Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon.”

May 10th, 2011 by | Tags: , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the sixth. Chris Sims wanted me to write about Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang in fifteen minutes. With the exception of the quoted bit from my tumblr (which was relevant, and which I still like), I kept to the rules. I started with “Bring Da Ruckus” because it seemed appropriate. As I finished, “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” was winding down and “Can It All Be So Simple” was spinning up. Maybe this was 16 minutes or so? Who knows/cares, I was in the middle of a thought I wanted to finish.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”

So when the Wu were chanting “Tiger Style!” on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin To Fuck With,” it wasn’t just because it sounds good when you growl it. It’s because tigers were the top dog of all animals. Tiger Style, from what I’ve read, is all about offense and ending battles quickly, rather than evasion and misdirection. It’s direct, to the point, and deadly.

So “Tiger Style!” becomes a war chant and a warning. “The kings are here, everyone else fall back or catch a bad one.”

I love 36 Chambers.

It’s rough, and I think everyone that loves it recognizes that fact. Method Man hadn’t quite grown into his role as the Wu’s chief crossover king. Ghostface was just a regular rapper, with barely a hint of the style that made Supreme Clientele top 5. Rae wasn’t a kingpin yet, and RZA was just a voice, not a guru. GZA and Deck are more or less fully-formed here, with some incredible verses that stick to your ribs. U-God and Masta Killa are okay, but Ol Dirty Bastard was already settled into his role. It’s a matter of picking where to start.

Start with the first three tracks. “Bring Da Ruckus” starts off the album and sets the tone. “Ghostface! Catch the blast of a hype verse!” The next joint, “Shame on a Nigga,” begins, “Ol’ Dirty bastard, live and uncut/ Style’s unbreakable, shatterproof.” GZA on “Clan in da Front”: “The Wu is comin’ thru, the outcome is critical/ Fuckin’ wit my style, is sort of like a Miracle.”

This is what the Wu is: personality and skill. “This is me, and I’m about to rock you.” Rap is intensely personality driven, but the Wu managed to stand out even amongst their larger than life competition. Meth was playful and prone to smoking wet blunts. GZA is the scientist. ODB is wild, self-sabotage as lifestyle choice. RZA is the planner. Rae is Scarface, while Ghost is his abstract partner in crime. Every member has a role, and they all play it to the hilt.

All of that together is alchemical. The Wu is greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s still something magical about every time they get together. You want it to feel like this raw, poorly mastered release that got your blood pumping back in the day. This is Timberlands and camo jackets rap, almost actively anti-radio in sound and with a weird aesthetic. Kung fu movies? Where’d that come from?

But 36 Chambers, in spite of, or because of, its warts, is incredibly listenable. Every single song hits, and the album builds in emotional breaks between that raw rap. “Can It All Be So Simple” comes right after “7th Chamber,” and “TEARZ” comes right off the high-energy “Protect Ya Neck.” These are pauses for breath, something you have to do after chanting “WU! WU! WU! WU!” It brings you back down to earth, CNN of the streets style, and then you get built right back up.

“Da Mystery of Chessboxin” coming after “Can It Be” is incredible, because it’s just raw lyricism on display. The opening skit is pointed yet again, and sets up Toad Style as the style on display in the song. And everyone goes all the way in. U-God drops his first classic verse with his trademark growl (“Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia” is hard body), Deck is typically clever, and while Rae isn’t using that juggernaut flow he perfected later, this shout-to-my-dawgs style is still compelling. And then Dirty comes in and crushes the building, coloring outside the lines and elevating the whole affair. Tony Starks brings some ultraviolence, and then Masta Killa’s first bar is insane.

The whole album–you can pull any song apart and look at its guts and be even more impressed. It sounds dirty and dusty, like some cats just got together with an old MPC and a rickety record player and put together an LP, but when you really listen to this album? When you look at the scaffolding that’s hidden behind the poorly mixed vocals, poorly acted skits (“fuck you mean is he fuckin dead”), random censoring, and scratchy kung fu samples?

It’s nigh-flawless. This whole thing, all 36 Chambers, they were constructed. It’s amazingly well put together.

The Wu’s a huge influence on my writing.

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4 comments to “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon.””

  1. More of more than ever before:

    -You could make a good case for the Wu changing the face of rap entirely, and the ripples from 36 Chambers are still being felt right now.

    -Simply put: Kanye West wouldn’t have a career without the RZA. That chipmunk soul that he made his name off of back in the day? That’s straight out of “TEARZ.” Listen again. And then think of Kanye’s career arc: from middling producer delivering aight tracks to Jay-Z’s main dude to producing for pop stars to now, where he gets to do weird concept albums and fool around in Hawaii for eight months with all his friends.

    RZA’s been there, done that, and built a whole Batmobile to fulfill a childish dream.

    -Listen to The Clipse’s “Grindin’.” You hear that sparse beat, how it sounds like the soundtrack to a beating? Thumpthump thump-thump, and then all that other stuff Pharrell layered over the beat slowly builds when the chorus comes in? All these ugly sounds that ain’t supposed to work in songs?

    Go back and listen to “Bring Da Ruckus.” You hear those weird, what are they, horns? at the top of Ghostface’s verse, and then that sharp drumbeat comes back in right over “I did worse?” This beat is nothing, some loose horns that fade in and out, some ugly drums, and somebody’s voice. There’s a melody, several in fact, that fade in and out in pieces with the squeals and sirens. The beat drops out when Deck’s verse comes in, then struggles its way back to the top. Can you hear that?

    -Waka Flocka Flame has cited Wu-Tang as an inspiration, and he’s right. A lot of 36 Chambers sounds like a distinctly Yankee type of crunk music, with DJ Premier hi-hats instead of syrupy beats. Wu and Waka have the same effect: you want to get up and stomp somebody out over these songs. Shame that Waka decided that lyrical niggas don’t move units or whatever, because he gets hype beats that he does the bare minimum on.

    -36 Chambers is lyrically deep. They rap about rapping, rap about growing up hard, they rap about AIDS, partying, and everything else. Really listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

    -“Trying to get a clutch on what I could not…” is one of the illest and saddest lines of all time, doubly so because of “touch” being edited out on the album.

    -“TEARZ” is a great song, but you need to listen to “Impossible” right after it. Ghostface’s growth as a lyricist is insane, because he was already no slouch. His first few bars:

    Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot, word to Kimmy
    Don’t go Son, nigga, you my motherfuckin’ heart
    Stay still Son, don’t move, just think about Keeba
    She’ll be three in January, your young God needs you
    The ambulance is taking too long
    Everybody get the fuck back, excuse me bitch, gimme your jack
    One, seven one eight, nine one one, low battery, damn
    Blood comin’ out his mouth, he bleedin’ badly
    Nawwww, Jamie, don’t start that shit
    Keep your head up, if you escape hell we gettin’ fucked up
    When we was eight, we went to Bat Day to see the Yanks
    In Sixty-Nine, his father and mines, they robbed banks

    36 Chambers was the beginning. “Enter the Wu-Tang.” And they went on to get better, is the craziest thing. They were already dope, and when their personalities solidified, when they grew into their roles, they got better.

    -To expand on the growth comment in the main post: 36 Chambers is in flux, as far as personalities go. If you watch the videos, their names show up wrong, and one of ODB’s most amazing moments on the album is this:

    Represent the GZA, Abbott, RZA, Shaquan, Inspectah Deck
    Dirty Hoe gettin low wit his flow
    Introducin, the Ghost..face.. Killah!!

    They were already building up the nicknames at this point, but the Abbott is the RZA and Shaquan is Method Man. How are we supposed to know that? We aren’t, we’re just supposed to roll with it. We’ll understand one day.

    -If RZA isn’t the GOAT producer, I can’t tell you who is. And if you disagree, listen harder. He can do anything.

  2. Well said!

    One of my all-time favorite records just got enhanced by your analysis. I’m going to give the album another spin right now so that I can consider some of the ideas you raise at the same time.

  3. Spot on David! I will also say that another testament to the Wu’s greatness is that we have seen other hip-hop “super groups” try to form since and they only highlight the unique bond that Wu-Tang has. Even with infighting and loss, when the members get on stage or are on each other’s albums, it is verbal jousting, insight, and at times fun that feels natural.

    You can always have the members go on to separate projects but anyone who has heard them will always return to the 36 Chambers before long…. -w- 🙂

  4. […] Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes I took a trip back home in May, and a near-lethal dose of melancholy […]