catch the blast of a hype verse, My Glock burst, leave in a hearse, I did worse.” Even though the instrumentation is minimal, RZA’s production in this album would later set the benchmark for hardcore hip-hop. The break beat continues throughout, its simplicity reminiscent of Golden Era Run D.M.C, but it’s the subtle deep piano notes that ring out underneath that give Wu-Tang a sinister tone. It’s brilliant.
The instrumentation and energy heighten in Shame on a Nigga, mixing soul samples against the classic break beat. O.D.B begins, his kooky unpredictable delivery allows him to easily stand out amongst his peers. The infectious energy of Wu-Tang continues as other members chime in to end verses, as if it’s a tag-team fight; each member is trying to outdo one another. It’s something rarely seen in today’s hip-hop, featured artists record their verse separately from the artist and it’s cut and pasted together in a disconnected society.
Wu-Tang rap around jazzy samples in Clan in Da Front and Wu Tang: 7th Chamber, the latter being on of my favourite tracks off the record. After an aggressive yet comical skit between five of the ten members, that would have served better as it’s on track, 7th Chamber begins. The simple yet catchy jazz instrumentation serves as the perfect backbone for Wu-Tang to mess around, this track is one of the best examples of the group’s chemistry. Various members showcase their personality in their verses; once again O.D.B shines with his off-centre approach to his delivery. It’s psychotic.
Wu-Tang show their stylish diversity in Can It Be So Simple, the jazzy soul sample is slower, but Raekwon delivers a clever and passionate verse. RZA showcases further clever production, adding a key change as Ghostface’s higher vocals come into play. On surface level it sounds like a bunch of ruthless thugs rapping, but there’s smart and deliberate musical techniques at play here.
Eighth track, C.R.E.A.M, is one of my favourite hip-hop tracks of all time. Blending a piano melody from soul band The Charmels against a hip-hop break beat is one of the most satisfying samples of all time. Raekwon once again delivers a clever and down to earth verse, “But it was just a dream for the teen who was a fiend, Started smokin’ woolas at 16, And runnin’ up in gates and doin’ hits for high stakes, Makin’ my way on fire escapes”. His rhyming pattern shows sophistication and playfulness, the same can be said for much of Wu-Tang, in an era where rhymes were delivered at the end of every beat in a simple straightforward manner.
Next track Method Man is another highlight, its beat is energetic but its production shows further skill from RZA. Dissonant piano notes play against a jazzy bass line, the classic break beat consistently keeping time. The sounds created on this album are still the benchmark for East Coast hip-hop; Nas took inspiration from it a year later with Illmatic, Jay Z elaborated on it with The Blueprint, and Joey Bada$$ threw back to it with B4.DA.$$.
Even though this album is 25 years old this year, the sounds and verses are still some of the best in hip-hop. RZA’s simple but powerful production allowed every member of Wu-Tang Clan to showcase their personality. It’s a group effort, yet each member shines constantly throughout Enter the Wu-Tang. Its creativity is still being copied today; the album is ruthless and dangerous, yet immensely personal to every member. A surface value review of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) does an injustice to the group and the album itself, though that’s the reception it would have gotten back in ’93 by thousands of people. Wu-Tang aren’t going to sway you if you aren’t a hip-hop fan, but all those kids who think dabbing is cool and only listen to Lil Pump and Migos need to step back and listen to one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
I’m even trying to argue with myself to not call it the best hip-hop album of all time.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is worth the hype.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.