I didn’t enter the Wu-Tang on November 9, 1993, the date that “36 Chambers” was released. I, like many others, discovered that they were nothing to fuck with years later — specifically, 11 years later, when a friend gave me a 2004 compilation album, “Legend of the Wu-Tang Clan,” that I wore out in my bedroom stereo and which required that I purchase the group’s origin story. At that point, Wu-Tang Clan was three years removed from their uneven fourth album, “Iron Flag,” and no one knew when a follow-up was coming. Mainstream hip-hop had moved on; a thoughtful kid named Kanye West was turning heads with his soul samples and thoughtful imagery. But every day and every night, walking to my friend’s place with a Discman in hand or driving to my part-time job at Quizno’s, I would pop on “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and lose my mind. I memorized lines, then verses, then songs, then every song. I debated with friends who had the best verse on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.” I marveled at the lyricism of Method Man, and mourned the loss of Ol’ Dirty Bastard — at that time, just a few months deceased. I was an awkward teenage white boy trying to learn how to bring the ruckus; I still don’t know how to do so, but I can name eight guys who do.
I discovered and grew to fiercely love the Wu-Tang Clan years after they swarmed onto the scene and detonated hip-hop conventions — and that’s always been sort of the legacy of the Wu, and specifically their bulletproof debut. It is rap music outside of this universe — a group with multiple nicknames rallying around kung-fu films, sampling forgotten soul songs and playing chess — and belonging to no time period, so it belongs to every time period. To this day, any kid looking for an alternative to the gaudier aspects of the genre can get lost in the eerie aesthetic and pinpoint wordplay of “36 Chambers.” The hook on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit” is still an insanely enjoyable phrase to scream, the production on “C.R.E.A.M.” is still devastatingly layered, and figures like Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA and ODB are still demigods with no weak link in their group or faults in their rhyme patterns. These things are not going away.
Since “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” the Wu-Tang Clan has released more great music than they’re typically credited for — but “36 Chambers” is their landmark effort. Twenty years later, still nothing sounds quite like it; nothing can duplicate its hardest edges or most powerful passages. To me, and to the many awkward teenagers that will uncover the Wu-Tang Clan in the decades to come, “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” is, and always will be, timeless.
Check out our track-by-track breakdown of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album on its 20th anniversary of release.
1. “Bring Da Ruckus”
Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and GZA all make admirable introductions, and RZA’s cries are spiraling and piercing — but there’s a reason Ghostface is the leadoff hitter here, and he barges in like a mad genius.
2. “Shame On a Ni–a”
Whereas five Wu members presented a dank, crushing philosophy on “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame” is all funk and goofball charm, with Method Man bouncing in as a fast-talking impresario and ODB remaining wild-eyed, threatening and hilarious. Paired with RZA’s two-step re-imagining of “Different Strokes,” “Shame on a Ni–a” is one of the most downright fun hip-hop songs in history.
3. “Clan In Da Front“
“Up from tha 36 chambaaas!” is RZA’s Paul Revere moment, but the Genius handles the heavy lifting, draping metaphors over a tipsy piano hook. “On 34th Street, in the Square of Herald/ I gamed Ella, the bitch caught a Fitz like Gerald…ine Ferraro, who’s full of sorrow cause the ho didn’t win,” the GZA slices, adding with a wink, “but the sun will still come out tomorrow.”
4. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber”
A posse cut that’s not as immediate as “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” or “Protect Ya Neck,” “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” rewards patience with hidden lyrical gems, whether it be the RZA dropping “Holding meth got me open like fallopian tubes” as a brilliant simile for his preparedness or ODB punching the sky with “The Ol’ Dirty Bastard, wunderbar!”
5. “Can It All Be So Simple”
Pure and simple, this pensive track is the first hint at the detailed stories that Raekwon and Ghostface would spin together as collaborative solo artists, most memorably on Rae’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” Don’t skip over the outro, of course — Method Man’s description of his crew members is still the best introduction to the Wu-Tang Clan that exists. Never forget: when they form like Voltron, GZA happens to be the head.
6. “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”
“Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” is a great litmus test for Wu novices: if you can get down with six dudes whipping out dense verses over a particularly esoteric beat and after dialogue that extols chess, then you will probably be holding up that W for a long, long time.
7. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit”
The second side’s mirror image of “Shame on a Ni–a,” the menacing bass, horror-show melody and three buoyant verses assist a brash, brilliantly simple rallying cry that has become the Wu’s calling card. The RZA sounds like a man possessed, but Inspectah Deck comes through and impressively matches his intensity.
It’s always a bit of a shock to hear the twinkling piano keys and Raekwon and Rebel INS’ tales of cold-hearted capitalism sandwiched between the far less serious “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit” and “Method Man,” but that’s the beauty of the Wu: after entertaining listeners with braggadocio and jokes, they can flip the switch and deliver poignant realism.
9. “Method Man”
Teenage boys have spent two decades repeating the puerile torture methods at the beginning of “Method Man,” but after the “…and feeding you, and feeding you, and feeding you…,” Johnny Blaze drops four minutes of hip-swaying deliriousness, cackling through Fat Albert impersonations and smirking while praising the quality of his sperm. No one else in the Wu-Tang has a song named after them on “36 Chambers,” and for this reason, Method Man was established as the group’s leader and most accessible star.
10. “Protect Ya Neck”
The song that started it all: all hands are on deck in the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut single, and the collection of dramatic strings, shrugging keys and undying percussion soundtracks the process of eight men placing their name tags on their chests. The “Who has the best verse?” question is endlessly debatable — my personal preference goes toward RZA’s mad-dog raving.
“After laughter, comes tears,” goes the melting Stax Records sample on “Tearz,” which features two starkly different tales of woe from the RZA (his brother got shot on the way to buy bread) and Ghostface (his friend wouldn’t practice safe sex and got H.I.V.). The production here is ambitious even for the RZA, hitching the aforementioned Wendy Rene sample to a blaring rhythm.
12. “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber, Pt. 2”
A remix of the original “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber,” the “Pt. 2” seems to exist as a fond farewell to fans jonesing for one more posse cut before the album closes. And as the group answers when asked to break down their magical style at the finale: “It’s a secret — never teach the Wu-Tang!”