Twenty years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan blessed the world with their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Masterminded by the group’s de facto leader RZA, the album paired grit-sodden, lo-fi production with razor sharp rhyming skills from the nine-man troupe who claimed Shaolin (as they’d re-christened Staten Island) as their fortress. The album’s influence has become legendary: It helped restore New York City rap pride in the face of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s g-funk dominance, Raekwon and Ghostface’s rhyme styles inspired the subsequent work of Nas, Jay Z and the Notorious BIG, and RZA’s tick of speeding up soul samples struck a chord with a young Kanye West who then embraced the technique for his own early break-through productions.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the first stage of worldwide dominance for the Clan. (Meth even claims that as their goal on one of the album’s slang-saturated skits.) But while the album, its iconography and its lead singles are now solid pop culture fixtures, there’s also a mysterious underbelly to the project. Here’s15 factoids about the Wu’s jump-off moment that might have passed you by.
1. The Demo Tape Off-Cuts
The demo tape which begat Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a fascinating affair. “Bring the Ruckus” is fleshed out with a (subsequently unclearable) sample and some alternate lyrical performances, while tracks that never made the final album include “Wu-Tang Master,” “Problemz” and “The Wu Is Comin’ Through.” Most intriguing though is “It’s All About Me,” which references De La Soul’s “Me Myself And I” and flows forth in an uncharacteristically lackadaisical manner.
2. Passing the Bone
During “Clan In Da Front,” the GZA makes one of the album’s many references to weed when he implores, “Pass the bone, kid, pass the bone.” But beyond the blunt craving, the line also nods to the rapper’s prior unsuccessful career when he called himself the Genius and was signed to the Cold Chillin’ label; “Pass the Bone” was a ruggedly chugging production that was left off his debut album, 1991’s Words From the Genius, but added to a 1994 re-release. (The song also features RZA in his Prince Rakeem guise and he name-checks Raekwon.) Self-referentially, the bone passing saga continued when Masta Killa updated the song for 2006’s Made in Brooklyn.
3. The Album Was Fueled by Canned Goods
The Clan’s early image involved the idea that they were a bunch of scrappy, striving artists from the slums of Shaolin. ODB certainly mined a look you could kindly call “disheveled poverty chic.” According to 9th Prince, RZA’s younger brother, the low budget living was a true part of their life and Ghostface would frequently make shoplifting trips to the local store to help feed the Clan. “Ghostface would throw on his big, oversized coat and just stack four or five cans in his coat pockets, and we’d walk out,” he told the Village Voice.
4. “Protect Ya Neck” Cost $300 to Record
The Wu recorded their debut album at Firehouse Studios, which also facilitated rap hits from Audio Two, MC Lyte and Das-EFX. According to Yoram Vazan, the studio’s owner, the crew’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” cost $300 worth of studio time to complete. They apparently paid him in quarters.
5. The Tenth Wu-Tanger
The official ranks of the Wu-Tang Clan number nine: RZA, GZA, Ghostface, Raekwon, U-God, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, Method Man and the now departed Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Cappadonna became something of a semi-member but never secured water-tight Wu status. According to the RZA though, he came close to offering a local Staten Island MC named Scotty Wotty an official place in the crew. You’ll hear the character’s name shouted out later on occasional Wu releases, and he also put in an appearance on a 1998 indie rap release by Shadez of Brooklyn under a new guise as Jackpot.
6. They Paid for Syl Johnson’sHouse
A large part of the charm of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is its lo-fi sonic ambiance. But that still didn’t stop the group (or its label, Loud) paying up to sample a chunk of classic soul or funk. In the case of blues man Syl Johnson, whose “Different Strokes” ended up being part of the Clan’s funky fanfare on “Shame on a Nigga,” they paid handsomely enough to let him snaffle up some real estate. As he put it in a 2010 interview, “I’m sitting in the house now that was built with the Wu-Tang money!”
7. The Home Office
Perusing the credits to the original vinyl release of “Protect Ya Neck” reveals the Wu were using a Staten Island address as the headquarters of Wu-Tang Records. Google mapping 234 Morningstar Road today shows a squat domestic house next to a law office. Apparently, the building last sold for just under a quarter of a million dollars back in 2002.
8. The Masked Men
The story behind the album’s iconic cover has also become one of hip-hop’s favorite ruses. Only six members of the Wu-Tang Clan are pictured on it, and all are sporting stocking masks over their faces. The regular rumor has it that with certain members of the Clan otherwise inconvenienced for various reasons, some of the group’s management team stepped in to take their place.
9. RZA Used Borrowed Studio Equipment
Before the Wu-Tang Clan, Staten Island’s rap scene was focussed on the UMCs, a duo whose debut album, Fruits of Nature, peddled in post-De La Soul positivity. When it came time to record Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA reportedly tapped up UMCs producer RNS and borrowed his Ensoniq sampler. Somewhat repaying the favor, RNS went on to work with Wu spin-offs the Gravediggaz and kid rapper Shyheim, while the UMCs themselves cut a second album in 1994 that seemed to take a creative cue from the success of the Wu’s grimy sound.
10. Method Man Might be the Clan’s Big Kid at Heart
The husky-voiced Method Man’s solo contribution to the album, the humbly-titled “Method Man,” opens with him invoking a line from the Rollings Stones’ defiant “Get Off of My Cloud.” But elsewhere in the song he decides to get inspired by family favorites like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, the nursery rhyme “Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake Baker’s Man,” a snatch of the Tweety Pie and Sylvester cartoon, and Dick Van Dyck’s calling card “Chim Chim Cheree.” Consider it the least kid-friendly but child-referential song of the Nineties.
11. The Snow Beach Jacket
For the group’s introduction to the world, the Wu showed a foppish commitment to mid-Nineties utilitarian fashion: Timberlands and Carhartt attire were the fabrics of the day. But for the “Can It be All So Simple” video, Raekwon donned what has become one of the most iconic pieces of hip-hop fashion: the Ralph Lauren Polo Snow Beach jacket. It now fetches high figure amounts among collectors. Consider it the ’93 equivalent of Kanye sporting an all-over bespoke Louis Vuitton body-suit.
12. The Sample Circle
RZA’s use of soul samples on the album is now well documented, but the Clan’s own grooves have been pilfered by other non-hip-hop artists in return. One early adopter were UK beat merchants the Prodigy, who nabbed the opening part of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” to add some pep to their fiery “Breathe.”
13. Chronic Competition
The track that closes out the album, “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber, Pt. 2,” is a stripped-down remix to a song that appears earlier in the line-up. It’s propelled by a cavernous bass-line whose monstrous tenor might well be capable of inspiring night terrors. Amping up the rebellious nature of the Wu’s assault, RZA has claimed that the album’s low-end attack was his attempt to out-do the deep bass work that Dr. Dre employed on his melodious The Chronic album the year prior.
14. Track-listing Anomalies
“Protect Ya Neck” was originally released on Wu-Tang Records in 1992. It’s the group’s official bow and features “After The Laughter Comes Tears” on the b-side. (The latter song would be renamed as the curt “Tearz” on the album.) But two different pressings of “Protect Ya Neck” exist, with a later version in 1993 swapping in “Method Man” as the new b-side cut. In other track-listing shenanigans, the vinyl and CD versions of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) contain slightly different running orders (which largely amount to the positioning of “Protect Ya Neck” in the proceedings).
15. Low Charting
Despite Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) becoming a worldwide phenomenon, its original attack on the charts was a limp affair. The album itself scaled only as far as number 41 on the Billboard charts, while its four official singles fared little better with “C.R.E.A.M.” the highest placed at a sober number 61. The album eventually crawled to platinum status in 1995.