BLOG: A love letter to
20 years to the week on from the release of their seminal debut album Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, I felt compelled to write a few words on what one of the all-time great hip-hop acts has meant to me over the years. Although no direct influence on my music, they are amongst my most cherished acts, producing such a hefty body of work to pore over across the last two decades.
My first memory of encountering the Wu was on a visit to my cousin, aunt and uncle’s house in Oxford. One of my cousins lived up on the top floor of their imposing gaff, and I remember going up there to try and find him only to find an empty room with loud, aggressive hip-hop booming out of his speakers. I remember seeing a copy of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and thinking it looked absolutely terrifying, gun fingers pointed at the viewer, blunt smoke billowing in the background.
At this stage my hip-hop knowledge was solely based on anything that managed to gatecrash the UK Top 40, and my well-rinsed copy of Fugees’ The Score. I subscribed to MUZIK magazine when I was 12, and when I was 13 I read a 10/10 review of the Wu’s second album in it, Wu-Tang Forever. So effusive was the writer’s critique that I felt compelled to go out and get a copy for myself.
To a 13-year-old unversed in the ways of hardcore, super-grimy rap, Wu-Tang Forever made for an intensely scary, impenetrable listen. Spread over two discs, its brooding, fierce tones and grim subject matter were a lot to get to grips with at first. Their foreboding pictures in the inside booklet; the gang-style nicknames; it was imposing stuff. But I was determined to “get into it”, in that way a young impressionable music lover can be when trying to acquaint themselves with something cool and inaccessible.
It took me a whole year to start enjoying that intensely dark album, the ultra-violence of those kung-fu samples and the Tang’s street talk slowly capturing my imagination by way of an almost exotic sense of detachment from my own life (rap fetishism, I guess). Their storytelling and skit interludes had such a cinematic sensibility, their reference points and tales so far away from anything I could conceive. I came to find their world utterly engrossing and beguiling, RZA’s combination of vintage soul, hard-hitting beats and harsh synth sounds ever more appealing as the album slowly bedded into my brain. And those violins on Reunited! I’d never heard strings used so boldly and effectively in non-classical music.
I then went back to where most people’s Wu-odysseys began, buying a copy ofEnter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and tracing their sound back to its origins. To be fair, it’s a far more accessible record, and one I probably would have assimilated with a lot more rapidly. A tighter and more game-changing set without a doubt, it’s still probably my second favourite after Forever, sheerly for their sophomore’s sheer expansiveness, never-more-brutal aesthetic and the Clan’s ne’er-bettered rhymes across those two beefy discs. A controversial choice, if ever there was one.
After the raw, rough-around-the-edges production and raucous humour of their debut and the success it brought, you can hear on Forever how much fun RZA had been having with new kit and more professional recording setups. Save for Dog Sh*t andAs High As Wu-Tang Get, there’s little in the way of smiles, their tales of street crime and growing up in the projects darker and more powerful still compared to their debut. Most rappers go softer, more blingy or more commercial on their second albums, bowing to the pressures of the mainstream. That was never going to happen with this lot. It’s an album to get lost in, immersing you fully in the bleak world of their upbringing for a full 112 minutes.
Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx remains the Clan’s finest solo effort, one of the two albums he produced for his crew members with no outside interference. And boy, does it show. His formula of dramatic string samples, cult martial arts film snippets and tight-ass beats brought to perfection on this 1995 opus, it laid the perfect foundation for Rae (and indeed Ghostface) to excel. Listen to Knuckleheadz and marvel at the breathtaking syncopation, every single syllable carrying weight and rhythm and hitting the listener with such synergy atop those huge snare hits. Then listen to one of today’s laconic rappers and feel depressed about the general level of skill in today’s hip-hop world.
The Wu’s third, much-overlooked album The W also deserves a mention. It’s a tight set, diverse and more polished than the first two, but a superb listen aside from a couple of duds. The sumptuous Isaac Hayes collaboration I Can’t Go To Sleep takes RZA’s string ‘n’ soul fetish to its logical apex, an incarcerated ODB literally dials in a typically effortless performance from a prison telephone on Conditioner, there’s vintage Wu-griminess on Careful (Click, Click) and plenty more besides. Hell, it even spawned their one and only crossover hit in the UK, the dancefloor classic Gravel Pit(peaking at #6 in the charts). Seek it out if you never heard it - less so the hit-and-miss fourth album Iron Flag.
And don’t even bother with the incredibly disappointing 8 Diagrams, an album marred by internal warring, supposedly chiefly caused by the RZA’s stubborn insistence to do things his way and continue down a more musical route rather than return to the more classic sound that the group had moved increasingly far away from. That their next album has been announced as their final one is welcome news - a chance to rectify their downwards trend and leave the game on a high, burning out rather than fading away. Judgement should be reserved for now: of the two songs they’ve put out this year, Family Affair is atrocious, while Execution In Autumn is solid but unremarkable.
Aside from the RZA’s production talents, the appeal and impact of the Wu-Tang Clan lies undoubtedly in the plethora of personalities and rap styles that its members offer. There’s never been a rap crew with so much to distinguish between its constituent parts; nor will there ever be another. ODB’s uncontrollable raucousnesses; Method Man’s chutzpah; Rae & Ghost’s tag-team street talk; GZA’s lush tones and dextrous wordplay; Masta Killa’s pensive, measured and economical style; U-God’s gruffness; Inspectah Deck’s energy and incisive spitting; and the RZA’s complex verbosity. It’s an embarrassment of riches that ensures their classic material is constantly engaging, ever evolving and contrasting.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s influence is omnipresent in hip-hop. There’s not a rapper or producer worth their salt who hasn’t been influenced by them in some shape or form. This year alone, we’ve had two tribute songs from artists operating at different ends of the scale: De La Soul’s Get Away (feat. The Spirit Of The Wu-Tang) and Drake’sWu-Tang Forever. At one end, contemporaries of the Wu who pre-date them by half a decade, reciprocating rap influence like a big ol’ feedback loop; at the other, one of the biggest and most mainstream-friendly rapper/singers of the current generation whose soft-natured character is a million miles away from the Wu’s gangster thuggery.
The RZA’s unmistakable sound spawned many an imitator and influencee, as did his groundbreaking business model for the Wu-Tang empire and its manifold members. Sonically, lyrically and financially, the Wu done changed the game big time. They should also be given respect for the fact that overwhelmingly, the collaborations they’ve done have been of a very high quality and integrity, with even the most commercial of their features perfectly respectable efforts. They haven’t abandoned the principles that they’ve stayed so true to in order to jump on some irrelevant piece of EDM just to get paid (hey Busta). I’m sure there are a few exceptions out there, but on the whole their collaborative efforts have been a lot more admirable than many a rent-a-rapper.
Big respect to the Wu-Tang Clan for keeping it pretty damn real for two decades and bringing us so much quality product over the years. What they’ve done will never be matched.
P.S. There are TONS of great articles about the Wu around at the moment which give far more insight and revelation than I ever could. Give this one a try: A quixotic attempt to listen to every Wu-Tang release ever