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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Wu-Tang Clan
Why it’s daunting: The sheer size and scope of Wu-Tang Clan can be intimidating. There are plenty of great rap groups out there, but only one with nine core members (at the beginning, at least) spawning countless offshoots and all manner of side projects. Wu-Tang Clan isn’t a band, it’s a vast, sprawling universe. During his heyday, producer/rapper/leader RZA was legendary for his perfectionist tendencies and the quality control he brought to every Wu-Tang solo album. Then, after his mid-’90s golden era, RZA was notorious for his complete lack of quality control. He was seemingly willing to lend the Wu insignia to every half-assed album tangentially related to the group. (Check out this Wikipedia page for a semi-complete list of every half-assed act associated with the legendary collective.) Along with a few big names like Redman, that list contains plenty of small-timers mired in well-earned obscurity. Seriously: T.H.U.G. Angels? Popa Wu? Northstar? Factor in a plethora of Wu-Tang compilations of greatly variable quality, and it’s easy to see why casual fans might not know where to begin.
Possible gateway: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Why: Why not begin with the very beginning, with 1993’s revolutionary Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)? Robert Diggs made his recording debut with a misguided single released under the name Prince Rakeem (“Ooh I Love You Rakeem”) equally inspired by Biz Markie and LL Cool J. He then reinvented himself as Wu-Tang Clan producer/guru RZA, the mastermind behind an epic new group that synthesized a galaxy of geek obsessions—Five Percent ideology, soul records from the ’60s and ’70s, kung-fu movies, Supreme Mathematics, blaxploitation, pulp crime novels—into a thrilling new conception of what a hip-hop group could be.
Wu-Tang Clan arrived with an elaborate mythology that posited its Staten Island home base as New York’s answer to the Shaolin Temple—a monastery famed for its connection to martial arts—and its members as a new breed of lyrical warriors. The talent on display was staggering: There was Method Man’s leading-man charisma; Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s comic-relief lunacy and off-key crooning; GZA’s ice-cold, methodical monotone flow; Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s dense, tag-teamed crime narratives; and the mad-prophet ambition and abstraction of RZA, who produced tracks that changed the sound of hip-hop and rapped like John Travolta in the midst of a debilitating stroke.
Given the group’s sprawling, messy nature and RZA’s original vision, Enter The Wu-Tang’s tightness and cohesion qualify as a minor miracle. The group’s instant-classic debut offered socially conscious commentary on drugs, greed, and desperation (“C.R.E.A.M.”); head-snapping aggression (“Bring Da Ruckus”); anthem after anthem (the solo showcase “Method Man,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit”); and soulful, melancholy, back-in-the-day nostalgia (“Can It All Be So Simple”). Enter The Wu-Tang sounds refreshingly dirty and raw, a patchwork collage of ideas, sounds, styles, and influences.
Like Quentin Tarantino, RZA sliced and diced seemingly the sum of pop culture’s past to come up with something radically new, yet seductively old. (Fittingly, RZA later scored Tarantino’s Kill Bill.) More than a decade before Kanye West and Just Blaze made sampling soul records trendy again, RZA was chopping up vocal samples to create haunting productions where dead voices shared space with sirens, soaring strings, and sound bites from half-forgotten martial-arts movies.
Next steps: You can’t go wrong with any of the early Wu-Tang solo albums, all of which were produced by RZA in one of the greatest spurts of creativity in the history of pop music. But 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is rightly revered as the best of a magnificent bunch. It’s technically a Raekwon solo album, but it’s really a vehicle for the chemistry between the Clan’s most dynamic duo: Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Think of them as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci: Raekwon is the cool, collected kingpin to Ghostface’s perpetually apoplectic loose cannon. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx introduced a new element to an already heady mix by fetishizing the trappings of mob movies and giving Raekwon a mob-derived alter-ego in the form of Lex Diamond. Cuban Linx was such a milestone that its sequel inspired fevered anticipation even after years of delays and label changes. It did not disappoint.
2006’s masterful Fishscale similarly banked on the chemistry between Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, only this time, Ghostface was the excitable leading man to Raekwon’s laid-back sidekick. On Fishscale, Ghostface Killah embraced a new generation of hip-hop super-producers like Just Blaze, who produced the ferocious “The Champ”; J Dilla, whose posthumous contributions include “Big Girl” and “Whip You With A Strap”; and MF Doom. It’s the greatest Wu-Tang solo album of the decade, a kaleidoscopic, surreal, and inspired magnum opus featuring a revitalized Ghostface Killah.
Where not to start: It has its moments, but 1997’s two-disc Wu-Tang Forever is the quintessential bloated, overreaching follow-up, scattering an EP worth of highs like the infectious single “Triumph” across a whole lot of bleary excess and self-indulgence.