Wu-Tang Clan changed the game.
All it took was one album -- but what an album. "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," the group's 1993 debut, basically obliterated the old rule book on hip-hop. It broke ground in so many ways, from charting new directions in sampling, studio production and storytelling to expanding (both literally and figuratively) the concept of a hip-hop crew.
It was the rare album that felt incredibly important as soon as it came out -- and its stock and stature has only grown greater through the years. Now, 20 years after it was released, "Enter the Wu-Tang" is widely considered to be one of the most important hip-hop records of all time.
"It's such a masterfully executed album on all levels -- concept, lyrics, beats -- that it still feels as powerful today as when it dropped," says Oliver Wang, the UC Berkeley graduate who co-authored "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide." "It's as timeless an album as hip-hop has ever seen."
Wu-Tang Clan returns to the Bay Area as part of the mammoth Rock the Bells festival, scheduled for Sept. 14-15 at Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View. The big buzz around the Staten Island crew's set, which takes place on Day Two of the festival, is that it will feature a "virtual performance" by original member Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004 after a long bout with drug and legal problems. Yes, we're talking about something very similar to what happened when holographic Tupac Shakur appeared alongside the rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at the 2012 Coachella music festival. (Rock the Bells will also feature virtual Eazy-E performing with real-life Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on Day One.)
Yet what's getting lost in all the hologram hoopla, at least to some degree, is the 20th anniversary of "Enter the Wu-Tang." That's a shame, since that album continues to fascinate and inspire like few others in popular music history.
"It's just as relevant today as when it first came out," says Chang Weisberg, the founder-president of Guerrilla Union, which runs the Rock the Bells festival.
Some would argue that it's even more relevant, given how the guidelines established by "Enter the Wu-Tang" are being embraced by young rappers today. The album is an absolute manifesto on how to introduce both a rap group and its individual players to listeners. "Enter the Wu-Tang" featured nine incredibly talented MCs, most of whom who went on to become household names in hip-hop. Some of the players, including Ghostface Killah, Method Man, RZA and Raekwon, even became major stars outside of the group.
In those regards, it's really hard not to see key similarities between Wu-Tang and such modern crews as Kendrick Lamar's Black Hippy (which is also performing at Rock the Bells) and Odd Future (which features Tyler, the Creator, another artist set for this year's festival). Yet none of the other, newer collectives ever crafted an introduction quite like "Enter the Wu-Tang."
"It was a remarkable achievement in terms of a group album where there were so many different moving parts, yet it all worked in concert," Wang says. "There was no real precedent for that; you had cliques like the Juice Crew or Native Tongues, but those were affiliations. Wu-Tang -- on this album especially -- saw itself as a group, in addition to being a collection of individual talents."
Cast of characters
The MCs were certainly talented, but even more importantly -- especially when trying to catch the public's attention with a debut record -- they were all interesting. They arrived on the scene in full-on character, playing some of the most bizarre and fascinating roles ever seen in hip-hop.
"It was almost as if they were comic book rap superheroes when they came out," Weisberg says. "They were just so different from anything else."
Fittingly, the music on "Enter the Wu-Tang" was every bit as original as the MCs. The production work by Wu-Tang's own RZA was both gritty and comical, mimicking the kind of over-the-top kung fu movies that had inspired the group's very name. The beats were strikingly menacing, yet the samples of actual dialogue from kung fu movies showed that RZA was in on the joke.
"I remember very vividly the first time I heard that album," says Kayvon Siadat, DJ/promotions director at Santa Clara University's KSCU radio station. "It was the first month of high school, and I was on a freshman retreat. I was sitting in the back seat of an upperclassman's car, and he was blasting it. I never heard anything like it before. I was used to the radio-friendly rap of the time.
"I know a lot of the hip-hop community usually credit NWA to be the crossover from happy club hip-hop to darker street rap, but I think this album is the (Nirvana) 'Nevermind' of hip-hop. Still, to this day, nothing else sounds like it. I would easily rank this among the top 10 most important rap albums of all time."
Mask of influence
Pittsburg rapper Mars was also a high school freshman when he first heard "Enter the Wu-Tang." It had a deep, lasting impact on him -- helping direct him toward a career in "horrorcore," the controversial hip-hop subgenre that draws much inspiration from horror films.
"They were just so raw," Mars says of the Wu-Tang MCs. "Their delivery was so dirty, and they had deep New York accents. I could hear the streets in everything they talked about, but at the same time, they were so intelligent. They dressed in fatigues and looked fly and gutter at the same time. Ghostface? Come on! He wore a mask! You know I was feeling that. They all had dope names, too. They made music interesting."
"Enter the Wu-Tang" was such a mighty first effort that it even helped change the balance of power in hip-hop nation. Before the album's release, hip-hop was basically all about the West Coast -- with Dr. Dre and his G-funk and gangsta-rap minions running the show. Then "Enter the Wu-Tang" hit, bringing with it a dictionary's worth of street slang that pulsed with East Coast attitude, and the playing field began to tilt back to New York. That directly set the stage for the mammoth success that would greet Jay Z, Nas, Biggie Smalls and other notable New York rappers in the mid-'90s.
"I think it ushered in a new era and in the process, ended any number of trends that hip-hop had been flirting with prior, whether in acid jazz, hip house, new jack swing, etc.," Wang says. "You could argue it also marked the end of hip-hop's overtly political era -- out goes the African medallions, in came the Timberland boots, (but) that shift was already under way before the Wu, though."
Influence lives on
The most remarkable thing about "Enter the Wu-Tang," however, is that it's arguably still as influential today as it was when it first came out 20 years ago. Weisberg, for one, doesn't see that changing anytime soon.
"Somebody in 3030 will be listening to a Wu-Tang Clan record and come out with something that is similar or inspired (by it)," says Weisberg, the Rock the Bells founder. "That is the beautiful thing about music."
Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.
Rock the Bells
Featuring Wu-Tang Clan,
Kid Cudi, E-40 and
Too Short, Black Hippy
with Kendrick Lamar,
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and more.
When: 11 a.m. Sept. 14-15
Where: Shoreline Amphitheatre
at Mountain View
Tickets: $65.50-$125.75 for
single-day tickets; $99-$239.50
for two-day passes;