(The following is the first in an ongoing 45 RPM series examining the essential discography of the Wu-Tang Clan.)
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
It isn’t fair. When I drunkenly offered to take on a Wu master post, my editor and suspected father Dominick Mayer was ecstatic. And so was I, mouth watering at the idea of analyzing the most massive thing to ever happen to hip-hop. Underneath the cave lighting and cartoon booze bubbles, I sat grinning, forgetting that the project would require me to review 36 Chambers–widely considered the greatest record in the entire genre. No pressure. While you’re at it, why not review Leonardo da Vinci, or the idea of time? The worst part is, I have to step up to the plate and admit my feelings on 36 Chambers: it’s a flawed masterpiece.
Hip-hop albums and tracks tend to benefit from brevity, but unfortunately, both “7th Chamber” songs suffer from dragged-out intros and less than exciting beats. “Method Man” is full of great lines over a classic beat, but why is it six minutes long? Of one dude? The first minute being a childish recital of yo-mama-esque threats? The hauntingly aggressive “Can It All Be So Simple” gets a pass for its length for the intermission, an interview briefly introducing the Clan and what they represent. I love the Wu, but I can only listen to so many samples of buzzing bees and kung-fu dudes slapping each other. Oh, Busta Rhymes called, he wants the rights to “interludes about hood fights and revenge violence” back so he can sandwich one between every real song on When Disaster Strikes. The whole affair is dated, muddy-sounding, and oh how the genre has matured since 1993.
That being said: it’s 36 fucking Chambers. “C.R.E.A.M” champions above most music of our generation, its piano melody lingering above reverb, its endlessly quotable lines via Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, Mef’s timeless chorus energizing our language with an effortless new slang. Stripped, sparse production, introducing a pastiche of samples from soul music, foreign films, and hits from all decades. The sinister sounds and threats of “Bring Da Ruckus,” the playful “Shame on a Nigga” jiving its sax and bass beneath Ol’ Dirty’s scatological wordplay. When ODB spits “Here I go, deep type flow/Jacques Cousteau could never get this low” on “Chessboxin’,” it isn’t just his words, it’s his delivery.
Each Clan member is verbally dexterous on a technical level, but their talents also lie in infusing their personality into each word. They all add something unique and attractive to the mix, the kind of crew you could write fan fiction about. Language is treated in such an innovative way on 36 Chambers, rife with obscure references, heavy metaphors and free-word association. Nearly every song is timeless, too catchy and influential to erode over time. The fact that myself or any other hip-hop enthusiast could spend hours discussing this album, scrutinizing its authors and components, is all the necessary evidence to declare 36 Chambers what it is: a landmark.
Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep a.k.a. Niggamortis (1994)
Three a.m., the witching hour. The long way home, foggy and thick with foliage. And do you spy a full moon? Strolling past the graveyard, you encounter a labyrinth of crypts and headstones. Suddenly, the faraway howl of a wolf, and at once the graves are pouring blood. Before you can scream you’re a kabob on The Grym Reaper’s blade. He grins and spits: “Here comes the killer with the Gravedigga sword, gimme room/Like devils in a Ouiji board I’m spellin’ doom.” The stainless steel twists your large intestine.
From behind, The RZArector takes a meat hammer to your skull, yelling: “The bloody, ferocious, attack, hits the body/Explosive diagnosis, it’s fatal like multiple sclerosis.” You flail, dropping to your knees and clenching the dirt. A hand arises from the grave, and it’s The Undertaker, better known as Prince Paul. He grabs your face and you hear the music, his busy, Halloweenish old-school east coast beats. Finally, The Gatekeeper showers you in gasoline, and before lighting the match he eulogizes: “Get chopped in the blocks from Hitchcock/The birds, my mental ward is my brainstorm/Somehow I flipped and came equipped with a chainsaw.” Then, you know, he has a chainsaw or something. You get the idea.
That’s 6 Feet Deep in a nutshell. Outrageous gallows humor fused with graphic descriptions of slasher murders. Prince Paul is behind most of the production, with some help from RZA. You’ll hear goofy brutality layered over dissonant piano chords, soul samples, rattling chains, et al. Not to mention the creepy female vocal sample in “Diary of a Madman,” a song framed as a murder trial for the Gravediggaz, who have claimed possession by demons as a defense. It’s not all skulls and bloodbaths – “Defective Trip (Trippin’)” is a testimonial against drug abuse, and several tracks contain cryptic references to the 5% Islamic tribe.
The album gave prominence to horrorcore, thus giving cues for rappers like Kool Keith to make their own warped alter-egos (Dr. Octagon) and unfortunately spawning Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid. We can forgive the Gravediggaz–6 Feet Deep is as fun as a B-horror marathon, but it brings the actual lyrical chops and production value you’d expect from a Wu affiliate group. Recommended if you like the puns in the titles of Goosebumps books, Elvira’s rack and descriptions of the RZA being crucified and chewing off his own arm.
Method Man – Tical (1994)
If she weren’t a dead dog, Laika the Soviet Space Mutt would tell you that being the first to do something big has its consequences. This, I’m sure, was her final thought as the cabin of the Sputnik 2 was rapidly overheating in orbit. Mr. Mef relates. Method had a solo song on the blow-up hit 36 Chambers and was the only rapper given a spot with Biggie on his Ready to Die album. His charisma and wild personality had him in the spotlight, the hip-hop nation breathlessly awaiting Tical, the first album by a Wu-Tang member without the crew. The Ticallion Stallion was the Laika of the Clan, assigned to prove that the Wu were complete even when apart. Unsurprisingly it was huge, in a platinum way.
“Bring the Pain” was the single that sealed it, bouncy and grim with the seasick delivery only Meth could cut up, also featuring Booster’s fake patois. The pieces are in place: RZA’s hazy, ragged beats fused with Meth’s outlandish charm; Iron Lung’s drugged-out lyrics and Bobby Digital’s drugged-out production. Sometimes the eerie beats and Meth shouting things like “Yo mamma don’t wear no draws/I saw when she took them off/Standin’ on the welfare line” (in the incredibly produced “Biscuits”) don’t exactly mesh, but it was the 90s and the Gravediggaz were getting away with much more ridiculous stuff.
The main hull in Tical’s Sputnik rests in Method’s ability to hold an entire album on his own. In truth, I’m not sure if he can. “Respect Yo ‘Delf” aged like stray semen, littered with a cheesy riff on “I Will Survive” and dated siren/gunshot effects. “What the Blood Clot” and “Stimulation” are seven total minutes of fairly forgettable cut-and-dry Meth n’ RZA. These tracks aside, every song is strong, but the album as a whole can be tiresome, homogenous. Even at 43 minutes, it can be a chore. The key is highlighting its landmarks.
The aforementioned “Biscuits” and “Bring the Pain” are top-notch classic Wu. “Meth vs. Chef” is a mind-bending lyrical boxing match between Method and Raekwon. “Sub Crazy” is murky and snare-heavy, busting out some of Meth’s best lines: “Styles be trite, trife like a thief in the night/I be the sneaky-ass nigga bustin nuts in yo wife/Blasted, buggin off Bacardi and acid/Flippin on the mic, it’s a classic.” “Mr. Sandman” has a truckload of great guests and an incredible operatic vocal sample of a woman singing “Mr. Sandman bring me a dream.” Hella creepy. And who can forget the chorus of “Tical?” The album is a must-have for any fan of hardcore hip-hop, but buyer beware, overlistening will dull the initial effect. Also, beware of the subtly phallic smoke on the album cover.