The Wu-Tang brand is as durable as any in popular music during the past two decades. So it's not surprising that the 20th anniversary of the group's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), popularly known as just 36 Chambers, occasioned a raft of think pieces and essays. (Then again, anniversaries for any memorable album, classic or not, seem to warrant a #hashtag these days.)
Enter the Wu-Tang may have kicked off Wu World, but it sounds markedly different from how Wu-Tang would evolve. Claiming Staten Island, or "Shaolin," they made an album that was more boisterous than their subsequent records, and less prone to Mafioso talk and Five Percenter musings. The members sport punchy vocal flows that cut like swords, and are clearly influenced by the grimy rah-rah wing of boom-bap crews like EPMD's Hit Squad (particularly the latter's "Headbanger"). Method Man, GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard had fully realized styles or "chambers." Others, like Chef Raekwon (then deep into his Kool G Rap phase) and Ghostface Killah (who wouldn't be photographed without a foil mask covering his face), wouldn't reach full potential until their respective solo work years later. Masta Killa had just joined the group, so he only appears on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'." U-God missed most of the recording sessions because he was in prison.
The RZA's sounds are so arcane that the crowd-sourcing geeks at whosampled.com and wutang-corp.com can't conclusively identify many of his samples. Inspired by the minimalist bop of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, RZA would take a handful of notes from a record and either filter them -- a process that removes certain frequencies from a sound -- or interpolate them. The mystery revolves around which samples he looped, and which ones he replayed himself. The spooky keyboard wash he adds to the Labi Siffre bassline used on "Can It All Be So Simple" is clear enough. But what about the three-note piano melody embedded in "Protect Ya Neck" and the four-note sequence at the center of "M-E-T-H-O-D Man"? Even the Wu-Tang cult seems unsure of those.
As a result, Enter the Wu-Tang continues to be a rich source of scholarship and discovery in spite of the voluminous research it has engendered. Plus, it's their funniest album by a long shot, from the oddball kung-fu flick samples that inspired a pop renaissance of martial arts iconography, to Method Man referencing the John Woo movie The Killer during a violently humorous skit that begins with him shouting, "Where's my killa tape?"
Often forgotten is how Wu-Tang Clan were initially viewed as a kung-fu gimmick during a period when hip-hop seemed flooded by acts with marketing hooks -- Onyx with the bald heads and hoodies, Cypress Hill with the weed songs, etc. But when Inspectah Deck illustrated his childhood struggles on "C.R.E.A.M." in the classic verse "Life as a shorty shouldn't be so rough," everyone realized that Enter the Wu-Tang was an album for the ages.