Re-Entering the 36 Chambers
"C.R.E.A.M. Illustration by Jaeil Cho.
I hated Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) the first time I heard it. “What the fuck is this?” I thought, while playing it on the stereo in the living room at my parents’ house in Staten Island. It was November 9th, 1993, the same day A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders was released. I’d gotten both albums, and found myself initially drawn to Tribe. Maybe that’s because they were at the vanguard of what was happening in contemporary hip-hop at the time—jazz samples, filtered bass lines, laid-back rhymes. Wu-Tang, well, they were on some other shit, shit that didn’t make any sense at all to an 11-year-old white kid from the part of Shaolin that the Clan was definitely not from.
What I did know was that prior to the album being released, the song “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man” was in steady rotation on Hot 97, a radio station that had just started to play hip-hop. And at my junior high, I.S. 72, both black and white kids in the hallway would rap “Protect Ya Neck” word for word from start to finish. On the playground, stories would abound about Wu members having been seen at the mall or some other local haunt. They were neighborhood legends from a neighborhood that wasn’t ours, and all we knew about them at the time was from this one cassette single they’d released—the A-side featured “Protect Ya Neck,” the B-side “Tearz.”
So by the time Enter the Wu-Tang dropped, I was purchasing the album more or less because it seemed like what you were supposed to do if you were a kid on Staten Island. And while I initially didn’t “get it,” the more I listened, the more it started to captivate me. It was almost like I needed to learn their language first, understand what they were talking about, before I could process the music. There was so much slang, so much inside baseball, and the beats were lo-fi but melodic, the East Coast answer to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which had been released a year prior.
They weren’t just rappers, but characters playing bit parts in an elaborate street fantasy that took place on records and in real life. They had strange names like RZA and GZA and Method Man and Raekwon the Chef. One guy had the audacity to call himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Another wore a mask on his face, so he was Ghostface Killah. Another called himself Masta Killa. One member had not one but two names—Inspectah Deck and the Rebel INS—and long before Kanye West told us he was a God, U-God named himself one.
As great as Enter the Wu-Tang was, the album itself only moved the needle but so much. That’s not because people weren’t checking for it—back then, the record business was much different, and things like first week sales didn’t matter as much. It was a slow grind, and while the album bubbled, it was really the music videos that propelled things forward. The clips for songs like “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ to Fuck With,” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin,” among others, started airing on BET’s Rap City and Video Music Box, and it was then that we saw who these characters were—swords swinging, masks on their faces, dressed like ninjas wearing hoodies. Hip-hop had certainly never seen any shit like that before.
And it just got cooler and cooler. Anyone who was even remotely paying attention to rap at the time couldn’t help but get swept up into it. Wu-Tang was hardcore rap made by guys who clearly read too many comic books, watched too many movies, and were very obviously still balls-deep in the streets. To wit, two of their members (U-God and Cappadonna, the unofficial member), were locked up when 36 Chambers was recorded. And rest assured, it wasn’t in Samoa because their college-educated parents didn’t approve of their friends (shots fired!).
The years following Enter the Wu-Tang saw the release of a handful of solo albums from group members, many of which are considered classics in their own right. Littered with film clips, intros, outros and interludes, each project has its own unique theme and plays like a mini movie. The accompanying music videos are practically short films. After some time had passed, the cult of Wu became very real. It suddenly wasn’t strange to see kids with Wu-Tang logos tattooed on their arms. People who knew nothing about the Nation of Gods and Earths began pretending to be 5-Percenters. And almost everyone in hip-hop—Biggie, Jay Z, and Nas included—started likening themselves to mafia dons, ripping pages from the book Chef Raekwon wrote on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. It was pretty amusing.
As the Wu-Tang legend grew, the more audacious they became. Though he was tight with Meth, Raekwon dissed Biggie on “Biters,” and a few years later he was said to have punched Mase in the face at a basketball game. The bad blood with Bad Boy continued to boil. In 1997, on the heels of the release of their second LP, Wu-Tang Forever, the group headlined Hot 97’s Summer Jam. But their epic posse cut “Triumph” wasn’t getting much burn on the radio at the time—playlists favored of the Notorious B.I.G. (who had died months earlier) and Diddy—so they walked on the stage and dissed the station (“Where hip-hop dies,” Rza mocked), and were subsequently banned from the radio. The effects of the ban sent the group’s fortunes spiraling downward.
By the late 90s, the sound of hip-hop was changing dramatically. Out went the dirty drums, in came loops of classic 80s songs. It was now the shiny suit era, and the Wu-Tang emperors were in desperate need of new clothes. After Forever dropped, the second wave of solo LPs was hit or miss (Raekwon’s Immobilarity was a legendary dud; Tical 2000: Judgement Day was spotty). And introductory efforts from Inspectah Deck (Uncontrollable Substance) and U-God (Golden Arms Redemption), while appreciated by the die-hards, didn’t really attract new audiences. Plus there were so many Wu-affiliated acts—Killarmy, Sunz of Man, Killah Priest, La the Darkman, Remedy—that it became hard to keep track of who was who and what was what. Did they really think Remedy was going to happen? Don’t answer that.
It seemed like the Wu needed to regroup, go back to what they did best. On their 2000 release, The W, they largely did just that. The singles attempted to mix the old (“The Jump Off”) with the new (“Gravel Pit”), but the latter’s Flintstones-inspired music video was goofy and off-brand. Why was Wu-Tang making double-time dance songs? Nobody knew except them, and even that I’m not so sure about. Still, there were bright spots. Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele—one of the best hip-hop albums ever in its own right—helped keep the Wu-Tang flag flying high, and Rza’s solo work as Bobby Digital was always entertaining. Method Man had become a movie star. There was never really a shortage of Wu-Tang in the hip-hop store Ol’ Dirty once rapped about in “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”
It was around this time when it became extremely clear that not everyone in the Clan was on the same page. Another group album, Iron Flag, was released in 2001, and while it was a decent effort, it was clear that their chemistry was missing. Maybe they were all desperate to go their own ways. Who knows. Their next effort, 8 Diagrams, released six years later, did little to convince anyone otherwise. Back then, I was working at MTV, and in an interview, Ghostface told me the album was “bullshit,” and distanced himself from the project altogether.
Internal issues aside, it really wasn’t until recently that Wu-Tang’s accomplishments have been fully acknowledged. This is a collective that certifiably created the how-to guide for dominating the rap game. Not content to just peddle recorded music, they slapped their W logo on shirts, hoodies, hats and accessories—then sold them out of their own boutiques —long before Roc-A-Wear, Sean Jean, or urban wear was even a thing. There were also comics (Nine Rings of Wu-Tang), video games (Shaolin Style), television (“Method and Red”), film (“Black and White”) and publishing (The Wu-Tang Manual). Take any popular rap movement from the last fifteen years and you can see Wu-Tang’s fingerprints all over them.
Not all of the Wu’s ancillary ventures were grand slams, nor was the music, and they even lost Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) along the way. Quibbling over the quality of records that exist in the context of a larger body of work released over a span of twenty years is surely going to reveal a few duds, and doing that is a massive disservice to just how important Wu-Tang really is. Not every record an artist makes is going to be a smash. It’s hip-hop, shit happens.
But 20 years after their debut, Wu-Tang is still incredibly relevant and its imprint still matters. If it’s not Kanye West calling on Ghostface for a feature, it’s Raekwon hopping on a “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With”-inspired Justin Bieber remix, or Drake naming a song “Wu-Tang Forever,” or the group reuniting together at Coachella to become the de facto Sunday headliner. They even performed this year at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. Those are all very tangible things. You can see them and hear them and feel them. Wu-Tang as a physical body is clearly still alive and well.
Where Wu-Tang really matters, though, is in the hearts and minds of the fans who were there at the beginning, back on November 9th of 1993. People whose entire conception of what hip-hop was and what it could be was redefined by the release of one truly landmark album. People like myself, who disliked Enter the Wu-Tang at first, then subsequently recognized its brilliance. We’re the ones who can see the strains of Wu-Tang in nearly all hip-hop now. For us, Wu-Tang isn’t just music. It’s an idea. A culture. A way of being. For us, Wu-Tang really is forever.
Paul Cantor still lives on Staten Island. He's on Twitter - @paulcantor