Reminiscing on the 20th anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, Michael A. Gonzales wonders if it was all so simple then
The recent 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan’s groundbreaking Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), as well as folks remembering the bugged legacy of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who died nine years ago), got me to thinking about mid-1990s hip-hop culture and its mythology of keepin’ it real.
While the rap music of that decade varied from the bohemian experimentation of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots and The Fugees to the pop crossover of MC Hammer and Diddy née Puffy, many of us quickly got caught up in the rawness of the almighty Wu-Tang Clan, especially producer/MC RZA’s bleak housing project beats. Not since Sly Stone constructed There’s a Riot Goin’ On fueled by cocaine and PCP had anyone made music sound so much like the aural equivalent of intoxicated derelicts, muddy water and dead rainbows.
“My entire production style and music was my way of releasing brutality,” RZA, sitting in his midtown Manhattan studio, told me in 2006. “All the Wu were street dudes living in the projects. We definitely came in crazy.” Along with contemporaries Mobb Deep and DJ Premier—whose own grimy beats with Gang Starr and Nas laid the foundation of ’90s hardness—RZA and Wu-Tang became connoisseurs of ghetto culture.
There was a sense of danger and blues on Enter the Wu-Tang and its double-album follow-up Wu-Tang Forever, as well as in the coarse voices of rhyme animals Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, GZA/Genius and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Their mean streets music became the perfect soundtrack of a generation of post-crack kids wandering crime-ridden hoods blaring beatboxes.
Within the textures of RZA’s grooves, one could feel the conflict and chaos of his community. Critic Jon Caramanica, in a wonderful Wu-Tang essay from the 2003 anthology Classic Material, noted, “The Wu hailed from Staten Island, the only New York borough that had not yet made a firm footprint on the city’s hip-hop scene. With their debut, they made it sound every bit as foreboding as the locals they were seeking to overtake.”
Without a doubt, the Wu contributed to the comeback of a New York sound that had nothing to do with being jiggy. (See, by contrast, Sean “Puffy” Combs and his bad boys swilling flutes of champagne on private planes.)
From the distance of my then Chelsea apartment, Staten Island resembled a macabre movie set straight out of Candyman. Dragging the listener through the heart of horror-show of darkness, “Protect Ya Neck,” “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” became broken-glass anthems for a generation. “We took the good things and the bad things [of the ghetto] and put it into a musical form,” RZA continued. “Some people live that same life. For those who haven’t lived that life, it gives them a dose of that life. They can live it through us.
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