Remembering "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" 25 Years After Its Release
By Sean Lee
I was 12 years old when I first heard the Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Seated in the backseat of my 23-year-old cousin John’s 2003 Solara (you know, the one with the tape deck instead of a CD rack) while headed to my tutoring program, he decided that today I was to get a different type of education. “This is that real street shit,” said my cousin, the wannabe Korean gangster. A cassette case landed in my lap he popped in the tape.
I distinctly remember the album cover with seven of the nine members masked and hooded immediately wondered if they were copying the Jabbawokeez the dance crew that had just advanced to next round of America’s Best Dance Crew and overnight caused every Asian kid to suddenly embrace hip hop. It took me a couple of years to realize that this album had come out in 1993, three years before I was born, but its impact was immediate.
Shaolin Shadow Boxing in the Wu-Tang Sword Style
For a chubby Korean American pre-teen, Wu-Tang Clan was the first hip-hop act that felt truly accessible. My cousin would occasionally show me other tapes in his collection; The Documentary by The Game and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP were constantly on repeat. As a kid who grew up playing classical piano and didn’t really understand the appeal of hyper-masculinity, nor the concept of a hip-hop alter ego, those tapes just sounded loud and angry to me. 36 Chambers was different.
Track one “Bring Da Ruckus” begins with the invocation of a monk introducing two distinct styles of martial arts: Shaolin and the Wu Tang. The framing of hip-hop in terms martial arts introduced me to rap’s competitive nature. No other album had previously done that. Suddenly rapping wasn’t people yelling over loud drums, it was elevated to a heightened competition. As a kid who already liked to read, I suddenly became entranced in the word play of it all. I would later go online and look up all the members of Wu-Tang Clan and their respective verses on that song. Inspectah Deck had my favorite back then with the tongue twister “The roughness, yes, the rudeness ruckus Redrum.”
“Bring Da Ruckus” made hip-hop something that I actually was entranced by and wanted to listen to. It showed me that wordplay was not just a façade for violence like on The Marshall Mathers LP nor was it merely a catalyst for anger like on The Documentary. Instead it could be calculated and coolly executed with the finesse of Raekwon the Chef and the intricacies of Ghostface Killah.
And then there’s “C.R.E.A.M,” the song that by the end of that year I was quoting on my middle school playground. The schoolyard aids listened in dismay. For a middle class kid living in a townhouse, I said “Look out for the cops” way too many times, but that was the beauty of being newly introduced to hip-hop. I was free from the deeper political implications that I would later learn in my history classes. For now it was about putting two hands up and yelling “Wu-Tang!” while roundhouse kicking my friends while we fake fought.
The reason “C.R.E.A.M” was so resonant was because it felt like code. There were kids who listened to hip-hop and kids who didn’t. The ones who did knew that the acronym stood for “cash rules everything around me,” an allusion that presented itself in a lot of the rap songs were listening to at the time. Back then, me and my friends frequently listened to “Sweetest Girl” by Wyclef Jean and Akon. That song’s hook was “Imma tell you like Wu told me/ Cash rules everything around me.” Those of us who had listened to 36 Chambers knew who Wu was and secretly held a sense of pride in the fact that we finally understood one of the millions of allusions in rap lyricism.
Appropriation and a Deeper Impact
Recently I read a scathing exchange on Twitter between two Asian and African-Americans on cultural appropriation. One side accused Asian-Americans of adopting the superficial elements of hip hop: the slang, the fashion, and the swagger without ever needing to fully endure the tribulations that lead to the genre’s inception. The other side responded that hip-hop’s goal was a unifying one, and if anything a group like the Wu-Tang Clan could be accused of Orientalism – making the elements of Asian history exotic without fully understanding the political implications that constantly cause Asian-Americans to feel like the other.
I personally have to agree a little with both arguments. I’ve encountered many Asian-Americans that use the excuse of not being white to pick and choose which minority cultures they could adopt. I’ve heard upper class Beverly Hills Asian teenagers say the N-word a bit too many times as they rock their saggy pants and Biggie Smalls shirts whilst blasting their Odd Future tapes in the daddy-purchased whip. Blogger Eddie Huang explained this best when he proposed Asian culture adopts black culture because we are deprived of our own cultural identity when American society begins to assimilate us. I think even Huang believes that it’s not our place to steal black culture in the first place. I do believe, however, that Wu-Tang Clan is different.
In 2017, an op-ed in the New York Times discussed the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. She used RZA as an example, debunking the argument that Wu-Tang “stole from” Asian culture. “One reason art tends to come from looking outward and not just inward,” she states, “is that we’re always speaking from a shaky authority… RZA (who with his friends referred to Staten Island as “Shaolin”) saw himself, just enough, in tales of underground kung fu rebellion leaders." I think that when I first heard 36 Chambers I heard something that was both accessible and alien. Isn’t that the point of great art? To free us from the rigidity of our own given identities, showing us something that we aren’t fully?
As a Korean-American, I know fully well that my life is nowhere near the narrative of the Staten Island rap group. But I doubt that GZA or Ghostface or U God or any of the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan intended me to fully comprehend their life story. 36 Chambers is simultaneously universal and specific. It allowed a pre-teen from Pasadena, California to a glimpse of what was going on thousands of miles away.
Great art has the ability to transport us while reminding us that we are fully grounded in who and where we are. What Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers did for me is that it taught me that reality happens between the black and white, that empathy derives from understanding, and a shallow understanding is better than not understanding at all.
This piece is by Sean Lee. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leee.