The greatest hip-hop debuts in history present their artists as absolute forces to be reckoned with. It’s not just about a particularly tight flow, multilayered lyrics, and a proper selection of beats. It’s about all that and more. It’s a case of musical kismet and a reality that changes forever because those artists lent their talents to the mic at that time and place.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has become such a standard — not only in hip-hop but in music, period — that imagining a world without it is nigh impossible. It’d be one where you don’t have Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Ghostface Killah as immediate points of comparison for Danny Brown and Action Bronson. It’s one where rap collectives have no golden standard to aspire to. It’s one where cream is relegated to being associated with Eric Clapton and dairy. It’s one without Wu-Tang Financial. It’s one where we’re deprived of one of the most important works of the 20th century, one which, even as it turns 25 years old, shows nary a wrinkle.
Knowing of 36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Clan’s legacy can make it easy to forget how unlikely its success was. Nine New York MCs, only a couple with any actual recorded material to their name, crammed into a studio to just spit absolute fire in all types of ways over beats with a cinematic quality unlike any other, with or without the kung fu film samples. RZA and the rest of the Clan weren’t matinee idols appearing in 70mm. They were the second part of the double feature, and if you found it unappealing or distasteful, the exit was thataway.
It could’ve ended up as a hugely influential album that launched the careers of some of the most important names in hip-hop (most notably RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Raekwon) and contained a few classic singles while not being quite formed as an album that you want to hear all the way through very often. Finding cohesion with three MCs on a single track can be difficult enough, let alone nine on a single album. Not only does everyone in Wu-Tang earn their place on the album (Yes, even Masta Killa. What would 36 Chambers be without “We have an APB on an MC killer”?) but so does every single track.
In a genre that’s no stranger to bloat, even before streaming inflation, 36 Chambers moves like every track is a piece on a Grandmaster’s chessboard. It’s meticulous at every turn, not least of all on centerpiece “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” with its introductory dialogue sample, comparing chess to a sword fight. From the moment Ghostface changes the course of hip-hop forever with the very first verse on “Bring Da Ruckus” (“I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk/ Your head rush, fly like Egyptian musk”) to when it cools down (in a sense) with “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber—Part II”, Wu-Tang Clan make it clear that they “ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit,” whether in a battle of fists or a battle of wits.
Even when it shouldn’t work, it does. Following the iconic and somber “C.R.E.A.M.”, in which Inspectah Deck asserts himself as arguably the most underrated member (and the sting of the fact that he’s never had a RZA-produced solo classic album of his own only grows sharper) is the equally iconic but decidedly less somber “Method Man”, which gives us several important spelling lessons and forces us to consider which method of torture would be the least desirable, and the smoky tone and hilarious rhymes of the M-E-T-H-O-D Man himself show why he got a track to himself, named for himself. Save for both featuring Raekwon and Meth, they have nothing to do with each other, and yet the juxtaposition works perfectly. This is an album where you can go from reflecting on systematic oppression and inequality to Dr. Seuss and Fat Albert references, and it’s never at odds with itself.
Who puts in the best overall performance on 36 Chambers and what’s the best song? If you asked me at one point, I might have responded Ghostface and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”; at another, I might’ve said GZA and “Protect Ya Neck”. At this point, I’ll just say it ultimately doesn’t matter because Wu-Tang Clan, for all their boasting, are all about support and this album is a work of impeccable camaraderie, from MC to MC and from track to track. In the outro to “Can It All Be So Simple”, Method Man explains to an interviewer the roles and methodology of his fellow Clan members, from Raekwon (“the Chef”) to RZA (“Always on point, razor sharp”), and the support hits your heart like so many ballads try and fail to do. In that same segment, Raekwon takes the mic and, speaking on behalf of the group, declares: “When we get a little props and really, really get the way we gotta go. That’s when you know it’s on.” They got the way they needed to go from the start and the props rightfully followed.