When do you start calling something a definite classic? When can you rightfully proclaim that a painting, a novel, a poem, film, or record is a masterpiece? Can you really experience something once or twice and recognize that it is truly exceptional, or does a piece of art need time to mature?
I knew there had never been anything like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) the first time I ever heard it. I was in a friend’s basement towards the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, and I was hardly sophisticated enough to describe it as anything beyond, “Awesome.” As we celebrate the anniversary of the release of the album, which came out 20 years ago tomorrow, I can confidently say that not only is there still nothing like it, but it is also one of the most crucial works in the history of American popular music. It didn’t necessarily beget Nas’ Illmatic or Biggie’s Ready to Die stylistically, but it did precede those albums in the New York hip hop revival of the early 1990s, and that in itself is worth honoring.
In the sense of the time and place of their arrival, the Wu-Tang Clan certainly have their contemporaries, but artistically they have no equal. There is no Tupac to their Notorious B.I.G., for one simple reason: the Wu-Tang Clan were, and continue to be, nothing ta fuck wit.
You can look at hip hop and easily produce a list of everything that changed after Enter‘s release; how RZA became one of the most elite producers in music; how the Wu-Tang members kept pushing its legacy into the future with unforgettable guest spots and solo albums like GZA’s near-perfect Liquid Swords and Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale (along with plenty of forgettable albums, too, sure). But what stands out to me is that when I listen to Enter the Wu-Tang all these years later, it still has the same powerful effect.
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.