"Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" 20 Years Later: An Oral History

posted Tuesday November 12 ,2013 at 08:11AM CST | 2 comments

Two decades later, we look back on how "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" changed Hip Hop as key players involved in the album's creation speak on what was to be.

The authoritative force that is Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) celebrated its twentieth anniversary Saturday, November 9, 2013. And yes, remembering its legacy and how great it was is an activity using time well spent. Hip Hop fans, young and old, have stories about their first plunge into the complex realms of one of the genre’s seminal releases–most of which reminisce a period of euphoric nostalgia unique to any other experience. Whether you heard 36 Chambers for the first time last week or on November 9, 1993, it’s hard to describe what exactly you were listening to. And maybe that’s what RZA intended.

Some 20 years later, the album that combined two very different elements–the raps of nine Staten Island street poets and the obscure combative samples from 1978’s Kung Fu-based flick, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin still retains its intrigue. From “Bring Da Ruckus to “Method Man (Skunk Mix)” various distinct elements fly at you. Somber and more reflective cuts like “Tearz” and “Can It Be All So Simple” provided context to the group’s struggles at the time, while “Method Man” channeled the RZA-described “Method Man wild chamber,” a deluge of savagery and in your face raw for five minutes and fifty seconds (or actually, everything after the comical introduction).

In August of 1993, four months prior to the release of Wu-Tang’s debut album, Darrell “Lefty” Glover, the host of a local TV show called “The New York Party Scene” interviewed the Clan’s brainchild during a group studio session. During the interview, RZA explained how the principles of Shaolin pertained to what the group was about.

“We go through 36 Chambers,” RZA said in illustrating his vision. “[There’s] 36 Chambers with 10 degrees between each chamber, 36 times 10, 360 degrees of perfection… The ‘Wu’ is the way, the ‘Tang,’ that’s the tang in it, that’s the sword-style.”

At the time, even those closely associated with the group were puzzled by RZA’s vision. In the 2008 documentary, Wu: The Story Of The Wu-Tang Clan, Bonz Malone, a writer at Spin magazine and A&R at Island Records said, “I’ve got to be totally honest, as much as I loved them dudes, I did not understand what they were trying to do,” he said. “I remember laughing like hell when [RZA] was telling me about Staten Island was Shaolin, and the name of the group is called Wu-Tang, and just what the ideology was.”

The organic nature of the group’s vision, remarkable cohesion of numerous emcees with distinctive voices and the unique bond of nine emcees from different (and often rival) neighborhoods made Wu-Tang Clan a truly unique entity in Hip Hop music’s history. And it all started with 36 Chambers.

Rather than put fourth a full piece on the impact of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) after 20 years of history, HipHopDX presents an oral history of the album, told by those who were there when it happened. We gathered quotes from interviews in years between the album’s inception and 2013 as well as hollered at a few people ourselves to get perspective on the album.

Bringing Da Ruckus: Wu-Tang Ideology

“My Wu-Tang slang is mad fucking dangerous/And more deadly than the stroke of an axe / Chopping through your back, giving bystanders heart-attacks.” – GZA/The Genius

Gary “GZA” Grice
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

GZA: “We used to go to the deuce and watch all the flicks...all the Kung Fu flicks all night, smoke bones, get drunk and just lounge out. We call it a sword-style ‘cause we’re lyrical assassins, and we’re aware that the tongue is symbolic to the sword, so we work with it like that.

“If you watch the flicks, it was always people running to Shaolin trying to start trouble or come in there with confusion where it was a place of peace. So, being that Shaolin is the mental, it’s like dealing with the thought. The thought we had to produce all this, it was a great thought and it was peaceful ‘cause it came from the mind. That’s what Shaolin is. Wu-Tang on that level is how we manifested it physically on wax, through records, so that’s basically what it’s about… Clan represents family, we all a family. It’s just like when you grow up in a household with your siblings or your brothers and sisters and y’all under one roof. You’re under your parents, and then as you get older, you got to spread out, you got to do your own thing—that’s what we doing.” [2]

Robert “RZA” Diggs
Producer/Rapper/Founder of the Wu-Tang Clan

RZA: “I recall telling GZA, ‘You’ll get the college crowd,’ because he’s the intellectual. Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas—their metaphors read like a police blotter. Meth will get the women and children, and he didn’t want to do women and children. He didn’t know that, though. Method Man is a rough, rugged street dude, but all the girls love him. Method Man is playful. Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock ‘n’ roll.

“I used the bus as an analogy. I said, ‘I want all of y’all to get on this bus and be passengers. I’m the driver, and nobody can ask me where we going. I’m taking us to number one. Give me five years, and I promise that I’ll get us there.’” [1]

Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’: Establishing Roles

“My hip-hop will rock and shock the nation / Like the Emancipation Proclamation.” – U-God

Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

U-God: “At the time I had did my two verses, I got locked up. I was kind of in the dugout, you know what I mean?”

“I did [my ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’] verse in 15 minutes ‘cause, to tell you the truth, I had to go walk into the jail. I knew I was going to jail, but before I went to jail RZA recorded me, and he said, ‘I want you to do that verse, and I want you to say it this way.’ So I did about 10 takes. He had me yelling my motherfucking lungs out; I didn’t know nothing about recording. He had me coming on all hard and shit. I got incarcerated, I came out and heard it and was like, ‘Wow, OK, he really doing this, that and the other, etc.’ When I came out, it became a cult classic. I was like, ‘Wow, for real?’ I was kind of shocked. ‘People like that shit? [laughs]’. I just took it for what it was, man. It was cool.

“Those two verses saved my life. RZA saved my life, and I could never go against that.”

Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan/Deceased November, 2004

Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Where I come from, in my neighborhood, my people know me. If I try to come any different, they aren’t going to respect me no more because people got that thing about themselves. If you come from that neighborhood, you couldn’t get out that neighborhood, but you could never take the neighborhood out of the people. But if you try to jump out and cross over to the other side, people don’t understand that. They don’t like that. That’s why they don’t be buying people’s music. See, we keeps it real; we always going to keep it real. This is Wu-Tang.”[3]

Jamel “Masta Killa” Arief
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

Masta Killa: “Wu-Tang was already a movement, and my brothers were doing it whether I decided to get my shit together or not. My brothers are ill emcees; RZA’s an ill producer. They were already doing them when I said, ‘Let me take this serious and write a verse for ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’. That’s when I decided to take it seriously, but my brothers had been taking it seriously. That’s why they were writing shit like, ‘Hey, you! Get off my cloud / You don’t know me and you don’t know my style.’ They were in the zone already. I’m looking at [Method Man] like, ‘Damn, that’s really how you feelin’?’ [Laughs] So I was like, ‘Damn, if I wanna take this serious and make a career out of it, I gotta buckle down and sharpen my shit up.’ Just the seriousness of even making a song back then was surreal. You’d come into the studio and everybody was there. There was only one beat though. Everybody can’t get on, because we can’t all make ‘Protect Ya Neck,’ so that means your shit has to be intriguing, witty and attractive enough to stay amongst everything else that’s here.

“It was [like] ‘Making the Band,’ for real. So if your shit ain’t sharp, then nah it ain’t makin’ it. That’s when you get a situation like ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ It was just Deck and Rae. Why? Because they killed it! They didn’t need anybody else on there. So yeah, you might be ill, nasty, but there’s no more room because it’s already been murdered. It’s dead already. Move on. You’re amongst a lot of talent. You can either give up or develop your talent to be able to hold your weight. [4]

Gerald “Gee Bee” Barclay
Film Producer/Director of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin” and “Method Man” videos

Gerald Barclay: “I remember shooting ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’ at the salt mine on Staten Island and convincing [Ghostface]. There’s a sequence in the place where Ghostface is in the bottom of the thing, we’re looking down at him and it’s literally the bottom of the building. There was water coming in because a boat went by. He had bought some new sneakers, and he was like, ‘Gee, you got me down here, and my shoes are about to get dirty. Hurry up and get the shot…’ It’s those type of things that was in the early stages. Now, it’s almost impossible to get ‘em [to do that] because the egos have grown, and it’s a different situation.” 

Protecting Ya Neck: Remembering The Early Days Of Wu-Tang  

“For crying out loud, my style is wild, so book me / Not long is how long that this rhyme took me / Ejecting styles from my lethal weapon / My pen that rocks from here to Oregon.” – Ghostface Killah

Dennis “Ghostface Killah” Coles
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

Ghostface Killah: “When the Wu first started, it was fresh to us. You had all the members. It was all different characters. It was a tight unit, and everybody was hilarious.

“Me, Cappadonna, Rae, RZA, Meth, Genius [GZA], Ol’ Dirty and U-God... I remember one time we battled each other before we was Wu-Tang Clan. [Regarding a Rap battle at a New York nightclub] Cap had fucked around and won the money, because he said the drug dealer’s name that had put the money up for the Rap battle. He had his name in the rhyme, and the crowd just went fuckin’ bananas when Cap said the dude’s name! He stepped off with the money though. But I never knew that one day we would become those members from Staten Island, that we’d be in one group…it was definitely crazy. It was really, really crazy.” [5]

U-God: “When we first dropped ‘Protect Ya Neck,’ I was kind of like, we was bugging, when we dropped ‘Mystery Of Chessboxin,’ we sold 150,000 copies. Then we was on the beach, ‘cause we had took a vacation because we were running around for so long. Steve Rifkind paid for us, ‘cause we had a show in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and we all took some vacation time out there. So we stayed like a week extra. We were sitting on the beach, we just finished filming ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and everything else was in the pocket, and then we had to do Arsenio Hall after Puerto Rico. But we were on the beach, sitting there talking, ‘Yo man, we got to make it, we got to do this, and we got to do that.’ We didn’t know it was going to take off. One thing’s for sure. Once we did Arsenio Hall and we dropped ‘C.R.E.A.M.,’ that was a wrap… That shit changed our lives.

“That verse is crazy. I think I was coming home from work one evening, and I was kind of rusty but I came home right before he was able to put the record out… With Dirty on there saying ‘Come home, baby baby come home, baby baby come home,’ he’s telling me to come on home ‘cause he knew I was incarcerated. I was talking to Dirty on the phone while I was locked up and shit.”

Gerald Barclay: “I forget the guy’s name, but they did the video [for ‘Protect Ya Neck’], and RZA called me and told me he was having problems with the guy. So, they took over the video, but I think they only gave him the one set of reel that had the timecode on it. So they didn’t know the difference between an offline version and online version, and they just went with it. I think once he did that cut, they decided they were going to keep it as it was, which ended up becoming a classic.”

Cash Ruled Everything Around Them

“A man with a dream with plans to make cream / Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen / A young buck selling drugs and such who never had much / Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch.” – Inspectah Deck

Jason “Inspectah Deck” Hunter
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

Inspectah Deck: “Yo, when you look at that line, I believed in everything I said because everything was coming straight from the heart. I went through that, yeah. I was 15, locked up like, ‘Yo, what the fuck, yo?’ Shit, I’m the only one in here too. I can’t look for no help. I got to hold myself down. Niggas is looking at my fresh New Balance, and niggas is looking at my Yankee hat. You know what I’m saying? I was hustling. I was in it. Yankee shirt...just rocking all the latest clothes. Me going to jail was like, ‘Damn, I’m a young nigga in here.’ So you got to learn quick. As a youngster, I had to grasp who I was. That’s when the respect was born. That was the nigga that shut up and just started analyzing things. When you got to pay attention to your situation and know what’s going on. I ain’t speak a word, but I know what time they use the phone and what they hours is. You know what I’m saying? You got to make observations and determine when to make moves, and that’s how I became respectful. I learned that, came home and that helped me learn how to survive on the streets.

“When I say, ‘Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough,’ man, I’m talking about me, myself. I grew up poor but we grew up happy as a family. We ain’t have shit, but we was always cool about not having shit at that period and time. My mom was working, doing her thing, but I look at other cats that used to come to my house and used to come play with my toys. We only had about two or three of them shits, but these niggas had none. So they over at my house everyday, and it’s just like, as a shorty, you might be dealing with, your father’s a fucking career criminal, your mom’s on drugs. You ain’t got no discipline. You up all night, and you seeing shit you ain’t supposed to see. Niggas is blowing cigarette smoke in your face, weed in your face, fucking, and you just a 10-year-old or 11-year-old. You get to see all that...way ahead of your time.”

M-E-T-H-O-D Man: The Visual Chamber

“I am, the one and only Method Man / The master of the plan wrappin’ shit like Saran.”– Method Man

Gerald Barclay: “We went out and shot the ‘Method Man’ video, and then MTV said it was too raw and they forced me to shoot a second version. So I shot two versions of it…I loved ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin,’ and RZA was like, ‘OK, we’ll cut you a deal. If you do the other version of ‘Method Man’ for MTV, then we’ll do the other one,’ and it worked out well.”

“We shot the ‘Method Man’ video at a place I used to work at called Liberty Studios, and it was an instance where all of them were together. Meth had the only vocals on the song, but I shot them all together. They were all sitting against a white background, and we shot that sequence at the studio, but O.D.B. left his wallet, and it was like, ‘Hey, somebody dropped a wallet.’ But they were all gone, so when I opened it up, I saw a driver’s license, and that’s when I found out what his real name was. So I called RZA and was like, ‘Hey, [O.D.B. left his wallet].’ He came by to pick it up. He had newborn pictures of his kids in his wallet, and his daughter was in there too. I just became a father too, so we sat down and had a discussion about parenting. And these are not the type of things that you see a crazy guy like O.D.B. doing. So we sat down and talked about becoming first-time parents in our twenties, and it was an interesting conversation. It was a very interesting time for all of us, and looking back at it, I didn’t realize how special it was.”

Clifford “Method Man” Smith
Rapper/Member of Wu-Tang Clan

Method Man: “I was surprised [36 Chambers] sounded the way it did, because nobody had heard it until it was done, and I was surprised. I had a few cringe moments on there… But I was like, ‘This motherfucker made a fucking album. Wow. ‘Cause up to that point we was playin.’”

“It was funny ‘cause [RZA] had his whole family in [his home], but it didn’t matter. It was about music then. A lot of people sacrificed a lot to get where we at now.”[6]

Can It Be All So Simple?

“Started off on the island, AKA Shaolin / Niggas wilin', gun shots thrown, the phone dialin'.” – Raekwon The Chef

Raekwon: “One thing about RZA is that he lived in his basement. He had his kids up at the top, and he would always be down in his basement. I guess at the time he was just chillin’ down there. He wouldn’t wash up or nothing, hair all crazy [but] he was in the zone. I came down there, he played that beat and I think we had done ‘Criminology’ the night before. So that’s what made me come back the next day, because we was in the zone. And once he put the beat on, it was like my mind just started moving like a machine again, and I recorded to what I felt. And he was like, ‘Yo, you need a hook,’ and automatically I was thinking about all the people that was not around us no more—all our friends. We was losing a lot of our friends at that time, getting caught up, getting incarcerated. And at the time, Scarface, that movie, it was a drug dealer bible back then. So I was like, I want to talk about the cats that, I’m going to make this hook dedicated to cats that’s not here, but still let them know they here.” [7]

Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit

“I be tossing and flossing my style is awesome / I’m causing more Family Feuds than Richard Dawson.” – RZA

Darryl “Cappadonna” Hill
Rapper/Current member and former affiliate of Wu-Tang Clan

Cappadonna: “Basically, we just strong-armed the industry with what we had, ‘cause they definitely wasn’t trying to let us in. We got a couple people to listen to it with the stuff that we made. I wasn’t a part of the first signing because I was locked up. We was hustling before that… The magic that we did on the Rap tip was created in the hood man. It all stemmed from where we come from.”

RZA: “If you keep eating McDonald's, you gonna get sick. You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that’s what Wu-Tang was: It was a home-cooked meal of Hip Hop...pf the real people.” [1]

 

[1] Taken from Frannie Kelley’s “The Wu-Tang Clan’s 20-Year Plan.” NPR. Published April 8, 2013.

[2] Taken from YouTube user Vinny141’s “OLD Wu-Tang Clan Interview part 1.” Uploaded on February 7, 2008. 

 

[3] Taken from YouTube user Vinny141’s “OLD Wu-Tang Clan Interview part 2.” Uploaded on February 7, 2008.

 

[4] Taken from Greg Watkins’ “Masta Killa: A Brooklyn State of Mind.” AllHipHop. Published September 4, 2006.

 

[5] Taken from Andres Vasquez’ “Ghostface Killah Says ‘Illmatic’ Made Him ‘Step His Pen Game Up.’” HipHopDX. Published May 30, 2013.

[6] Taken from Grantland Channel’s video “Method Man Tells His Origin Story” Grantland. Published November 8, 2013.

[7] Taken from Redbull’s “In Conversation With Wu-Tang Clan: The Making of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” Filmed by YouTube user Lya Pouleyy. Uploaded on April 4, 2012.

 

RELATED: RZA Reveals How He Applied Making "Only Built For Cuban Linx..." To Making "The Man With The Iron Fists"

 

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