In about a week’s time, Staten Island’s best-known hip-hop group is scheduled to play Seattle’s Showbox SoDo. That would of course be the Wu-Tang Clan, the nine (or so) member crew responsible in the early 1990s for causing a young Chul Gugich (that’s me) to want to stomp in Timberland boots all across his home town of Lopez Island, Washington in the San Juan archipelago.
This new affinity in footwear was a departure from the regularly-maintained Nike status quo, and the irony here is that Timbs were actually the pragmatic choice for shoes in the Islands. The reason being the majority of the rural landscape was draped in perpetually rain-soaked dirt and grass, the environmental counterpoint to the cracked pavement and concrete that ensconced the Wu’s home field. Which, I’ll remind you again, also happens to be an island. As it turns out, the Wu and I were perfect for each other.
As it was with other adolescents sharing physical and cultural lights years from New York City, my initial exposure to the mighty “W” was by way of a person, a non-native to the very insular world I grew up in. I’ll call him “Jeremy M.” (Because that was actually his name.) Jeremy brought two things foreign to the minuscule farming community of Lopez: Unusual height for the high school basketball team (dude was like six-five, a bona fide giant among a group of very regular-sized teenage boys); and secret knowledge of hip-hop music that extended beyond the limited scope of what was covered by Seattle’s mainstream “urban” radio station (when you could get a signal) and network television (cable was a luxury familiar only to the gilded “off-islanders”). Friday Night Videos on NBC was my shit but, as it turns out, LL Cool J was not the only rapper doing big things in New York City.
Jeremy M. spun albums in his Discman like Black Moon’s Enta da Stage, Outkast’s Southernplayalistic and, of course, Wu’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Thanks to the ubiquitous BMG and Columbia Music record clubs (the iTunes of the early 90s) I was familiar with all the titles but not the defining characteristics that made each group special. Getting hip required the laborious task of affixing various stickers to designated boxes, acquiring a check or money order (usually at least twenty dollars for a single record), bugging my mom for a postage stamp, and then waiting four to six weeks for the actual CD to appear in the mail. 36 Chambers had to traverse literally thousands of miles over land and bodies of water before it arrived to me, pristine and wrapped in plastic, the way I still prefer to receive new music.
The expression on my grill the first time I spun through 36 Chambers could best be described as “quizzical.” The Wu aesthetic was adorned with an entirety of left-of-center idiosyncrasies, not least of all the RZA’s off-kilter production, a perfect imperfection of boom-bap stitched together with Kung Fu sound effects. The Golden Era’s predominantly straight-forward modes of percussion were effectively jarred out of alignment and rendered by the Wu into pure kinetic energy. RZA tilted the sonic playing field so that every MC in his crew sounded like they were rapping on a slanted stage, and remarkably every one managed to keep his lyrical balance. My ears were accustomed to the in-the-pocket jazz inflections of albums like The Low End Theory and A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, so there was nothing familiar for me to hold on to when tracks like “Clan in Da Front” and “Bring Da Ruckus” blared through my speakers. The first time I heard real jazz music was sitting in my childhood barber’s chair getting my hair cut (probably into an interminable and psychologically damaging bowl-shaped ‘do). I don’t remember exactly how I felt about the music, only that I couldn’t keep my brain from processing it. The RZA’s own version of free-form hip-hop on 36 Chambers (call it “Project Jazz”) affected the same response: I didn’t even know if I liked it or not, I just knew that I couldn’t stop listening.
Nearly 18 and a half years later, I’m still listening. Various members of the Clan have achieved legendary hip-hop status outside of the crew, settling into well-defined roles that were still being birthed when 36 Chambers dropped almost two decades ago. Of course one key member is dead, which sadly — but somehow fittingly — adds to the group’s mystique.
It’s also important to note that my current home is the same concrete-ensconced jungle in which the Wu-Tang Clan originally came up. I still wear Timberland boots, but they’re no longer caked with the physical grime accumulated on numerous walks from my front door to the family’s dirt covered driveway. The heft on my feet is borne from the New York City hustle now, a fundamental state of being familiar to the over eight million other residents who I share close space with. I ride the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and back again as a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, an escape as inherent and vital as the one I found in the Wu’s music as a teenager. “Shaolin,” the physicality, is no longer a mystery to me, but I’m happy to report that that hasn’t changed the intrinsic value of the music.
If the mark of great artwork is the forever embedded curiosity derived from experiencing it, then consider 36 Chambers a classic piece of Americana. I suppose that’s a lofty condition in which to place such raw and guttural material, but not everything we hold close to us is pretty, or familiar, all of the time. For heads who have a similar affinity for the Wu, it’s easy to share the same sentiment: This music was, and always will be, “Nothin’ to fuck with.”
Get Keyed on this:
“Get No Better” – Clear Soul Forces
Detroit upstarts Clear Soul Forces are preparing their first official release, Detroit Revolution(S) (due March 13). This clip for “Get No Better” best illustrates the sheer energy and lyrical ability that the four-man crew is capable of. You know those uncommonly talented college freshmen basketball players who careen around the court with reckless abandon, dropping twenty five, thirty points a night, but who also constantly turn the ball over and get themselves stuck underneath the basket with nowhere to go? Yeah, that’s Clear Soul Forces. With a little focus and discipline, we could be looking at the next rap All-Americans.
“None Left” – Bambu (produced by Josh the Goon)
Don’t ever worry about Los Angeles’ Bambu censoring himself for the sake of album sales or greater name recognition. Dude’s on a bigger mission. Here the MC goes in against banks in the militant fashion to which fans have become accustomed. The MC is now affiliated with Soul Assassins and is featured on the upcoming DJ Muggs project, Bass for Your Face. His own One Rifle Per Family is due soon.
“Crickets” – Moka Only (produced by Chief)
Vancouver’s Moka Only and Switzerland’s Chief teamed up for last year’s well-received Crickets. The video for the title track was shot in Lausanne, Switzerland. (I originally mistook it for the lookout on top of Sehome Hill in Bellingham, Washington, but Moka corrected me via Twitter.) The MC and producer either spent the greater part of the shooting day catching a bunch of the eponymous bugs of the title, or they paid a few Swiss francs to the local bait and tackle shop for a bag of ’em. Either way, it’s an odd but totally refreshing look.