In Hip-Hop the art of battle rapping has always been most prominent, especially when it comes to behind-the-scenes action. When someone grows up in a community where Hip-Hop is a lifestyle, battle rapping becomes second nature to people, you’re expected to know how to rap. The more braggadocios the better. I’m not talking braggadocios in terms of how much money or houses you have, but showing that you’ve got what it takes to stand up for yourself when you spit.
Nine young men from Staten Island, New York decided that they were going to capture the way in which they grew up on record, but they didn’t do this by telling their story – they only actually gave small glimpses into their own lives. No, they decided to do it through putting together a record where every second sounds like a moment where they’re hungry as hell trying to spit the most ferocious lines that they possibly can. Everything on this record is surrounded by fictionalising the reality in which they lived in to make an album that’s just pure entertainment. From the martial arts samples all the way through to the fact that they renamed their hometown ‘Shaolin’ and constantly talk about the slums of that town that they emerged from.
In the face of the rising G-funk wave coming from the likes of Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang made a record built on sparse haunting production handled by The RZA. With a sampler that he borrowed from the producer of the Rap duo UMC, The RZA took soul samples and little sections of instrumentation like piano pieces and threw them over the top of some Boom-Bap beats to create some of the most iconic and influential beats in Hip-Hop. The beats are all rather simplistic – especially with their Lo-Fi, grainy sound – but they were essentially the template in which these extremely talented MCs could spit over the top of. The soul samples alone would go on to inspire Kanye West and numerous others to use them in many different ways. The little snippets of instrumentation – most iconically on the song ‘C.R.E.A.M’ – has been used to the point where it’s become something of a cliché in Hip-Hop music. It’s rare that anyone since has been able to capture the pure eeriness that the production on here captured with some of the piano pieces sounding so loose and detuned like on the song ‘Method Man’ which has one of the more frantic beats on the record.
The real winning aspect of The RZA’s production on this album is that it was able to glue together a bunch of MCs, each of which have their own very distinct style and actual character profiles they’d built for themselves (every MCs name is taken from an old Kung-Fu movie). From GZA’s extremely lyrical and monotonous flow, to Ghostface Killah’s high-pitched rapid flow with, to Method Man’s hazy laid back voice and Ol Dirty Bastard going absolutely batshit with some crazy vocal inflections – they all had something so distinct to offer. This is best shown on the track ‘Protect Ya Neck’ which has them all trying to showcase their individual talents the best they can, all passing the mic to each other with such elegance. Even though this record is important in that it introduced us to some of the greatest MCs the world has ever seen, it’s still difficult when listening to this to actually decide who had the better verse on some of the tracks. Every single verse on every single track are all layered with martial arts references, pop culture references and some of the most inventive ways sounding violent with that twisted black humour. It’s like Pulp Fiction for the ears, paying homage to the great the great movies of the past with that dark humorous twist that everything in the 90s seemed to have.
Even though this record often sounds unbelievably like battle rap, it’s not particularly about them trying to outdo each other lyrically. This record instead captures the essence of appreciating the art of having a quick tongue and trying to keep up with your friends, almost like they’re in a constant cypher. There’s a theme that runs throughout this record that describes the members of Wu-Tang as being ‘Assassins with swords’. This is in fact a metaphor for the way in which they see themselves as lyrical assassins, with their swords literally being their tongues and their targets being anyone who isn’t in the clan. In the skits on this record they all sound like they’re just appreciating what each others talents are, even on the beginning of the song ‘Method Man’ where they’re all laughing trying to think of the most painful ways to torture someone. In other moments on the LP it’s hard not to get unbelievably hyped when you hear all of the members going at it together, especially when it’s on a hook like on the track ‘Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthin ta Fuck With’. They sure know how to write a hook and when they get that hook they’ll hammer it into you with such ferocity, like the opening track to the album ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ which features The RZA screaming the hook ‘BRING DA MOTHERFUCKIN RUCKUS’, it’s a powerful and thunderous beginning to the album and one that speaks volumes about the aggression that follows it.
’36 Chambers’ is the sound of a rap group who didn’t expect to be as successful as they were. From the grainy, low-budget production to the slightly weird song structures at times, it just sounds like a young group who wanted to rap together. But the talent is just undeniable and when a talent as raw as this is put to record, it’s only a certain amount of time until they get the well-deserved praise. And this group didn’t just get praised, they spoke to an entire generation of rappers inspiring the likes of Nas, Biggie, Jay Z and so many others. Wu-Tang Clan basically told the popular rappers of the time to up their game. Because Wu-Tang Clan aint nothing to fuck with.
Best Tracks: Bring Da Ruckus, C.R.E.A.M, Protect Ya Neck, Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nufin ta Fuck With, Clan In Da Front