Hip-hop has gone through a lot of changes in the past few decades-from the party rhythms of its inception to the hardcore rap of the early ’90s, the genre has always embraced change and reinterpretation. And just like any other genre, there have been subgenres and movements dedicated to specific themes and musical stylings, but the heart of the sound has always endured. No matter the voice, the music moves along, full of starts and stops and erratic evolution. But hip-hop is nothing if not malleable and open to change, despite the bravado and boastful nature of some of its most outspoken champions.
And whether that voice is alone or part of a group makes no difference. They’re all pushing the genre forward into new areas of rhythmic experimentation. Regardless of the subject matter, though, hip-hop has repeatedly found innovation and boundless creativity in all aspects of society and across various influences. Artists like KRS-ONE and Shabazz Palaces dig deep into abstract and political perspectives, while groups such as Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan offer their eclectic wares through a host of beat-driven anthems and gritty introspection. But for Wu-Tang Clan, this approach is tempered and shifted by their considerable roster of rappers-voices that merge to form a greater insular voice within a single song or record.
Founded in the early ’90s in New York City (with close ties to Staten Island), the group was eventually home to RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Cappadonna. The rappers brought a range of experiences that had never been heard before in a hip-hop group-or any group with such a large roster, for that matter.
Their ability to present themselves both as individual artists and as a collective of like-minded musicians was completely unheard of at the time. With RZA acting as the de facto leader, Wu-Tang Clan would go on to become one of the most influential groups of the past few decades. Their music would act as a catalyst for countless other musicians who took the sounds and attitude that the band offered, and twisted them into their own unique inspirations. After viewing the martial arts film “Shaolin and Wu Tang,” RZA and ODB christened the band with its name. Their fascination with all things martial arts would come to define the band in terms of thematic content and image, with various members taking influence from obscure movies and soundtracks.
After the release of their debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” in 1992, the band gained a substantial following in the underground music scene in both their hometown and across the country. This was helped in part by a subsequent tour with Kat Nu and Cypress Hill. But when it came time to record their first full-length, the band had some trouble finding a label, as each individual rapper wanted the leeway to record their own solo records for other labels. The band finally signed with Loud/RCA, who allowed them to record side projects as long as each artist was available for the group releases.
And in 1993, they released “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” a record whose reputation has only grown in stature across the following decades. Produced by RZA and featuring extensive use of soul samples and snippets taken from various martial arts movies, the album was immediately regarded as a masterpiece and heralded as a turning point for the genre. Wu-Tang wasn’t imitating anyone; they were making their mark in completely new territory. With a title inspired by “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” released in 1978, this collection quickly and definitively proved the elasticity and viability of a dense hip-hop sound. Songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Can It Be All So Simple” proved just how versatile RZA’s arrangements could be while highlighting the individual strengths of each member.
“Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” became the blueprint for all subsequent hardcore rap records. It is gritty and aggressive but wasn’t afraid to expand its musical palette into areas that had not been breached by hip-hop in the past. There is an elegant and barbed rawness to these songs, a trait that would find welcome in later Wu-Tang releases. It helps that each voice on the album feels anxious and ready for a fight-this is in part because RZA would have the members rap battle each other to determine who would be on particular tracks. The small studio where they recorded-Firehouse Studio in New York City-would often be crowded by the entire band as they squeezed into the recording booth.
Coming along at a time when hip-hop was led by groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, the wordplay of Wu-Tang came as a sharp alternative to the more jazz-influenced, West Coast rap scene. But this record was less about comparing itself to any other pre-existing sound and was more interested in carving out its own niche within the rap movement as a whole. Wu-Tang was a compendium of influence and experience, and their debut made use of these contrasting aspects of their lives-it is self-conscious but lacks any sort of sentimentality and delivers enough venom to kill a herd of elephants. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, and nothing like it will ever be heard again.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.