"Important Album" Series

Artist: AlbumWu-Tang Clan 
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Release date Label Producer Genre Length More info
1993.11.09 Loud RZA / Ol' Dirty Bastard / Method Man Hip Hop 57:21 Wikipedia RYM  Discogs

Track listing
: 1) Bring Da Ruckus; 2) Shame On A Nigga; 3) Clan In Da Front; 4) Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber; 5) Can It Be All So Simple; 6) Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'; 7) Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck With; 8) C.R.E.A.M.; 9) Method Man; 10) Protect Ya Neck; 11) Tearz; 12) Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber - Part II.

The Brooklyn branch of Shaolin. Take the Rap-Buddhism way to grow your powers!

Background

Normally, in this opening section you would probably be expecting comments on the complex relationship between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop, and how the stage was set in the early 1990s to reinvigorate the genre with a healthy injection of East Coast grit into the somewhat softened West Coast paradigm, and suchlike. However, since this is a historically important review - my first tentative discussion of a hip-hop album ever - it probably makes sense for me to say a few words on hip-hop in general, before I embarrass myself in particular. So make this my background, not that of the Ol' Dirty Bastard.

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that a form of sonic art, primarily based on rapped vocals over musical samples and programmed beats, may exist as a form of art, and that within that particular form of art, we may find art pieces both good and bad, depending on many parameters - how energetic and sincere-sounding the vocals are, how complex the lyrics and rhymes might be, how dense and imaginative the samples, how catchy the beats, how impressive the overall "message", etc. (I totally and completely refrain from the old and useless discussion about whether hip-hop is deliberately and innately anti-social, violent, misogynistic, uncivilized, etc. - from this point of view, hip-hop is simply anything that you want it to be; you can turn Shakespeare and Sartre into hip-hop if you really want to). There is no doubt, either, that this form of art has not been completely uniform and stagnant over the past four decades, but has evolved and had its ups and downs, and, in fact, it's quite telling that as of the 2010s, hip-hop seems to be doing marginally better than almost any other contemporary form of sonic art (largely due to artists actively cross-breeding it with almost the entire history of music, though I'm not sure they got around to Handel yet). In short, you won't ever find me complaining that "all hip-hop is dumb" or that "hip-hop is not and has never been art" or that "all rappers should just fuck off and die", or asserting that I'd rather listen to Nickelback and the Backstreet Boys all day long than voluntarily sit through a hip-hop classic. (In fact, as of now, I believe I voluntarily sat through most of them, and it wasn't always a bad experience).

That said, I still have serious trouble accepting the idea that "hip-hop is music" in the same way as "blues is music", "rock'n'roll is music", or even "electronica is music" (although some of the more hardcore electronic releases, bordering on "plunderphonics", certainly share the same limitations as hip-hop does). Historically, hip-hop was the first "musical genre" where the central figure was not a musician, but a "meta-musician", the DJ with a turntable, and its very appearance is owed not so much to some post-modern cultural ideology as to the simple fact that block parties in the 1970s typically couldn't afford a decent funk band for their entertainment. Somehow, this social limitation, tarnishing the very beginnings of the genre, has eventually transformed into a rigid artistic limitation, meaning that most of hip-hop is "stillborn" to a certain degree: the only "live" element there is the rapping, and rapping, by definition, has even less melodic potential than 12-bar blues vocalising, since there is no actual singing / vocal modulation involved.

For many people, this has never been a problem, but for me, it has, and will always be; furthermore, it is also the first obvious reason why hip-hop has not and probably will never fully replace "rock music" (whatever that is) as the inarguably leading force and dominant genre in popular music. (The second obvious reason is racism, but music has its cunning ways of overcoming racism - like, for instance, sending an Elvis Presley, or, heck, even an Eminem our way - whereas for "stillborn music" to transform into "living music" is much harder). I can appreciate some of the best hip-hop products on many levels, from the purely intellectual to the emotional, yet this appreciation always seems to be processed by some brain center that is quite distant from the one that is normally responsible for my enjoyment of music. I have no idea if this is also the case with actual fans of hip-hop (do they really get the exact same type of kicks out of Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan as they get from The Rolling Stones or The Who?), but at least I can definitely vouch for myself. It is not so much the "limited" formula of hip-hop that makes me regard it on a different plane from everything else (it's certainly much less limited than Chicago blues or death metal, that's for sure) as the set-out conditions for that formula. The genre is grounded in values that I can respect, but for which I cannot even theoretically have the same nervous response as I do for "real music" (sorry) - and this is why I am normally about as much interested in reviewing complete careers of hip-hop artists as I am in reviewing modern art installations.

Still, I think some people might see bits of value in browsing through such an "estranged" perspective on at least a few alleged hip-hop "classics", for which this Important Album Review section offers a suitable chance. I mean, if a cat could talk, it might be useful for us to learn of its different reactions to various kinds of sweet, right? The same way, even if this particular reviewer is generally insensitive to hip-hop as such, it could be interesting to learn whether he reacts at all differently to Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, or Kendrick Lamar (spoiler: he does), and besides, it's never too late to branch out just a little bit, even in the form of a blind poke, exposing yourself to predictable ridicule. But whatever. Now that you know - surprise surprise - that all hip-hop sucks, let's have a nice, gentlemanly talk about one of the hip-hop classics.

Some basic facts

Recorded in 1992-93, Enter The Wu-Tang certainly had an unusual ingredient combination for its time. First, it was arguably the first album with such a large and diverse array of vocal talent - no less than seven different rappers with their own individual styles: RZA (Robert Diggs), also the mixing wizard and main producer of the group; GZA/The Genius (Gary Grice), also the walking thesaurus of the group (second largest vocabulary in hip hop music - way to go, Professor!); Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles), also the most prolific solo artist and, according to some, the most charismatic member of the group; Raekwon (Corey Woods) - the Ghetto Man and Toughness Incarnate of the group; Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter) - the Low-Key Subtle Presence of the group; Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones) - the Bad Egg of the group, and so, as expected, the only one to no longer be with us on this planet; Method Man (Clifford Smith) - the Drug Expert in Residence of the group. To these seven, add also U-God (Lamont Hawkins) and Masta Killa (Jamel Irief), who only appear on one or two tracks each, so it's a bit insufficient to establish their own style. Additionally, 4th Disciple (Selwin Bougard) is employed as turntablist and credited for vinyl-killing, uh, I mean, scratching.

Second, there's a highly unusual (for the time) mix of influences, as the record both manages to exploit the cliches and symbols of hip-hop (street toughness, harsh tales of ghetto life, freestyle battling, etc.) and move beyond them by poeticizing pulp entertainment, especially martial arts movies such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Shaolin and Wu Tang, and mixing it with a heavy array of samples largely drawn from old school soul tracks, a practice that was still allegedly rare at the time (prior to that, the emphasis was usually more on sampling heavier and funkier stuff), even though I feel that the degree of RZA's innovation still remains somewhat exaggerated. However, as far as the sonic framework of the album is concerned - with all the soundtrack excerpts, dialog between the group members, and even a "realistic" cursing battle - it does, on the whole, generate a special world of its own, managing to both squeeze you, the listener, into the claustrophobic hip-hop chamber, and export the hip-hop flavor into the world at large, be it reality or fantasy.

Although neither the record nor any of its singles charted all that high, it did go all the way up to No. 41 - nowhere near a record-breaker for hip-hop at the time, but allegedly pretty damn good for an underground, almost lo-fi album from a bunch of unknowns. In the process, the Clan eventually rose to superstardom and near-universal critical recognition, and when, four years later, they finally got around to recording a follow-up (Wu-Tang Forever), they were rewarded with a No. 1 all the way. Ironically, however, each subsequent record after the debut got less and less enthusiastic critical reception, and most of the fans seem to accept that the Clan never really trumped their original masterpiece, spending most of the inspiration either on solo projects (such as GZA's Liquid Swords) or on substance abuse. Personally, I am not sure that such a huge gap really exists between Enter The Wu-Tang and Forever, but then I might not be taking the historical context in proper perspective: what sounded amazingly fresh and innovative in 1993 no longer produced that sort of stunning effect four years later. However, the popularity of Enter The Wu-Tang does not seem to have diminished in the least in more than twenty years, and even on RYM these days, users collectively rate it as The Greatest Hip-Hop Album Ever Made, so I guess that's gotta count for something.

For the defense

For all the predictable and unavoidable monotonousness of the Clan's rhythm tracks, it is hard to deny that the album has a certain near-unique atmosphere. It was recorded in a very small, bare-basics studio where all the performers were crammed together in a tiny space, and it sort of shows: the overall sound is very dense and compact, the samples sound as if they were mastered on a couple of rusty tape decks in one's bedroom, and even the sampled dialog from the Shaolin / Wu-Tang movies is integrated so seamlessly that it is not always immediately understandable which parts of the show were sampled and which ones were improvised by the group members. This is the famous "Wu-Tang rawness" that you always see lauded so much, the same way one praises a rock band for refusing "production gloss" and concentrating on the unadorned, gritty sound of their instruments - and it is a major selling point, especially in the light of my usual complaints about hip-hop sounding too sterile and artificial. Well, RZA did go out of his way to make this sound as un-artificial as possible.

Second, want it or not, this shit's funny. While much of hip-hop took itself too seriously - and in this it was aided quite a bit by white journalists from the rock press, extolling and exaggerating the genre's mission as the latest and greatest in the "voice of the oppressed" movement - Enter The Wu-Tang positions itself as a comic epic: The Supernatural Feats of Seven (or Nine) Deadly Heroes, as one by one they take turns at the microphone to brag about their achievements in surrealist lingo. Honestly, I don't care that much about the spoken interludes (leave these for Spike Lee movies) and the infamous "torture battle" in the intro to ʻMethod Manʼ (leave that to Tarantino), but the raps themselves are a different matter: you can print them out and have an endless pool of quotations to brighten your day or darken somebody else's - although, as usual, much of the relevance has been lost over the years as the realities of the early 1990's American pop culture slowly fade away (I mean, surely lines like "I be tossin', enforcin', my style is awesome / I'm causin' more Family Feuds than Richard Dawson" sounded ten times as hilarious in 1993 as they do in 2016, right?). It may be important to stress that humor and friendly hyperbole is actually much more important here than violence and profanity, of which there is a certain share, but (apart from the "torture" bit) not enough to make even a reticent housewife blush these days.

The selected samples have plenty of good points - the brass fanfare from Syl Johnson's ʻDifferent Strokesʼ nicely emphasizes the braggard atmosphere of ʻShame On A Niggaʼ; the "after laughter comes tears..." bit from Wendy Rene on ʻTearzʼ is a poignant voice from the past that sounds like a friendly warning against a life of too much recklessness; and, of course, it's fairly cool hearing hip-hoppers sample Thelonious Monk on a couple of tracks and making his off-kilter, off-beat, off-the-track piano style actually serve the purposes of a steady, unnerving rhythm track. And the minimalistic piano and organ melodies that were programmed by RZA himself (like the cool five-note piano riff of ʻ7th Chamberʼ) give the whole enterprise a certain nonchalant avantgardist feel, although even these eventually suffer from too much repetitiveness.

The one track that stands out the most for me is ʻCan It Be All So Simpleʼ, as it interrupts the generally tough flow of the album and assumes the functions of a "ballad", with its title owed to a falsetto line sampled from Gladys Knight's ʻThe Way We Wereʼ and its sonic textures still rhythmic and energetic, but notably "softer" than the average song on here, with a hushed beat and an almost gentle flow of the basslines - as close as the Wu-Tang Clan ever gets to being "sentimental". That does not mean that it is the best track - it's just that the flow of the rest of the album is way too unidirectional for me to be able to assign different spiritual messages to different songs. But it all gets by on the humor - every time I try to imagine them brothers in Shaolin monk robes, jumping walls and riding clouds, I can't help thinking of the whole thing as one big, puffed-up, absurdist cloud of hyperbole, and then there's absolutely nothing about the album (not even the torture dialog) that irritates me - beyond the usual general reservations about hip-hop as a whole, that is.

For the prosecution

Uh, well, it's a bit of a problem trying to come up with what is specifically not very good about this album and not about the genre altogether. Perhaps I should just state that I find the main selling points of Enter The Wu-Tang somewhat overrated. For one thing, too much has been said about how seven (nine) different rappers here represent seven (nine) different personalities, and how delightful it is to have tracks like ʻ7th Chamberʼ where they all take turns at the mike and deliver seven different perspectives on the same whatever-issue-that-was; honestly, though, rapping is rapping, and once you have mastered your technique, you pretty much sacrifice your personality to it, and the rest is just nuance. For another thing, as good as RZA is with sampling, minimalism is a two-edged sword - when the sample is chosen wisely, it's great, but when it isn't, you just end up not noticing it, which is what separates, for instance, ʻC.R.E.A.M.ʼ with its touchingly rolling piano line from, say, ʻDa Mystery Of Chessboxinʼ where I don't even remember if there was anything behind the beat in the first place. Oh, right, there was this pseudo-harpsichord riff, even more sparse than the one on ʻ7th Chamberʼ. Too quiet.

Conclusion

In all honesty, I am not sure if the cultural impact that Enter The Wu-Tang made on society back in 1993 retains all of its relevance today. Back then, it did seem like a breakthrough - a record that had all the necessary street toughness, on one hand, yet was also literate and inventive, on the other, sort of the hip-hop equivalent of "art-punk" that inspired many a brother... and don't forget all that accompanying humor, either. But ever since then, hip-hop rose to completely new levels of both street toughness and inventiveness (I mean, next to whatever Kendrick Lamar is doing these days, the collective imagination of the Clan totally pales in comparison), and there's also way too much dependence on obsolete pop culture references that you now have to reconstruct in order to get the record's message more precisely. As a vital piece of East Coast hip-hop history that is still enjoyable today if hip-hop is your thing, Enter The Wu-Tang certainly deserves a place in the canon, but best hip-hop album ever (as the RYM crowds seem to think)? That would, I think, be selling the genre way too cheap even for my tastes; I believe there are far worthier candidates out there.

Summary
Melody Voice Mood Production Innovation/Influence Where it belongs RYM preference
+ + + + CD Collection #38
(Oct 02, 2016)

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