Crew love. It’s a mantra that many chant, yet few fully express in a way where everyone benefits. We watch present day crews center around a nucleus that ties it all together. The Drake (who had to leave “the Lil Wayne” in order to be “The Drake”), the Kendrick Lamar, the A$AP Rocky. That’s not a new concept either, clearly. There’s always been the favorite, achieving the notoriety to bring it home for the family. It never really works out though. The greater public becomes so enamored with the “Beyoncé” that Kelly and Michelle are relegated to weed carrier status. And then when they’re featured on tracks it becomes this eye-rolling listen of having to hear yet another audio favour or sonic charity tax write-off case that the star of the show offered up, knowing he evolved past his beginnings the moment he stood up front in their video. Not with Wu-Tang, though.
Twenty years ago, the RZA set out on a mission to bring forth a version of hip-hop that the heart of the Golden Age had never experienced. Combining kung fu wisdom with street prophecies, the Wu-Tang Clan offered their collaborative debut Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, a diamond in the very obvious ruff. Was RZA the de facto nucleus? Certainly. But the army he recruited each delivered an intangible something that without every member, the collective would feel incomplete. Make no mistake though; RZA had grandiose plans for the empire he was building. Their first logo was a severed head suspended in the clutches of a fist, as drawn by longtime Wu producer and DJ, Allah Mathematics. They settled upon the sharp-edged “W,” as recognizable as the Bat signal and more socially acceptable than their initial sketch. It was subconsciously designed with the intent to be embossed on shirts everywhere.
When it came to recording, they holed up in Firehouse Studios in Brooklyn for close to a year. The process was vicious, where each member battled for a spot on a song. How did Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Method Man get on so many damn tracks off that LP? Well, they won their spots like they were hobos slap-boxing for meals. You don’t see that nowadays.
Take Odd Future’s “Oldie,” where Jasper chides, “Hey it’s Jasper, [I’m] not even a rapper. Only on this beat to make my racks grow faster.” Friends are paid with publishing points. There’s no platform to battle it out for the best man standing. If you heard a voice on 36 Chambers, it’s because they earned their spot. Lyrically.
‘Method Man' displayed their humorous sides, playfully threatening to stab each other’s tongues with rusty screwdrivers, hammering testicles, singeing anuses
There isn’t a single track on their initial offering where every member is present, though. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” lacks Masta Killa, “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin” lacks GZA (and RZA, save the beat), seven verses on “Protect Ya Neck,” none of which belong to Masta Killa again (he only appears once on the whole project). However, when each member showed up, they showed out – chests puffed, dukes up, bars a’blazin.
The 13-track offering (including the “Method Man” Skunk Mix) was filled with diversity, punctuated with 5% beliefs, Eastern philosophies, and further mathematical approaches to religion. It didn’t continuously speak above everyone’s heads though. Tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Tearz” detailed the harsh realities they faced on Staten Island, despite glorifying it as an intellectually spiritual haven called “Shaolin.” The segue into “Method Man” (affectionately referred to as “Torture”) displayed their humorous sides, playfully threatening to stab each other’s tongues with rusty screwdrivers, hammering testicles, singeing anuses, and being force-fed until they burst. Then there was the traditional hip-hop formula of braggadocio, as “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck” were crotch-grabbing anthems, along with the mind fuck known as “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin.” The phrase “something for everybody” is trite at this point, but in 1993 it directly applied to Wu-Tang Clan’s opus.
Twenty years later, and a lot has happened to the Wu. Ol’ Dirty Bastard passed away, the RZA wedged himself into the thinking man’s Hollywood with GZA in tow, Method Man became the Snoop Dogg of the crew, with silver screen guest spots flanked by Redman. Raekwon and Ghostface maintained the “real rapper” integrity of the Clan, while Masta Killa, U-God and Inspectah Deck wave the W and continuously allude to more “reunions”. Is it the same as it was two decades prior? No way, but then again it shouldn’t be. And what about these present-day posses? Where will they be in twenty years? Will Odd Future collectively release a project as strong as Goblin? Probably not. Black Hippy can swing their bats as many times as they’d like with a TDE compilation, but it will never live up to Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. A$AP Mob tried it, but you know what they say… LongLiveA$AP – Rocky, that is.
Wu-Tang Clan gave it their initial best shot together, and it worked. The members were allowed their moments in the sun later on, but not without first convening under one flag, and that’s what makes Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers so great. It was the catalyst that sparked a detailed chronicle involving eight (sometimes nine) New York City natives who inadvertently made history through teamwork. Often imitated, still never duplicated.
Follow Kathy Iandoli on Twitter here @kath3000