Classic Album Review – Wu Tang Clan – 36 Chambers

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is the debut album of American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, released November 9, 1993, on Loud Records and distributed through RCA Records. Recording sessions for the album took place during 1992 to 1993 at Firehouse Studio in New York City, and it was mastered at The Hit Factory. The album’s title originates from the martial arts film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). The group’s de facto leader RZA, also known as Prince Rakeem, produced the album entirely, utilizing heavy, eerie beats and a sound largely based on martial-arts movie clips and soul music samples.

The distinctive sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) created a blueprint for hardcore hip hop during the 1990s and helped return New York City hip hop to national prominence. Its sound also became hugely influential in modern hip hop production, while the group members’ explicit, humorous, and free-associative lyrics have served as a template for many subsequent hip hop records. Serving as a landmark record in the era of hip hop known as the East Coast Renaissance, its influence helped lead the way for several other East Coast hip hop artists, including Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z.

Despite its raw, underground sound, the album had surprising chart success, peaking at number 41 on the US Billboard 200 chart. By 1995, it was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for shipments of one million copies in the United States. Initially receiving positive reviews from most music critics, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has been regarded by music writers as one of the most significant albums of the 1990s, as well as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all-time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 386 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time

In the late 1980s, cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russell Jones formed a group named Force of the Imperial Master, also known as the All in Together Now Crew.[1] Each member recorded under an alias: Grice as The Genius, Diggs as Prince Rakeem or The Scientist, and Jones as The Specialist. The group never signed to a major label, but caught the attention of the New York rap scene and was recognized by rapper Biz Markie.[2] By 1991, The Genius and Prince Rakeem were signed to separate record labels. The Genius released Words from the Genius (1991) on Cold Chillin’ Records and Prince Rakeem released Ooh I Love You Rakeem (1991) on Tommy Boy Records. Both were soon dropped by their labels. Embittered but unbowed, they took on new monikers (The Genius became GZA while Prince Rakeem became RZA) and refocused their efforts. RZA discussed the matter in their release The Wu-Tang Manual (2005), stating “[Tommy Boy] made the decision to sign House of Pain over us. When they dropped me, I was thinking, ‘Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me.'”[3]

RZA began collaborating with Dennis Coles, better known as Ghostface Killah, another rapper from the Stapleton Projects apartment complex in Staten Island. The duo decided to create a hip hop group whose ethos would be a blend of “Eastern philosophy picked up from kung fu movies, watered-down Nation of Islam preaching picked up on the New York streets, and comic books.”[3]

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was recorded at Firehouse Studio in New York City from 1992 to 1993. The album was produced, mixed, arranged, and programmed by RZA, and was mastered at The Hit Factory in New York City by Chris Gehringer.[4] Because of an extremely limited budget, the group was only able to record in a small, inexpensive studio; with up to eight of the nine Wu-Tang members in the studio at once, the quarters were frequently crowded.[1] To decide who appeared on each song, RZA forced the Wu-Tang rappers to battle with each other. This competition led to the track “Meth Vs. Chef”, a battle between Method Man and Raekwon over the rights to rap over RZA’s beat; this track was left off the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album but surfaced on Method Man’s debut, Tical (1994).[1]

Title significance

The true meaning of the album’s title is not well known or understood. According to a Five Percent philosophy, known as the Supreme Mathematics, the number 9 means “to bring into existence,” and this meant everything to the group’s debut album. The group was made of 9 members, each of whom had 4 chambers of the heart, which are 2 atria, and 2 ventricles. All of this is the root for “36 Chambers”, being that 9 x 4 = 36.[5]

In reference to the 1978 kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin that the group enjoyed watching, the Clan considered themselves as lyrical masters of the 36 chambers, and arrived onto the rap scene while appearing to be ahead, and more advanced over, others, with “knowledge of 36 chambers of hip hop music when everyone else in hip hop was striving to attain the knowledge of 35 lessons.” Also, while the human body has 108 pressure points (1 + 0 + 8 = 9), only the Wu-Tang martial artists learned and understood that 36 of those pressure points are deadly (9 + 36 = 45) (4 + 5 = 9) The lyrics and rhymes of the 9 members are to be considered as 36 deadly lyrical techniques for pressure points. All of this is the basis for the album title, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), being that 9 members x 4 chambers = 36. However, this is just a theory; the true significance of the title is not definitively known.[5]

Upon its release, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) received positive reviews from most music critics. In an article for The Source, The Ghetto Communicator wrote “This record is harsh, but so is the world that we live in. For B-boys n’girls who come from the core of the hard, this is the hip-hop album you’ve been waiting for”.[25]Rolling Stone’s review was decidedly ambivalent, praising the album’s sound, but noting that “Wu-Tang…are more ciphers than masterful creations. In refusing to commodify themselves, they leave blank the ultimate canvas—the self.”[13]Entertainment Weekly was more enthusiastic, giving the album an A, and writing that “With its rumble jumble of drumbeats, peppered with occasional piano plunking, Enter has a raw, pass-the-mike flavor we haven’t heard since rap was pop’s best-kept secret.”[18]

In his consumer guide for The Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau gave the album an A- rating,[17] indicating “the kind of garden-variety good record that is the great luxury of musical micromarketing and overproduction”.[26] Christgau found the group “grander” and “goofier” than their “West Coast opposite numbers” and concluded “Expect the masterwork this album’s reputation suggests and you’ll probably be disappointed–it will speak directly only to indigenous hip hoppers. Expect a glorious human mess, as opposed to the ominous platinum product of their opposite numbers, and you’ll realize the dope game isn’t everyone’s dead-end street”[17]

Music journalist Touré declared of the album, that “This is hip-hop you won’t find creeping up the Billboard charts but you will hear booming out of Jeep stereos in all the right neighborhoods.”[13] However, Enter the Wu-Tang had surprising chart success, despite its raw, underground sound. It peaked at number 41 on the Billboard 200 chart and reached number eight on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart.[13][27] The album continued to sell steadily and was eventually certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on May 15, 1995.[28]

Retrospect

Since its release, Enter the Wu-Tang has risen in stature to become one of the most highly-regarded albums in hip hop.[29] The album was originally given a rating of 4.5 mics out of 5 in The Source magazine in 1994,[25] however, it was given a classic 5 mic rating in a later issue of the magazine.[30] Similar to The Source, XXL magazine gave the album a classic rating of “XXL” in its retrospective 2007 issue.[24] In the book Spin Alternative Record Guide (1995), Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has a critical rating of 8/10 from Spin.[31] In 2003, Rolling Stone named the album among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, asserting that “East-coast hip-hop made a return in 1993.”[32] The magazine later listed it as one of the “Essential Albums of the 90s.”[33]The Source cited Enter the Wu-Tang as one of the “100 Best Rap Albums”, while also naming “Protect Ya Neck/Method Man” and “C.R.E.A.M.” among the “100 Best Rap Singles”.[25] MTV declared it among “The Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time.”[34]Blender named the album among the “500 CDs You Must Own”.[35]

Publications based outside of the United States have also acclaimed 36 Chambers as well; Australia’s Juice magazine placed it at number 40 on its list of “100 Greatest Albums of the ’90s”,[36] and Les Inrockuptibles ranked it number 59 on a list of “The 100 Best Albums 1986–1996”.[37] In naming Enter the Wu-Tang one of the 50 best albums of the 1990s, Pitchfork Media staff member Rollie Pemberton summed up the album’s critical recognition by writing:

This is the sound of accidental fame. Something as unique and unusual as this record isn’t supposed to find itself at the height of commercial viability; it’s supposed to smolder underground, hidden from the view of mainstream America, who surely would not be ready for such a challenge. But America was ready, in part because this one challenged convention, not listeners. Sure, its sloppy drum programming, bizarre song structures, and unpolished sound quality disturbed commercial rap purists, but the talent was so inherent and obvious, and the charisma so undeniable, that it propelled the Wu-Tang Clan to the height of the rap game, and today stands not just as the hip-hop classic that introduced the concept of obscure thematic characters (each member’s name references old kung-fu movies), but also bridged the gap between traditional old-school sensibilities and the technical lyricism of today.[10]
—Rollie Pemberton

East Coast hip hop

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is one of the most celebrated and influential albums in hip hop history.[9] Adam Heimlich of the New York Press considers the album a touchstone of hardcore hip-hop, a gritty, stripped-down, dark and violent sub-genre of hip hop and the signature sound of New York City’s rap scene during the mid-1990s. He writes that, “the Wu-Tang Clan…all but invented 90s New York rap, back when the notion of an East Coast gangsta still meant Schoolly D or Kool G. Rap….[They] designed the manner and style in which New York artists would address what Snoop and Dre had made rap’s hottest topics: drugs and violence.”[11] As the album helped return New York City hip hop to national prominence, a new generation of New York rappers, many of them inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan’s example, released a flurry of classic albums that later became known as the East Coast Renaissance.[12]Enter the Wu-Tang has been recognized by critics as a landmark album in the movement.[9]Allmusic indicates that the success of the album paved the way for Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. Mobb Deep and Jay-Z.[12]

At the time of the album’s release, mainstream hip hop was dominated by West Coast hip hop. Enter the Wu Tang (along with the critically acclaimed Illmatic and the commercial success of Ready to Die) was able to shift the emphasis away from the melodious, synthesizer-driven G-funk and restore interest into the East Coast hip hop scene. According to one columnist, “When Enter the Wu-Tang: The 36 Chambers first graced the pages of rap lore in 1993, Dr. Dre’s funk-filled, West Coast gangster rap dominated the business. Though this initial dominance was difficult to overcome, Wu-Tang still managed to carve out a piece of rap history.”[9]

Hip hop production

RZA’s production on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album had a profound and significant influence on subsequent hip hop producers.[38] The distinctive sound of Enter the Wu-Tang has been credited for creating a blueprint for hardcore hip hop in the mid-1990s.[12] Blackfilm.com asserts that Enter the Wu-Tang’s production formula “transformed the sound of underground rap into mainstream formula, and virtually changed the face of contemporary music as popsters once knew it.”[38] Many successful rap producers have admitted to the influence of RZA’s beats on their own production efforts. 9th Wonder, a producer and former member of Little Brother, is one of many whose vocal sampling styles are inspired by RZA.[39] The album’s reliance on soul music samples was novel at the time, but 21st century producers such as The Alchemist, Kanye West and Just Blaze now rely on this technique.[7] According to Allmusic, the production on two Mobb Deep albums, The Infamous and Hell on Earth (1996), are “indebted” to RZA’s early production with Wu-Tang Clan.[40][41]

Subsequent Wu-Tang work

Following Enter the Wu-Tang’s success, the individual members of the group negotiated and signed solo contracts with a variety of different labels: Method Man signed with Def Jam, Ol’ Dirty Bastard with Elektra, GZA with Geffen Records, and Ghostface Killah with Epic Records. This expansion across the music industry was an element of RZA’s stated plan for industry-wide domination, wherein “All Wu releases are deemed to be 50 percent partnerships with Wu-Tang Productions and each Wu member with solo deal must contribute 20 percent of their earnings back to Wu-Tang Productions, a fund for all Wu members.”[1]

On Enter the Wu-Tang’s effect on the group and the music industry, the Milwaukee Journal’s Aaron Justin-Szopinski wrote “The Wu showed us that a hip-hop group can control its own destiny in the tangled web of the industry. It owns publishing rights, controls its samples and has 90% influence over its career. And that control, that outlook for the future, is what makes it the best.”[42] Wu-Tang Clan have produced four subsequent group albums since Enter the Wu-Tang, including Wu-Tang Forever (1997), which is certified as a quadruple platinum record.[43] None of the subsequent Wu-Tang Clan albums have garnered the critical accolades that their debut was accorded.[44]

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