The first time I heard Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers in its entirety, I was in ninth-grade study hall. It was early 1994. I remember the room, where I was sitting, what the Sony Discman I’d borrowed looked like (yellow, “Sports,” because nothing screams “take me jogging” like a CD player). I listened to it furtively and greedily, like someone was about to take it from me, which given the setting someone probably should have. I’d heard the group before, seen the videos for “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.” on TV at weird hours, but nothing could prepare me for that album. There was dialogue from movies that couldn’t possibly exist, rambling and yelling monologues, horrific and hilarious skits. (R.I.P. Shameek from 212.) And of course there was the music, 12 tracks that took every single thing I thought I knew about hip-hop and the world itself, laid them on a dresser, and banged them shits with a spiked fuckin’ bat. Blaaow.
That classroom encounter with the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and the M-E-T-H-O-D Man is not one of my earliest memories, but it’s one of the earliest in which the experience and the person having it feel entirely legible, in a way that many things before it don’t. 36 Chambers came out two months after I entered high school, and its follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever, came out the week that I graduated. In those four years, the Wu-Tang Clan went on a run of quality that brooks no real comparison, in rap or anywhere else: For all that has come after it, when we talk about the Wu-Tang Clan, this period is what we talk about.
Nov. 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and as part of a “Completist” assignment for Slate I’ve spent the past weeks and months attempting to listen to every piece of music that falls under that big yellow W: every group album, every solo album, every odd compilation, every esoteric side project, every flash-in-the-pan mixtape. In the past 20 years, the nine MCs who made Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers have released more than 50 official albums’ worth of music, and that’s only the most conservative tally. The Clan have appeared in movies, television shows, video games, comic books, toy stores. They have gained countless new affiliates, and lost an original one.
Before going further I should say that I’ve failed in my endeavor. By that I don’t just mean that I haven’t (yet) listened to (all of) erstwhile Wu foot soldier 60 Second Assassin’s 2010 solo album Remarkable Timing, but also that attempting to tackle anything resembling the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan quickly provokes an ontological crisis. What exactly is all of Wu-Tang Clan? Should Method Man’s album-length collaborations with Redman count as Wu works? Sure, I decided, mostly because I enjoy them. But does Raekwon’s verse on Kanye West’s “Gorgeous” make that track a de facto Wu province? It’s great, but of this I’m less sure. And does Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s presence on Insane Clown Posse’s “Bitches” mean the same? God, I hope not, even if I’ve unfortunately listened to that too.
My failure is the Wu’s success: Two decades in, the Wu-Tang Clan stand as not just the greatest rap group of all time but the most consequential and far-reaching, so much so that it’s impossible to tell where the Wu-Tang Clan ends and the rest of the hip-hop universe begins. Long ago an interviewer at Maryland’s WPGC radio station asked the group to describe its goals in the music industry, to which Method Man famously replied, “Domination, baby.” Surveying the last 20 years, it’s difficult to argue that that mission wasn’t accomplished, even if today that domination is as rangy, speckled, and spiraling as a Killa Beez Wikipedia page.
Like most things of consequence in American history, the Wu-Tang Clan started as a moneymaking scheme. Despite their unified front, by and large the Clan were a mercenary collection of seasoned pros, well-versed in the music business and its disappointments. The business model was RZA’s brainchild: assemble a murderers’ row of unknown all-stars, take the industry by storm, and then fragment into solo careers, all of which would continue to operate under the Wu-Tang shogunate. In 1992 the group released an independent single, “Protect Ya Neck,” produced by RZA; the track scorched through the New York underground and landed Wu-Tang a contract with Loud Records. With “Protect Ya Neck” now its lead single, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was released on Nov. 9, 1993.
The album’s impact was so seismic that it reshifted the geography of rap. Mid-1990s New York hip-hop boasted an embarrassment of riches: The period between 1994 and 1996 alone saw the release of Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, Nas’ Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. But 36 Chambers came first, an avant-garde album in the most literal sense. In the early ’90s, rap had been dominated by LA, culminating with the release of Dr. Dre’s multiplatinum smash The Chronic in late 1992, which monopolized radio and MTV for much of the following year. Next to the P-Funk samples and ornate synths of The Chronic, RZA’s detuned pianos, spartan drum loops, and haunting ’60s soul drops seemed to come from another planet. The Chronic’s cover had boasted a regally framed photo of Dre; the cover of 36 Chambers featured a blurry image of a figure whose face was covered by a stocking, slinking menacingly toward the camera. And then there were the videos: Gone were the low-riders and sun-soaked barbecues of Los Angeles. The videos from 36 Chambers were resolutely bad-weather affairs, dilapidated rooftops and stairwells, hoodies, vests and rain gear, dark and chilly desolation.
36 Chambers changed rap in countless ways, but among the most important was its explosion of a conventional and increasingly constrictive authenticity. The “gangsta rap” popularized by N.W.A. and its individual members had been an electrifying blend of fantasy and reality. But it had grown embattled since the 1992 LA riots, and a vicious feud between Dre and Eazy-E—which reached its nadir with the latter’s It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa EP in fall of 1993—had devolved into an idiotic referendum on which millionaire could claim to have murdered the most people the loudest. 36 Chambers didn’t insist on its reality but rather obsessively dismantled and reconstructed it: The endless aliases, the elaborate and ever-murky mythologies, the dizzying forays into pop-culture flotsam. “Method Man” opens with a discussion of stabbing tongues with rusty screwdrivers (among other, less printable acts) and then careens through four minutes of references to Dr. Seuss, Looney Tunes, Fat Albert, Hall and Oates, peanut butter brands. 36 Chambers made it safe for hardcore rap to once again be what it had always been first and foremost: a feat of miraculous artistry and imagination.
In a visionary stroke of confidence, when Wu-Tang signed with Loud, RZA had negotiated an arrangement in which individual group members would be permitted to sign solo deals with competing record labels. When 36 Chambers exploded, Wu-Tang Clan seamlessly morphed from rap group back to industry strategy. Between 1994 and 1996, Method Man released Tical on Def Jam, Ol’ Dirty Bastard released Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version on Elektra, Raekwon released Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… on Loud, GZA released Liquid Swords on Geffen, and Ghostface Killah released Ironman on Epic. All of these albums were produced by RZA; they would sell more than 4 million copies among them.
When Wu-Tang Forever dropped in June of 1997, it spanned 27 tracks and almost two hours in length. It debuted at No. 1 and sold (wouldn’t you know) 4 million copies. Wu-Tang Forever was excellent, but it was also unmistakably a “reunion” record, and in retrospect it felt like the end of something. Three years passed before the release of the next group album, 2000’s The W; it featured an unprecedented number of guest spots from non-Wu rappers and was stellar but disjointed, a bunch of famous dudes who enjoyed each other’s company but were primarily linked by the past. A year later the group reassembled for the half-baked Iron Flag, which was met with critical and commercial indifference. In 2007 Wu-Tang Clan released 8 Diagrams, the group’s first (and still only) full-length album since the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2004; it was better than Iron Flag but sold even worse, and was marred by interpersonal conflict.
Neither the Wu-Tang Clan as a group nor any of its individual members has ever made a better album than Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, but that’s almost the point: By remaking rap in its own design, 36 Chambers became the perfect version of itself. And as for those members? Twenty years ago the suggestion that Ghostface Killah would have far and away the most prolific and consistently brilliant Wu solo career would have seemed unlikely—his contributions to 36 Chambers, while outstanding, lacked the visceral and flamboyant newness of some of his colleagues—but particularly in the 21st century, Ghostface has separated himself from the pack. 2000’s phenomenal Supreme Clientele was the first Wu-Tang solo album that felt like it had completely stepped out from the shadow of 36 Chambers, with its shimmering, hook-laced productions and brilliant (if legally questionable) use of audio from the short-lived 1960s animated series The Marvel Super Heroes. In the years since, Ghostface has remained one of the most critically adored MCs in rap, one of the genre’s greatest storytellers, who arguably hit his zenith with Fishscale in 2006, one of the best albums of the last decade.
Conversely, the Wu member whose career in 1993 seemed most destined for legend—Method Man—has had likely the most disappointing solo career, if only because the expectations were once so rightfully high. Meth was the star of 36 Chambers, the most charismatic and electric MC on the album: “Method Man,” first released as the B-side to “Protect Ya Neck,” was the LP’s lone solo showcase and remains one of the great displays of rhyming dexterity in rap. But after a knockout solo debut and a taste of pop stardom from his smash duet with Mary J. Blige, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” Meth fell into a pattern of diminishing returns. Tical 2000: Judgment Day was 28 tracks of meandering bloat, and Tical 0: The Prequel might be the worst Wu solo album to date. (Unless you’re Led Zeppelin, using the same album title three times is rarely a good sign). On the bright side, his aforementioned collaborations with Redman have been consistent bright spots, and his turn as Cheese Wagstaff on The Wire (almost) absolves all other sins.
Between the overachieving greatness of Ghostface and the underachievement of Method Man, the rest of the solo careers are remarkably diffuse. Raekwon has been a major presence in rap, a guest-spot champ and a purveyor of outstanding mixtapes, but a notorious perfectionism has hampered his official solo output. In the 18 years since Rae and Ghostface hooked up for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a pinnacle of the Wu catalogue, Ghost has released 10 official albums, the Chef a mere three. He’s also repeatedly and publicly squabbled with RZA, and at times has seemed to bristle the most at his link to the Wu-Tang industrial complex. Inspectah Deck was a formidable force on 36 Chambers, but after a terrific solo debut, the long-delayed Uncontrolled Substance, his outings have been lackluster, though his recent Czarface collaboration with 7L & Esoteric showed some welcome signs of life.
GZA was the only Wu member who’d released a full-length solo album prior to 36 Chambers, 1992’s Words From the Genius, and when the Clan broke through, his lyrical gifts were already fully formed, and peerless. His 1995 release Liquid Swords is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made, and his work since has been mostly excellent, particularly 1999’s Beneath the Surface and 2008’s Pro Tools, even if his sales numbers have rarely exceeded the cultish. In recent years he’s taken to performing Liquid Swords in its entirety at live shows, a crowd-pleasing move that suggests a resigned awareness of where his bread is buttered. U-God and Masta Killa were bit players on 36 Chambers and have found only modest solo success, although the latter’s No Said Date is among the most underrated Wu solo efforts, and I would absolutely recommend the former’s The Keynote Speaker (released just this past July) to anyone trying to listen to every single Wu-Tang Clan album.
As the sonic architect and beating heart of the Wu, RZA is one of the most influential musicians of the past 20 years, and his off-kilter, speed-shifting sampling techniques can be heard in the work of luminaries ranging from the late J Dilla to Kanye West. But perhaps his most underappreciated genius is that he’s never seemed to care much about being a star, seemingly content to sit with his record crates and mixing boards and march to the beat of his own unquantized drummer. His awesomely eclectic solo career has found him moving from the bizarro experimentalism of his first post-36 Chambers solo project, Bobby Digital in Stereo, to an increasingly immense array of film scores (Kill Bill; Blade: Trinity) to acting roles in films by directors ranging from Jim Jarmusch to Judd Apatow, to his latest calling, kung fu flick auteur. Through all of it, he has remained one of the most sought-after producers in hip-hop.
Twenty years ago the idea that Ol’ Dirty Bastard would be the last man mentioned in any Wu-Tang assessment would have been unthinkable. By the time he died, the demons had long since devoured the talent, but there was once a time when ODB’s was among the most thrilling voices in rap, and his cultural footprint still looms so large it’s easy to forget that he only made two albums. In a way, ODB’s unhinged mania was as crucial an ingredient to the original Wu mystique as RZA’s beats, his presence so outlandishly unbelievable that it made all the other crazy bullshit seem totally reasonable by comparison. His raps bore only a glancing relationship to conventions of rhyme and meter, full of stutters, bellows, and unhinged onomatopoeia; no rapper ever wielded the word fuck and all its variants more effectively. His debut solo single, “Brooklyn Zoo,” is one of the most indelible tracks in the Wu catalogue, and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” isn’t far behind.
Even by Wu-Tang Forever, his decline was apparent (he appears on only six tracks, often relegated to intros or choruses), and listening to something like 20 years of Wu-Tang, it’s unclear the Clan ever recovered from his loss. There are many potential reasons for this, starting with the fact that ODB was RZA and GZA’s cousin; for two of the collective’s most crucial members, this was something far more painful than just the death of a co-worker. But something even more intangible was lost, something that speaks to the beauty of 36 Chambers and what made those early years so extraordinary. The Wu-Tang Clan may have been a business arrangement deliberately calibrated as something larger than itself, but it somehow exceeded even that: The mythic collective was supposed to service the individuals, but along the way the myth became real. And any cartoon-loving kid of a certain age knows, you can’t form like Voltron if you’re missing a lion. In some sense I’m not sure the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan has been locatable since 2000, the last time a living ODB was heard on a Wu-Tang Clan album.
Earlier this year the Wu-Tang Clan dropped a killer comeback single, “Family Reunion”; RZA’s now trying to herd those surviving lions into one more album-length formation, and it’s recently gotten rocky. But it’ll happen and it’ll probably be great, even if it’ll never quite be like it was. The story of 20 years of the Wu-Tang Clan is a story of the messiness and magic of collaboration, of ups and downs and accumulation and loss. It’s pretty much the story of music itself, which is good and fitting because music has had no better representatives. After a lifetime of listening, I’m no closer to knowing what the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan is, I just know that it’s an absolutely staggering achievement.