Counterbalance No. 150: Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter the Wu-Tang’

Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Klinger: Is there any prospect more daunting to the hip-hop novice (which, if we’re being completely honest, I must sheepishly confess to being) than the idea of entering the world of the Wu-Tang Clan? I’ve been eying this album for weeks now, knowing that the day would come when the Great List would give me my marching orders and send me into the unchartered territories of Shaolin and the 36 Chambers and its attendant lifestyle and lingo. Plus there are nine guys on this record—that’s a lot to keep track of—and I keep remembering back to the ’90s when every few weeks one of those nine guys seemed to be putting out a record. It all just seemed like a lot to take in. So I kept putting it off, like a kid hoping for a blizzard the night before a test. But here we are.

And it is a lot to take in, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t completely worth it. The more I listen to it, the more I realize what is going on. And unlike the other East Coast hip-hop we’ve covered (which is really just Public Enemy and De La Soul), Enter the Wu-Tang seems to be built upon less immediately recognizable samples. So it’s the lyrics that keep me coming back, which seems like an obvious thing to say, but this is one of the few records we’ve covered (hip-hop or otherwise) where the lyrics are almost completely driving the record. Not since Leonard Cohen, Mendelsohn. Did I just compare Wu-Tang Clan to Leonard Cohen? Somebody had to.

Mendelsohn: Yeah, nothing says profundity like, “Cash rules everything around me. CREAM! Get the money. Dolla dolla bill, y’all.” Mr. Cohen is probably blushing.

I kid. I kid. Yes, the driving force behind the album is certainly the lyrical content. But there is also the production—the RZA’s sparse beats and eclectic, minimal sampling stood in stark contrast to the sample happy styles on display in Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and even, to some extent, De La Soul’s 3 Feet and Rising. The Wu also created the business model that hip-hop still operates on to this day—diversifying beyond music into any available avenues of capitalism, whether it was a clothing line or solo albums for every member of the group.

After all of that, though, it almost always comes back the the lyrics. With nine members, all with unique voices and styles, there is a never ending, nearly stream-of-consciousness flow that is only broken up by the odd jazz piano strains and kung fu film samples. Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know the Wu, I’m curious, do any of the voices jump off the wax at you? Who’s your favorite Wu-Tang Clan member?

Klinger: Well, I’m sure like a lot of new arrivals to Shaolin, I was immediately enchanted by the warbling, wobbling style of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, if for no other reason than his voice is so distinctive (also, he was born exactly one day before I was, so there’s probably some sort of astrological connection or some such thing). But while I’m still on record as a fan, I’ve found that the more I listen, the more I have to give it up for GZA. His verse on “Clan in Da Front” alone, with his Ella Fitzgerald-ine Ferraro segue, which then shifts into references to Dolemite, the Mack, Claudine, and Cooley High all in one quick burst, is nothing short of brilliant.

But that’s something that I’ve noticed in paying closer attention to hip-hop as a whole. I don’t want to overgeneralize too much, but the East Coast albums we’ve covered are a lot funnier than the West Coast albums. Of course, both of the West Coast albums involved Dr. Dre, and maybe it’s just that Dre isn’t funny. (OK, I’ll say it. Dr. Dre isn’t funny.) Although it may get overlooked amid sociological pontificating and so forth, there’s a tremendous amount of humor throughout Enter the Wu-Tang. (Method Man and Raekwon’s torture game might not be the best example, but…)

Mendelsohn: I think your over generalization that the East Coast albums were funnier than the West Coast albums sort of misses the mark. Not because it isn’t necessarily true but mostly because it comes down to the people involved. Dr. Dre isn’t funny (I’d go as far to say painfully unfunny) but there is a bleak humor that winds itself throughout both The Chronic and Straight Outta Compton that is as much a defense mechanism as it is an attempt to get some laughs. Wu Tang, on the other hand, addresses the same bleak issues but in general can set those things aside and have a good laugh.

There is also another important East/West/New York/Los Angeles split that got its start with Enter the Wu-Tang. While gang culture is obviously a central theme on both records, the Wu-Tang also had to contend with the O.G.s of New York—the Cosa Nostra—the Mafia. So while the Wu-Tang will still had to address the gangsta culture, the violence, and the drug trade, they also started to emulate the mob, which included the lavish lifestyles and the unmitigated violence. The Wu also acted as a bit of a mob family, sticking together as a large group and then bringing in affiliated acts (the Killer Bees, etc.) while the original members continued to fan out their influence. In this metaphor, I suppose RZA would be the Don.

Klinger: Yes, RZA has positioned himself as the mastermind, and his ability to coordinate a job as complex and sophisticated as Enter the Wu-Tang prove that he most certainly earned that title. But for Wu-Tang Clan to work, you clearly needed a full complement of abilities, and at the same time a common mindset among all the members. As I listen to Enter the Wu-Tang, I can’t help hearing a very distinct strain of classic Generation X irony throughout the lyrics and samples.

We’ve discussed this a few times in the past, but for people born between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, there is an attitude toward our cultural touchstones that no other generation seems to have in quite the same way. RZA and the rest of Wu-Tang Clan may have grown up in a very different place than I did, but I recognize their love for a well-placed reference, and their ability to recognize and embrace the absurdity in the aspects of our culture that we were fed all throughout our youth (and yes, I am suggesting that these guys are fully aware that the kung fu movies that they reference contain layers of both awesomeness and ridiculousness—it’s one of the Jedi mind tricks that the quintessential Gen-X standard bearers, from the Beastie Boys to Quentin Tarantino have been able to pull off time and again). In lesser hands, this becomes the terrible fallback of uttering a pop culture reference as if it’s an end in itself, but when it’s done right it’s a thing of beauty.

Mendelsohn: The well-placed pop culture reference is a beautiful thing when done correctly, but I don’t think it is just the provenance of Generation X. Each generation established their own social lexicon that allowed them to seemingly communicate above or below the heads of their elders. There is nothing new there. In fact, I would argue that the younger generations, are much more adept in communicating through pop culture references simply because they have such a wealth of material to choose from. They do it poorly sometimes. And often revert to over-used memes and too much Impact font, but don’t think for a minute that they don’t understand, and respond in kind, to the absurdity of the culture in which they participate. Wu -Tang clan does it exceptionally well but I think a lot of that has to do with the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness that makes hip-hop (and Quentin Tarantino) so unique. If anything, and this is going to sound horrible, Generation X was the first generation to really suffer from attention deficit disorder, and the only way to keep their attention was by switching subjects quickly and mentioning things the audience would recognize.

But that’s just one aspect of the Wu-Tang Clan. They capitalized on the well-placed pop culture reference and they did so with in a frame work that was immediate recognizable yet incredibly fresh and not nearly as stylized as their hip-hop predecessors I don’t think it was a coincidence that a striped-down amped up version of hip-hop took over as grunge was wiping the slate on the rock side.

Klinger: That’s a good point, and it does get at a larger point about Wu-Tang Clan’s allure across a range of demographics. I may not be able to articulately define the special brand of Gen-X irony (but I know it when I see it), except to say that the Millennials are living in the house that we built. At any rate, that period in the ’90s was clearly an attempt to break free from the slickness of the ’80s, and that obviously extended into hip-hop as well as rock. And I think that’s why people, including mainstream rock critics and fans, responded to Enter the Wu-Tang so positively—it worked as both a chronicle of street life and at the same time pointed out the shared relationship that a generation had with the larger culture. I’m glad I had the chance to lean in a little and finally grasp that.