DUST IT OFF: Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”… 20 Years Later

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It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the Wu-Tang Clan made an impact with this album. That impact was definitely not immediately, at least not nationally. When Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (LOUD/RCA) was released on November 9, 1993, the Wu did not have any heavy rotation anywhere, outside of NYC. Those months between the album release day and the spring of 1994 would eventually cause a shift, which would mark the end of another era of hip-hop and the glorious beginning of another.

I became a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan when the video for “Method Man” was getting airplay on BET’s Rap City. I loved the raw feel of the song, could not get enough of Method Man’s flow, it was that great. I also loved his constant barrage of pop
culture references, as if this guy knew where I was coming from even though I had no idea where he had come from, at least not yet. It was with that song that The Genius said “from the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again: The RZA, The GZA, Ol’
Dirty Bastard, Inspector Deck, Raekwon The Chef, U-God, Ghost Face Killer, and the Method”, then Method Man rhymed for the next three minutes, making reference to everything from Tootsie Roll Pops to the Rolling Stones and Dr. Seuss to Digital Underground, and I did not know what was going on. I felt I had liked the rap music that was released between 1990 to 1993, there was a hell of a lot of great music in those four years and yet it felt like this approach was old school and yet new school. Method Man was truly “hitting you from every angle” and I had to have more, but at the time there was very little to
go on.

For me, the big news in hip-hop was that A Tribe Called Quest had just released their third album, Midnight Marauders. This was going to be the album of 1993, nothing else could beat it. There had also been some buzz for a group called Black Moon who had just released “Who Got The Props” as a single, a song that sounded fun and festive, a bit different from the slightly dark vibe of the album. Or if not dark, it was a bit like walking down an alley unsure of what would be lurking, but you’d take that risk anyway. Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage was an album that was a few weeks before and people would soon not get enough of them and the collective they helped create. I definitely didn’t buy Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on release date, for the group and the album was not something in demand, at least I wasn’t looking for it. Looking back, maybe it was looking for me. It would actually take video airplay for “Da Mystery Of Chessboxing”, with its kung fu imagery, for me to finally by the album. Were these the same guys who were rapping about making a bitch squirm for
supersperm? Yeah, there was Method Man with his face hidden.

This had to have been in December or early January, but I remember the moment when I popped the CD in:
Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style. (Hmmm.) If what you say is true, the shaolin and the Wu-Tang style could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?

En guard, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.”

This was straight out of all of the kung fu movies I watched as a kid, either at theaters in downtown Honolulu with my dad, on Kung Fu Theater on the USA Network or all the kung fu movies I was renting on VHS. Then came the chant of “BRING THE
MOTHERFUCKING RUCKUS! BRING THE MOTHERFUCKING RUCKUS!” It may not have happened, but my eyes, mouth, mind were wide open and in awe from what I was hearing. There was nothing like it, this was not something I heard in songs by Biz Markie, Showbiz &
AG, Ice Cube, Ice T, Gang Starr, or Dr. Dre. This was far better. The song also had percussive snaps and brick slaps, as if it was a group of warriors in a Shaolin temple praying and waiting for someone to invade. Ghostface Killer would start up the song before Raekwon comes in and delivers, and then Inspector Deck offers greatness. The song ends with the sacred words of The Genius. They were waiting, and eventually they could no longer wait. You heard warriors fight, smacking each other left and right before came the one man army Ason Unique, a/k/a Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and getting dope with “Shame On A Nigga” before Method Man comes in with his verse. The album continued to build from there, and to hear all of these new voices and not have any sense of who was saying what was incredible. The group may have shown themselves on the cover behind masks, but
inside there was a photo, but Method Man was not a part of that line-up. At least here on the west coast, I had never seen the video for “Protect Ya Neck”, which offered a chance for viewers to see who was who and by name, as if they were teen pop
sensations. Outside of hearing them mentioning their own names in song, there was little to go on in terms of applying a face to a name.

It wasn’t until the DasEFX cover issue of The Source did I know who they were, their pseudonyms, and everything else that made them out to be hip-hop’s Marvel Universe. I had read and collected comic books as a kid, so I understood what it meant to be named this, then that, and then maybe two or three other things. The Wu-Tang appealed to me because they thought like kids, but doing things in a very adult manner. It was a bunch of guys shooting shit amongst one
another, but there was also a sense of the now, as if they knew that they could not live in the past, and thus thought about the future, what would come next for themselves and for others.

Each song on the album felt like there were reaching new plateaus, and when the song finished, they would all make it to the next level and build again. It was great to hear a song that might have two members, or another with four or five, before it leads to a song with the core eight. Then you learn that the core eight expands to a nine. It would be a few more years before that nine turned into a ten man team, but while Digital Underground did it to a point, it was always “to a point”. Plus, Shock G. was also Humpty Hump, who was also MC Blowfish, a/k/a Piano Man, and when when you heard Money B. say “well I’m Humpty Humpin'”, I was left wondering “well, who are these guys?” X-Clan had an incredible collective too, even though on their albums it was generally Brother J doing most of the raps. You also had Isis and Queen Mother Rage, and of course Professor X had his own solo album too but that was it, Brother J really didn’t get his own path until X-Clan was over. The Wu-Tang Clan seemed like a different beast, an entity, as if they were looking at hip-hop, celebrating what came before and were going to build on the successes and see how far they could go with it.

I’m someone who lived in Honolulu but grew up admiring the hip-hop from the east coast, specifically what came from New York and New Jersey. It was NYC or die, and yet I loved what everyone else from Seattle to Los Angeles, Dallas to Miami were doing, the more the merrier. In my mind, there was a slight shift on the artists that would gain acceptance, and maybe that had a lot to do with some of the shifts happening in the community. If hip-hop started in NYC, it seemed to turn into Motown in 1971 and headed to Hollywood. Nothing wrong with that, but there was a lot of music being released that became hits but I did not like. At the same time, there was much more to Cali hip-hop than MC Hammer and everyone had a chance, yet it seemed from afar that the NYC stuff was being pushed to the side. It seemed to make artists push harder to be heard and make better music, even if it meant “better for ourselves”. The Wu-Tang Clan came out not giving a fuck about anyone else but themselves, and I loved that attitude. It was in that early 1994 interview on MTV where Ol’ Dirty Bastard talked about his name, how he was old school, his style was dirty,and he was a bastard, because when he rhymed, there was no father to his style. That was attitude and a half, and yet he meant it, as if to say “I know what came before me, but I want to show you what I’m about, for the now people.”

What also made Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) interesting is that by the time “C.R.E.A.M.” had become the hit of early 1994, that’s when news surfaced about how they were going to make sure that each member of the group would be signed with their own solo contract and release their own solo albums. To me, this brought back memories of Kiss and their four solo albums in 1978, and what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did with the various combinations they made music under. This was much bigger, and I couldn’t wait. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait that long, as The RZA was working with producer Prince Paul, Stesasonic’s Fruitkwan, and fellow Tommy Boy Records’ alumni Too Poetic in a group project called Gravediggaz. This would be RZA’s thing, and while no one knew it at the time, Gravediggaz was one of two “make or break” projects he was working on in 1992-1993. His career as Prince Rakeem only lead to the “Ooh, I Love You Rakeem” single which barely caused a dent in 1991. The RZA offered the Wutang (no hyphen) to Tommy Boy Records as a possible group to work with but they passed. Tommy Boy was losing their impact on rap music, and that’s when Rakeem became The RZA and started two projects, hoping one of them would gain some glory. Due to the success of the Wu-Tang, Gravediggaz would soon pick up steam, eventually becoming recognized in their own right. Then there was word on Method Man being signed to Def Jam. His solo album would be released in the fall of 1994, and then there was word of three more Wu solo albums on the way.

It seemed too much, and I loved it because within a two year period, the Wu-Tang Clan were doing things other rap groups had only talked about or imagined. As Method Man would later say, “you talk about it while I live it”, and no one had ever done what they were doing within a hip-hop context. On top of that, if any of the guys in the Wu wanted to drop a verse/cameo in other songs, they could. Did they want to product something? They did. Have some affiliates they wanted to hook-up with? There was more than enough time for everyone, and to experience it in real time, before the MP3 became the format of choice for music fans, was something that may not be repeated in the near future. The music felt good, it sounded good, and you couldn’t help but want to find people who were into that goodness.

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was about entering their world, knowing that one had to echieve certain levels before bein gable to proceed, but realizing that even if you had reached the peak, you had to then create your own path. It was as if they were also telling their fans “it’s all on you. Take it where you want and if we can help guide you towards your own path, go for broke.” That was the attitude they all had on the album, as if they were all going for broke, as if tomorrow did not exist for any of them. We all know what happened with their individual careers. We all know how Ghostface Killer (later Killah), the man who once hid his face from view, would become the most visible of the bunch. We all know how The Genius, like true geniuses, would become the hermit crab. We all fell in love with The RZA’s “Miracle On Dirty 4-Beats”. We loved what Inspectah Deck offered in everything he rhymed and was hoping he would be next to release an album in 1995. Some of us were stupefied by Raekwon’s delivery and wit. Then there was U-God, the 4-bar killer, who came and went with his 4- or 8-lines in a song, we all wondered why but we were happy with it. For a brief moment, it seemed everything that was good about hip-hop was achieved with that album. The egos were self-contained and it had a Three Musketeers-meets-Brand Nubian feel, “one for all and all for one”. Anyone who had ever felt the East Coast had lost its way, they would find the path again with the Wu-Tang. It was a celebration of Spider-Man, porno flick bitches, and Saturday morning cartoons and cereals. We all understood the power of that shot in the “Can It Be All So Simple” where the kid did a wheelie with his bicycle, when that was considered the ultimate goal. Nothing else in the world could be better than that wheelie, and you felt like a bad ass. For a brief moment in my life, the Wu-Tang Clan meant the world to me.

Yes, it was indeed so simple then.


DUST IT OFF: Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis

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Wikipedia states that August 9, 1994 was the release date for the first Gravediggaz album, known around the world as Niggamortis but known in the U.S. as 6 Feet Deep. However, I clearly remember buying the album in late July since I had to go to Portland, 200 miles from where I live, to buy it, as no one around here was selling it and I wasn’t willing to wait a week or two for a copy (back when it had still taken that long to get music. Waiting… those were the days.)

As the story goes, this was a project steered by Prince Paul and The RZA, when they weren’t sure where their careers were going. Prince Paul lost a deal with Def Jam when his Dew Doo Man imprint failed to go anywhere after the Resident Alien album failed to be released. Bad timing had a lot to do with it too, when Def Jam moved from Columbia to Polygram. Paul was signed with Def Jam when they were on Columbia, but Paul was left behind. There has been enough talk about his association with De La Soul at the time, and after creating Buhloone Mind State for the group, it seemed his relationship with Tommy Boy Records was uncertain. When he submitted the idea for what would become the Gravediggaz, Tommy Boy weren’t interested. Not good for a man who spent a lot of time with Tommy Boy as a member of Stetsasonic.

Prince Rakeem had been hoping to make it as an MC, and did well with “Ooh I Love You Rakeem”, enough for Tommy Boy to want more. Rakeem submitted a new project to the label called the Wutang Clan (no hyphen) and they passed. Tommy Boy had already promoted the Wutang on the back of “The Source” but early demos made Tommy Boy leery of wanting to take a risk on something that wasn’t like Naughty By Nature.

The demise of Stetsasonic left Fruitkwan without a group to be with or collaborators, and while he did appear in “Self Destruction”, it was pretty much over for him. At least until Prince Paul came into the picture.

Too Poetic had been a member of the Brothers Grimm before attempting a solo career on Tommy Boy with the great “God Made Me Funky”. The song itself was actually the B-side to a house-flavored track that didn’t move anyone, but those who were impressed by the self-profressed 5’4″ MC wanted to hear more. Tommy Boy didn’t bother working with him for anything past the first single.

Thus, you had a crew of Tommy Boy alumni whose careers were not dead, but perhaps could’ve been had they not had the confidence to work together to see what could happen.

When The RZA was involved with the Gravediggaz, he wasn’t really 100 certain that the Wu-Tang would work. The release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) really didn’t take off until four months after the album’s release in November 1993, when “C.R.E.A.M.” was released and became the jam for the summer of 1994. But even that didn’t mean anything. The Gravediggaz were not a side-project for The RZA as many have claimed over the years, but a full on project, and he was willing to work with anyone and anything to prove his talents as an MC/producer. He felt if the Gravediggaz made it, that would be his ticket out.

Looking back and going through interviews, it seems 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis was an angry album for Prince Paul. It was hardcore in a horror movie sense, but still very nerdy. Nerd gangsta? It still had an incredible sense of humor, and when you hear the album, you can tell it is very much Paul’s baby, not far from his trippy work with Stet, not distant from his De La or Resident Alien work. For Fruitkwan, it was a chance for people to hear him away from Stet, away from the dominance of Daddy-O or MC Delite. For Too Poetic, he turned his flow and intellect up a few notches and let people know what they had been wanting for years.

The eventual album freaked people out because no one in hip-hop had ever talked about chewing your own fucking arm off when you were crucified, or being placed underground and struggling to survive. Gangsta rap had been about drive-by’s and gang warfare, but the Gravediggaz used death and the afterlife as metaphors not only for their own careers, but about life in itself, how having a second chance could be beneficial if offered. The Gravediggaz were the group all MC’s and fans would be hearing when, in the words of KRS-One, you were “outta here”, they represented the afterlife of hip-hop, the same way Cut Chemist would describe it in his collage masterpiece, “Lesson 6”.

It would be labeled “horrorcore” and there would be a short-lived horrorcore movement that literally went nowhere (dead on arrival), but the Gravediggaz were always manipulators of the sounds and words in their musical toy box, as all participants in hip-hop music should be. The album was released when the Wu were very much in the air, and for The RZA, Prince Paul, Fruitkwan, and Too Poetic, it was all or nothing. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)” was also making the rounds, and as the Wu-Empire began taking shape, 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis was in the middle of the period between Enter The Wu-Tang and Method Man’s Tical, making The RZA to release the first out of the group to release a project post-36 Chambers.

It was an incredible time to be a fan of not only hip-hop music, but a Wu-Tang and Prince Paul fan. If you listen to 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis real good, some of those beats he had been using for years, or samples that had been used but he flipped to make it sinister. It wasn’t happy De La slow music, it wasn’t sinister CHRONIC music, this was an album that broke a few hip-hop taboos without anyone knowing it. Maybe by 1993, everyone started to have expectations of what the music should be, and what it could or couldn’t be. People were quick to say the music was “black born and raised” and it must speak from “the Black experience”, but with that came the stereotypes from naysayers who felt that “as a Black artist, you should always sing or speak about that. But don’t speak about that, that’s stuff white people like.” I remember briefly when the Gravediggaz were considered too dark like heavy metal. Consider this the full album equivalent of De La’s “Who Do You Worship”, if you will, the stuff that would be perfect in a horror movie but not in hip-hop.

Then again, didn’t De La and Paul come from or lived near Amityville, as shown in the “Potholes In My Lawn” video?:

Regardless of what the album was meant to be or what it became, it marked significant changes for everyone. Unfortunately it changed the dynamic of the Gravediggaz when The RZA started to have more control over the music on the second album, which was done in tandem with Wu-Tang Forever, and Paul’s input on the final version was limited. In the end, the Gravediggaz would end up being Fruitkwan and Too Poetic, who unfortunately died soon after the release of their last album after a battle with cancer. Too Poetic should have had the same respect and attention that many MC’s from the early 90’s have today, and the resurrection he spoke about was about validating himself as a true talent.

Regardless, 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis is an album that also marked a shift in how hip-hop albums were presented, and in comparison show how much hip-hop has put itself in a closet. The music that was about speaking and that freedom of expression suddenly censored and limited itself, but the Gravediggaz were very much honoring the words of Chuck D., when he said “our freedom of speech is freedom of death, you got to fight the powers that be”, even if for the Gravediggaz those “powers that be” were themselves.

Arm to the Leg, Leg
Arm to the Head
Yo, be the Rzarector
Resurrect the mental dead
G to the R to Y-M reaper
As I get deeper than a crypt, resurrect, kid!
Don’t go against the grain, mad slang is my thang
I leave the hearty party with a bang
Buzza boom check my tune, it gotcha hyper
Dont give a fuck about a sucker c-cipher
As you decipher the tricks of a viper
Swine is lethal, divine is evil!
I am original, we can build upon
The ill form and keep all your brain cells warm
Hocus pocus, yo! whats the focus?
Weak techniques you speak, the shit is bogus
Even in a mortuary, slangin’ some boom
As I seek the knowl from the womb to the tomb

Yo, deadly, deadly, YAH! get ready
Here come the styler, wilder than Freddy (dead)
Cause a Krueger, boom, I do ya
Just to let ya know Gravediggaz comin through ya
Dead stinkin’ rotten, your brainc ells forgotten
The past, you had your bumba raas pickin cotton
Now ya hate ya knotty hairstyles
I guess you figure the texture is too wild, child