36 chambers 20 years later a.k.a. Why Wu tang Clan represented the best and worst of my generation
On a random brisk November day in Blackrock College ( Dublin Ireland Stand up ) i was walking out the lunchroom to the dorms and i saw the homie Hassan, a fellow African who was a year ahead of me. He called me over and handed me a tape as he usually did. I looked at the cover and stared at it so hard he was like “you okay?” “yeah” i replied half dazed from how scary/interesting/original the cover looked. We talked about how FAT the cover was and how it had a certain hard to place element of intrigue to it. Rap covers at that time were usually straight mean mugging rappers gloriously rocking ghetto attire fit for a king of a future covered in barb wire or some painted/designed pictures a la prog rock/funkadellic albums. But this was different. The masks they rocked appealed to the kid i was, a kid that grew up hooked on Ninja movies. WHO THE FUCK were these guys? We opened it up and i was struck by how even when they showed their faces ( minus the incarcerated members U-God and Method Man ) Ghost stood in the middle still rocking a mask. In the hands of a less grimy group that would have screamed “GIMMICK” but for some reason they had an element of “wow i think the cops might really be looking for this guy” to them that made it seem more necessary than meditated.In the pre internet era where you were forced to use your imagination i had no reference point for the cover to strike me as being reminiscent of……………….I dunno……………..anything. Funny thing is i look at it now and it makes me think of a horror movie in the vein of “SAW” and “The Purge”. Having previously heard “Method man” and “Wu tang aint nuthin to fuck with” i was already stone cold blazed from how fly the music was but was in no way shape or form prepared for the sonic assault to the senses and life altering philosophies i was in for when i pressed play on my walkman.
Wu tang still blows particles from my subconscious 20 years later after a slew of classics that people were salivating over have been awarded the honor of having settled in to the minds of millions. But this is not about the music. Nah Playboy, this is about everything that went into the music. I had a conversation with my fam Rome in the bookstore about it and he was dazed at how many points i brought up. Wu tang as a whole were such a phenomenon because they represented everything beautiful and tragic about the generation we grew up in. I was listening to the Combat jack show ( craaaaaaaaaaaazy show btw ) and an interview N.O.R.E. had with them really put into perspective how fucked up the golden age of hip hop was. Yeah………….i said it…………….FUCKED UP. We were blessed with magnificent music every Tuesday to the point that masterpieces were over looked. ( shout out “All we got iz us”, “The Natural”, “Hold it down” , “The aftermath” [ which had a production line up damn near as potent as “Illmatic”], “The Turnaround: a long awaited drama” etc ) but the n.o.r.e. interview really hit me when he told Combat Jack that he hates to listen to “The War report” ( which i still say is the last of the seminal criminal east coast rap albums ) because it takes him to a dark place. That album was haunted by souls of people that were shot, killed, paralyzed, traumatized etc aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand to top it off Capone was in jail while it was being made. The album has fucking skits of one of the members in jail as your listening to it. Let that sink in. The music was so glorious it was an overwhelming immersing experience to hear it but when N.o.r.e said he wrote that album when he didn’t know how to use his imagination it fucked me up because it really dawned on me that that lines like “put the bogey out in your face” and “bloody up your goose/ now who scream for truce/” were more diary entries than action movie script. I also thought of the underlining sense of rage that seethed through a lot of the best hardcore albums. You had to be a certain kind of person to appreciate the beauty in a loud abrasive drum loop and to take samples that came from love songs and turn them into the beat you could rap about witnessing a close friend die to. A lot of people lost their lives for albums like “The infamous”,”Illmatic” and “Enta da stage” to be born. I also thought about all the crack fiends and shattered families i saw on a recurring basis when i was in Greenbelt MD/D.C. and the sheer numbers of them it took to give birth to an album like “only built 4 cuban linx” and the fact that screaming “Bring da muthafuckin RUCKUS” that convincingly suggests a life where violent encounters had been honed to the point of muscle memory. Wu tang was the voice of those left to die ( Ironically, the only kind of people that would survive if the world suddenly turned to mad max like conditions ) and they instead impressed everybody out in the world with their display of marvelous talent and wisdom because they are hip hop and that is what hip hop does. Hip hop is not having a band and wanting to make music, hip hop is not having access to galleries to display your art, hip hop is not having shit but what is laying within arms reach and then turning that shit into gold that shits out diamonds. These dudes were high school dropouts that were smart as fuck ( the facts of Rza becoming a chess champion and Harvard…..yeah that Harvard invited the GZA to come and speak to their students attests volumes to that ) based on 5% teachings and a life where knowledge of everything from social customs and economic strategies to how to read body language literally held the keys to life and death. I thought about people i met that one second detailed extreme acts they committed ( the kicker is when they tell you how much doing certain things fucked with them psychologically afterwards ) and the next spoke to me about how to build a computer from scratch or something else that required a lot of brain capacity to do and Wu tang took on another level of importance because they showed that when the people were shipped off to places to die, their captors didn’t notice they were carrying books, lots of books. They were also armed with the same curiosity we all had as children. As they grew up they were inspired by Bruce Lee and watched, the killer, Voltron and Underdog too just like the children of the people that condemned them.
They were also the generation raised by parents who were around to talk about “That brother Malcolm X” from a first person perspective. They were jagged reflections of Black people that fought for dignity and carried themselves with an air of class ( i mean damn look at dudes like Sidney Poitier, Gordon Parks, Miles Davis etc black folk sure can get fly and classy when we feel like it ) The slacks turned to army fatigues but the self love that poured through even made a champion hoody look as flashy as a Hefner robe or a Sinatra tux. The idea of unity was also strong enough to outgrow neighborhood beefs between members and showed how people can put aside past hurts for a better future which is lucrative for all, something y’all politicians out there can STILL stand to learn from. These dudes didn’t send someone to shoot for them, they did the shooting and were still able to come to the round table and work it out. If they didn’t they could have all died like their captors intended. But one did die……………….DAMN. Not in the war zone as intended but on the other side. In the tradition of countless other talents that succumbed to the temptress of intoxication. The war zone they came from is pre packaged with trauma and people cope with trauma several ways, the most popular being chemical. This reminds me of people i saw heroin swallow up whole around the way only to spit them back out as hollow cheeked zombie like folks and the friends i have that casually push the limits of their tolerance at the expense of their health. Sad. “After laughter comes tearz” R.I.P. Russell Jones and the others that fell.
People try and articulate what made the group as great as they were and it aint that deep. Look at where they came from and it will make sense cause of how it doesn’t make sense. I can relate to that cause i come from a place where we earn our scars and learn to give them back at a tender age no matter how secure financially we are and i chose to live a life where me and my people still wonder how something horrible kept on narrowly escaping us and oh yeah violent trauma and i have been on a first name basis for a while now, so even though i’m not a NYC 70’s baby like the Wu was, i get it. I also was blessed to see a lot of things and places and stayed curious about stuff that “Black people weren’t into” so even though i wasn’t a project kid reading up on Bobby Fischer or walking into a Chinatown store to buy books based on Asian culture that was thousands of miles away from where i was from, i get it. Voltron is the shit, i get it. But really, Voltron is the shit, i mean it. This album was followed by others from the crew that shook up hip hop as hard as this one did but it will forever be know as the first step of a thousand mile journey. The kid’s didn’t die, they grew up, the scars didn’t disappear they just don’t hurt as much and the books they carried into the killing fields didn’t burn, these brothers just put it on wax and still told kids to go read the books. Rap music now is based on what you have when before it was showing what you could do with what you didn’t have. Not saying it’s good not saying it’s bad it just is. I’m always happy to see people feeding their family in a positive way. When i visited New York last i heard this guy say “the bad times are gone” people actually feel safer. Is that a bad thing? No, of course not. But sometimes it’s good to remember what overcoming adversity feels like cause that is the spirit that birthed the Wu movement and looking at this clip from Method Man reminds me that even without big jewelry on someone dressed in a skull cap and a simple winter jacket can be just as fly as anyone with a mink coat on when they can spit stuff as intelligent as this……………..