As America rolled into 1993, East Coast hip-hop was coughing and spluttering like a flu patient. Dr Dre’s G-Funk had led a takeover of mainstream hip-hop, with synth-heavy albums like The Chronic and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted near-ubiquitous in clubs and on the charts. True, talent blossomed in the alternative scene with the appearance of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, but the West Coast was framing the public image of rap both musically and lyrically with gangster rap – aggressive rhymes focused on drugs and violence. Public Enemy had hit a rough patch and the East Coast needed a saviour, or indeed saviours. Accidentally, it got some.
In November 1993, a newly formed group of largely inexperienced and unsigned rappers formed the Wu-Tang Clan and released their debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). I must stress how unusual this album was – produced on a minimal budget with poor equipment, combining classic soul samples with Kung-Fu movie themes and dialogue, and lyrics portraying gritty street life, drugs, even torture. Music most often evolves, with new styles mutating from the old, but this was totally new.
Wu-Tang took unconnected elements and squeezed them into a bizarre patchwork of an album that resonated perfectly with what people were feeling. The cheap production formed a raw and aggressive sound that fitted the ruthless lyrics; it was hardcore, shocking and fresh, like peeing on an electric fence. Despite this, the album would have slipped quietly into obscurity if it weren’t for nine rappers with sensational skill. The lyrics are simultaneously fierce but funny; gritty and scary; simple and complex. Only nine exceptionally talented lyricists could paint a unified picture combining new meters, witty one-liners, streaks of strange imagery and spatters of talk about torture. They saw the aggression of gangsta rap and raised it one new sound, successfully carving a whole new space for the East Coast to exploit.
the album would have slipped quietly into obscurity if it weren’t for nine rappers with sensational skill
And exploit it they did; the impact of the waves that Enter the Wu-Tang sent through their local scene is intangibly massive. Not only setting the scene for Nas with Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G with Ready to Die a year later, but for Jay-Z and Mobb Deep as the decade progressed and even in the distant future, giving name to Childish Gambino. Their incorporation of pop-culture references and Kung-Fu movie sound bites paved the way for rappers to employ influences from bizarre places to elevate their sound – it is no surprise that only a couple of years later the best underground MC of all time, MF Doom, appeared with his comic book villain persona and his metal face mask.
the impact that Enter the Wu-Tang had on their local scene is intangibly massive
You can see in this album the birth of a completely new use of the English language too; the most iconic song off the album ‘C.R.E.A.M’ (short for ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’) has caused ‘cream’ to enter rappers’ vocabulary as new slang for money which is no mean feat in light of other’s attempts at invention (looking at you shaboobalaboopy). On its 25th anniversary, we must remember Enter the Wu-Tang as the novel, seminal, sensational piece of hip-hop history that it is.