I vividly remember my first experience with Wu-Tang Clan. I was in grade 11 or 12 and it was the first time one of my school friends had a licence and car, and could drive us around, instead of relying on parents or busses. The first thing he did, after turning the ignition, was push a cassette into the tape deck. What followed was half an hour of cruising around town, thinking we were king shits, listening to Wu-Tang Clan. I have no idea what album it was, but I do remember hearing a series of unbearable sketches, mixed amongst what seemed like very few songs.
As a 90s teen who worshipped the Seattle grunge and Australian indie bands of the time, I was quick to dismiss any form of hip hop. But that day and that initial exposure to the gangsta sound always stayed with me. A few years ago, I picked up a Wu-Tang greatest hits and it began my gradual acceptance of rap. An acceptance that lead to me finally seeing what all the fuss was about with Jay Z and Kanye. An Acceptance that is coming full circle with my first full Wu-Tang album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
On that greatest hits, Shame on a Nigga has always been the biggest stand out. Hearing it now, knowing it’s track two on their debut album, it seems only inevitable that this band would have hit so hard, so early, and had such an enduring impact on hip hop and the world at large. It’s the kind of thing that might make a white Australian guy feel like a badass. At least, feel like a badass for the three minutes while the song is playing.
Then came a massive revelation with Wu-Tang: The 7th Chamber. The intro is one of the sketches that I remember almost word for word from that cassette in my mate’s car back in ’96 or ’97. It’s as inessential and badly executed as I remember. Only this time, I hate it more. Because this time, I was really getting into the music that it interrupted.
Even without listening to much, I was aware of Wu-Tang’s deep affection for and connection to old school kung-fu movies. On Enter the Wu-Tang, it’s manifested through samples from movies in the form of little dialogue interludes between songs. But more importantly it’s manifested through samples used to build the beats that are the backbone of this album. There’s a strange, unexpected synergy between the crackling, Asian infused, 70s cinema sounds, and the hardcore 90s vocals. On perfect display in Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, they’re two rough edges that fit together like a key in a lock.
But the pop culture references don’t end with kung-fu. I guess I wasn’t surprised to hear Blaxploitation hero Dolemite get name checked. Even a Fat Albert allusion makes a certain amount of success. But when Method Man quotes Dr Seuss, I was a little surprised.
In the two decades since that first exposure to Wu-Tang Clan, names that would have struck me as corny back then, have gone on to build undeniable and serious credibility that even the most casual hip hop listener couldn’t deny. RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Ghost Face Killah. I may not know much, but I now inherently know these are names to pay attention to. And Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) makes me know why they were always names to pay attention to.