Rap music is often fun when it has a sence of humor. Digital Underground and the Pharside managed to be funny and funky at a time when studio gangstas were taking themselves too seriously. During the early 1990s progressive minded West Coast acts like N.W.A. and Digital Underground were becoming the dominant force in rap.
East Coast rap on the other hand was in something of a creative decline. That was until RZA, Ghostface Killa, Cappadonna, Method Man and others got together to form Wu-Tang Clan (WTC). Like many West Coast rappers, WTC combined elements of humor, but maintained the scary street cred that made the timid cross the street when faced with passing a ghetto negro on a sidewalk.
Produced by clan’s leader RZA, WTC’s Enter the Wu-Tang from 1993, used snippets from various Kung Fu films from the 1970s and obscure R&B samples to create a spooky, raw and funky collection of songs about ghetto (fantasy) life. Unlike the straightforward samples used in the past, RZA incorporated sound elements into the music as another instrument, often with phrases from films becoming the chorus.
With rappers as diverse as Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Ghostface Killa, WTC had experimental arrangements that re-imagined the formerly hard East Coast rappers as supernatural martial arts deities. It was a brilliant concept, only hinted to by individual member’s solo projects. When it all came together with Wu-Tang, it introduced a new dynamic in raps urban fantasy narrative.
As cartoonish and potentially silly as the concept sounded, it connected well with a community that still remembered going downtown to see the latest kung fu films at the dollar theater. It’s a wonder no one really put the two themes together in rap before to the extent Wu-Tang did with Enter the Wu-Tang.
In keeping with that theme, many of the songs played out like soundtracks to silly dramas. The album’s title came from the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and stayed close to that film’s subject matter. Despite the funny snippets taken out of context, the overall feel is one of a hard gangster rap sound – a new counterpart to the often silly and whimsical nature of pop oriented West Coast rap trying to pass itself off as hard..
There were moments where melodic samples fused with straightforward rap to create what could almost pass for pop songs. The familiar sound of Gladys Knights voice on ‘Can It Be All So Simple’ was my favorite track. The song would later reminded me of Ghostface Killah’s excellent solo album Ironman three years later where many songs featured ‘60s era R&B samples.
Other songs like the single ‘Method Man’ wrapped references to Hall and Oates ‘Method of Modern Love’ into an old school rap.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) would not only become enormously successful commercially, despite having just a few charting singles. The albums real impact would be its influence and rejuvenation of East Coast Rap.