Born in 1980 and raised in the transitioning uppermost part of the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a black best friend, I experienced 90’s hip-hop as the soundtrack to my adolescence.
And while the goldenest year of hip-hop’s golden age is a subjective question and thus remains a matter of fierce debate, for me the year was 1993.
That November. Snoop Dogg debuted his first solo album: the brilliant, playful, and braggadocios Doggystyle while Tribe Called Quest perfected their witty, gently political, and hypnotic sound with Midnight Marauders.
And nine wise men from Staten Island and Brooklyn formed like Voltron and introduced me and everyone else who gave a damn about hip-hop to the Wu-Tang Clan.
I was late to the game.
I heard Method Man (the song about and by the the artist of the same name) and Protect Ya Neck (a full Clan outing) in February of 1994, on a two-sided cassette single one of my friends had picked up.
With a small dose of Method Man’s scratchy, raspy, cocky, and entrancing flow and the rugged street news from the whole Clan on Protect Ya Neck, I knew for sure that the whole 12-track LP was going to be the anthem of my Spring Break…a 7-day trip to Ecuador.
Preparing for that trip, I hustled to the Broadway and 72nd street branch of a long-deceased record store called HMV to purchase Wu-Tang’s Enter The 36 Chambers on cassette tape.
But instead of grabbing the full album, I somehow managed to buy a “maxi-single” of just two of their songs: C.R.E.A.M. and Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.
Unlike regular singles, see, which came wrapped in cardboard sleeves and would be impossible to mistake for a full-length album, maxi-singles came in the same hard-plastic jewel cases of their multi-track counterparts.
A boneheaded move.
Better, I didn’t realize the mistake until I was on my international flight to Quito. So instead of 12 Wu-Tang tracks, I had two, along with three “alternate” versions of both: the curse-free, the beats-only, and the a cappella cuts with the beats dropped off.
I could not fathom how those two tracks and their surplus bonuses were supposed to carry me for seven full days on a school-affiliated trip to Ecuador with a group of classmates who were not my close friends and an equal number of intimidating 6th grade girls.
I spent most of that 13 hour plane ride and many of the long bus trips we took in Quito and the mountains surrounding it learning about Inspectah Deck’s struggles with stick up kids, corrupt cops, stray shots and crack rocks.
I was bullied by peers whom I called friends from 5th-7th grade, so even though I had never spent time handcuffed in the back of a bus, and there were less than 40 of us on the particular bus I was on, I nodded when Deck said that life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough.
And when I encountered the scale of the poverty in Quito–a place where “dirt poor,” takes literal form–I could not argue with the assertion that Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
But it was not all despair and hard realities.
On the maxi-single’s flip side, I also discovered that the game of chess is like a sword fight, because in both, you must think first before you move.
With Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, I was introduced to an unhinged, frenetic, yet remarkably clever rapper with epic amounts of heart named Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who himself introduced me to the Ghostface Killah.
The whole the clan showed up for that song. All nine of ’em: The RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killer, and the Method Man.
With just those two Wu songs, I caught a hot glimpse of a parallel universe: the dark ghetto streets of 1980s and early 90s New York City, recast as stark reflections of feudal China — complete with the Kung Fu masters’ quiet nobility, codes of honor, and never ending struggles against men and women who lacked both.
In between sessions with the RZA’s grimy beats in my flimsy plastic headphones, I also found my first small taste of self-esteem: one of the 6th grade girls on the trip told me that each of them maintained lists of the cutest boys among our cohort, and that I held the top spot on nearly all of them.
I even worked up the courage to ask the girl I found most beautiful to be my girlfriend, even though I suspected (correctly, it would turn out) my bullies back at school would mock me for robbing the cradle of the 6th grade from the creepy old man’s position of the 7th.
The sense of self-assuredness I experienced would not begin to blossom for another couple years, but on that 7th grade trip to Ecuador, with two Wu-Tang joints in my ears, girls telling me I was cute on the daily, and my biggest crush saying yes to a date when I was sure she’d say no, the counterargument to my self-doubts and insecurities made its opening gambit.
Not a bad run for a maxi-single, even if I had to fast forward past Raekown’s a cappella raps what felt like a hundred times.
And I still had the rest of the 36 Chambers ahead.
Wu-Tang’s debut album would become (and remain) one of my all-time “must listen” records, from the age of 14 on through to the day I’m writing this, at 37. It’s one of those things that forges an instant connection.
New friend or potential business partner knows this album? Instant status upgrade in my rewards program. Potential romantic partner can rap along wtih Bring Da Ruckus or C.R.E.A.M? I crush so hard I feel faint.
These days, I spend most of my listening time on podcasts, and when I do focus on music, it’s electronic beats from the likes of Pretty Lights and Emancipator, old-old-old-school jams from Mozart, Pergo Lesi, and Beethoven, and some select hip-hop.
But every so often, I like to take a trip down memory lane, put away all the other genres for a few weeks, and re-immerse myself in the hip-hop of 1993–1996.
It used to be a unambiguously glorious trip.
And today, I can still put on Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Nas’s Illmatic, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, or Fugees’s The Score, press play, and experience something close to bliss.
But as I’ve grown closer to 40 and further away from the naive, happy-go-lucky, sometimes moody, puppy-lover of a teenager I was from 13–16, my experience of my favorite albums of 1993 has changed the most.
The casual, unreflective, and near-complete misogyny on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle has not aged well at all. And while I still admire the inventiveness and effortless elegance of Snoop’s flows and the head-nodding’ness of Dre’s beats, I now find parts of the album painful to listen to…and not for reasons I want to find a piece of art painful.
I have no such caustic reactions to the give-and-take between Q-Tip and Phife on Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, and I still nod my head to Ali Shaheed Mohammad’s beats.
And yet, up against all the breakthrough rappers who have come since–like Eminem and Kendrick Lamar–Q-Tip’s lyricism does not stand out. And Phife (may he Rest In Peace) could never claim to be a verbal heavyweight.
Most of the warmth I feel in my chest when I listen to those albums–two of the definitive scores to my adolescence and young adulthood–is nostalgia for the awe-inspring newness of life I was experiencing when I first had them in my regular rotation.
But 25 years later, Wu-Tang’s Enter The 36 Chambers still feels brand new.
If that album dropped tomorrow from up in the sky above the clouds and no one had ever heard a peep from the nine Wu-Tang wise men beforehand, this first outing would land with an epic, Earth-soaking splash.
The last time I listened to it from end to end I thought about how this could be possible.
And I think it’s because Wu-Tang’s first and greatest album as a collective is still the truth.
In every verse from every rapper on every one of the album’s 12 tracks, the desperation to break out of the street life trap is unmistakable.
Wu-Tang’s urgency and hunger plays against the equally-audible excitement that with their lyrical gifts, their hustle, and RZA’s breakthrough beats, these nine men had finally found it…the door that opens the other doors.
But as clear and authentic as it is, the hunger to escape the ghetto is not unique to the Wu’s sound. It’s kinda everywhere in rap.
So the lasting impact of the Wu-Tang wisdom arises because they extended far beyond articulating what would become standard themes. Wu-Tang took the gangsta rap narratives and elevated them to myth.
This was RZA’s genius: He built his beats around dubbed audio samples from 1970s and 80’s Kung Fu flicks while the whole Clan created an insider dialect that blended their own feudal Chinese metaphors with the slang of The Five Percent Nation.
In the Wu-Tang slang, Staten Island became “Shaolin” — the Chinese home of one of the oldest and more spiritually-grounded versions of Kung-Fu. In Five Percent lingo, Black men and women become “Gods and Earths.”
The result transforms the hard knock life of the ghetto into something much more subtle than a depot of misery, oppression, and bitterness. In Wu-Tang’s telling, the ghetto becomes an epic struggle between nobility, honor, and wisdom on the Wu-Tang side and treachery, corruption, and the darkness of ignorance on the other.
A less passionate observer might say that Enter The 36 Chambers is still fresh because Wu-Tang’s vision and slang made it nearly impossible to imitate.
After all, anyone can copy stories, borrow lyrical styles, and reuse rhymes. But it’s much harder for other rappers to duplicate a whole parallel world and bolt it onto their own.
But to me, that is a short sale, and here’s why:
Wu-Tang took the despair and anguish of living around stray shots, corrupt cops, and crack rocks and spun it into a whole altnerative universe, a mythical reality of their own making.
RZA, GZA, Rae, Ghost, Deck, Meth, ODB, Masta Killa, and U-God: these men crafted a story where they got to be the Kung-Fu masters–beacons of heat, light, and truth in this cold dark world of lies.
And it worked.
Along with Chessboxin’s too-often ignored admonition to “think first, before you move,” Enter The 36 Chambers illuminates the insight that at any time, we can turn our pains and struggles and setbacks into the scenes from our own personal hero’s journey.
The Wu-Tang slang reminds us that we always have the choice to spin misery into gold.
That slang is more than dangerous.
It’s love. It’s life. And it will never get played out.