The world is full of people writing essays about hip hop — the social and political implications of it, and the impact it may have had on them personally. I’ve always been wary of trying to add my voice to that chorus, because what can another nerdy Jewish kid say about rap that hasn’t been said before? Public Enemy blew my mind and challenged me to examine things nobody ever taught me in school; the Beastie Boys looked like rejects from my Bar Mitzvah class; and while I appreciated the lack of fucks given by N.W.A., the West Coast rap they helped spawn seemed more intent on boasting and partying. The Wu-Tang Clan sounded like they were going to plow you down if you stood in their way. When I first listened to Wu-Tang, I had no way of understanding what exactly they meant in hollering out “two for fives over here,” and I couldn’t relate to the often bleak-sounding world they were describing. It was impossible for me to contemplate the violence they knew or the things they had to do to survive.
Enter the Wu-Tang didn’t tell the story of lives that were in any way familiar to me, but I kept listening to it over and over again. It had more anger and rawness than any punk record I owned at the time, and I started to think of the Wu-Tang as a group of deranged superheroes from a comic about some urban dystopia who were always weighing various methods of torture — like “feeding you, and feeding you, and feeding you…”
My friends and I all became Wu-Tang disciples. The album played over janky boomboxes while we skateboarded. We made crude attempts at tagging their symbol all over bathroom walls and carving it into school desks, and would yell “Wu” and “Tang” at each other from opposite sides of our high school’s hallway. We weren’t cool and we weren’t tough, but we felt that record deeply. It’s truly one of those silly teenage things to latch on to something that’s miles away from your own experience, and as unrealistic as this delusion was, it was empowering to feel like we were some middle-of-Chicagoland outpost for the Wu. Our love for them only increased when the school principal outlawed wearing Wu-Tang shirts because he suspected it had something to do with gang activities. Little did he know, in those days before everybody could just google whatever musicians they worried were corrupting the youth, that the Wu-Tang weren’t a gang — they were a crew, they were a clan.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is an album full of gritty anthems that are sometimes funny, sometimes violent, sometimes both, by a group of rappers who could spit lyrics that sounded like they were brilliantly free-associating every one of their rhymes, all backed by genius production, with RZA challenging us from the onset to “Bring da motherfucking ruckus.” But what still surprises me, and I mean this with nothing but respect, is the extent to which the Wu-Tang Clan straight-up dorked out on their debut album, packing it with obscure pop-culture references, from the Kung fu movies and lines like “forming like Voltron” to the crate-digger samples and nods to Syl Johnson and Thelonious Monk.
What made the Wu-Tang different from everything else happening in hip hop when they released Enter was that was they absolutely did not care what other people thought or what other rappers were doing. There was no Scarface posturing, no showing off everything they owned, and the thing they boasted about the most was how much better they were at rapping than anybody else. It was oddly refreshing, and it instantly changed the way I, and just about everybody I knew, listened to hip hop.