ICYMI: 1993 was an insane year for rap. A Tribe Called Quest dropped their third album, Midnight Marauders; KRS-One brought back the boom bap; and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle laced Gangsta rap with funk and wit. Rising above all the rest were a group of Staten Island natives who paraded around a debut album that would go on to reshape the hip-hop landscape and push New York back to the forefront of hip-hop.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) rattled the industry and the nation, proving an eclectic group of rappers could come together to produce something so intrinsically profound and artistic. Masterminded by RZA, every member of hip-hop’s greatest faction shares the spotlight across the album’s 12 tracks, solidifying the individual talents that would go on to produce illustrious solo careers for themselves.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, we’ve assembled a collection of Wu fans, artists, producers, journalists, and comedians to wax nostalgic on how the timeless album affected them personally.
Howard Kremer, host of Who Charted?
“Nothing this family wants is in Staten Island.” My Mom and I grew up in New Jersey. Staten Island was 15 miles away. We never went there. I was taught to avoid it. I’d always wondered what odd and dangerous creatures were roaming around over there. In 1994, I found out. It made my mind spin. How could there by this many rappers in a crew? How could so many of them be so original and amazing? How could a group concept be any cooler? How could something this exotic come from just over that nearby bridge? Damn it, Mom! Why did you forbid me from visiting the island of Shaolin???!!!
Jake Fogelnest, writer, comedian, and radio personality
Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) really takes me back to a specific time in New York City. There were a few spots where you could buy bootleg VHS tapes of old kung-fu movies and I know business for those guys totally skyrocketed after the record came out. All of the sudden you had all these white prep-school nerds taking an interest in the Shaw Brothers. Seriously, I think there was at least six months where kung-fu movies outsold porno on 42nd Street.
I also completely associate Wu-Tang with The Box. They were never on MTV, but they were always on “The Box – Music Television You Control.” Thank god for that 900# you could call to request a video. It was always the stuff that MTV seemed too scared to get behind.
I can literally smell the blunt smoke on 2nd Avenue whenever I think of Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers).
1. Bring Da Ruckus
Jaime Meline, a.k.a. El-P
Before Wu-Tang dropped their album, me and Big Jus got a copy of the tape directly from the guys at Loud Records. This was before the Internet mattered to music and the note attached said something like, “I know you guys will run your mouths about how good this is so here you go.” Word of mouth, in other words. We rolled weed up, sat down, popped the tape in, and pressed play. I’m not gonna wax too philosophical about it. All I can say is that once “Bring the Ruckus” dropped, I knew in my gut that rap music was about to change again and these dudes were making it happen. I can’t tell you who my favorite member of Wu is. For me, that wasn’t the point. Wu was all of them. That was Wu. They changed everything. The greatest super group in rap music history.
2. Shame On A Nigga
H. Drew Blackburn, contributor for Village Voice, Complex
Clocking in at 2:57, “Shame on A Nigga” is a hip-hop straight shooter with verbal bullets sprayed relentlessly by a few of the upper tier Wu-Tang lyrical assailants: Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Raekwon. The slowed down soul sample (“Different Strokes” – Syl Johnson), punch of aggression spiked with conceit, and breakbeat drums make this one of the more standard hip-hop tracks on an album rightfully lauded for its experimental take on hip-hop cooked up in the RZA’s basement. As a foreword to those kung-fu film samples, raw minimalistic production, and waxing poetic about Eastern philosophy and chess, the brief addition of the ordinary is a brilliant move by the RZA—the man knows his mathematics.
3. Clan In Da Front
Josh Terry, Staff Writer for Consequence of Sound
Getting into the Wu-Tang Clan as a freshman in high school, I was amazed by how 36 Chambers sounded so cohesive with the Clan’s nine members each having distinctive voices. Though I loved the tracks with multiple verses from a handful of the Wu-Tang Clan, I quickly realized GZA was my personal favorite out of the group—his monotonous tone, his calculated, dense lyrics, and his nickname as “The Genius” solidified it for me. On “Clan in da Front”, only GZA raps, holding his own and sounding like a complete badass over a Thelonious Monk sample. Catching GZA last year on tour go through his awesome Liquid Swords tracks and his Wu-Tang classics reminded me of that freshman year trying to keep up with his grimy, ice-cold flow.
4. Wu-Tang 7th Chamber
Brian Josephs, Staff Writer for Consequence of Sound, Complex
One thing you have to respect about Wu-Tang is how distinguishable each of the members are. GZA wasn’t Method Man. Ghostface was and will always be Ghostface, and there was no way in hell you can confuse ODB with anybody. That’s part of the reason why the skits worked so well. A lot of people prefer the “Torture” skit at the beginning of “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”, but I personally prefer this one. Here Ghostface walks into his clanmates (who are arguing over the missing Killer Tape) with some news: Shameek got shot and killed.
“The nigga laying there like a fucking newborn fucking baby, God,” Ghostface eloquently explains. Cue the high out of his mind Method Man: “Is he dead?” “Is he fucking dead? What the fuck you mean is he fucking dead, God?” Ghostface responds hilariously outraged.
Ghost’s first line has sort of become my catchphrase when describing a fallen body as a means of taunting. A drunken body? A felled football player? Someone tripped and fell? You lying like a newborn fucking baby, God. I was an immature 19-year-old, to say the least. As for the song itself. Eh. I like “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man” better. You can’t beat a Green Eggs and Ham reference.
5. Can It Be All So Simple
Raj Haldar, a.k.a. Lushlife
“Can It Be All So Simple” is a monumental expression of nostalgia. I think it projects wistfulness better than any record I’ve ever heard. From the iconic Gladys Knight “everybody’s talking ’bout the good old days” intro sample and sweeping RZA instrumental backdrop, to the sentimental but still hard-as-nails rhymes from Rae and Ghost, this joint fires nostalgia on all pistons. 36 Chambers came out when I was in the seventh grade, and I definitely wore out my classic double A-side 12-inch (backed with “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ Ta F’wit”). Even back then I realized, “Can It Be All So Simple” was expertly-crafted to induce chills. Twenty years later, I still get that incredible spine-tingling feeling every time I hear the key modulation that sets off Ghostface’s closing “Sunshine plays a major part in the daytime” couplet. 1993 exoticness, indeed.
6. Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’
Eric Thurm, Staff Writer for The A.V. Club
I didn’t even consider myself a serious hip-hop fan until I was bored at work one summer a few years ago and decided on a whim to check out Wu Tang, starting with “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”. After spending a whole day listening to it on repeat instead of working, I was hooked. My “Chessboxin’” experience was basically a conversion—that summer, I went full nerd and read a ton of books about rap while getting obnoxiously into Grandmaster Flash.
Thankfully, that track is the perfect Wu cut for the nerdier hip-hop head: In part, it’s a ridiculous, dizzying collage of cultural pastiche (pretty much all of ODB’s verse) that also, remember, involves the crew’s obsession with chess—but it’s still raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a total sucker for that U-God verse.
7. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin To Fuck Wit
Ernest Wilkins, Digital Producer for RedEye Chicago
Have you ever been jumped? I have! It’s a harrowing experience and I don’t’ recommend it. This song sounds like that. A audio ass-kicking, brought to you with style (Inspectah Deck’s verse,) finesse (Method Man’s,) and whatever the hell RZA is doing (directing traffic? Yelling at that same traffic?) No matter what, it’s a classic verbal thumping. Don’t fuck with them, indeed.
Nick Koenig, a.k.a. Hot Sugar
When I was a kid, my French parents sent me to “pony camp” in France where a bunch of kids lived in a castle and every kid had a pony. All the cool older kids at pony camp listened to “C.R.E.A.M.” and as the only English speaking human in the castle, they would bully me into translating lyrics for them. Every few hours I was assaulted by a middle schooler asking me to explain lines such as, “I escape from jakes giving chase, selling base/ smoking bones in the staircase.” As an oblivious, sheltered eight-year-old, I was in no position to explicate this song so I lied and made up stories for each line just to appease the violent idiots.
Much like Scheherazade, I postponed constant looming attacks from older kids who wanted my candy by weaving tales about a song I had absolutely no understanding of. By the time I got home to the US, I’d grown desperate to learn the true meaning of each lyric. At that age, with the resources I had, I put more effort into decoding it than I ever have towards any poem or piece of literature, and so began my obsession with Wu-Tang slang and mathematics. Regardless, somewhere in France, a kid probably still thinks that Raekwon’s mom was so mean she had four hands like Goro and liked to bounce on frail old men’s bodies to satisfy her blood lust.
9. Method Man
Ian Cory, Staff Writer for Wine and Pop
For a long time I was one of those kids that didn’t “get” hip-hop. I spouted off the usual excuses for being a close-minded dumb ass for years until a friend of mine sat me down and force-fed me Ready To Die and 36 Chambers in quick succession. It was a lot to take in, Wu-Tang especially. Keeping track of who was saying what and when was tricky, doubly so because of the ugly production and byzantine rhyme schemes the group’s rotating cast had made their bread and butter. And then, late into the record there’s this little track. After eight tracks of some of the grimmest shit ever put to tape, hearing Method Man and Raekwon try and top each other with increasingly absurd ways of punishing their foes was like an oasis. For the first time I felt like I was laughing with the group instead of being rapped AT.
The ensuing song doesn’t have the deftest lyricism of the record or the most engaging beat beat, but its singular focus on Method’s warped singsong flow was way easier to digest than the four rapper pile-on’s that make up much of the album. And that’s not even bringing up the “I got fat bags of skunk/I got White Owl blunts” section; probably one of the catchiest hooks the Clan’s ever had. I won’t say anything as hyperbolic as “Method Man got me into hip-hop” (the other album my friend played me deserves more credit on that front) but it certainly helped.
10. Protect Ya Neck
Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop
Young sons and daughters: the best track the infamous 36 Chambers has to offer to your ear canals is “Protect Ya Neck.” Maybe the track isn’t widely known for it’s chorus like “C.R.E.A.M.” or “Shame On A Nigga”, but it’s the album’s most fiery posse cut, featuring input from every one of the group’s members at this point. This is hardcore hip hop at its core. The RZA’s eerie piano phrases and sharp percussion create the ideal groove to showcase the most rugged rhymes these New York street poets had to offer on this LP. Plus, the added shots of noise to censor the group’s profanity actually adds to the song’s rough, gritty aesthetic. The 7.5 verses–cuz U-God’s is pretty short–on this thing are loaded with nothing but crude and aggressive lyricism that gets more fun with every listen.
Michael Roffman, Editor-in-Chief for Consequence of Sound
What separates Wu from just about everyone in their genre is how obsessed they are with creating a cinematic experience, and a lot of that weighs heavily on their fuzzy interludes and banter. Too many great rap albums have been hindered by schticky, unnecessary skits, those that border on the asinine and wind up sounding dated within a couple of years anyhow. (Eddie Griffin’s “Ed-Ucation”, notwithstanding, no matter how much his career’s tanked since Dre last released an LP.) “Tearz” is a golden nugget of a deep cut off 36 Chambers, having the unfortunate duty of following up “Protect Ya Neck”, but it’s a greater example of their flair for the theatrical.
As RZA and Ghostface Killah reminisce about all the terror that’s found them over the years — thematically punched up by the sample of Wendy Rene’s soulful hook: “after laughter, comes tears” — it actually sounds like they’re in the backyard, kicking it with “forty dogs in [their] lip[s].” There’s hearty chatter a la Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and every time the verse switches up, it’s like either RZA or Ghostface are literally bouncing off one another amongst a choir of listeners. Lyrically, that’s the image they wanted, and musically that’s what they captured, all without being tacky, tongue-in-cheek, or left of the dial. Twenty years later, it’s no surprise some of these guys are regulars of the silver screen.
12. Wu-Tang 7th Chamber – Part II
Pat Levy, Staff Writer for Consequence of Sound
This song honestly sounds like seven-ninths of the Wu-Tang Clan got together under a subway station and thought it would be a good place to record, with dissonant blasts of noise coming in occasionally and briefly but never distracting from the group’s intimidating flows. Everyone but U-God and Masta Killa makes an appearance, revealing exactly what it is about the Wu that’s still so appealing after all these years: their distinct lyrical styles.
ODB’s stuttering intro to his verse, yelling “piss” in the middle, and closing it out with a shrill scream is just an encapsulation of what we would come to expect as the norm from the manic hip-hop icon. It’s one of the most iconic posse cuts in rap history, and GZA’s verse — where he manages to reference the Thrilla in Manilla fight, threaten to smash your dome with a cinderblock, and allude to Lucky Charms — is as memorable of a closing statement you could ask for arguably the greatest rap album ever.