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

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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.

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 2)

Previously, on Two Matts:

Matthew has complicated feelings about punk. He doesn’t like it in principle, but when confronted with the actual music, he has to admit that there’s more to it than he usually tends to think. Matthew’s complicated feelings got even more complicated when he found that he absolutely adores NoMeansNo’s Wrong, the second album Matt assigned him. Matthew was forced to admit that there’s a tremendous chasm between the Platonic ideal of punk rock he has in his head and the reality of a genre that has evolved and fragmented over the course of decades. Now, Matt has assigned Matthew a successful late-90s pop-punk album, and Matthew’s complicated feelings are being dredged up again…

americana

Dear Matt,

Well, shit. I like this one too.

I’ve got to admit, I wanted to despise this album. In general, on this blog, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. I’ve written before about how I generally think that when I don’t like something it’s my own fault, so I always approach new music hoping to like it. But when you assigned the Offspring, my first thought was ‘Ah, here’s my opportunity to really tear into something.’

I’m not quite sure why I had it in for Americana. I certainly didn’t feel the same when approaching Wrong. Maybe it’s because, now that we’ve established that I can’t attack punk at its ideological roots and have it be anything other than a totally facile critique, I feel more comfortable lashing out at a band that’s signed to a major label and scoring massive radio play. But that doesn’t make any sense, because the whole notion of ‘selling out’ doesn’t actually upset me. Plus, I don’t even have any sympathy for the SoCal skatepunk DIY values that the Offspring were probably betraying, here.

All the same, for whatever reason, I came to this album expecting some blend of annoyance and outrage that could only be mitigated by writing something angry and indignant about it. But around three songs in, I was unable to deny that I was enjoying myself. No matter how hard I tried not to.

You pitched Americana to me as a disc of summer jamz, and it is that. I listened to it on a bus, on a sunny day, after work. When the album was over and I found that I was early getting to my destination, I immediately listened to ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?’ three more times. Then ‘She’s Got Issues’ twice. Then ‘Pay the Man’ again.

So basically, I’ve once again been confronted with the difference between the way I think about punk and the way that punk actually works, and I come out looking like an ass.

I want to try out an idea, here. You’ll know by now that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about prog rock. To me, one of the watershed moments in the history of that music was a point somewhere in the 80s when a wave of ‘neo-prog’ bands emerged, playing music that was explicitly modelled after the prog of the prior decade. This, as opposed to working in the original spirit of progressive rock, which dealt with genre fusion and independent experimentation. There was never a prog ‘sound’ in the 70s. In the 80s, with bands like Marillion and IQ cribbing the aesthetic trappings of a few key bands, there suddenly was.

We could define this as the point where prog calcified into a ‘genre’ in the strictest sense — a category of music with a defined set of traits — rather than a ‘movement,’ or perhaps a ‘scene.’ The result, initially, was a lot of pretty formulaic music: quite the opposite of what King Crimson and Magma were trying to do. But more recently, bands like Opeth and the Mars Volta have found a way to use what they’ve learned from classic prog bands to create music that sounds distinctly different.

All of which is a self-indulgent aside leading up to this relevant insight: clearly, something similar has happened to punk. Punk was a scene or movement prior to becoming a proper genre, and the aesthetics of that genre (as opposed to the ethics of the movement that produced it) have been stripped for parts and used for various purposes with varying degrees of relation to the original source.

One of those purposes turns out to be writing pop songs. And I do love me some pop songs.

So, you’re batting two for two in terms of punk assignments that worked out. However, I suspect that I remain one of the least punk rock people that either of us know. And that is unlikely to change…?

To be continued.

— Matthew

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 1)

americana

Dear Matthew:

It’s summertime, and for me, few albums encapsulate the feeling of summertime than The Offspring’s Americana.

Americana is not the Offspring’s fan-agreed magnum opus; that would be 1994’s Smash, an album that is still the top-selling independent record of all time.* Coming hot on the heels of the complete and utter musical paradigm shift that was Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Offspring’s third full-length album — their second on the legendary Epitaph Records — catapulted them to stardom on the backs of two very angsty, 90sy singles, ‘Come Out and Play‘ and ‘Self Esteem‘. You can almost smell the righteous youthful rage coming out of the speakers, cutting through the tinny drums and poorly-recorded guitars. It’s a dynamite record.

But you’re not listening to Smash. Instead, you’re joining the band four years later. The Offspring are now huge, and Americana is their second major-label album (Columbia signed them almost immediately after Smash blew up). 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre was almost a sort of second ‘difficult sophomore album’ for them as they learned the ropes of an entire new way of making music, but by 1998, they’ve got it down. Frontman Dexter Holland has changed his signature hairstyle, and the band is riding high on the rise of a comparatively new trend: pop-punk. Bands like blink-182, Sum 41 and other combinations of single syllables and several numerals take the fast, frenetic aesthetic of California hardcore and skate punk, and then sing pop songs — generally about things other pop songs are about, like girls and how uncool your parents are. (In hindsight, it’s actually a totally weird moment in music history. But I guess it’s not the first time the mainstream has made a mint co-opting and sanitizing music it finds scary.)

Americana is a fascinating album. It’s got what are arguably the Offspring’s two biggest, poppiest hits, ‘Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)‘ and ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?‘, but it also starts with a fantastic one-two punch of very old-school SoCal angst punk jams. Like most Offspring material, the album is dripping with irony and disaffection, the title track an angry tirade against everything twisted and wrong with modern America. Even the aforementioned poppy singles are sarcasm-laced takedowns of hateable characters and the trends they embody. The album closer is a jammy psychedelic number that was actually recorded for Ixnay, but shelved because the label thought it was too jammy and psychedelic. Like all of the Offspring’s best albums, it’s an album — it’s a cohesive package, not just a collection of songs. (Solidifying this notion are the various interstitial soundbites of automation and technology — only 90s kids will remember having a landline answering machine!) It’s even got that staple of CDs in the 90s, the hidden-track-after-several-minutes-of-silence. Sure, Smash may be their best record, but Americana is their most interesting.

I brought up Nevermind earlier for a good reason: in addition to its fundamental reshaping of the entire landscape of popular music, it’s generally heralded as a sort of cultural signpost of the 90s, a musical encapsulation of the malaise, alienation and nihilism of an entire generation. (Has anyone from Grantland written a really good essay about this to link to? Or Chuck Klosterman, maybe?) I put it to you that what Nevermind is to the early 90s (or perhaps more to the point, the post-80s), Americana is to the late 90s. It’s a musical time capsule in the same way, but instead of chronicling the start of a movement, it chronicles its effects. If Nevermind created Generation X, then Americana is the result of the theory put into practice for the better part of a decade.

I dunno, maybe I’m being a little grandiose. I mean, it’s just a pop-punk album. But either way, for my money, Americana is as close as you can get to reliving the 1990s until they invent an actual time machine.

— Matt

* This record will probably never be broken, because people don’t buy music anymore.

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 2)

bleeptobleep

Dear Matt:

I’m afraid I am about to fulfil your fear about this response: that I may be entirely indifferent to the Micronauts.

I dunno, man. I’m at a loss. Remember when you didn’t like Godbluff, but you didn’t hate it either, and you kind of wished you had? That’s the situation I’m in with Bleep to Bleep. But, unlike Godbluff, this album doesn’t seem to me like the sort of music that’s even supposed to provoke a strong reaction. It’s the kind of music I tend not to have much to say about. It’s the kind of music that I might forget I’m listening to, and when I remember, I’m slightly annoyed. It’s the kind of music where, if it were playing in a store, I might leave sooner.

Obviously, I’m completely wrong about this: more on which later.

My favourite part of Bleep to Bleep was the track ‘Bleeper_0+2,’ a pretty straightforward noise track, with no beat. And that’s basically what I liked: it offered some respite from the merciless beat that otherwise pervades the entire album. When I started writing this post, I was worried that I would come off as hypocritical for critiquing the album’s sameness — the quality that you see as the source of its fascination — when I’m a fan of Steve Reich. But, there’s a fundamental difference between the Micronauts’ minimalism and Reich’s. Both employ ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns,’ as I (inadequately) defined minimalism three posts ago. But Reich’s obvious patterns drive the music towards gradual change. The Micronauts’ patterns do not. Bleep to Bleep changes constantly, sure. But it doesn’t go anywhere. I had a theory teacher once, who pointed out that Reich’s most substantial gift was knowing when a musical idea would outstay its welcome. I would not personally say the same of the Micronauts.

As I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy disliking things. My philosophy is that if I don’t find something to admire in a piece of music, it must say more about my liabilities as a listener than the musicians’ shortcomings as artists. There’s a reason I’ve chosen to think that way: it’s self-evidently better to like more music than less music. Selectivity is for chumps. And if I put the onus on myself to appreciate a piece of music on its own terms, rather than on the musician to produce something that I can approach on mine, I’m more likely to enjoy more music. Plus, I’m inclined to think that it might make me a more empathetic human being, which is a win for everybody around me. (It may also explain my increasing tendency to write about myself instead of the music that you assign. Sorry about that.)

I remain frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a way into Two Fingers or the Micronauts. The fact that these are artists that you love makes it worse because it confirms that they can inspire the kind of nerdy joy that is essentially what I live for.

So, I’d like to make a proposition. If we’re still plugging away at this correspondence in a year or so, maybe we can take a week or two and just look back on a couple of albums that we haven’t liked. Because, how gratifying would it be to find that we’ve become better, more open music listeners over the course of this project?

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 1)

bleeptobleep Dear Matthew:

Since we’re talking about minimalism, I have some more bleeps and bloops for you — literally.

Though the Micronauts is now just one guy (Frenchman Christophe Monier), it was a two-piece (Quebecker George Issakidis) when they recorded one of the most strangely compelling electronic albums I’ve ever heard: Bleep to Bleep. It’s like they set out to make a nice little techno jam to play at their next rave, but just didn’t stop. The album is literally just the same song for 45 minutes. (Or, to be more specific, four takes of the same song, broken up with two noisy interludes.)

That sounds like it would be awful, but the repetition becomes the most fascinating feature of the album. The definition of minimalism that you gave me last week was ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns’, and it describes the Micronauts perfectly. Monier and Issakidis are indeed working with an extremely limited palette — a drum machine, some very basic synthesizers, a sample of some strings and a smattering of miscellaneous percussion — and for 45 minutes, they build up an arrangement, then disassemble it, then rebuild it in a slightly different way, then take it apart again, tweak it, put it back together… they build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy for three quarters of an hour. It’s the same song throughout, and yet it’s never the same song for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s the musical equivalent of the Ship of Theseus. It’s riveting.

Keep in mind, too, that this was the late ’90s, so they’re working with the real deal here — they’re using actual synths and samplers and drum machines, they’re not just some kids messing around with Garage Band for an afternoon. So this is also a fascinating album if you’re at all interested in the technical aspect of electronic music production, especially before the era of the laptop DJ.

Now, this is definitely some straight-up ravey acid techno bullshit. Given your reaction to the dance music you’ve encountered so far over the course of this project, I’m not sure how you’ll react to it. It’s entirely possible that you’ll hate this album. Worse yet, you might be completely indifferent to it. But all I know is, I find this album totally captivating. And since you’re into a guy who makes music by looping slightly-out-of-phase recordings and swinging microphones over speaker cones, hopefully you will too.

— Matt

PS: After you give Bleep to Bleep a spin, it’s worth checking out the single that was released from the album — essentially, the entire album distilled into something you can play on the radio. It’s called ‘Baby Wants to Rock’, and its running time? Three minutes and 19 seconds.