Tanya Tagaq: Animism (pt. 1)

tagaq

Dear Matt:

This week, you’re getting an album that I have absolutely no idea how you will respond to. Seriously, this could go to either extreme. Because Tanya Tagaq is not an artist who inspires bland indifference. Your assignment is Animism, Tagaq’s much remarked-upon third album. You know this album by reputation from its historic Polaris Prize win, where it beat two of Canada’s most significant musical exports: Drake and Arcade Fire. Rightly so.

What you’ll be hearing is, in my view, one of the most remarkable musical fusions in recent years. What I hear on Animism is a blend of industrial electronica and noise art, with a generous dash of free jazz and — most crucially — a variant of Inuit throat singing that only one person in the world can do.

As you’ll know if you’ve read anything in the Canadian music press in the last two years, Tagaq is an Inuk icon. Her vocal technique is derived from a traditional style of throat singing where two women face each other and sing together. Tagaq’s innovation was finding a way to produce those sounds on her own. And, you know, incorporating them into industrial music.

Tagaq is an intensely political artist and an eloquent commentator on aboriginal issues. (The tweets she sent out after the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission came out are an education in themselves.) As such, most of what’s been written about her music has focussed on the political elements of her art. That’s a valid and important approach to take — far be it from me to sideline that aspect of what Tagaq does.

But the side effect of that approach is that Tagaq sometimes doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a musician and an aesthete. The fact that Tagaq’s music relates deeply to her heritage and the current political struggles facing aboriginal peoples in Canada is a significant part of why she and Animism are great. But it’s also just massively good music, when you’re in the right headspace for it. It’s got drama and tension and changes mood on a dime. It’s brilliantly paced, with slow burns and payoffs strategically distributed throughout. And it has that timbral variety I was talking about last week.

So: a bit on what you can expect to hear.

Animism is anchored around a central trio of musicians: Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drum virtuoso Jean Martin. There’s all sorts of stuff piled on top of them on most tracks: industrial-sounding synths on ‘Uja,’ operatic vocals by Anna Pardo Canedo on ‘Flight,’ horns and strings on the Pixies cover that the album starts with for some reason. (It really is a fantastic cover, though. One of those ones that nearly makes the original obsolete.)

But for me, the most satisfying moments on the album are on tracks like ‘Tulugak’ and ‘Damp Animal Spirits,’ where you get to hear the central trio performing basically unadorned improvisations. Tagaq is always in the lead, but the other two are always doing something interesting, too. Martin in particular gives one of the most entrancing drum performances I’ve heard in awhile.

Animism is not an album that goes out of its way to be likeable, much to its credit. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself loving it all the same. I think you will too, at least in parts. But I could be wrong. This is way the hell out there. Channel the part of yourself that thinks that ‘Night Swim’ is good music and you should be fine.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 2)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matt:

Alright. It’s past midnight on a Saturday; I slept in this morning; I’ve been idly passing the time all day. Basically, feeling great. Time to pour myself a wee dram of the Glenmorangie and check out these Science Siblings you keep going on about. Okay. (Ah, that’s nice scotch.) Going to start this right now.

***

Holy crap.

Well, I’m staggered. That had everything. Seriously, what doesn’t this album have? I’m glad you had me watch the video, because it only added to the sensory overload. There’s a famous editorial cartoon about Mahler (my favourite composer, you’ll recall) that I suspect is relevant here:

mahler-cartoon-1907

(The caption reads, approximately: ‘My god! I forgot to include the kitchen sink! I’d better write another symphony.’)

There is nothing I appreciate more than complete sensory overload. That is a characteristic that’s common across my whole taste profile, from music to movies to radio programs. To demonstrate how deep it goes, and by extension how well Further worked on me, I need to engage in a little musical autobiography. Bear with me.

The first music that I remember liking, way back when I was too young to make musical choices for myself and I just heard whatever my parents had on, was always either dominated by orchestras or synthesizers. It was slim pickings for orchestral music: usually either Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks or Yanni Live at the Acropolis — music that I categorically rejected as soon as I discovered Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. (I remain ashamed enough of these early taste indiscretions that I can’t even bear to link to Lloyd Webber or Yanni. This speaks more negatively about me than about either of them, I suspect.)

But the synthesizer selections were immediately more promising: I remember an immediate affinity for Vangelis — particularly his collaborations with Jon Anderson — and for Rick Wakeman. This led swiftly to an obsession with Yes, and subsequently to my entire adolescent identity.

But the thing that those early fascinations pointed towards — even the inauspicious pop orchestral stuff — was an obsession with what I’ll call timbral variety. The orchestral music had scores of different instruments with their own unique sounds working in tandem. The synthesizer music seemed to work towards the same goal with different tools. There was a ‘muchness’ to it, even when it was subtle and quiet.

And most of the music that I’ve intuitively loved over the years shares that same muchness. Prog was always partially defined by its expansion of the typical rock ensemble to include racks of keyboards, wind sections, auxiliary percussion and tape. Psychedelia is almost wholly defined by its sonic variety. The jazz I like tends not to be quartets and quintets, but rather stuff like Mingus, or electric Miles. And my preference in classical music has always been for huge orchestras used judiciously in the vein of Mahler, or indeed John Luther Adams.

Radiohead. Amon Tobin. Kanye. CHVRCHES.

It’s only comparatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate music that operates with a smaller sonic palate: old-school rock, string quartets, combo jazz. And yes, punk.

I hadn’t heard the Chemical Brothers before, and I’m not at all well-versed in techno. All the same, listening to Further really felt like home. I may not have a tumultuous summer of 2010 to look back on, but I do have an entire life story scored by sonically massive, grandiose music like this. It felt like a walk through all of the elements I have ever appreciated in music in the past. I’m reminded of my brief dalliance with Tangerine Dream, much to my friends’ confusion. I’m reminded of the period when old Yes records were the centre of my universe. I’m reminded of the hours spent listening to Vangelis as a child and thinking ‘how does one guy make all those sounds?’

And the trip down memory lane culminates in an insight — a minor one, but an insight nonetheless: music has been the central throughline of my life because of its capacity to overwhelm.

The Chemical Brothers overwhelmed me. Basically, feeling great.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 1)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matthew:

It’s time for some more bleeps and bloops.

Earlier this summer, one of my favourite bands, the Chemical Brothers, put out a new record. It’s OK, I guess. It’s not bad. It’s got some great moments. But it didn’t floor me like the last time they put out a new album. That album came out in 2010, and it was called Further.

The Manchurian duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons first turned heads in the early 90s as the Dust Brothers. But, since there was already an American production duo called the Dust Brothers, they swapped the Dust for Chemicals, and went on to basically invent a style of electronic music production that dominated the genre for the rest of the decade. They combined the more acidic, psychedelic aspects of electronic music with the sampling aesthetic of hip hop — hypnotic, spacey synths married with soul and funk samples and big, bombastic drums in a way that really hadn’t been done before. The style came to be called ‘big beat’, and it was everywhere. Think Fatboy Slim, think the Prodigy… basically, think the soundtrack to every video game and sci-fi movie from your childhood. You have the Chemical Brothers to thank (blame?).

They were also at the fore of the trend of electronic groups working with big-name guest vocalists from often completely disparate genres — perhaps most notably on the 1996 single that put them on the map, the absolutely bonkers ‘Setting Sun‘, which featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame*. This, combined with their genre-bending and often quite heavy sound, gave them (and others like them) a crossover appeal that electronic music didn’t really have before — it was now ‘OK’ for rock fans to listen to techno. (Or at least, techno that sounded like ‘Setting Sun’. Oof. That song still kicks my ass.) It also gave them a huge sonic palette to work with — they could be raw and abrasive, they could be lush and euphoric, and they could be anything in between.

All of these things combine to make their sophomore album, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, their ‘classic’ album, and indeed a landmark album of the genre and even the decade. But you’re not listening to to that album, or the one after that, or even the one after that. No, the album you’re listening to, Further, is their seventh studio LP.

Why? Because while Dig Your Own Hole is interesting because of what it meant for the genre as a whole, Further is interesting because of what it meant for the band. See, after the success of Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers went on to make — and I say this as an absolutely massive fan of the band — four more albums cut from pretty much the same cloth. Big hooky first track. Guest vocals from someone famous. Brief return to breakbeat roots. Ravey dancefloor tune. Guest vocals from someone not famous at all. Psychedelicdrawn-out album closer (usually). Again, I love them, but I’ll be the first to admit that they were getting predictable. (Mostly.)

Right away, it’s clear that Further is a conscious effort to break away from the formula. Unlike literally every other Chem Bros album, it features no guest vocals at all (barring a few scattered lines from Massive Attack’s Stephanie Dosen). It’s only got eight tracks; none of them clock less than five mintues, and one of them (the second one, even!) is a whopping twelve. This is decidedly not an album of radio pop hits.

But what’s really cool about this album? The CD version comes with a DVD that features visuals for each song, created by Flatnose George, the production duo of Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been doing the Brothers’ live visuals since the very beginning. They’re not music videos in the conventional sense; they’re abstract, experimental video art, forming a very loose visual narrative to accompany the album. Make no mistake, they are definitely intended to be displayed on twenty-foot-high screens at music festivals where everyone is on psychoactive drugs — but it turns out that Smith and Lyall’s style works when you scale it down to the album level, too. Part of this is that their style is so different from what you usually associate with techno music visuals — it’s not computer-generated fractals and laser beams, it’s mostly footage of real-world objects (including people) lit, shot and edited in extremely interesting and creative ways.**

TL;DR: as with ISAM Live, you won’t be listening to this album so much as watching it.

Until this album, the Brothers were kind of like a techno Quentin Tarantino. Their early work was revolutionary, and you still looked forward to their new releases, because you knew they would be good. But at the same time, you know it’s never going to blow anyone out of the water the way the older stuff did at the time — by its very nature, that kind of lightning can really only strike once. I don’t know that Tarantino has necessarily had a Further, but the Chemical Brothers have, and I love it. Five years later, it might still be my favourite album of theirs. How often do you get to say that about a band’s seventh album?

I don’t know. Maybe this album won’t floor you quite the way it floored me at the time. It’s certainly not embedded in your psyche as the soundtrack of your tumultuous summer of 2010. But it’s still a great record, and with your roots in old-school British psychedelia, I don’t think the Brothers will have to work too hard to win you over. So, pour a glass of your favourite beverage, dim the lights — or, if it’s daytime, rebuild your closet music cave — and get ready for a pretty wild ride.

— Matt

* You’re a Beatles fan. Does ‘Setting Sun‘ remind you of anything in particular? How about ‘I’ll See You There‘ (apologies for the stream quality), a song they released almost 20 years later? Don’t worry, these guys have some pretty deep roots in old-school British psychedelia, too.

** The Brothers have always had an interesting visual component to their work. The rise of big beat in the 90s also lead to the rise of abstract, high-production-value music videos for techno music, often by ‘auter’ directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In 2011, they scored the fantastic spy-thriller-meets-coming-of-age film, Hanna. And, of course, those Further-style visuals have been part of their live show since the start. (Adam Smith directed a fantastic concert film, Don’t Think, documenting their show at Fuji Rock Fest in 2012.)

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (pt. 2)

Ziggy

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think I get David Bowie.

Like, this is an OK album, I guess. I’m glad I listened to it. Art this legendary is always at least worth checking out, and this album is nothing if not legendary. I always try to remember that, if a lot of people really like something, they can’t all be wrong. But I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t love Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe this is just my own prexisting feelings about Bowie. I know his singles, because it’s kind of impossible not to, and I find them very hit or miss. ‘Fame’ is a jam, and I guess I can tolerate ‘Changes’. But I absolutely loathe ‘Space Oddity’. Everything about early Bowie is just so overwrought — whiny, almost. And sorry, but Ziggy Stardust is, for me at least, definitely still early Bowie. (Give me 80s Bowie any day.)

I realize that this is hugely hypocritical of me. I have no problem with musical ridiculousness. Perhaps more pressingly, one of my favourite records of all time is also a concept album about space bullshit. So, as I was listening and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to love Ziggy Stardust, I tried to figure out why that was. Why do I love the gritty weirdo space rap but not the gay space alien glam rock?

Maybe it’s that the gay space alien glam rock is too legendary.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but you know how I called Wu-Tang Clan the Seinfeld of underground rap? (By which I meant that they were so profoundly original that everything they did has been so thoroughly emulated that their profound originality isn’t obvious unless you know what came before?) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In the case of Wu-Tang and Seinfeld, their imitators aped what they did with completely straight faces. Subsequent generations of rappers and TV producers saw something that worked, so they adapted it for their own purposes. It was doable, because they weren’t aping specifics of the work so much as general principles. TV sitcoms are now populated exclusively by sociopaths, but specific Seinfeld parodies are pretty thin on the ground. Rap songs with campy movie samples and bitcrushed drums are now a dime a dozen, but no one ever tries to literally be another Wu-Tang Clan.

But with Bowie, there aren’t really any general principles to ape, other than ‘overwrought androgynous rockstar’. Everything about what he’s doing is so wildly, inventively specific that the only way to cash in on its success is to parody it, or directly reference it. It hit me like a thunderbolt about halfway through ‘Starman’: I am more familiar with homages to / parodies of David Bowie than I am with actual David Bowie.

Flight of the Conchords. Daft Punk. The Venture Bros. My own cultural experience is littered with caricatures of all things Bowie, to the point of cliché. I feel like I’ve heard ‘Starman’ a million times, when really what I’ve heard is a million things referencing ‘Starman’. So is it that I actually find ‘Starman’ overwrought and annoying, or has that sentiment just been clouded by endless secondhand exposure?

I am, of course, doing that thing where I’m making it seem like I liked the album less than I did. I am still glad that I listened to it, and there are some great moments on the album. (‘Suffragette City’ kicks ass.) And for what it’s worth, I listened to Aladdin Sane immediately after I finished Ziggy Stardust. (Don’t hold your breath — my feelings about the two albums are pretty much the same.) But as with a lot of things from the 70s, David Bowie just isn’t really my bag.

— Matt

PS: Do you watch The Venture Bros.? I think you’d like The Venture Bros.

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 2)

36chambers

Dear Matt:

Our little project has gotten me thinking a bit about the appropriate way to express a first impression of an album. I know we’ve both struggled with this on occasion: this format forces us to pretend that we have something meaningful to say about albums we’ve only just heard, and for which we only have the context the other provides. (Which, I mean, sometimes that’s plenty.)

Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to express total bewilderment. Occasionally, we’ve been merely nonplussed, or slightly distasteful. There have been expressions of immediate enthusiasm. And on occasion we’ve had something genuinely interesting to say, right from the get go.

I’m just going to be forthright here: I have nothing interesting or insightful to say about the massively dense album that I finished listening to for the first time mere moments ago. Frankly, I still have mild whiplash (and possibly tendonitis) from clicking all of the links in your assignment.

Let’s just acknowledge that the appropriate response to a first hearing of 36 Chambers is to marvel at its obvious brilliance and not pretend like you have anything special to add. Having acknowledged that, I’m going to reel off some things I love about 36 Chambers.

I love the unified aesthetic of the album. Considering that it’s basically a cavalcade of great verses from rappers that have almost no stylistic common ground, it is a testament to RZA’s guiding vision that 36 Chambers feels cohesive.

I love the interview at the end of ‘Can It All Be So Simple.’ The members of the Clan are such interesting people that I could just listen to them talk about themselves and each other for the duration of the whole album. Which, come to think of it, I basically just did.

I love GZA. ‘Clan in Da Front’ is, indeed, genius. I feel an urge to check out Liquid Swords coming on.

I love the way Wu-Tang collectively assumes that we know everything about them. It’s like picking up a random issue of a long-running superhero comic and trying to follow the plot. This may sound facetious, but I mean it sincerely. The phrase ‘world-building’ can easily be made to apply to Wu-Tang, and they accomplish it by implying that you’re listening in on a small portion of a much larger saga. I love that.

I love Ol’ Dirty Bastard, because WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING NOBODY RAPS LIKE THIS

I love RZA’s verse on ‘Tearz.’ It’s got to be one of the most heartfelt rap verses I’ve heard, up there with Killer Mike’s on ‘Crown.’

I love complex dynamics between radically different creative individuals. One of the reasons I love writing about music is that music always involves throwing a bunch of creative people into rooms together, and that is a story-generating machine. The Wu-Tang Clan are every bit as fascinating an assembly as the Second Viennese School, the Canterbury Scene, or the lightly fictionalized glam rockers of Velvet Goldmine (the latter of which is explicit foreshadowing of your next assignment).

I love ostentatious displays of cleverness.

I love recognizing the DNA of music I love in much earlier music.

I love when universally acclaimed classics live up to their reputations.

— Matthew

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 1)

36chambers

Dear Matthew:

In the spirit of your most recent assignment for me, I’ve also got a ‘back to the basics’ assignment for you this week. My first assignment for you was Deltron 3030, an underground rap classic. And I know you’re a fan of a lot of other modern underground/alternative rap, like MF DOOM and Run the Jewels. I’ve also often noted that I’ve heard the DNA of some of my favourite modern music in older records you’ve assigned to me. This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me.

Your assignment this week, then, is nothing less than one of the most influential albums in rap history: Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

•          •          •

To understand why 36 Chambers was so influential, you have to know a bit about what hip hop was like before Wu-Tang. Rap music started in the late ’70s at street parties in New York City — specifically, in poor black neighbourhoods in the Bronx — thrown by guys like DJ Kool Herc. You’ve probably heard the song most often cited as the first recorded rap song, the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight‘. This is pretty representative of most early hip hop music: an MC performing rhyming spoken raps over a looped disco beat. (Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks‘ is another good example of this.) The rhyming schemes don’t usually get much more complicated than having the last syllable of a line rhyme with the previous one. The words are generally about dancing, partying, and the talents and general desirability of the MC and his friends, and the delivery is almost singsong. At this point, musically, rap is kind of just this weird offshoot of disco.

By the mid to late ’80s, however, rap has taken off in a major way. In what is now generally known as the New School era, artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the like are all becoming household names. Def Jam, a NYC-based label specializing in hip hop, is now a record industry titan. Beatmakers start using technology like samplers, drum machines and synthesizers in their production. Turntablism is born. Soul and funk music, particularly that of James Brown, is sampled extensively. You also start to see rhyme schemes get more complex — rappers like Rakim start using things like internal and multisyllabic rhyming, and move away from that distinctive ’80s singsong-style rap toward a more monotone, yet aggressive, delivery. (A lot of critics say that, in terms of lyricism, you can draw a pretty distinctive line in the sand in terms of pre-Rakim and post-Rakim.)

After this decade of explosive creativity, rap is now A Thing. It has coalesced from a scene into a genre, and now it’s expanding. On the West Coast, Dr. Dre and N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) pioneer a style that comes to be called gangsta rap that focuses on the violent criminal lifestyles said rappers (claim to) lead. (Dre also pioneers a style called G-funk that features lots of smooth synth leads and highly synthetic drums.) Now there’s a sort of tension in the industry, because labels want to sell rap music to white people, but white people are kind of scared by black people who make songs with titles like ‘Fuck tha Police‘. So in the early ’90s, the major labels are still putting out rap, but it’s mostly a sort of ‘rap lite’ — marketable and completely inoffensive acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or Young MC.

In 1992, this is the musical landscape in which Robert Fitzgerald Diggs finds himself. His cousin, Gary Grice, has released a solo album as the Genius, but it was not particularly well promoted by the label. Diggs is pissed off at the industry for what he sees as an unwillingness to invest in music made by black street kids, from whence hip hop was originally begot. So, he formulates a plan: in five years, he and his high-school-dropout friends are going to take over the industry.

It’s an insane plan. But what’s even more insane is that it worked.

•          •          •

Drawing from the Supreme Alphabet, Diggs — formerly Prince Rakeem — rechristens himself the RZA. He rounds up his cousins and rap comrades Grice (now the GZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and six others: Clifford Smith (Method Man), Corey Woods (Raekwon), Dennis Coles (Ghostface Killah), Jason Hunter (Inspectah Deck), Elgin Turner (Masta Killa), and Lamont Hawkins (U-God). Sharing a mutual love of kung-fu movies and Five-Percenter philosophy, they dub themselves the Wu-Tang Clan, after the practitioners of the most deadly sword style. In RZA’s Staten Island basement, he presents the Clan with his proposal: he has a plan to do nothing less than take over the entire industry — but the only way it will work is if he calls all of the shots. If you sign on, you’re essentially signing your career decisions over to him for the next five years, no questions asked.

The pact is made. RZA collects $100 from each member who wants a verse to produce the group’s first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck‘. It’s a gritty, lo-fi number literally made in a basement that doesn’t have anything you could really call a chorus, or even a hook. Instead, it’s got eight whiplash-inducingly different MCs trading verses for almost five minutes. RZA spikes his crunchy drum samples and eerie piano loops with kung-fu movie dialogue and a take-no-prisoners verse of his own. Verbally, the Clan is mixing post-Rakim lyricism with the violence and realness of gangsta rap, with a heaping dose of pop-culture references on top*. They bully a few local DJs into playing it, but they don’t have to try hard — it’s a dynamite record that sounds nothing like anything anyone else is doing.

Soon, hype for their first album is building. RZA is able to negotiate a unique deal with the nascent Loud Records. For a paltry $60,000, Loud gets the Wu-Tang Clan, but with a catch: the individual members of the Clan can pursue solo careers in any way they see fit, with any label they see fit, with the full backing of the Wu-Tang name. In 1993, 36 Chambers hits the streets, and it’s a smash hit. Already, RZA’s plan is working.

See, RZA’s plan isn’t really about getting the Wu-Tang Clan a record deal; remember, he wants to infiltrate the entire industry. So, almost immediately after 36 Chambers drops, RZA is back to work in his basement studio making beats for the first round of Wu-Tang solo projects. And RZA doesn’t just want his Clan members to get any old record deal — he uses specific members to target specific labels and markets. He knows Raekwon and Ghostface will appeal to the street/gangsta crowd. He knows the aptly named Genius will appeal to the college crowd. He figures Method Man has the most mainstream crossover appeal, which is why Meth gets one of only two solo tracks on 36 Chambers, and why RZA signs him to Def Jam. ODB is, as always, the wildcard. (There’s a great NPR On Record piece on this from which I am cribbing heavily.)

Over the next three years, RZA produces a whopping five Wu-Tang solo projects, all on different labels. All are well received. (He also somehow finds the time to join Prince Paul’s Gravediggaz.) And now, not only is the Wu-Tang name everywhere, but so is the sound. Cut-up soul samples are everywhere. Harsh, street-life rhymes are everywhere. The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is everywhere. Wu-Tang is nothing short of a movement. In 1997, the group reunites for a double LP, Wu-Tang Forever. It debuts at number one.

RZA has done it. In five years, he has taken over the industry, exactly as promised — and he’s kickstarted a major East Coast rap renaissance in the process.

•          •          •

So, how does 36 Chambers hold up in 2015? Well, I think the first thing you’ll notice is how modern it sounds. It’s certainly a product of its time, but it’s not that big a leap from this record to something like Deltron 3030 or Madvillainy, or even RTJ2. To use a comparison I’ve used before on this blog, 36 Chambers is the Seinfeld of underground rap: to a modern ear, its explosive originality is essentially invisible, because so much of what set it apart from its contemporaries has been so widely adopted in its wake. Lots of rappers and producers owe their entire careers to the sound pioneered by RZA and the Clan, musically and lyrically. (Kanye names RZA as one of his biggest production influences.)

Of course, the Clan ended up being a bit of a victim of its own success. At the conclusion of the five-year plan, RZA took on more of a managerial role in the Clan, and its solo and group efforts thereafter have been met with very mixed responses. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, arguably the biggest mainstream success story of the clan, was in and out of prison and became increasingly unstable, as so many big musical personalities do, and eventually died of a drug overdose in 2004. And of course, the Wu-Tang sound and name being everywhere became a problem in itself; listening back on them today, the first round solo projects all sound kind of samey**. They oversaturated the market. He who fights monsters and all that.

Having now written 1,400 words about a 60-minute rap album from 20 years ago, I realize this is a lot of baggage to have to unpack. But luckily, even without this tome, 36 Chambers stands up on its own merits. Even though there are nine full Clan members, the chemistry between them is electric. (Don’t worry too much if you can’t pick everyone out by name by the end of the first listen, although a few are bound to stick in your mind. I’m curious to know who, though, and why.) The corny kung-fu dialogue, the sludgy soul loops and bloated low-end, the ghostly bit-crush of the RZA’s shitty sampler — it all just works. Even without the backstory, 36 Chambers is just a damn good rap album.

I hope you enjoy it.

— Matt

* This is yet another rabbit hole in a post already full of rabbit holes, but there’s a very interesting discussion to be had about the idea of masculinity in the lyrics of 36 Chambers. Maybe not on your first listen, but when you’re more familiar with the record, pay close attention to the things they rap about — and just as interestingly, don’t rap about — and how they rap about them. I’d love see an academic article that really digs into this aspect of the album.

** GZA’s Liquid Swords is still great, though.