Document examines the influence of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 25 years after its debut.
But yo, the Wu, the Wu got somethin’
That I know that everybody wanna hear
‘Cause I know I’ve been waitin’ to hear
You know what I’m sayin’?
But straight up and down, ‘til we get the goal
We gon’ keep goin’
-Raekwon on Can It Be All So Simple/Intermission
Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but it wasn’t until 1993 that the forgotten borough of Staten Island served as the setting for the birth of contemporary East Coast rap. In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan, a crew of lyrical assassins and explosive producers, released their groundbreaking debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), ushering in a new wave of hip hop which revolved around playful lyrics and sample-heavy, gritty production. The group was initially founded by three cousins—Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russel Tyrone Jones, or RZA, GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Surrounding the core three were six charismatic MCs—Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Method Man. The Wu-Tang Clan hailed from the Stapleton Projects in Northeast Staten Island which they called Shaolin (both “Wu-Tang” and “Shaolin” are references to the 1983 Kung Fu film, Shaolin and the Wu Tang, a film that the Clan adopted and adorned as a signature image). Recorded at Firehouse Studio in New York City, the album did well on its initial release, peaking at 41 on the Billboard top 200; singles such as Protect Ya Neck and C.R.E.A.M. were being played on radios and cassette tapes across the five boroughs. However, it was not until 1995, when the album was awarded platinum status, that 36 Chambers and the Wu-Tang Clan received nationwide critical acclaim.
On the 25th anniversary of its release, now universally canonized as a classic, we can see exactly how influential 36 Chambers was and continues to be in evolving the genre of hip hop. In 1993 East Coast rap was still developing; Biggie had yet to release his debut, Ready to Die, and Nas had yet to debut his famed Illmatic. West coast hip hop dominated the charts. Buttery lyrics, smooth synths, and polished, hifi production comprised that signature sound. It only takes a quick listen to the opening bars to see that 36 Chambers would be much different. Kung Fu allusions, R&B samples, and comedic skits were mixed together, forming the chaotic and riveting beats, while the emcees weave in and out, each channeling their distinct characters into flagrant and energetic raps. Nothing sounds polished. The album transitions between lyrically dense solo performances, colloquial conversations, and floating free-associations. The album sounds unfinished; there’s moments when an emcee misses a beat, or raps slightly offkey. What would have been cut or filtered on the West Coast captivated New York and eventually the country. Glimpses of errors revealed the men beneath their aliases, relatable characters and personified emotions and moods. The raw, human quality of the group was unique and undeniably powerful.
It wasn’t long until the rest of the hip-hop community followed. Within a year scores of East Coast rappers emerged. Big L, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, and Mobb Deep all exploded on to the scene, solidifying the East Coast sound that the Wu-Tang Clan established in 1993.
36 Chambers was released on Loud Records, as did their following albums which all received quick critical acclaim. The Wu-Tang Clan’s takeover continued partially because of the unique way in which their contracts were structured. While the Clan as a whole was signed to Loud Records, each individual member was contractually allowed to release solo projects on whichever label they preferred. The result was monumental. Of the nine initial members of the Clan, RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard all released platinum-caliber records, making the Wu-Sound a staple on the East Coast, and forever changing how recording contracts were structured. It’s not often that we’re presented with the specific moment that something changes. The 1993 release of 36 Chambers is one of those rare moments; nine men, influenced the scene with their wit and relentless motivation. The Wu-Tang Clan did not just put Staten Island on the map—they solidified New York as a cultural hub for the genre.