In 1983 Shaolin & Wu Tang was released. A kung-fu movie which follows the battles between two schools of the martial art, provided both inspiration for Wu-Tang Clan’s name as well as the opening sample for their debut record Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It has now been 20 years since 36 Chambers was released and the impact that the record made on hip hop is still so prominent all these years later.
Wu-Tang Clan formed in the early ‘90s, consisting of nine members and basing themselves in Staten Island, where the majority of the group grew up. Most hip hop in New York was coming out of Queens or Brooklyn, making Wu-Tang slight outsiders from the onset. This outsider status persisted, they never affiliate themselves with the East Coast rap scene and have always been seen as an insular group of artists. Their sound also didn’t fall into either of main styles of the time – the g-funk that was spearheaded by the production of Dr Dre and jazz rap of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Saoul. Instead Wu-Tang crafter their own sound, a style which is mostly credited to the production work of RZA.
The blend of eerie piano sequences, lo-fi beats and eclectic samples created a unique base for the nine different rappers to put a verse over. The album is full of dark humour, quite often directed towards the A&R men that dominate the industry, but the record also considers the problems that were rife within their neighbourhoods. The two of the most socially conscious tracks became album highlights: ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ explores the poverty in the communities and the “get rich or die trying” attitude that goes along with it, some 10 years before 50 Cent’s debut; while ‘Tearz’ tells the tale of two kids, one dies in the shooting and the second contracts HIV after unsafe sex.
By 1995 the record had gone platinum and Wu-Tang Clan were one of the biggest rap groups in the world. It was also at this time that the first wave of solo records were being released – GZA’s Liquid Swords, Method Man’s Tical, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, the list goes on. This was the Clan’s “plan for world domination” – set out in great detail at the end of ‘Can It All Be So Simple’. When they signed to RCA they built in a clause for the individual members to be able to sign solo deals with whoever they wished. The non-bullshit attitude towards the industry along with the collective DIY mentality of the group led to them becoming the figureheads of the East Coast Renaissance in 1994 with Nas and Biggie Smalls, as the major focus of hip hop moved from LA to New York.
Wu-Tang have since released four more collective records, mourned the loss of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and released a video game and two books of philosophy. This year sees the release of their sixth record A Better World, though most of the public attention has been focussed on the anniversary of the incomparable 36 Chambers. Their debut records closes with a sample of an interviewer asking the Clan how they would describe their style, the samples switch to another aptly chosen ‘Shaolin & Wu Tang’ soundbite – “It’s a secret, never teach the Wu Tang.”