25 Years Later: Breaking Down the Precious Balance of ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

25 Years Later: Breaking Down the Precious Balance of ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

It was the winter of 1992 in New York City, and Robert Diggs was trying to get a record made. Diggs, then known as Prince Rakeem, had an idea for a street single; a posse cut merging his already established group All In Together Now—comprised of himself and his two cousins—along with five burgeoning Staten Island rappers who, in recent years, had begun working with more closely. He referred to them as the Wu-Tang Clan.

In exchange for $100 per man, Diggs promised a verse slotted into the final mix in order to afford studio time. The fledgling group came up with $300, with some members apparently showing up with quarters to cover costs. The mastered version of the subsequent song, accompanied by a spooky and whirling sample of The J.B.’s “The Grunt,” had been completely reworked with new production, unbeknownst to every member besides Diggs, prior to its release. They titled it “Protect Ya Neck.”

The making of “Protect Ya Neck” had been chaotic: a moshpit of introductory flexes, references ranging from Spider-Man to Cain and Abel, and various styles spawning from each of the eight members. The song felt raw and formless, toeing the line of becoming too overwhelming with ideas. Yet, Diggs wanted the track to find that perfect balance of absurdity and ingenuity. A moment of pure lyrical chaos held together by a grander vision herniating from its creator’s mind.

Diggs knew what he wanted from the collective. He had secured their trust to a five-year plan for both the group’s success as well as each man’s solo career. Consumed by Gordon Liu grindhouse kung fu films and the teachings of the Five Percenters within the Nation of Islam, Diggs — who in 1993 had begun going by the name RZA — was fascinated with the idea of blending the concepts of martial arts and religion with music. He was obsessed with the contrast of the Shaolin Kung Fu and Wu-Tang (also known as the Wudang quan) styles of fighting, ancient Chinese martial arts teachings that taught warriors how to fight with both spirit and body, or swords. A perfect balance of beauty and violence.

They struck from the slums of Shaolin: the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon (the Chef), U-God, Ghostface Killah, the Method Man, and eventually, Masta Killa. RZA wanted to merge the skill and power that each of these MCs possessed and turn the frenzied style that they had created together into something trained and masterful. A swarm moving in unison, but each bee with its own particular stinger.

For RZA’s plan to succeed, it would require the complete trust of every member in the collective. Hip-hop in 1993, and especially in New York, was not only brimming with talent, but with more traditional releases and tangible ideas attached to each artist. Wu-Tang, as RZA knew it to be, was never that type of talent. They were not the airtight, conceptual perfectionists A Tribe Called Quest strove to be, nor committed to a particular lane or aesthetic the way groups like Onyx or even Gang Starr were. Instead, they were chaos personified. The Wu-Tang Clan was a special balance of wit, anger, insanity, humor, and pulp, with each member as juxtaposed in style to the next as the entire group was to the rest of their hip-hop peers.

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group’s now 25-year-old debut album, was both a success and failure of RZA’s intended vision. 36 Chambers achieved a perfect balance of personalities and ideas, while eventually proving that such a high-wire act of haptic energy, no matter how orchestrated it may be, becomes harder to replicate the larger that energy grows.

The brilliance of Enter The Wu-Tang is found across specific moments: The cartoonish violence of the torture skit in “Method Man.” Ghostface’s Goodfellas impersonation at the start of “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” The way the haunting guitar strings on “Clan in da Front,” accompanied by RZA’s ringleader chants, feel like the only nightmare you could ever enjoy. It’s also in the contrast of having kung fu narrators layered over samples from Gladys Knight & The Pips and Hall & Oates, or lyrical tacticians like GZA and Inspectah Deck balanced out by the perfect amorphousness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and RZA.

What also made the album brilliant was how RZA balanced the eight variables around him. The group was comprised of a potential star in Method Man, dedicated marksmen in Inspectah Deck and GZA, an unhinged tour de force in Ol’ Dirty Bastard, mafioso stylists in Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, a rap newcomer in Masta Killa, and an MC in legal troubles with U-God. Yet, the strongest material on Enter The Wu-Tang is found when RZA’s vision for those styles is perfectly designed and sequenced within the world the group was building.

RZA’s design is present in the way Ghostface’s opening haymaker of “When Ghostface catch the blast of a hype verse / My Glock burst, leave in a hearse, I did worse,” on “Bring da Ruckus,” contrasts his ruthlessness with one of his (and the album’s) most layered and introspective verses on “Can It Be All So Simple.” It’s in the way that Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man, arguably the group’s most larger-than-life personalities, don’t even appear until the second track. It’s why Masta Killa was able to find his legs on the album’s least crucial track, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” while still learning to write, or even how that same mafioso style that Raekwon was mastering arrived perfectly whenever RZA needed to establish the real-world stakes buried beneath the surface.

If Enter The Wu-Tang’s best qualities were its moments of world-building for each member, then maybe the album is best served as a prologue; a first chapter for the Wu empire without a resolution to the ideas it brings to the table. The album breathes life into each of the members and showcases their abilities to expand them for the next phase.

When examining Wu-Tang’s origin story that way, it’s hard not to find the seeds of several careers planted throughout. The layered, pulpy storytelling found on Ghostface’s Ironman doesn’t feel as possible without tracks like “Tearz,” or without “Bring da Ruckus” establishing his general outlandishness. Without Raekwon’s turns on “Can It Be All So Simple’” and “C.R.E.A.M.,” it’s hard to imagine Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’s iconic mafia aesthetic feeling as masterful as it was. The momentum going into Tical doesn’t feel as inevitable without the show-stealing “Method Man” to prove its worth. The legacy of Enter The Wu-Tang goes beyond what it achieved at the moment to include the art that inspired and the art that followed, and that all-encompassing nature was what made it perfect.

For however much Enter The Wu-Tang succeeded in bringing RZA’s initial vision to life, the preciousness of that success would play out over the next few years. The inevitability of catching lightning in a bottle is that it ultimately melts the glass holding it in. As the group struggled to stay together on tour in the following years, members like Ol’ Dirty Bastard struggled with severe drug addiction, and others struggled with RZA’s continued need for complete control, the delicate quality of their combined energy became obvious.

That tenuous bond is present inside the music if we listen close enough. Method Man was a multi-talented star who didn’t need to share the ball with his teammates as much as he did. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon were narrative geniuses too entrenched in character and story-building to be asked to neuter those abilities for the good of a group song. RZA still had a loyal company man in Inspectah Deck and a maturing talent in Masta Killa ready to fully join the ranks, but even his own cousins seemed to be pulling from the collective focus—GZA too interested in higher learning and Ol’ Dirty Bastard too chaotic, both artistically and personally.

The Wu’s output since 36 Chambers—six albums in total—has failed to meet the standard of their grand arrival, from the bloated Wu-Tang Forever to the inert Iron Flag to the experimental but empty 8 Diagrams. The Clan has suffered through distancing relationships between RZA and those that feel he demanded too much creative control, the death of ODB in 2004, and the looming shadow of solo projects that work just well enough to undercut the need for anything involving a group effort. While Wu-Tang had its moments as a collective, and still maintains a brotherhood after all these years, RZA’s hip-hop Voltron was ironically too powerful a force for its own good.

This is why Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 25 years on, remains a masterpiece of chaotic ideas and personalities, brought together through a process not much different than the group’s very first single. Enter The Wu-Tang proved how unique such artistic power could be, how captivating it could sound, and how delicate its power could become the larger it grows.

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