The first time I heard Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers in its entirety, I was in ninth-grade study hall. It was early 1994. I remember the room, where I was sitting, what the Sony Discman I’d borrowed looked like (yellow, “Sports,” because nothing screams “take me jogging” like a CD player). I listened to it furtively and greedily, like someone was about to take it from me, which given the setting someone probably should have. I’d heard the group before, seen the videos for “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.” on TV at weird hours, but nothing could prepare me for that album. There was dialogue from movies that couldn’t possibly exist, rambling and yelling monologues, horrific and hilarious skits. (R.I.P. Shameek from 212.) And of course there was the music, 12 tracks that took every single thing I thought I knew about hip-hop and the world itself, laid them on a dresser, and banged them shits with a spiked fuckin’ bat. Blaaow.
That classroom encounter with the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and the M-E-T-H-O-D Man is not one of my earliest memories, but it’s one of the earliest in which the experience and the person having it feel entirely legible, in a way that many things before it don’t. 36 Chambers came out two months after I entered high school, and its follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever, came out the week that I graduated. In those four years, the Wu-Tang Clan went on a run of quality that brooks no real comparison, in rap or anywhere else: For all that has come after it, when we talk about the Wu-Tang Clan, this period is what we talk about.
Nov. 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and as part of a “Completist” assignment for Slate I’ve spent the past weeks and months attempting to listen to every piece of music that falls under that big yellow W: every group album, every solo album, every odd compilation, every esoteric side project, every flash-in-the-pan mixtape. In the past 20 years, the nine MCs who made Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers have released more than 50 official albums’ worth of music, and that’s only the most conservative tally. The Clan have appeared in movies, television shows, video games, comic books, toy stores. They have gained countless new affiliates, and lost an original one.
Before going further I should say that I’ve failed in my endeavor. By that I don’t just mean that I haven’t (yet) listened to (all of) erstwhile Wu foot soldier 60 Second Assassin’s 2010 solo album Remarkable Timing, but also that attempting to tackle anything resembling the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan quickly provokes an ontological crisis. What exactly is all of Wu-Tang Clan? Should Method Man’s album-length collaborations with Redman count as Wu works? Sure, I decided, mostly because I enjoy them. But does Raekwon’s verse on Kanye West’s “Gorgeous” make that track a de facto Wu province? It’s great, but of this I’m less sure. And does Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s presence on Insane Clown Posse’s “Bitches” mean the same? God, I hope not, even if I’ve unfortunately listened to that too.
My failure is the Wu’s success: Two decades in, the Wu-Tang Clan stand as not just the greatest rap group of all time but the most consequential and far-reaching, so much so that it’s impossible to tell where the Wu-Tang Clan ends and the rest of the hip-hop universe begins. Long ago an interviewer at Maryland’s WPGC radio station asked the group to describe its goals in the music industry, to which Method Man famously replied, “Domination, baby.” Surveying the last 20 years, it’s difficult to argue that that mission wasn’t accomplished, even if today that domination is as rangy, speckled, and spiraling as a Killa Beez Wikipedia page.
Like most things of consequence in American history, the Wu-Tang Clan started as a moneymaking scheme. Despite their unified front, by and large the Clan were a mercenary collection of seasoned pros, well-versed in the music business and its disappointments. The business model was RZA’s brainchild: assemble a murderers’ row of unknown all-stars, take the industry by storm, and then fragment into solo careers, all of which would continue to operate under the Wu-Tang shogunate. In 1992 the group released an independent single, “Protect Ya Neck,” produced by RZA; the track scorched through the New York underground and landed Wu-Tang a contract with Loud Records. With “Protect Ya Neck” now its lead single, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was released on Nov. 9, 1993.
The album’s impact was so seismic that it reshifted the geography of rap. Mid-1990s New York hip-hop boasted an embarrassment of riches: The period between 1994 and 1996 alone saw the release of Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, Nas’ Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. But 36 Chambers came first, an avant-garde album in the most literal sense. In the early ’90s, rap had been dominated by LA, culminating with the release of Dr. Dre’s multiplatinum smash The Chronic in late 1992, which monopolized radio and MTV for much of the following year. Next to the P-Funk samples and ornate synths of The Chronic, RZA’s detuned pianos, spartan drum loops, and haunting ’60s soul drops seemed to come from another planet. The Chronic’s cover had boasted a regally framed photo of Dre; the cover of 36 Chambers featured a blurry image of a figure whose face was covered by a stocking, slinking menacingly toward the camera. And then there were the videos: Gone were the low-riders and sun-soaked barbecues of Los Angeles. The videos from 36 Chambers were resolutely bad-weather affairs, dilapidated rooftops and stairwells, hoodies, vests and rain gear, dark and chilly desolation.
36 Chambers changed rap in countless ways, but among the most important was its explosion of a conventional and increasingly constrictive authenticity. The “gangsta rap” popularized by N.W.A. and its individual members had been an electrifying blend of fantasy and reality. But it had grown embattled since the 1992 LA riots, and a vicious feud between Dre and Eazy-E—which reached its nadir with the latter’s It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa EP in fall of 1993—had devolved into an idiotic referendum on which millionaire could claim to have murdered the most people the loudest. 36 Chambers didn’t insist on its reality but rather obsessively dismantled and reconstructed it: The endless aliases, the elaborate and ever-murky mythologies, the dizzying forays into pop-culture flotsam. “Method Man” opens with a discussion of stabbing tongues with rusty screwdrivers (among other, less printable acts) and then careens through four minutes of references to Dr. Seuss, Looney Tunes, Fat Albert, Hall and Oates, peanut butter brands. 36 Chambers made it safe for hardcore rap to once again be what it had always been first and foremost: a feat of miraculous artistry and imagination.
In a visionary stroke of confidence, when Wu-Tang signed with Loud, RZA had negotiated an arrangement in which individual group members would be permitted to sign solo deals with competing record labels. When 36 Chambers exploded, Wu-Tang Clan seamlessly morphed from rap group back to industry strategy. Between 1994 and 1996, Method Man released Tical on Def Jam, Ol’ Dirty Bastard released Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version on Elektra, Raekwon released Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… on Loud, GZA released Liquid Swords on Geffen, and Ghostface Killah released Ironman on Epic. All of these albums were produced by RZA; they would sell more than 4 million copies among them.