Friday marks the 25th anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers, a sword-slashing, ominous epic that carved a left-field path for every hip-hop iconoclast to follow. The album’s one of a kind conception, and the ascendance that followed it exemplifies the power of hip-hop’s early-to-mid-1990s Golden Era. People don’t swear by ‘90s hip-hop as a mere nostalgic talking point. Their love for the Golden Era can be explained through the tremendous impact of the Wu.
In the early ‘90s, hip-hop music was defined in part by Dr. Dre’s G-Funk sound, the Teddy Riley-popularized New Jack Swing, and the feel-good stylings of Native Tongues collective acts such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The Wu’s breakout single, “Protect Ya Neck,” was the antithesis of those polished soundscapes, as was the rest of 36 Chambers.
The album, which was entirely produced by RZA, was as frenetic as New Jack Swing and informed by the sample layering techniques of RZA’s peers Prince Paul and Q-Tip, but for the most part, he concocted his own sinister formula at Staten Island’s Firehouse Studios. 36 Chambers eschewed radio-friendly mixing for a murky soundscape of quaking, dusty kick drums and piercing snares serving as the foundation for a rollercoaster ride of menacing basslines, gloomy jazz and soul loops, and of course, those classic, song-anchoring vocal clips from Kung Fu flicks.
The Kung Fu samples weren’t gimmickry. They were a cue to let the listener know they were listening in on a fight on each record. True to Dr. Dre’s formula with N.W.A, RZA had assembled a supergroup of the best MCs in New York’s forgotten Staten Island borough and let them tear his beats to pieces each night in the studio. Each artist had their own flair that made them a unique asset to the Wu-Tang chessboard.
There was the mastery of flow and mass appeal that Method Man delivered, the cerebral eloquence of GZA, the free-associative narratives of Ghost and Raekwon, and ODB, the ultimate wild card in hip-hop history. Inspectah Deck is one of the most underrated rhymers in rap history, and U-God and Masta Killa both had scene-stealing moments throughout the Wu-Tang catalog. RZA asked each man, who was either fledgling in the industry like him or in the streets, to give him a year of their life to craft 36 Chambers. The rest was history.
A primary reason hip-hop heads obsess over the ’90s is because of the sheer amount of talent roaming New York alone at the time. The Wu is exhibit A. It’s damn near divine how RZA was able to round up not just his cousins GZA and ODB, but a slew of MCs who would become full-fledged rap stars in their own right. These days the Wu’s collection of talent is rare to find in an entire city, much less in one section of a city.