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Back to the 36 Chambers

In 1993, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs had a plan. He assembled a crew of young, hungry emcees hailing from the slums of Shaolin aka Staten Island, NY.   He had himself (The RZA), GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U God, Masta Killa, and the M.E.T.H.O.D. Man!  The 9 emcees would “form like Voltron” to become a dominant force in Hip Hop and pop culture in the ’90s and beyond. Join me as we travel back to the 36 Chambers to look back on the legacy that this album left behind.

“Confusion is a gift from God. Those times when you feel most desperate for a solution, sit. Wait. The information will become clear. The confusion is there to guide you. Seek detachment and become the producer of your life.”

– RZA, “The Tao of Wu”

Enter the Wu-Tang

When talking about Wu-Tang, the conversation always starts with RZA (they don’t call him the architect for nothing). RZA gathered and formed this group of emcees and in doing so put Hip Hop on a path that it couldn’t turn back from. In 1993, hearing Wu-Tang was a revelation. These 9 dope-dealing, Kung Fu nerds from Staten Island were unique. They didn’t sound like A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. They were grimy. Listening to this album in 2020, you can almost feel the streets of New York in the production and the rhymes. It feels fluid and organic. However, RZA had a 5 year plan and that structured confusion he sought started with one album.

RZA’s plan started with the release of “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and ended with the release of all the Wu members’ solo albums.  The quality of music released by Wu-Tang between the years of 1993-1997 is incredible.  Classic albums like Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…”, GZA’s “Liquid Swords” and Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman” are watershed moments in Hip Hop history. Yet it all started with “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”

Below, we’ll look at each track off Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. In the spirit of the martial arts competition that the killa bees enjoy so much, I’ll award a winner for each track. We’ll also delve deeper into the background of the samples used and the work that went into perfecting one of the most important albums in Hip Hop history. Join me as we journey back to Staten Island in 1993 and to the 36 Chambers…


1. Bring Da Ruckus

“Ghostface catch the blast of a hype verse//My glock burst, leave in a hearse, I did worse”

Ghostface Killah

Who Won the track?

RZA. I gotta give it to the architect for track 1. RZArector sets the scene perfectly with a Kung Fu sample and keeps the theme going throughout.  The beat is unmistakable and his scream of “bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus” is an intense way for a group to introduce themselves to the public but it worked. 

Behind the Music

Throughout 36 Chambers, RZA samples the classic Kung-Fu movie: Shaolin vs Wu Tang. It’s the movie that inspired their name and their style as a whole.  RZA explains it best himself: “There came a point where I identified the style that I felt that we had, a definition, and the word for it was Wu-Tang, which means “The Sword Style…” (via Genius). 


2. Shame On A N***a

“Gunnin’, hummin’, comin’ at ya//First I’m gonna get ya, once I got ya, I gat ya”

Method Man

Who won the track?

I really want to give this to RZA again for one of his best beats of all time…but I gotta go with the Ol’ Dirty Bastard. This track is classic ODB from the adlibs, to the chorus, to the screaming and the classic lines like “got burnt once but that was only gonorrheas.” You can just feel the energy when ODB comes in on this track.

Behind the Music

In an interview for RZA’s movie “Man with the Iron Fists”, he claimed that ODB did this verse in one take. “I was like, ‘Do it over.’ He said, ‘No — that’s it. I’m keeping it. That’s what I like!’ One take…’He’s a guy that would come in and do it in one take.”


3. Clan In Da Front

“How you sound, B? You’re better off a quitter//I’m on the mound, G, and it’s a no-hitter.”

GZA

Who won the track?

GZA, who else could it be?  He bodies this track from start to finish getting two full verses. At the time of 36 Chambers release, GZA was considered to be the best emcee in the Wu and he showcases his skill in full here on “Clan in Da Front”. GZA’s second verse is a straight verbal evisceration of his competition. His performance on this track is equivalent to a complete game no-hitter (hence the quote above). 

Behind the music

One of the most recognizable aspects of Wu-Tang Clan is their penchant for bees. The Wu-Tang Killa Bees were born with this sample from RZA.


4. Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber

“I leave the mic in body bags, my rap style has the force//To leave you lost like the tribe of Shabazz//Murderous material made by a madman//It’s the mic wrecker, Inspectah, bad man”

Inspectah Deck

Who won the track?

Mr. “Charged by the system for murderin’ the rhythm” himself…Inspectah Deck. Deck is the member of Wu-Tang that seems to be looked over most often. GZA is seen as the best lyrically, RZA is the architect, Rae and Ghost have the stories and Mef has the charisma. Personally though, I think Inspectah Deck is the best all-around rapper in the group. His verse here hits that point home.

Behind the music

When asked about the meaning behind “7th Chamber”, Deck said “There were 36 chambers that we were going to show people, and that was only the 7th. I did the 9th chamber on my album, and GZA had the 4th chamber on Liquid Swords” (via Genius)


5. Can It All Be So Simple/Intermission

“Ignorant and mad young, wanted to be the one//’Til I got (Blaow!) felt one”

Raekwon

Who won the track?

This might be cheating but I’m gonna have to say the chemistry between Rae and Ghost wins this track. This song sets the stage for what’s arguably Wu’s best solo album: Rae’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.”  On this track, Rae and Ghost flex their chemistry and wax poetically about their lives before Hip Hop.  It’s a touching and somber track but the way Rae and Ghost rap along this RZA constructed beat allows it to keep its edge. 

Behind the music

Everyone should listen to this Gladys Knight sample. As she says “why does it seem that the past is always better?” and Rae and Ghost give that quote even more levity in this track.


6. Da Mystery of Chessboxin’

“This technique attacks the immune system//Disguised like a lie, paralyzin’ the victim”

Masta Killa

Who won the track?

Masta Killa gets one verse on 36 Chambers and he makes the most of it.  The “master of the mantis rapture” puts forth one of the best moments on the album and embodies what it means to be a Wu-Tang lyrical swordsman. Legend has it that this was MK’s first ever written rap and he also did this verse in one take which only adds to its legacy.  

Behind the music

The other martial arts movie that makes its way onto this album is Five Deadly Venoms which is sampled in the intro to this song when talking about the different styles of fighting.


7. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin To F’ Wit

“I slam tracks like quarterback sacks from L.T.”

Inspectah Deck

Who won the track?

This is easily RZA’s best verse on the album. He packs in a Dr. Doom reference, a Richard Dawson/ Family Feud reference and he brings the energy straight from the jump.  This might also be his most recognizable beat.

Behind the Music

This is probably RZA’s craziest sample on the album. Who the hell would have thought to flip the Underdog theme?


8. C.R.E.A.M.

“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side//Stayin’ alive was no jive”

Raekwon

Who won the track?

This is the track that put Wu-Tang on the map as a serious Hip Hop group.  In that way, it’s extremely difficult to pick between RZA’s production, Raekown’s first verse and Inspectah Deck’s last one.  I gotta give the edge to Deck though. His verse is heartfelt and tragic and more importantly he’s using his real life experiences to try and teach the next generation the lesson that “Life is hectic.”

Behind the music

RZA had been holding onto this track since 1991 without a hook. Method Man came up with the iconic acronym and the rest was history.


9. Method Man

“Chim chiminy chim chim cher-ee//Freak a flow and flow fancy free”

Method Man

Who won the track?

Whenever you listen to a Wu-Tang record, you can’t help but notice Method Man.  His swag, his flow, the sound of his voice…everything sticks out. RZA giving him a solo joint on their first album points to his belief in Mef as a member with the ability to appeal to the mass consumer population while maintaining credibility. Also, what other rapper could interpolate Mary fuckin’ Poppins in a rap song?! (see quote above)

Behind the music

Pretty straight forward beat from RZA here but Mef inserts himself into musical history in an interesting way.  During the bridge (“I got fat bags of skunk…) he gets real melodic. The melody for that bridge was taken from Michael Jackson’s cover of the Beatles “Come Together” who in turn ripped it from “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry. (via Complex


10. Protect Ya Neck

“First things first man, you’re fuckin’ with the worst

Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Alright, I can’t pick a winner for this one so we’re gonna do this track a little differently. Below is my power ranking of the verses featured here:

  1. Deck: Inspectah Deck sets the song up perfectly, comes with an incredible amount of energy and packs so many references into only a couple of bars.
  2. GZA: This verse was voted as the “Dopest Rhyme of ‘93” by The Source and I can see why.  
  3. ODB: So much energy, charisma and style while being an essential ODB verse. 
  4. Mef: Feels like he freestyled this whole thing which is incredible if true and the cough at the end is iconic. 
  5. Raekwon: Intense, classic Rae and the entire verse is just smooth. 
  6. Ghost: “Not long is how long that this rhyme took me” from Ghost’s own mouth…but it’s still fire. 
  7. RZA: RZA holds his own on this track and it’s one of his better verses but it’s not better than any of the verses ahead of him. 
  8. U-God: Verse is too short to be considered anywhere but last on this list. 

Behind the music

RZA’s vision for this song was each member attacking and going for the competition’s head. From Deck’s “I smoke on the mic like “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier” to ODB’s “First things first, man, you’re fuckin’ with the worst” ; each member gives a brisk, aggressive verse packed with quotables and high energy.


11. Tearz

Aw man! How do I say goodbye?//It’s always the good ones that have to die//Memories in the corner of my mind//Flashbacks, of us laughin’ all the time

RZA

Who won the track?

Ghostface. The GFK spins a tragic tale from start to finish in the somber “closer” to 36 Chambers. It highlights the ability that Ghost possesses when it comes to storytelling and giving his audience a concise theme throughout. 

Behind the music

This is one of my favorite beats by RZA on the album.  The Wendy Rene sample gives this track a soul without changing what makes the original song so beautiful and poignant. 


12. Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber – Part II – Conclusion

“what ya say ya style is?” – Interviewer

“It’s a secret! Never teach the Wu-Tang”

Shaolin vs Wu Tang

Who won the track?

Gotta give this one to RZA.  The Architect  runs back “7th Chamber” with a remixed beat in what can only be described as a heat check.  RZA just hit 11 straight threes to complete 36 Chambers and basically said, let’s bring back 7th Chamber one more time. 

Behind the music

RZA really brings 36 Chambers around full circle. He runs back “7th Chamber”, samples “Clan in Da Front” and “Protect Ya Neck” and in a way, the conclusion of the album ends like a Marvel end-credits scene.  We just want more Wu…and we’ll get it because Wu-Tang is forever.


Sean Curley

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