Treble 100, No. 9: Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Wu-Tang Clan Enter the Wu-Tang

In 1993, Wu-Tang Clan interspersed samples from Chinese kung-fu films into hip-hop. Then, in 1997, Capcom tapped Canadian rapper Infinite to record the theme song for Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. Nujabes and Fat Joe tied lo-fi delicacies to the anime Samurai Champloo in 2003. It was in 2017 that Mortal Kombat 11 debuted to the world with 21 Savage as the orator of the game’s trailer. All of this is to say that the crossover between hip-hop and martial arts endures and will evolve to match modern sensibilities or draft new ones, but it all circles back to the Wu. Although this relationship cannot be entirely tied to their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it was among the strongest to find the thread unifying the two worlds. 

In most cases, when martial arts or combat sports use hip-hop as a soundtrack, it only satisfies basal desires for violence and aggression. The music has to be loud and amp up the crowd and contestants. When was the last time UFC used a half-decent rap song in its promotional material? Rashad Evans versus Rampage Jackson at UFC 114, maybe? Or, consider the WWE’s track record with rappers. Bad Buddy is a recent upgrade, but that doesn’t excuse the numerous Flo Rida and Pitbull anthems attached to Wrestlemanias like a Monster Energy logo screen printed onto a jockstrap.

Three decades after its release, and two decades after combat athletes adopted (or begrudgingly accepted) Eminem as their preacher at practices and competitions, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) still champions that the connection between hip-hop and martial arts is about style, not just bombast or violence. Style is self-expression, and in the case of the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s closer to a fighting game with its cast of weirdos and technical execution than it is to the occasionally inflammatory and joyless mixed martial arts because, yes, the latter may be more real and lethal, but the former has spirit beyond violence.

After all, how could anyone replicate the Wu? Their pizzazz and character are one and the same with each defined, fustian member reined in by RZA’s vision and shadowy production, itself an aesthetic choice as much as it was a product of circumstance. The only studio Wu-Tang could afford in 1993 was Firehouse Studios, and at the time, its advantages were that it had equipment that worked and rooms with walls. Its owner, Yoram Vazan, would shop around for vintage equipment in hopes he could later restore it to working shape. None of this discouraged RZA or the rest of the Wu-Tang, as they had no reservations about the audio quality—as long as it was on tape. This ran counter to their label Loud’s response, which was, “That’s it?”

Each member fights for their life on the mic, a desperation spun out from the reality that they were recording in a literal walk-in closet and had to steal food to get by. In the RZA’s own words, “We were street kids, guys that was more like felons, or high-school dropouts.” It got to the point that, after releasing “Protect Ya Neck” at the tail end of 1992, members of the group intruded on Columbia University’s WKCR show and “politely pressured” the DJs to play it. There was an effort to will the Clan into greatness, never backing down from a fight or accepting defeat, and the RZA mined that determination to form a cohesive artistic statement.  

This statement was that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was “a home-cooked meal of hip-hop. Of the real people,” according to the RZA. These real people were the exaggerated personas of each MC and the track structures placed them front and center. There are five MCs on the opening track alone, and the two following cuts nearly represent the entire roster, with only Raekwon, GZA, and the RZA appearing twice during that stretch. 

Songs end once the present members have their chance to duke it out with invisible assailants. While certain tracks serve as solo features (e.g. “Method Man”), most are overflowing with characters that both congealed and conflicted with one another. Some pairings, like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, were smooth enough that one could already see their ability to command an entire album by themselves. 

Meanwhile, other members brighten entire compositions by clashing with others. Their contrasting modes generate steam that become vehicles on which the tracks float. Ol’ Dirty Bastard is the obvious culprit due to his sing-songy canter, between raspy and rapping, and his distance from everyone else is mutually beneficial. “Shame on a N*gga” is centered around him, and his interpretation of a hook—as loose as it is—forces Method Man and Raekwon to tighten their delivery. 

Much of Enter the Wu-Tang’s appeal, even so long after the fact, is the interplay between the members. “Protect Ya Neck” is a spoiling of riches as all of them (minus Masta Killa) form a unified front that thrives off their differences. The variety between flows, voices, and lyrics gave everyone an identity. If you did happen to lose track of who was who, Wu-Tang had you covered as they spelled out everyone’s role after “Can It Be All So Simple.” Even though their subject matter and references haven’t all aged gracefully (particularly on “Method Man” and its opening verse that functions as a warm-up because of its elementary topics—peanut butter, green eggs, and ham), their delivery and chemistry are timeless. 

Contrasting with the group’s evergreen charisma is the record’s production—it sounds 30 years old. This is a fact rather than a qualitative assessment because no one would criticize RZA’s work for being dated. His beats were dingy and sparse due to the state of his equipment. His weapon of choice was an Esoniq EPS sampler he received from a trade with RNS, a fellow producer who worked alongside The UMCs, but he was not above bringing in acoustic guitars for samples, even if he couldn’t play the instrument. Beyond its crude charm, RZA’s production shines by opening up the stage for the rappers while providing thematic window dressing. You can hear it on “Bring Da Ruckus” and its rudimentary beat. The drums sound as if they’re kicking up dirt, but they’re economical and unpretentious, two key aspects of martial arts. On “Bring Da Ruckus,” RZA serves as the main framing device, an integral agent pairing the Wu-Tang with their kung-fu interests. 

Much like Street Fighter II’s enduring legacy over fighting games, to the degree that Super Street Fighter II Turbo still holds tournaments to this day, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has persisted in some form or another. There’s a treasure trail of albums seeping from it, each with their own legacies and stars, and any discussion of the most important rap albums of the 90s will likely include them. Yet, similarly to Street Fighter II and its pristine gameplay, it’s the album’s fundamentals that have remained golden. The charisma and personality it contains and the drama it orchestrates on shoestring budgets in decaying shoebox dioramas; that’s the style that cannot be replicated.

Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers staten island albums

Wu-Tang Clan : Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

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