[20 May 2009]
“Rap would be so awesome if it just didn’t have any vocals or lyrics,” my now-former friend Thom once remarked to me several years ago at a party. (Sadly, he was only half joking.) Luckily for him, there is El Michels Affair, a funk-soul supergroup of sorts, whose latest album is composed entirely of instrumental versions of classic tracks from the pioneering hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Enter the 37th Chamber includes most of the group’s hits: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” “Bring Da Ruckus”, “Protect Ya Neck”, and “C.R.E.A.M.” are all present—minus the vocal histronics of Method Man, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Wu-Tang’s slew of brilliant guest rappers like Cappadonna and Killah Priest.
In theory, Enter the 37th Chamber, the title being a play on Wu-Tang Clan’s (in)famous debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is a pretty cool idea. El Michels Affair, led by uber-creative saxophonist/organist Leon Michels and featuring talented members of the Dap Kings and Antibalas, has essentially taken sampled music and unsampled it. It’s a postmodern music critic’s wet dream, complete with deconstructivist rhetoric, a meta-analysis on the state of (hip-hop) music, and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a groundbreaking group of musical innovators—none of whom could even play a musical instrument.
Unfortunately, while Enter the 37th Chamber is brilliant in theory, it leaves much to be desired in practice. Michels and his bandmates have certainly proven they can play a handful of Wu-Tang Clan songs note-for-note using traditional instrumentation—guitar, bass, drums, piano/organ, strings, and horns can be heard. But, beyond that, the tracks on Enter the 37th Chamber reveal nothing new about, provide little commentary on, and barely even resemble the Wu-Tang Clan songs on which they were based.
In Wu-Tang Clan’s original songs, group founder and primary producer RZA deftly mixed and matched detuned snippets from classic, politically charged soul and jazz records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. (On one song, RZA reportedly used samples of music from Albert King, the J.B.‘s, Lowell Fulson, and Sly & the Family Stone—all within a four-minute stretch.) The result was an insane juxtaposition of sounds and meanings, simultaneously haunting and humorous, slick and amateurish, calculated and absurd. On Enter the 37th Chamber, Michels has—plain and simple—taken all of RZA’s sampled music and, after arranging it for a live band, zapped the life of it. Wu-Tang Clan’s music was unpredictable, spontaneous, and difficult (the group’s songs were often augmented by sound bites from Kung Fu movie fight scenes, for example). Enter the 37th Chamber is safe, staid, and, dare I say it, pretty. Wu-Tang Clan created music for the city street (even though it may have played more in suburban bedrooms). With Enter the 37th Chamber, however, Michels has inexplicably recreated that music for the lounge.
“Can It All Be So Simple” would sound at home on a Dido record. And “Cherchez La Ghost”, while it features some classic soul music, somehow seems watered down and soporific. “Duel of the Iron Mics”, a cover of a classic track from GZA’s legendary Liquid Swords LP, is moving and definitely pretty, but it lacks nearly all of the piss and tinniness that made the original version simultaneously infectious and discomfiting. It is temporarily enjoyable when El Michels Affair breaks into classic tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, but it’s the same type of enjoyment you get out of realizing the music you hear from the elevator speakers is actually your favorite song being played on a midi keyboard—then you reach the fourth floor and reality kicks in.
The major problem with Michels’ versions, aside from missing the tonal nuances inherent in RZA’s beats (e.g. detunings, modulations, atonal phlegm), is precisely that, as intended, they entirely ignore Wu-Tang Clan’s lyrics and distinct vocal personalities, which are so crucial to making the originals whats they are. It would have been more interesting to hear Michels try to infuse his instrumental interpretations with some manifestation of Ghostface Killah’s spastic rhymes, GZA’s understated cerebralism, or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s gruff melodrama. Instead, we’re left with pleasant, downtempo jams.
The original version of “Uzi (Pinky Ring)”, from 2001’s Iron Flag, features no less than eight emcees describing in gross detail a series of totally insane mobster scenes straight out of The Godfather. These over-the-top narratives are anchored by a disco beat with Motown horn section accents and a serious scratch solo. Michels’ version of the song, however, entirely ignores the absurd juxtaposition between lyrics and music and instead features just an aesthetically pleasing rendering of the song’s musical accompaniment.
Enter the 37th Chamber could have been groundbreaking in its own right, something akin to John Cage’s prepared piano in reverse, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” arranged for soundless gestures, or Morton Feldman’s grandiose aural marathons played in a nanosecond on a pinhead by a flea circus. Essentially, the deconstruction of Wu-Tang Clan’s songs could have vomited any number of musical styles. (Personally, I think a schizoid mix of punk, noise, jazz, free funk, and atonal musical forms a la John Zorn’s Naked City ensemble would be apt.) But the mellow sounds on Enter the 37th Chamber seem to miss the boat. It is a commercially viable interpretation for sure (listen for it in lounges near you), but one that seems to be devoid of the humor, irony, hyperbole, and, most importantly, kung fu dramatics that characterized Wu-Tang Clan. Even Picasso’s cubist renderings, which deconstructed previous visual approaches, included much of the alienation, subversive ideas, unnatural color, and exaggerated form inherent in the original works to which cubism reacted.
Despite coming up short on recording, El Michels Affair is clearly a talented and versatile group, willing to mix and match genres and experiment with new musical ideas. It is an exciting proposition to think about El Michels Affair serving as the live backing band to the Wu-Tang Clan emcees. And during the past few years, that proposition has become a reality as Michels has gone on the road to back Raekwon and some of his Wu-Tang Clan associates.
Ultimately, though, what makes Enter the 37th Chamber such an interesting idea is also what makes it so forgettable: there are no vocals. If anything, the album proves that Wu-Tang Clan’s songs were more than just the sum of their constituent parts. And, perhaps that’ll be enough to make Thom reconsider his most unfortunate statement.