What can you say about the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album that hasn’t already been said? It was completely original, it redefined the vocabulary and cultural horizons of a genre, and it was a game-changer even in a year that was spoiled for brilliant rap records. It introduced a group of artists who would not only go on to reshape hip-hop as a group, but who would individually release some of the greatest albums of the ‘90s and beyond; Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, RZA and GZA are some of rap’s most influential figures, and it was on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) that they first made their names. When ETWT dropped it was a new departure in hip-hop: a new sound, a new lyrical aesthetic, and a whole new style, one born not of rap’s mainstream or political currents but of old kung fu movies and the edgier side of ‘70s soul. It was a shock to the system, one that still resonates today, but was truly exhilarating at the time.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I was born in the same year that ETWT hit record stores, so when it did I was more interested in breast milk and learning to crawl than the RZA’s minor key piano samples or Method Man’s iron lung flow. I first listened to it in 2008, and there are probably 15 year-olds giving it a first spin right now, taking their first steps down the road that ends with memorising entire Ghostface verses and scouring the internet for MP3s of obscure ODB freestyles. Because ETWT is, of course, one of the all-time classic white boy hip-hop albums, one of the records that made the great crossover from the New York streets to suburbs worldwide. But the Wu-Tang’s omnipresent fanbase of middle class white kids is less a sign of gentrification than it is of the massive cross-cultural appeal and sheer quality of their music. You don’t need to read the hundreds of reviews or listen to the myriad interviews with other rappers to realise how great Enter the Wu-Tang is, you just need to listen to it.
There isn’t a bad song. There isn’t a song that’s anything less than a classic. Even in the early ‘90s, most rap albums didn’t boast more than a track or two great enough to truly stand the test of time; ETWT is full of them. ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, ‘Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck With’, ‘Protect Ya Neck’, ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’, ‘Method Man’… each can still ignite any iPod playlist and rock any house party, and each would become an essential part of hip-hop’s DNA. Though the Clan’s members were yet to fully develop the idiosyncratic styles that would define their later careers, they’re all on fire here: the GZA is commanding; Rae and Ghost are menacing; Meth is captivating and charismatic; Inspectah Deck anchors the operation with traditionalist technical mastery, and ODB brings a balance of skill and schizophrenia that he would never again recapture.
Lyrical pyrotechnics aside, ETWT is a masterpiece of atmospherics. Until it dropped, few if any rap albums had established and maintained such a stark and distinctive mood, one so unique and so compelling. From the chilling beats to the perfectly executed skits, this is the sound of a tightly defined artistic vision, something all the more remarkable for the fact that it was created by a bunch of guys who had only just entered their twenties. It’s an example of something that you rarely if ever see these days: a record that bumps from start to finish, with every track a perfect marriage of beats and lyrics. In short, it’s the perfect rap album.
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