Greg Woodin on the virtues of the Shaolin’s classic debut
‘What’s your ultimate goal in this industry?’ This is the question that the Wu-Tang Clan are asked at the end of fifth track ‘Can It Be All So Simple’; this interview snippet allowing an insight into the mindset of the enigmatic hip hop group. Characteristically confident, Clifford Smith, better known as Method Man, replies without hesitation: ‘Domination’. Nearly twenty three years later, it’s difficult to dispute that this is what they achieved. With the release of their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the Wu cemented their name in the annals of hip hop history forevermore, creating one of the grittiest, rawest – and ultimately best – hip hop albums of all time. For many, they never quite surpassed the intensity and sheer genius of this album.
As soon as Ghostface Killah’s aggressive, high pitched delivery cuts through opener ‘Bring Da Ruckus’, the Wu’s infectious energy can instantly be felt. This song gathers momentum as it progresses, with de facto group leader RZA’s harsh yell of ‘Bring the motherfucking ruckus’ piercing the intervals between the group’s verses and allowing the listener no time at all to recover from the track’s verbal onslaught. But in addition to its belligerence, the group create something eminently listenable with this song – if your head doesn’t start bobbing at any point, there might well be something wrong with you. ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is dark and confrontational while remaining intriguing and full of personality, setting the tone for the rest of the album.
Moving on with ‘Shame on a Nigga’, the Wu inject an element of humour into their sound, primarily through a garbled, almost sing-song contribution from resident weirdo Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who sadly died from a drug overdose aged just thirty five in 2004. ODB’s delivery here is immediately recognisable, with his free-associative, often random lyrics complementing the track’s more funk-oriented style perfectly. In fact, every member of the Clan has his own individual personality that lends his contributions a unique flavour. This is true of no one more so than Method Man, who appears on this song to deliver one of the album’s catchiest verses, with the line ‘First I’m gonna get ya, once I got ya, I gat ya’ standing out as particularly memorable. This quality is vital in helping the listener to differentiate between the rappers on the album’s more populous tracks, such as ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber’, which features seven of the group’s original nine members exchanging ferocious bars over an eerie, minimalistic beat. Verse for verse, this track slays practically all current hip hop, creating arguably one of the greatest posse cuts of all time.
Furthermore, while there are a few stand-out performances, no member of the Wu really lets the side down at any point. Even U-God, who found himself incarcerated throughout most of the production of Enter the Wu-Tang, lays down his sole eight bar contribution to the whole album (aside from a short interlude on ‘Protect Ya Neck’) on ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’ with an unexpected fierceness. Masta Killa, who was not even a rapper at the time of the group’s inception, also makes an appearance here to deliver a verse worthy of a seasoned veteran. Here and elsewhere on the album, the Wu trade verses like runners in a relay race passing along the lyrical baton, never stopping to draw breath. It’s gripping, fast paced stuff.
Throughout Enter the Wu Tang, RZA’s production is in equal measure low-fi and low key, normally composed of a straightforward piano melody and a deep, gritty bassline, interposed with the Wu’s characteristic soul and martial arts movie samples. However simplistic, the bleak, uncompromising backdrop that RZA creates with these limited tools is the perfect canvas for the Clan’s aggressive rhymes to flourish upon, in itself seemingly telling a story of their struggle living in crime-ridden, northeastern Staten Island. This is perfectly encapsulated by anthem ‘Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit’, a rugged track featuring a fiery, jagged verse from the RZA himself. Often unappreciated member Inspectah Deck also steps up his game here, breathlessly rattling off the lines ‘Put the needle to the groove / I gets rude and I’m forced to fuck it up / my style carry like a pick-up truck’ in rapid fire mode.
Next up is the endlessly quotable ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, which features a bright piano melody that temporarily lifts the dark sonic aesthetic that hangs over the majority of the album. Despite its slightly more upbeat sound, the lyrical content of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ – which stands for ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’ – is stubbornly despondent, with Raekwon and co. taking a look at capitalism through the inky black lens of poverty and crime. ‘Protect Ya Neck’, which was actually released as the Clan’s debut single, one-ups the large-scale formula of ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber’, featuring as many as eight Wu members. Here, the group avoid the use of a hook altogether to deliver a barebones take on rapping that evokes the image of the group freestyling together in a bedroom rather than in a recording studio, a DIY ethos that can be felt across the whole album.
As impactful today as it was at the time of its release, Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers is the sound of a group at the height of its collective creative power, at a point when each member’s individual style perfectly combined to produce something even greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. While succeeding albums featured some truly great verses, notably Ghostface Killah’s on ‘Impossible’ and Inspectah Deck’s on ‘Triumph’, both from double album Wu Tang Forever, nothing has really ever matched Enter the Wu Tang as a cohesive whole. This is the album that propelled the Wu Tang Clan to hip hop royalty, and rightfully so; Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers is without doubt one of the best hip hop albums of all time.