Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ by pioneering hip hop act Wu-Tang Clan.
Wu-Tang Clan were an odd choice for the Electric Picnic main stage this year (2013). Sandwiched between the mod stylings of Miles Kane and the homegrown masters of noise My Bloody Valentine, one of New York’s most notorious rap crews seemed a strange prospect in the fields of Stradbally. That would be to underestimate the seductive powers of the Wu however. For 20 years they have been one of the most influential groups in hip-hop. RZA’s production has influenced countless other genres as well, as his appearance on the latest James Blake album can attest.
The group’s debut, ensured that they started at the summit of their talents. ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ is a staggering mash-up of hardcore rap, off-key soul samples, impenetrable slang and kung fu movie references. This might lead you to believe that the album will be a bit hard to get into, and it certainly can be for the uninitiated, so leave your cynicism and rock-snobbery at the door.
The art of sampling has disappeared from hip-hop a bit lately, mainly due to copyright laws and fantastically high costs. ‘Enter the Wu-Tang‘, though, came out at the height of the movement and as a result is one of the high watermarks of the style. It also leads to a remarkably diverse album.
RZA prefers to sample old soul and funk songs but, rather than using a chorus or catchy hook, he litters this album with discordant pianos and odd bass lines. It could have sounded awful but the clashing sounds manage to bring the unforgiving atmosphere to life. The beats switch up frequently, from the frankly beautiful Can It All Be So Simple to the harsh, bass-heavy likes of Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit and Protect Ya Neck.
Of course the music can be great but hip-hop has always prided itself as a lyrical genre. Luckily the Wu-Tang Clan are populated by some of the most interesting and unusual characters in rap, who all had incredible solo careers of their own. From the crack-addled lunacy of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, to the excitable paranoia of Ghostface Killah, to the laid back cool of Method Man. However, it is Raekwon and Inspectah Deck who give the album its emotional heart with C.R.E.A.M., a heartbreaking account of life on the streets.
Old kung fu movies are one of the biggest influences on the album, including the title. Rather than stick rigidly to the traditional rags-to-riches narrative of rap, Wu-Tang reimagine themselves as Shaolin masters stalking the streets and fill the album with samples of dialogue from these films.
Thankfully they aren’t taking themselves too seriously either, they can be funny as well. The exaggerated torture descriptions in the first minute of Method Man are proof of this. It is also proof that the group are weird. This weirdness is what makes them great though. ‘Enter the Wu-Tang‘ is undeniably a strange album but at a time when rap has become increasingly commercial, we could do with another Wu-Tang taking similar risks right now. Bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus!