Well Versed: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

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If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang…could be dangerous.

In my last article, I mentioned that the debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was ranked as the greatest hip hop album of the last 30 years by Spin Magazine, and I can’t disagree. As I’ve written before, the Wu-Tang Clan was a group of such deep mythology and dynastic relevance that their debut album should be revered with the same respect as the bible. Every rap fan has their personal favorite Wu-Tang album, but their iconic debut has always been mine. Where the other classics excelled by perfecting a singular sound, Enter The Wu-Tang was dense and chaotic, a thousand possible flows and ideas and inspirations. The hiss of the record became the buzz of the killer bees. That RZA, the groups leader and producer, was able to perfectly calibrate that energy and turn it into a comprehensive album is remarkable and unrepeatable. Never before or again will we see an album that showcased this much talent working in such harmony.

In the first column of Well Versed, I’ll break down a rap album through the best verses; because a lot of times a record can be measured by the quality of its verses rather than its songs. Sometimes I might countdown the top 10 verses, or I might rank the guest verses (I’ll definitely rank the guest verses). But for Enter The Wu-Tang, we’ll do something different. In honor of the massive amount of MC’s that contributed, I’ll rank the best verse from each member. It’s not easy task, as all of the rappers here are working at peak capacity. And since it’s a matter of preference, everyone should of course go listen to the album at the source.

Let’s start with the easy ones.

U-God – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Raw I’m gonna give it to you, with no trivia
Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia
My hip-hop will rock and shock the nation
like the Emancipation Proclamation
Weak MC’s approach with slang that’s dead
you might as well run into the wall and bang your head
I’m pushin’ force, my force your doubtin’
I’m makin’ devils cower to the Caucus Mountains

Masta Killa – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Homicide’s illegal and death is the penalty
What justifies the homicide, when he dies?
In his own iniquity it’s the
Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at you
We have an APB on an MC Killer
Looks like the work of a Master
Evidence indicates that’s it’s stature
Merciless like a terrorist hard to capture
The flow, changes like a chameleon
Plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger
This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede
and injure – ANY MOTHERFUCKING CONTENDER

U-God and Masta Killa only contributed one verse apiece for the clan’s debut, the first and last verse of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin.” U-God only got to put in one verse because he was incarcerated for the majority of the recording sessions for the album, but his intro here still ranks as one of the more iconic moments of the tape. Masta Killa earned his spot as the 9th and last member of the clan with his verse here. RZA was producer as a roman emperor, with MC’s engaging in rap gladiatorial combat to see who would be on each song. Masta Killa beat out several other rappers for his shot at immortality. Rap as doctoral thesis.

RZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

Yo chill with the feedback black we don’t need that
It’s ten o’clock hoe, where the fuck’s your seed at?
Feeling mad hostile, ran the apostle
Flowing like Christ when I speaks the gospel
Stroll with the holy roll then attack the globe with the buckus style
the ruckus, ten times ten men committing mad sin
Turn the other cheek and I’ll break your fucking chin
Slaying boom-bangs like African drums (we’ll be)
Coming around the mountain when I come
Crazy flamboyant for the rap enjoyment
My clan increase like black unemployment
Yeah, another one dare,
Tuh-took a genius (to) take us the fuck outta here

GZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

The Wu is too slamming for these Cold Killing labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doing artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s gettin stuck to the gum under the table
That’s what you get when you misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and you lose every cent
For trying to blow up a scrub
Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb
Should’ve pumped it when I rocked it
Niggaz so stingy they got short arms and deep pockets
This goes on in some companies
With majors they’re scared to death to pump these
First of all, who’s your A&R
A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar
But he don’t know the meaning of dope
When he’s looking for a suit and tie rap
that’s cleaner than a bar of soap
And I’m the dirtiest thing in sight
Matter of fact bring out the girls and let’s have a mud fight

“Protect Ya Neck” was a mission statement. It was their first single, recorded and passed out on cassettes until it swarmed all over New York. It became such a street hit that when they put it on the album, they put an intro before the song of someone calling into a radio station asking for that Wu-Tang joint (Again? Aww yeah, again and again!). It could very well be the greatest song ever made, and every verse here is perfect. RZA and GZA, the oldest and most experienced members, got top billing and deliver their own sermon on the mount. RZA goes absolutely bonkers, foreshadowing his kinetic frenzied style that would characterize his later rapping, flowing like Christ and announcing his plans for world domination. He alley oops it to GZA who lives up to his Genius moniker. GZA and RZA had solo careers before starting the Wu but they were mishandled by their labels and left for dead. The clan was a rebirth for both of them, but not before GZA could give them a sendoff with this scathing undressing. There is no better summation of the divide between the street life of many rap artists and the business dealings of the labels than his devastating description of an A&R: a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar.

Raekwon – “C.R.E.A.M.”

I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side
Staying alive was no jive
Had second hands, moms bounced on old man
So then we moved to Shaolin land
A young youth, yo rockin the gold tooth, ‘Lo goose
Only way, I begin to G’ off was drug loot
And let’s start it like this son, rollin with this one
And that one, pullin out gats for fun
But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend
Started smokin woolies at sixteen
And running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes
Making my way on fire escapes
No question I would speed, for cracks and weed
The combination made my eyes bleed
No question I would flow off, and try to get the dough off
Sticking up white boys in ball courts
My life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweater
Times is rough and tough like leather
Figured out I went the wrong route
So I got with a sick tight clique and went all out
Catchin keys from across seas
Rollin in MPV’s, every week we made forty G’s
Yo brothas respect mine, or anger the tech nine
Ch-POW! Move from the gate now

Inspectah Deck – “C.R.E.A.M.”

It’s been 22 long hard years and still strugglin
Survival got me buggin, but I’m alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world cause shit is deep
A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M.
Which failed; I went to jail at the age of 15
A young buck sellin drugs and such who never had much
Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin’, going up state’s my destination
Handcuffed in back of a bus, 40 of us
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough
But as the world turns I learned life is Hell
Living in the world, no different from a cell
Everyday I escape from Jakes givin chase, sellin base
Smokin bones in the staircase
Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed, and I ask what’s it worth?
Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
and stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty’s running wild, smokin sess, drinkin beer
And ain’t trying to hear what I’m kickin in his ear
Neglected for now, but yo, it gots to be accepted
That what? That life is hectic

If “Protect Ya Neck” is the greatest song on the album, then “C.R.E.A.M.” is the most iconic. Over one of RZA’s most indelible samples, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck flip the script on the gangsta rap that was coming from the west coast. All of L.A.’s takes of inner city life translated into big booming blockbusters, but this was film noir; dark shadows and understated horror. Raekwon the Chef shows his mastery of economical language, packing a lifetime into every bar. A young kid, born on the crime side, the NY times side, who’s only way out of poverty was the drug trade. Deck plays the yang to his yin, the warning conscience to Rae’s bad example. Inspectah Deck was the straight man of the Wu, always better within the team bouncing off of the other personalities than he was on his own. But he dropped some of the best verses on the album and “C.R.E.A.M.” was his shining moment, a plea for sanity and safety before giving up and accepting that life is hectic. The song would become immortal as the biggest missive against capitalism this side of Marx.

Ol Dirty Bastard – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Here I go, deep type flow
Jacque Cousteau could never get this low..
I’m cherry bombing shits… BOOM
Just warming up a little bit, vroom vroom
Rappinin is what’s happening
Keep the pockets stacked and then, hands clapping and
At the party when I move my body
Gotta get up, and be somebody!
Grab the microphone go straight to the phone
DUH-DUH-DUH…enter the Wu-Tang zone
Sure enough when I rock that stuff
Guff puff? I’m gonna catch your bluff tough
rough, kicking rhymes like Jim Kelly
or Alex Haley I’m a Mi-..Beetle Bailey rhymes
coming raw style, hardcore
Niggas be coming to the hip-hop store
Coming to buy grocery from me
Trying to be a hip-hop MC
The law, in order to enter the Wu-Tang
You must bring the Ol’ Dirty Bastard type slang
Represent the GZA, Abbott, RZA, Shaquan, Inspectah Deck
Dirty Hoe getting low with his flow
Introducing, the Ghost..face.. Killahhhhhh!!
No one could get iller

The late ODB was one of the most singular personalities not just in the Clan but in all of hip hop. His rap style could not be imitated; twenty years later and just now we’re seeing young artists able to tap into his unique mania. His rap style predated adlibs, brought sing rapping to the forefront, and enlarged the circle of what was and wasn’t acceptable to rap. It’s hard to choose just one verse of his as the best, but “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” balanced all the best parts of his style. He brought the bars and the energy, and in the middle of this posse cut he completely stole the show. There are so many gems; his Jacque Costeau shout out, his jerky flow, and the way he shouts out KILLLAHHHHHHHHHH at the end. He is missed.

Method Man – “Method Man”

Hey, you, get off my cloud
You don’t know me and you don’t know my style
Who be gettin flam when they come to a jam?
Here I am here I am, the Method Man
Patty cake patty cake hey the method man
Don’t eat Skippy, Jif or Peter Pan
Peanut butter, Cause I’m not butter
In fact I snap back like a rubber
band, I be Sam Sam I am
And I don’t eat green eggs and ham
Style will hit ya, wham!, then goddamn
You be like oh shit that’s the jam
Turn it up now hear me get buckwu-wu-wild
I’m about to blow light me up
Upside downside inside and outside
Hittin you from every angle there’s no doubt
I am, the one and only Method Man
The master of the plan wrappin shit like Saran
Wrap, with some of this and some of that
Hold up (what?) I tawt I tat I putty tat
Over there, but I think he best to beware
Of the diggy dog shit right here
Yippy yippy yay yippy yah yippy yo
Like Deck said this ain’t your average flow
Coming like rah ooh ah achie kah
Tell me how ya like it so far baby paw
The poetry’s in motion coast to coast and
Rub it on your skin like lotion
What’s the commotion, oh my lord
Another cord chopped by the Wu-Tang sword
Hey hey hey like Fat Albert
It’s the Method Man ain’t no if ands about it
It’s the Method

Method Man was the clear breakout star of the clan and for a minute in the mid 90’s might have been the best rapper alive. His movie star charisma was easily identified, which gave Method Man not only the best hook duties but his very own song on the album. Meth just glides over this beat, turning a goofy piano line into one of the catchiest songs in hip hop history. There isn’t even a verse per se, he just raps until he switches into a bridge and then starts again. You could argue that his solo career never lived up to the potential of this moment, but that’s more a testament to the song than anything else. He emptied everything in the tank on this one.

Ghostface Killah – “Bring Da Ruckus”

Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verse
My glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse
I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Ya head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aw shit, Wu-Tang Clan spark the wicks an’
However, I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin terror, quick damage ya whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up, or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous, cause I wreck this dangerous
I blow sparks like Waco, Texas

We end at the beginning. Ghostface Killah, one of the few candidates for the GOAT position in rap, didn’t do as much to distinguish himself on their debut as his crew members. His trademark flamboyant style and visceral storytelling would manifest later in his solo career. But in the very first verse on Enter The Wu-Tang, no one could want a better opening. Over RZA’s snarls of “Bring da muthafuckin ruckus,” Ghost straight kills it, rhyming elephant tusk with Egyptian musk, disparaging Richard Nixon, and shouting out the P.L.O. The seeds of one of the greatest rappers ever were laid out.

It’s remarkable to listen to a tape that’s 22 years old and have it hold up. Enter The Wu-Tang is a big bang of an album; a claustrophobic force that could create a universe. We’re just blessed to be living in it.

Trapped In The 90’s: Hip Hop’s Obsession With The Past

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Earlier this year, Spin Magazine released a landmark issue celebrating their 30 year anniversary. It was a list that counted down the 300 best albums from 1985-2014 — all 30 years of the magazine’s existence. Lists of this magnitude aren’t fun for the strict ranking; they’re fun for the dialogue they start, a chance to process history while it’s happening or revaluate more established classics. These big catchall lists are more amusing than provocative. The big guns one would expect all hang around the top ten. Nirvana, The Smiths, Radiohead, and Daft Punk all get to share the glory. But underneath this ranking is lurks something more interesting. There are 55 hip hop albums on this list, and given that the first iconic rap LP’s occurred near the ’84-’85 period, those 55 albums rank as a list of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. It’s interesting to see on its own. Here’s the top 10 (with their ranking in the original list as well).

  1. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993) [2]
  2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010) [8]
  3. The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001) [13]
  4. Fear Of A Black Planet – Public Enemy (1990) [15]
  5. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989) [17]
  6. Aquemini – Outkast (1998) [21]
  7. Illmatic – Nas (1994) 23]
  8. Ready To Die – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994) [27]
  9. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991) [32]
  10. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Public Enemy (1988) [36]

As a list on it’s own, those ten albums are about as good as you can get in the genre, but looking through the whole list reveals some interesting things about how we process Hip Hop history.

  • Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is absolutely the greatest album of all time. As I’ve written before, there’s no other album that can create an entire universe for a listener to fall into. Rap was never the same after it.
  • Spin don’t got no love for the west coast? Well let it be known then!  Only six albums from L.A. crack the top 50 and they’re all legends: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., 2Pac. Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is apparently the greatest L.A. album ever, ranking in at 12th. There’s nothing from the Bay Area.
  • The golden age is over. Usually these lists are the type that idolize the first golden age of rap (1988) or that glorious ’93-’96 period, but albums from all over the hip hop timeline populate the list. No one doubts how good Kanye’s MBDTF is, but I never thought I’d see the day where it was the second greatest album ever.

No list is perfect, and this one is certainly flawed. It’s fun to see the whole of hip hop history be grappled with because there’s a big divide between classic and current rap music. Every new generation of every genre has to hear their elders complain about how much better music was back in the good old days, but given the speed of change in rap music, the generation gap is particularly acute.

Hip hop is a dynamic, evolving genre. It’s the sound of ebb and flow, volcanic tensions constantly dissolving into one another. One of my favorite dichotomies is the fight between past and present. Rap is inherently youthful, resting on the shoulders of young teenagers who vividly reimagine their world every couple of years. But it’s also music as archeology; the genre was literally born by repurposing the records that came before it. An artist can say more with with how they place a sample or a lyrical reference than with an actual bar of their own.

That tension manifests itself outside of the actual music. When Time Magazine ran an article and interview with Vince Staples where he claimed that the ’90s got too much credit in rap, the internet blew up. Old heads came at him saying that he was the problem in Hip Hop and he had no respect for the genre. The outrage even culminated in a war of words between Vince Staples and 90’s rapper Noreaga (aka N.O.R.E), the exact type of New York brass knuckles lyricist that’s been swept away by contemporary tastes. The irony is that Staples clearly has a ton of respect for hip hop, knows all of the classics, and can absolutely rap his ass off. The only L.A. rapper on the 2014 All-Star Rap Squad, Staples rewarded my trust in him with one of the seminal albums of the year, Summertime ’06.

Vince Staples doesn’t deserve all of the flack he’s received, but there’s a reasonable frustration from the older hip hop heads. In every other genre, the great records of the past have been able to institutionally enter the classic canon. Whether through enshrinement in a hall of fame or a countdown on VH1 or a list in Rolling Stone, rock and roll found a way to embed itself into the cultural consciousness. The fact that hip hop has made it so far into popular culture without acceptance by any of these gatekeepers is impressive on it’s own, but it’s also had a terrible side effect. The music business continually treats rap music as a continual fad, so only the young guns are given commercial opportunities. Old rappers don’t get radio play or label support. It’s one thing for new rappers to rebel against the old generation, it’s another thing entirely to grow up without knowing who they are.

Pitting past against present is a false binary. These rappers exist in completely different contexts. There’s only a handful of rappers working today that wouldn’t be laughed off of a stage in the 90’s; conversely there’s only a handful of rappers from the 90’s who would even get a record deal today. It’s crazy to fault a genre this propulsive for changing every year. It’s absurd that rap doesn’t have its own hall of fame and golden oldies stations (although we’re trying–word to KDAY). But that’s why these lists like SPIN made are fun. We get to span eras and see how the genre has evolved. Vince Staples might not sound like a 90’s rappers, but like many of his peers, his music is grappling with the ghosts of rappers past. The old king is dead, long live the new king. Here’s to the next 30 years being just as revolutionary.