When you get into comic books as a kid, you don’t start with the origin stories — at least not if you’re doing it right. Instead, you flip through the racks at Walgreen’s or Rite-Aid or Barnes & Noble or maybe even an actual straight-up comic book store (which, nowadays, might actually be the only place you can do this). You look at covers until one grabs your imagination. And then you buy that one, and you attempt to make sense of it. You probably recognize a character or two, or maybe more; it’s not like there’s a child alive who doesn’t know who Spider-Man is. But you don’t know anything about the characters’ relationships, their old grudges, their burning inner desires. You don’t know the extent of everyone’s powers, or whether their real identities are secret or not. Maybe the comic you find is a self-contained storyline, but it’s more likely that you’re right in the middle of something unfolding, and you have no idea what else might be happening. Maybe you keep following the storyline, or maybe you move onto something else, something just as difficult to parse. You slowly piece things together, making connections where you can. You trade your comic books for other kids’ comic books, and that fills in some blanks. But it takes time, and thought, and effort. You have to immerse yourself, to throw yourself into the deep end, to submit to the grand tangled incomprehensibility of all of it. And that’s also how it felt if you were a music-dork kid when Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) erupted into the world.
The Wu-Tang Clan had an origin story, and it was a good one. Two kids from the Staten Island projects, cousins, became rappers, slowly built names for themselves, had the beginnings of actual careers. Those two kids, Prince Rakeem and the Genius, both released albums into the crowded golden-age New York rap marketplace, and both of those albums flopped. They lost their record deals, retreated back to Staten Island. They remade themselves, changed their names to the RZA and the GZA. The RZA built a new rap aesthetic, dirtying up the classic crate-digger soul-loop style of DJ Premier and Pete Rock and Large Professor, making those pianos and disembodied voices sound broken and ghostly and lost, making the drums rattle and clank messily. He added dialog samples from the kung-fu movies he spent his youth absorbing in Times Square theaters, and some of their mystical feeling, as well. And he and the GZA assembled the most talented of the rap kids from the surrounding projects, fashioning them into an unruly mob. Some of those kids were born stars, and others were role-players, but they were unified in purpose and in feeling, and they recorded together, all piled into a tiny studio on a shoestring budget. And they made a classic together.
But you didn’t need to know that origin story when you heard Enter The Wu-Tang, and maybe it helped if you didn’t. You probably didn’t know it, anyway, because how would you? There was no internet. Kids in New York might’ve recognized Prince Rakeem or the Genius, or seen the grimy “Protect Ya Neck” video on the Box, and gotten some context that way. But to the rest of us, the group, and the album, seemed to come into the world fully-formed and ready for war. Hearing the album for the first time was a dizzying experience: You didn’t know who all these riotous voices were or how they fit together, and you wanted to know. You wanted to figure out the things you didn’t recognize. Rap was — and is — already a music of codes, of dense regional languages that the listener has to untangle alone; that’s the reason investors will still heap money on a website like RapGenius. Wu-Tang were that side of rap turned up and amplified. You had to make sense of it yourself, making do with whatever scraps you could figure out. You knew what “get on this mission like Indiana Jones” meant, but you didn’t know who the Drunk Monk was, or why he had a quart of Ballantine’s. And the group wasn’t interested in letting you in on the stuff you didn’t know. The one radio-show sketch where Method Man introduces the members of the group is almost comically unhelpful (“Ghostface Killah, he on some now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t”). The album was a puzzle.
But it was visceral, too. Even if you didn’t know what they were talking about half the time, didn’t know the drug slang or the movies they were referencing, the bone-rattling propulsion of the album made perfect sense. Ten years ago, Pharrell said, in an interview, that every time a DJ in a Virginia Beach club would play “Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit” in a club, someone would get punched in the face the second the drums kicked in. (His point was that the Neptunes needed their own face-punch song, and I’m pretty sure they never made one, at least not like that.) In the right context, every track on the album works as an anthem. Even the moody ones, like “Can It All Be So Simple” and “Tearz,” have an air of instability, and “C.R.E.A.M.,” all flickering shadows, still had a chorus that lodged itself in your head for days. And even on the first few listens, a few voices jumped out of the morass. Method Man’s charismatic sneer and cartoonish nonsense lyrics made him the early, obvious standout, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s drunken seesawing slur made him the most volatile element on a volatile album. Other voices took more time to establish themselves: Raekwon’s hardnosed thoughtfulness, GZA’s leathery authority, Ghostface’s adrenal intensity. And together, all those voices had an energy that, despite all its apparent chaos, seemed very cleverly calibrated; every verse was perfectly timed to build from the momentum of the one that had come before. The album had atmosphere, and personality, and headknock anthems, and all those things fed each other.
And because of the album’s undeniable, elemental power, its inside jokes became our inside jokes. (If you’ve never reenacted the torture skit, we’re not friends.) The album’s various shadowy figures went on to become celebrities, even stars. In the years after Enter The Wu-Tang, the group did an incredibly good job protecting their mystique. They pitted labels against each other, its different members signing deals with different labels. (The dealmaking seemed visionary at first, but it eventually led to the group’s dissolution, with nine different managerial teams fighting for the biggest piece of the pie they could grab.) They extended the album’s aesthetic over the solo LPs, with RZA producing just about everything on that first wave of solo albums, making more classics in the process. They made dark music videos — staring down cameras, flashing fangs, moving with menacing grace. Even when they made pop hits, those pop hits kept the heady energy intact. And when Wu-Tang guys started showing up on other rappers’ albums, the effect was initially as jarring as a Marvel/DC crossover. Wu-Tang had built their own pocket universe, and for a while, they stayed within its boundaries almost all the time.
There had been dark and chaotic rap albums before Enter The Wu-Tang. There were heady, atmospheric ones, too, and sometimes the dark and chaotic albums ere also the heady and atmospheric ones. (Witness, for instance, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, released a month before Enter The Wu-Tang.) There were rap crews with more than one star, like the Juice Crew or Dr. Dre’s Aftermath mob. But Wu-Tang’s sui generis energy seemed like something new, and it had an effect. New York rap changed after that album, moving from breezy sophistication to drizzly, lonely violence. (Mobb Deep’s Havoc, for instance, was a clear RZA disciple.) And Wu-Tang also set the bar for every rap crew that came after, which wasn’t exactly fair, since the Diplomats or Odd Future or A$AP Mob or whoever just couldn’t compete. Listening to Enter The Wu-Tang now, it feels like a miracle that the album ever got a chance to exist, and it still has ambiguities worth exploring. And even if the members of Wu-Tang have moved on to various different extents, the world that they created still remains, its vivid power undiminished.
With the album’s 20th anniversary arriving tomorrow, what are your lingering memories of the early Wu-Tang days? Who was your favorite member of the group at first? Favorite song on the album? Favorite line? Favorite skit? Did you mutter the “C.R.E.A.M.” hook to yourself every time you picked up your summer-job paycheck? Did you start renting kung-fu movies from the Chinese grocery store in your neighborhood? I’m not saying I did any of these things, but I’m not saying I didn’t do them, either. Also, let’s watch some videos together.