For a classic hip-hop group, Wu-Tang Clan has remained surprisingly relevant, but not due to any new music the group has released — not to the public, at least. In 2015, they famously auctioned off the only pressing of their long-awaited LP, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, to the highest bidder, who turned out to be none other than felon, "pharma bro," and real-life villain Martin Shkreli. By paying the princely sum of $2 million, Shkreli turned that one copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin into the most valuable individual album in history. (However, he recently sold it on eBay for about half the price.)
Whether the record is actually any good is up for speculation. Wu-Tang's newest release — The Saga Continues, which leader/producer RZA quietly premiered on Beats 1 Radio — clearly tries to be a throwback to the good old days, complete with samples from goofy kung-fu movies, but is a mere shadow of the group in top form on albums such as Wu-Tang Forever and The W. With the exception of the standout track "People Say," which knocks pretty damn hard, their music no longer sounds like a collection of many theatrical personalities; it sounds like a chore for the clan to come together these days. That perception is probably amplified by the fact that the group's endless and ugly internal beefs have become much more public in the internet age. It's easy to find out that, say, member U-God is suing his clan colleagues for unpaid royalties.
But at this point, their legacy is far more important than any new music they drop or whether RZA and Raekwon are on speaking terms. If you're looking for Wu-Tang Clan's greatest contribution to the game, look no further than the seminal group's 1993 debut album. Much has been written about the cultural importance of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a landmark in the era of hip-hop known as the East Coast Renaissance that shifted mainstream attention away from West Coast G-funk, solidified a global fan base for gangsta rap, and paved the way for now-legendary figures such as Jay-Z, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and Mobb Deep.
But Enter the Wu-Tang has meant even more to every rapper who's approached a mike since the album dropped. Its influence still reverberates to this day.
Let's begin with sound. The record was cut on a tight budget at Firehouse Studio in New York, where the sound booth was often packed with up to eight of the nine clan members at once. The resulting recordings are decidedly rough around the edges, featuring messy drum programming and bottom-of-the-barrel sound quality (see the nostalgia-inducing masterpiece "Can It Be All So Simple"). It's a glorious cacophony of human error, the gritty antithesis of commercial rap's glossy plastic packaging. Sure, underground rap existed prior to 36 Chambers, but the album created a broader fan base for lo-fi rappers who emerged later in the '90s, such as Sage Francis, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Atmosphere.
Sonically speaking, the ethos of 36 Chambers is a bizarre blend of Eastern philosophy picked up from kung-fu movies and RZA's eerie, soul-heavy sampling. RZA created something novel, but his approach to beatmaking has been emulated many times over by everyone from Mobb Deep to Kanye West. (Let's not forget that the late, great Ol' Dirty Bastard was drunkenly interrupting awards ceremonies well before Kanye made it obnoxiously clear that he, like, super needs attention.)
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The album's lyrical legacy is equally vast. Most of the songs are at once harshly explicit, boastful to the point of being cartoonish, and really funny. Take, for instance, these lyrics from Method Man as he raps on the eternally banging "Method Man": "Take it from me, hey G, you don't amaze me/Shot me at point-blank range but only grazed me/Nothing mental, just plain and simple/Lyrics you bust couldn't bust a fucking pimple." This sort of free-association wordplay became the new standard for gangsta rap in the mid- and late '90s. Eminem surely took some cues from Wu-Tang Clan when he adopted the over-the-top persona of Slim Shady and rapped about fantasizing about murder, stealing his mom's Vicodin, and "beating up Foghorn Leghorn with an acorn."
And though there are notable exceptions, multisyllabic rhyming patterns weren't all that prevalent in hip-hop before Wu-Tang's debut. The East Coast, especially, was still stuck on Kool G Rap's basic flows, but as Pitchfork's Rollie Pemberton noted while naming Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) one of the 50 greatest albums of the '90s, the record "bridged the gap between traditional old-school sensibilities and the technical lyricism of today."
Really, that's what the album represents — a seismic shift in the way rappers rap, the way producers make beats, and how hip-hop presents itself as an art form. The group's squabbles and Shkrelis of the world will come and go, but Wu-Tang's influence will live on well after its members sheath the Shaolin swords for good.