Wu-Tang Clan - Enter The Wu-Tang

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.

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Comments (30)
  1. Raw I’m a give it to ya, with no trivia, like cocaine straight from Bolivia….

    This one definitely makes me feel old. I grew up on Strong Island, and this album was all over Hot97 back then. It felt like something by New York, for New York. It was probably the first rap album I ever really got obsessed with, Arrested Development notwithstanding.

    Just the albums made by all the rappers in this group alone changed the face of rap, let alone all the other artists they influenced. Think of the endless Wu-Tang playlist in your mind that all started here, absolutely staggering.

    ODB is my favorite member (RIP) but the truth is everyone got to say their piece in this group, and the diversity of styles and cadences made it easy to play the album over and over again. You are there, shooting the breeze on the stoop, smoking blunts and talking trash with these guys when you listen to this album. Even the skits are funny to listen to repeatedly. (Torture!)

    I could go on and on. What a classic. I hope some teenagers read this today and try to listening to this juggernaut for the first time. I’m jealous of the treat they are in for!

  2. always been more of a jurassic 5 man ma’self

    ;)

  3. Wu-Tang Forever better. 36 Chambers was dope though. I played ATCQ, De La, Souls of Mischief, Snoop and other albums more.

  4. I think objectively it’s not even the best song on the album, but nothing beats “Can It Be All So Simple” for me. I can’t even express in words the emotions that song makes me feel.

    (Also, you know what would be totally awesome? A Wu-Tang Clan albums + solo albums worst to best. Just sayin’.)

    • Also my stand-out favorite. A couple reasons:

      “Yo Ghost! Yo Rae! What up with ya’ll n****s aaaaaaahhhhhhhh”

      –It put front and center the power of Ghost & Rae, so much that they remixed the track on OB4CL

      –The list of the Clan members at the end. Very helpful in a pre-wikipedia era.

      A perfect album centerpiece.

  5. If somebody tells me that they don’t care much for rap, I’ll tell them that they’ve probably never heard 36 Chambers.

    It’s one of those rare albums that manages to have a consistent aesthetic and demeanor while also providing a wide enough variety of style to offer something for everybody. If anything, I am surprised that it is not revered even more than it already is.

    • I’ve actually had bad luck trying to share this with friends who aren’t that into rap. Anyone that already loves the genre, hey, there’s nothing better — but I’ve found it doesn’t convert many people. Maybe that’s just the crowd I run with, though, and not the common thought process.

  6. This is one of my all-time favorite albums of any genre, and I really enjoyed reading this article. Well done, sir!

    A few random questions, because what else do you do when you talk about the Wu-Tang world other than start making lists?

    1: How does everyone rank the Clan albums that dropped AFTER Forever?

    I enjoy 8 Diagrams more than either The W or Iron Flag, but I assume I’m in the minority with that opinion.

    2: What is the general consensus around these parts about the best Wu-Tang solo albums?

    I go (1) Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … (2) Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (3) GZA – Liquid Swords (4) Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele (5) Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. 2

    • 1. Post-Forever (which was my first hip-hop album)?

      1. The W
      2. 8 Diagrams
      3. Iron Flag

      2. Solo:

      1. GZA – Liquid Swords
      2. Raekwon – Cuban Linx
      3. Ghostface – Supreme Clientele
      4. ODB – Nigga Please (acquired taste though it may be)
      5. Rae – Cuban Linx II

      The other first wave stuff is up there, too, and while neither is a masterpiece, I actually like a good number of cuts on both of the first two Masta Killa albums. Fishcale, too.
      The two Bobby Digital albums were two of the first ones I bought because I really loved a lot of RZA’s verses on Forever, but neither album was particularly great.

    • Fishscale over Supreme Clientele, much less being included instead of Ironman? Both OB4CLs and no Return to the 36 Chambers or Tical? I understand that Ghost, Rae, and Liquid Swords comprise the hall-of-fame category for Wu solo releases, but any top five list gotta be less lopsided than this.

      And Fishscale over Supreme Clientele???

      • Sorry for late reply — I dig Tical and Return both, but neither one sets my world on fire or anything. I really like about 5 or 6 songs from Tical, the rest just kind of runs together for me. I just listen to the later Ghostface and Rae albums much, much more.

        And I’m just stating my personal favorites, not necessarily trying to be equal and fair to all members. Tical is obviously hugely important for coming so early, etc.

  7. Ohhhh fuck yes! I think we can be friends cause I’ve reenacted that torture skit (at least in part) probably a few dozen times.

    Damn – this album made so much sense (despite how little sense it made) well before i started regularly listening to rap music at all.

    Last year, I started reading The Wu-Tang Manual and ended up getting my snoody liberal arts college’s library to buy a bunch of the silly Kung-Fu movies that RZA recommended and that get sampled on the album. Basically, I spent a summer getting high, watching Kung-Fu movies, and freaking out every time I recognized a sample. It was great!

  8. I love his record, but man the mix is so bad. Whenever I put on the first song, it always sounds like my headphones aren’t plugged in properly, as the vocals and the drums are miles away. The drum programming throughout the record is pretty sloppy, but the sample cutting and overall inventiveness of the beats make up for it. Pathetic verses are all so good and there is so much personality in this record that the all of its imperfections just add to to the album’s charms.

    My favourite song is probably Da Mystery of Chessboxin’. It features a great roster of verses, including a rare instance where au-God doesn’t botch his verse, a killer hook and that eerie “We’ll fuck your shit” beat.

    • A lot of iPad-induced typos in this one. Sorry

    • I disagree. I think the muddy mix gives it a unique quality. Slopiness on the drums gives it rawness. RZA created such a distinct sound on 36 Chambers and I think the stuff you’r criticizing him for are big elements of it.

      Da Mystery Of Chessboxin is the ish!!! U God’s verse, referenced above. The greatest opening.

      The game of chess is like a swordfight, you must think first before you move. UNGAURD I’ll let you try my Wu Tang sword!

      • Oh, totally. I think a lot of the character that comes from the “faults” in the recording. I love the imperfections and I think they are all charming in the larger picture. But it can be a little disorienting to listen to when drums are on a hard left at a low volume and vocals are front and centre completely overshadowing them. ‘Raw’ is a good way to put it.

        To clarify, I love how the album sounds, but sonically it sounds kind of like ass. This only adds to the overall charm of the record.

        A few weird autocorrect moments in my original post. I have no idea what my original intention was, but I was not calling the verses “pathetic”. Once again: iPad.

  9. Oh man… I remember buying this album when I was in my early teens. It marked a real shift in my musical tastes. Before the Wu I just wouldn’t entertain the notion of listening to music that wasn’t being played by a ‘band’. The imagery that this album conjured up was of dark alleys, dimly lit multistorey parking garages and steam rising from manhole covers… It was dark, seedy and intensely gritty. I truly enjoy every minute and imagine I’ll return to it for many years.

    Only built for Cuban Linx is definitely the number 2 spot although some of method man’s solo material ie. Tical 2000 is definitely worth listening to.

  10. Next time come strapped with a fuckin’ Pamper.

    Wu Tang Forever.

  11. My fave part of the album nowadays is the radio interview at the end of one of the tracks. Rae and Meth go offfffff on some philosophical world building shit, like the most epic and eloquent tangent about the roles that each guy plays, which is actually pretty accurate (Rza he razor sharp, Gza he the genius), and at the end of the whole incisive exhale from Wu the DJ interviewer just goes, in the most casual stoner voice, “that’s cool, man.”

    He says it as if they had just told him they were thinkin about getting new dogs or some other mundane shit. It’s hilarious cus you can tell he’s actually really into them and wasn’t blowin their tirade off, but it comes off like he was straight dozin. He prob was gettin nervous thinkin about the next question he was gonna ask, which I believe was pretty full bodied.

    Lately I’ve just been playin that back in my head over and over, “that’s cool, man.” Funniest line.

  12. I worshipped The Wu through most of High School. I think that’s why I’m so into rappers with expressive voices, because there were so many different, incredible voices in that album. Also definitely threw me into at least one or two Kung Fu movie runs, plus OB4CL getting me into John Woo movies.

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  14. No love for the other classic released on 11/9/13??

  15. The samples and beats on this album are something special. I would gladly listen to an instrumental version of this album over and over. And that’s saying something, given some of the incredible performances packed into this album.

    • Let’s hear everybody’s favorites! I’m a GZA guy myself.

      • So hard, maybe ODB or RZA. Wildest flows and lyrics of the group in my opinion.

        But in this album Ghost and Rae steal the show a lotta the time with their forceful rhythms and rhymes, their flows are like hard hitting jazz rock beats or something, so flarey // I RAN UP IN SPOTS LIKE FORT KNOX

        I love how aalotta the Wu guys, esp Ghost and Rae, and then U God, is their ability to stay on one rhyme sound for long extended periods with each line still sounding fresh. See U-God’s verse-tuosity in Raekwon’s “Knuckleheadz” for a crazy example.

  16. skilled in the trade of that old boom bap

  17. First of all, who’s your A&R? A mountain climber, who plays an electric guitar?

    Hahahah besssssst line. Protect Ya Neck was on a mix I got back in the day, I think related to skateboarding, and it changed my view of rap forever. I remember the track was playing, probably straight off the mixtape, at a Birdhouse demo in the late 90′s being held at my local skate shop.

    Looks around at the scene, soaks in the skaters, the clothes, the music (“I smoke the mic like smokin Joe Frazier/The hellraiser, raises hell with the flavor”), the pros, and thinks, “Yep, I fell into something pretttttty fuckin cool right here.”

  18. Probably thee Best rap group of all time !!! just my opinion

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