Without question, the Wu-Tang Clan’s November 1993 debut stands as one of the most influential albums in the history of hip-hop. Anyone with even a passing interest in rap music needs to experience Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and check the bombardment of ghostly beats, lethal cuts, and hardcore verses from the squad.
The importance of this record on the New York hip-hop scene cannot be overstated, as the East Coast rappers infused their debut with intellectual rhymes and technical expertise that many had not yet experienced. The use of martial arts imagery, comic book and chess references, and mic-tradin’ battle rap would heavily influence the best in the business.
The beauty of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) lies in the stripped-down production by RZA. His use of cuts from martial arts movies and soul music instills the record with an uncanny style that captures the tone of the streets and places the lyrical content on another level. The coarse sound is due in part to the fact that RZA didn’t have access to the best equipment to put the album together, giving 36 Chambers a sincere, raw resonance.
With RZA’s production as a framework, the MCs build stories and narratives on top of the beats with class and style that few others could emulate. The basic themes of the verses are the same, although each MC’s ability to conduct the rhymes varies. From Method Man’s foggy delivery to Ghostface Killah’s verbal idiosyncrasies, the group delivers a scourge of rhymes throughout the record.
In today’s modern context, where the landscape of hip-hop is often dominated by crews with less than stellar efforts, a listen to the 36 Chambers is as invigorating as ever.
Take the unrefined first track, “Bring da Ruckus,” as it explodes through the martial arts samples and bursts alongside the tight background woven by RZA. While other crews deliver stocky, big-headed rhymes over dance pop sheets, the Wu-Tang blasts over a crude low-fi soundscape and dominate the proceedings with belligerent, unprocessed verses.
The ODB-dominated “Shame on a Nigga” flows with eccentric energy as Method Man and Raekwon tuck flowing rhymes over the fast track. And “Clan in da Front” uses a peculiar beat and plunks of piano to mesh with GZA’s vocals, formulating a great cut that bursts out of the hectic introduction.
“Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” takes listeners on a journey through the Clan’s membership. Floating on top of a Lonnie Smith sample and following a skit that surges with the dialect of the streets, the track’s flow is insistent. Verses by Method Man, Inspectah Deck, ODB, Ghostface Killah, RZA, GZA, and Raekwon temper the cut with the breadth of the collective’s mindset, offering a veritable window to the soul of these diverse personalities.
With a sample from Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Can It All Be So Simple” is an easy-flowing song that carries an eerie undercurrent. The Raekwon/Ghostface Killah song bounces and glides with a silkiness that is as infectious as it is noxious.
ODB joins RZA on production on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” a martial arts-tinged cut that is the only one on the album to feature Masta Killa. RZA gets more production help from Method Man on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing to F’ Wit,” a loud and unruly track that carries a tremendous first verse from RZA.
Perhaps the album’s most famous track, “C.R.E.A.M.,” is a hip-hop classic. The flow from Raekwon on the first stanza is toxic, sliding smoothly alongside the head-nodding beat. Take special note of the rise and fall of the sample over the dark bass of the tune.
“Method Man” begins with a hysterically devilish discussion between Meth and Raekwon about torture before it launches into an absolutely astounding set of rhymes by the song’s subject.
36 Chambers continues with a pair of tracks that were the first Wu-Tang had ever put together. “Protect Ya Neck,” now a hip-hop classic, was the group’s debut single. Brimming with contributions from most of the Clan’s MCs, this piece forged new ground in terms of posse cuts. “Tearz” features street narratives that bring the reality of life home.
The last track on the record’s standard edition, “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber Part II,” blasts forward with a sort of reprise from an earlier cut. The line trading is on-point again, as the collective rolls through verses packed with the usual metaphors and intelligent rhyme construction expected from such incredible talent.
For any serious hip-hop fan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a given. Stacked with verse after verse of intelligent and precise rhymes, supernatural and tight minimalistic production, and a tone that few other albums would be able to emulate, this is a rap essential that is as strong today as it was in ’93.