When I was a precocious 11-year-old suburbanite, it made perfect sense that I listened to gangsta rap bangers. Granted, I didn’t understand a lot of the subject matter N.W.A. rapped about, but hearing the furious flurries of swear words and braggadocio was enough to keep me captivated.
Growing up in the age of Napster, Limewire and Kazaa, exposure to themes that warranted the buzzkill known as a “Parental Advisory Sticker” was too easy. My group of grade-school cronies would take turns practicing show-and-tell with the filthiest rap songs we could find on the Internet, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every verbal jab Ludacris or Jay-Z offered up. But my foray into rap music didn’t coincide with the Golden Age of Tupac and Biggie, but rather the band-aid-wearing reign of Nelly and the forgettable St. Lunatics. Understandably, my love affair with rap went on hiatus.
But, like every college student, I eventually got nostalgic for the 1990s. What started as an unoriginal party theme (“Let’s wear denim and play ‘Mambo no. 5’!”), reignited my interest in the culture of my early years, a period known for steroid-induced home runs, evolution (of Pokémon) and smelling like teen spirit. Soon, I found myself in a fever dream of ’90s memories filled with frustratingly dated “Austin Powers” quotables and Barenaked Ladies songs.
After a few weeks of skeptical friends staring blankly when I told them I couldn’t hang out because I was watching “Anaconda,” I was ready to give up. The ’90s were just as corny as I remembered, and it was disheartening. But as I prepared to put my Sammy Sosa jersey and LA Gears back in the closet, something rescued me from the depths of despair: the Wu-Tang Clan.
Emerging from the “slums of Shaolin” (Wu-Tang code for Staten Island), the Wu-Tang Clan has sadly become better known for its idiosyncrasies than its music. Yes, this is the group with an unyielding kung-fu movie fetish (they named themselves after a 1981 martial arts movie), and a producer who directs his own, but without the in-your-face rap that’s capable of smoking you down and stealing your wallet simultaneously, these guys would be novelties, not legends.
With an electric, eccentric, eclectic brand of East Coast rap, Wu Tang’s jack-of-all-trades lyricists and relentless energy were an integral part of the ’90s rap renaissance. Three cousins — the RZA, the GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard — formed the group in 1992 and called on six other Wu-Tang warriors to join them: Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck. Though it barely resembled the West Coast gangsta rap of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre — which was popular in the early ’90s — it quickly gained a following. The unpolished sound, martial arts movie samples and eerie, minimalist beats shouldn’t have been a hit, but the likeable charisma and guileless enthusiasm made Wu Tang’s debut a classic hip-hop album.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Wu-Tang is a household name. Somehow, between the Dave Chappelle skits, Urban Outfitters shirts and Wu-Tang Clan video games, I had only heard the group in passing, but the first time I consciously decided to play Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, I was blown away. Even listening in a hopelessly bourgeois atmosphere like my dorm room could not stop the music from infiltrating my very being. I’m no kung-fu warrior, and I’m pretty sure my yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do doesn’t qualify me either. But Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “I might be drunk” sing-songy rapping, Ghostface Killah’s Tony Stark swag and the RZA’s impeccable producing worked for me. They were authentic but not abrasive, funny but uncompromisingly professional and without even a hint of pretension. They didn’t care who listened to them, as long as someone did.
The Wu-Tang Clan changed the game. The group invented the “Wu-Tang brand,” spawned multiple solo stars and broke a number of “Killa Bees.” Its lyrical range is still unparalleled — stretching from Raekwon’s mafioso style to ODB’s absurdity, and everything in between. In the time it took for 36 Chambers to play, my 11-year old infatuation with rap returned and brought with it an embarrassment of ’90s rap riches. I may be a little more interested in the wordplay than the curse words this time around, but I will always be grateful to the Wu-Tang masters for allowing a grasshopper like myself to study in the temple of ’90s rap. R.I.P. ODB.