Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 77 - The Wu-Tang Clan

I'm feeling under the weather today, and I don't have the energy to do the detailed write-ups and Grooveshark links that I normally do. This is a shame, because I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to talk about with the Wu-Tang Clan. They've been on the periphery of my awareness since my friend stole his older brother's copy of Enter the 36 Chambers and made me listen to it when I was in fifth grade. It was dense and jarring then. I thought it would be a bit more palatable now, but it still summons the emotions I remember from when I was 10 years old - densely-packed, intimidating rhymes over some very unsettling beats. 

Have you ever drifted off to a feverish sleep while listening to the Wu-Tang Clan? I just did before getting up to write this. It's a strange phenomenon, and not quite one I recommend. The Wu-Tang Clan, faceless and pseudonymous, is like a nine-man ninja team assaulting your brain; whenever one rapper is done with his verbal sparring, another jumps in to take over. In that way, there's no escape. 

Additionally, I'm used to my rap beats being fairly solid. But the beats, especially on Enter the 36 Chambers, are far more nebulous - fuzzy minor-key minimalist piano parts, hazy drum beats, all sounding like they could either disappear at any moment, or coalesce into some sort of demonic symphony. It's music that always sounds like its at the brink of an abyss, teetering on the edge. The confidence of the rappers' lyrics over these strange backing sounds are a contradiction that's perhaps the defining aesthetic of the group. 

And the Wu-Tang Clan is a weird group. I normally don't buy into the mythologies surrounding musical acts - they usually seem contrived, some sort of story made up to attract attention and sell records. There's no denying that this is what the Wu-Tang Clan is doing here, but there's also no denying that they're better at it than most. Embracing a convoluted mythology of gangster violence and kung-fu mysticism, the Wu-Tang Clan is a strange juxtaposition of 1970s foreign-film camp and 1990s urban violence. A track could be preceded by a film sensei describing "shadowboxing," or two rappers describing various methods of torture. It's a strange mix, but even stranger that it works.

Their rapping seems to follow their kung-fu mythology - some tracks are like a full-frontal assault, as the members scream at the listener to "Protect Ya Neck" and "Bring Da Ruckus," but others are more restrained, subtler and more chilling. And then there are the strange pop-culture references to things like The Warrior movie, Press Your Luck and Voltron, which showcase the group's strange sense of humor. It helps that the group has nine (count 'em!) talented rappers, which leads to a sort of theme and variations feel - all the rappers embrace the same general aesthetic, but they approach it in different ways. 

If there's anything that I didn't like about the Wu-Tang clan, their dense pieces were a little off-putting to a rap novice like myself. This isn't Rap 101, but instead something akin to the honors class. I'm sort of surprised that the group became so popular, because nearly everything about them - the weird mythology, the dense, complex songs - seem more like something belonging to a cult favorite than a multi-platinum group. A lot of times this week, I felt that I was in over my head; the music has a lot of depth.

And then there were the more violent tracks, and the violent snippets of conversation in between. I'm still getting used to the strange idea that rappers insist on shoehorning dialogue between tracks, but some of the Wu-Tang's sketches, talking about violence and torture, were a slog to get through after a week straight.

But through the raps, twisted in more ways than one, I did appreciate that the Wu-Tang weren't trying to cater to anyone. A lot of rap seems built on boastful braggadocio. Sometimes the Wu-Tang Clan is guilty of this, but more often than not they choose to let their strange product speak for itself. The presence of nine central figures probably help keep egos in check as well, though that hasn't stopped recent friction between members of the group. 

With my sickness, I spent the majority of my time on Enter the 36 Chambers this week, only barely scratching the surface of Wu-Tang Forever and The W. In some ways, I wish I had had more energy to delve deeper into this stuff, but Enter the 36 Chambers proved dense enough to keep me occupied all week, sickness or not. 

Next week I'll be listening to Tom Waits. Here's to hoping his croaking croon will help nurse me back to health. But for now, this sick listener is heading back to bed. I like the Wu-Tang Clan well enough, but I'll probably be selecting some different music to send me to sleep.