By: Daniel Hodgman
The beginning of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) leads us into 80s martial arts movies. Before any music can be heard, dialogue from Shaolin & Wu-Tang and Ten Tigers from Kwangtung reverberates through the speakers. “On guard, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.”
From here, “Bring Da Ruckus” slashes aggressively with chorus shouts from Prince Rakeem aka RZA himself, and as he literally “brings the motherfucking ruckus,” 36 Chambers introduces its gritty, manic and in-your-face hip-hop that inspired thousands and set forth one of the biggest hip-hop branches of all time.
For hip-hop, November 9th, 1993 is mammoth. In fact, if you look at the whole month of November 1993, you could argue that it’s one of the most important dates regarding hip-hop music ever. Both A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers dropped on the 9th; one day later, E-40’s debut Federal was released; and on the 23rd, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle dropped, which sold 800,000 units the first week. Looking past releases however may present a clearer sense of how important this month is. For one, November 1993 marked just how dominant Snoop Dogg and the West Coast was. Not only was the 22-year-old Snoop on the cover of Rolling Stone and selling hundreds of thousands of records, but he was also a representative for how well the g-funk fueled West Coast had controlled things. From Dr. Dre and NWA to Tupac and Cypress Hill, the West Coast had gratifying acts everywhere. It was as if some sudden tectonic shift took Marly Marl, Rakim, Pete Rock and the entire 80s East Coast hip-hop glory days and threw it out to places like Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. During the glory days of West Coast hip-hop, especially in November 1993, the East Coast’s aim was to bring it all back.
It’s interesting to look at November 9th, 1993 in the hip-hop archives, because if you analyze the releases of 36 Chambers and Midnight Marauders, it’s as if they’re both highly successful records fronting groups that are going completely opposite directions. For A Tribe Called Quest, Marauders was their last great project, and it led to the group drifting apart, thanks in part to the rise of gangsta and mafioso culture overshadowing the Tribe’s scholarly fun approach. For the Wu-Tang Clan, 36 Chambers was the firm handshake introduction hip-hop needed, and from here, the world wasn’t just introduced to a new act and style, but it was also introduced to Wu-Tang culture.
One of 36 Chambers’ timeless effects is how it strikes fear in the listener and opens the eyes. Not only that, but this album is a visual drive into the forgotten areas of New York City, the ghettos, the drug war, social structure and the happenings in urban America. As cinematic as it is musical, 36 Chambers never goes light on attitude, focus, content or flow. Sampling kung-fu movies, soul cuts and implementing his own sound, RZA makes a record that scratches your ears and touches on your deepest fears. Following RZA’s production, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and U-God masterfully run off of the gritty production. Each track features maniacal flow and precise storytelling, and the most apparent thing is that these verses are so immense and invigorating, the ones that immediately follow feel as if they’re one-upping the previous. The content behind these stories hits hard, and while songs like “Can It Be All So Simple” and “Tearz” portray urban life where laughter and happiness are quickly followed by crying and tears, the ultimate motivator of this album is that of teaching. On “C.R.E.A.M.”, Inspectah Deck may just describe it best: “Leave it up to me while I be living proof/ To kick the truth to the young Black youth.”
With 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang also effectively introduced imagery beyond the norm. It wasn’t until this record where hip-hop experienced abrasive metaphors and similes that were as paralyzing as they were smart. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” is a great example:
“Shake the ground while my beats just break you down/ Raw sound, going to war right now/ So, yo bombing/ We usually take all niggas garments/ Save your breath before I bomb it” -Raekwon
“I be that insane nigga from the psycho ward/ I’m on the trigger, plus I got the Wu-Tang sword/ So how you figure that you can even fuck with mine/ Hey yo RZA, hit me with that shit one time” -Method Man
“You’re getting stripped from your garments, boy run your jewels/ Holding meth got me open like fallopian tubes/ I bring death to a snake when he least expect/ Ain’t a damn thing changed boy, protect ya neck” -RZA
What’s important to remember is that coming from the streets of New York City, these verses didn’t just carry one-upping punchlines, but they also represented each of the nine MCs’ styles and attitudes and how they carried themselves. These lines are also important in the aspect of battling and cyphers in hip-hop, and with one swoop, Wu-Tang Clan opened up new doors. On “Protect Ya Neck”, a full Wu-Tang joint sans Masta Killa, we see yet another example of the group’s ability to kick straight bars while rebelling against the big wigs in the music business.
“The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels/ Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel/ Be doing artists in like Cain did Abel/ Now they money’s getting stuck to the gum under the table/ That’s what you get when you misuse what I invent/ Your empire falls and you lose every cent/ For trying to blow up a scrub/ Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb” -GZA
“I smoke on the mic like smokin’ Joe Frazier/ The hell-raiser, raising hell with the flavor/ Terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan/ Swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spiderman” -Inspectah Deck
“Shame on you when you step through to/ The Ol’ Dirty Bastard straight from the Brooklyn Zu/ and I’ll be damned if I let any man/ Come to my center, you enter the winter” -Ol’ Dirty Bastard
On 36 Chambers, we’re introduced to the Wu-Tang Clan, a group of nine individuals that single-handedly laid out the blueprint for in-your-face cutting East Coast hip-hop. Essentially, 36 Chambers helped restore East Coast hip-hop’s face. As a group that reinvented what hardcore actually meant – think Kool G. Rap being the hardcore East Coast presence before – Wu-Tang Clan formulated a design and style that other prominent artists like Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep used as a launchpad. Moreover, 36 Chambers may be the biggest reason for the East Coast Renaissance, a time when classical hip-hop records and magnum opus’ were being spit out at a startling rate. A landmark album for this era indeed, and it may just be the most important.
Within the group, 36 Chambers gave way to more flexibility. Like a toxic music mist, the reception and reaction of the Wu’s debut gave way to members seeking out solo contracts and expanding Wu-Tang Clan as a venture. If 36 Chambers never came out, then you can say goodbye to Liquid Swords, Tical, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…., Return to the 36 Chambers, Ironman, Supreme Clientele, No Said Date, you get my point.
Production wise, each blip and smack through the headphones merely reinforces RZA’s ability to turn music into majestic visuals of New York City and hip-hop as a whole. Lyrically, 36 Chambers is clinical; every verse, every bar and every punchline thrown throbs with attitude and consciousness only the Wu can pull off. Thematically, this record explores and exploits the underlying problems of the American city and class system, and it also frames the attitudes of those surviving and thriving in these parts everyday. From the album going platinum or expanding the Wu Killa Beez, to it preceding other influential records yet to be released (Illmatic, Ready to Die, Blunted on Reality), 36 Chambers may not even be the best Wu-Tang Clan related record. That said, it will always be iconic, and it will always define the Wu-Tang legacy.