Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”

Album cover for Enter the Wu-Tang

This week, I’ve been listening to the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” from 1993. I was completely unaware of the Wu-Tang Clan until around 1997; even then, I didn’t actually hear any of their stuff until very recently. This week introduced me to their ground-breaking variety of East Cost hardcore hip hop. In the 90s, a East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry in hip hop made mainstream news. Wu-Tang’s raw beat-driven music contrasted with the more melodic West Coast style of the time. While still prone to braggadocio, their lyrics were darker; less triumphant and more ambitious. The clan was not small. On this album, Wu-Tang Clan consisted of vocalist Inspectah Deck, vocalist GZA, vocalist Masta Killa, vocalist Raekwon, vocalist U-God, vocalist and producer Method Man, vocalist and producer Ol’ Dirty Bastard, vocalist, producer, and arranger RZA, vocalist and producer GhostfaceKillah, and turntablist 4th Disciple.

I ‘m not a rapper and I’m not equipped to discuss hip hop even though I do enjoy listening to it. I don’t expect to draw much from this album for my own music; However, I do believe that exposure to a great variety of art enriches one’s own work. In addition, I just really like listening to music and hearing new things. Each week, I listen to an album considered to be one of the greatest, because there must be something there worth learning from.

Bring Da Ruckus

After some sampling from kung-fu movies with a little bit of booming bass, the percussion and vocals begin. The first lines open the album appropriately, repeating “Bring the motherfucking ruckus.” This serves as the chorus between verses. Across the verses, we hear multiple vocalists rapping

. Throughout this album, the percussion beats right in the front right behind the vocals. It is the most important part of the accompaniment; the other musical elements provide more of an atmosphere than a more traditional purpose. Most of the music comes from samples of “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss. The percussion is a mix of the drums of that song plus a drums-only “CB#5” from the “Funky Drummer vol. 1” collection made specifically for DJs and rap artists.

Wu-Tang work primarily with one or two bar looped samples to provide support for their vocals. Generally speaking, we don’t have chord progressions to speak of. That’s not the point. They’ve built a dark musical atmosphere with a heavy beat to support the rap vocals.

Most of the lines are rhyming couplets, though they are not strict about rhyming every line. The Wu-Tang Clan proves to be clever in their use of slant rhyme. We see not just the ends of lines rhyming, but plenty of assonance and internal rhymes. These lyrics combine wordplay and cultural references with rhythm. For example the lines “Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue; Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun.” The lines end with the rhyming “tongue” and “stun-gun”, but these also rhyme with “Redrum” and “Murder one”, shot rhymes with knot as well as the earlier :assault.” “Redrum” is a reference to Stephen King’s “The Shining” where it is “Murder” spelled backwards. These lines are tightly packed, appropriate for a song that largely brags about their ability to do so.

I rip it hardcore like porno-flick bitches
I roll with groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits
Check it, my method on the microphone’s banging
Wu-Tang slang’ll leave your headpiece hanging
Bust this, I’m kicking like Seagal, Out For Justice
The roughness, yes, the rudeness, ruckus
Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue
Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun

Can It Be All So Simple

“Can It Be All So Simple” opens with a the group reminiscing vaguely about the past which leads into samples of “The Way We Were” by Gladys Knight & The Pips. They combine music samples from different parts of the song with mild use of a drum machine. The result reminds me of Portishead, whose debut album “Dummy” came out a year later.

Raekwon starts by reminiscing the past, but also talking about how difficult it was. He describes how they had to turn to violence, because it was required of their situation. Ghostface Killah then describes their dream successful life. The chorus is a list of dedications, which makes use of anaphora, which is a poetic technique of starting a series of lines with the same word or phrase. In this case, “Dedicated to the..” starts each line of the chorus, interspersed with a manipulated sample of Gladys Knight, “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” Anaphora gives lines an automatic sense of rhythm, creating a catchy hook that can draw first-time listeners in.

Dedicated to the winners and the losers
Dedicated to all Jeeps and Land Cruisers
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the 5’s, 850i’s
Dedicated to niggas who do drive-by’s
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the Lexus and the Ac’s
Dedicated to MPV’s: phat!

C.R.E.A.M.

Perhaps my favorite track on the album, “C.R.E.A.M.” bemoans the influence of money’s importance in a Capitalist society. In particular, they focus on the people on the streets; Inspectah Deck tells his story as a young man returning to society after spending teen years in jail for selling drugs. He went to jail for a crime committed to make ends me, and comes out to see that money continues to cause problems for those around him. It’s the struggles of the have-nots in a society rules by the haves.

Method Man delivers the great hook of this song, the chorus. It consists of an acronym and a rhythmic repetitive phrase. As is often the case in a well-written song, the verses tell a story and the chorus delivers the message of the story. The repetition of “Dollar dollar bill” followed by “ya’ll” is extremely catchy and I found myself singing it throughout the day after the first couple listens. The cadence of this line works perfectly against the piano line sampled from the Charmel’s “As Long As I Got You.

Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.
Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.

De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising”

Album cover for 3 Feet High and Rising

This week, I’ve been listening to De La Soul’s debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” from 1989. When I was 12 years old, My sister and I stayed with my mom in a loft apartment above a natural food store. The owner lived nearby and I had a crush on his 15 year old daughter. One day she was sitting on their porch and kept saying “Hi, I’m Mr. Fish. How do you do? As for me, I’m in tip-top shape today.” from De La Soul’s track “Tread Water.” Well, that was enough to get me started listening to them. And I continued to enjoy this throughout middle school and into high school. I don’t even remember the name of the girl that introduced me to it, but I still love this album.

De La Soul worked with Prince Paul creating one of the most innovative and influential hip hop albums of all time. The set aside much of the macho bravado that dominated rap lyrics in exchange for more philosophical musings on love, peace, spirituality, relationships, and identity. They promoted a more positive peaceful way of living an enacting change, in contrast to their contemporaries who spoke more of violence and anger.

Likewise, they mixed surprising sources into their music, using the Casio RZ-1 8-bit sampling drum machine. Samples appear from such artists as Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin. Their use of samples also changed hip hop in another, more legal, way. The Turtles sued for the unauthorized sample of their recording of the Byrd’s “You Showed Me” in “Transmitting Live From Mars.” The out-of-court settlement changed the practices of sample-based music to include clearing samples. The following year, hip hop group Salt N Pepa released their own version of “You Showed Me.” I don’t know if they did so out of response to the De La Soul controversy on or not, but I’d assume they cleared their samples.

Potholes In My Lawn

I found it very difficult to only pick three songs to talk about here, because that means excluding so many other great tracks. I definitely was not going to ignore my favorite, “Potholes in My Lawn.” I like the the way they use effects to alter the vocal. Most of the vocals follow the same relaxed rhythmic while the use of echo-delay and changes in accompaniment provide variety and a sense of movement.

The surrealistic lyrics invite interpretation without much indication. I suspect they’re talking about the threat that negative criticism and self-doubt pose to the creative process. Where the lush green lawn would be an artist’s utopia where the writer’s genius work would just flow from them; the potholes pose as those areas of self-doubt, making it difficult to walk around. The lyrics casually rhyme here and there. It’s more a playful use of rhyme than following a strict pattern.

Everybody’s sayin’
What to do when suckin’ lunatics start diggin’ and chewin’
They don’t know that the Soul don’t go for that
Potholes in my lawn
And that goes for my rhyme sheet
Which I concentrated so hard on, see
I don’t ask for maximum security
But my dwellin’ is swellin’
It nipped my bud when I happened to fall
Into a spot
Where no ink or an ink-blot
Was on a scroll
I just wrote me a new ‘mot’
But now it’s gone
There’s no
Suckers knew that I hate
To recognise that every time I’m writin’
It’s gone

They primarily built the accompaniment around sampling the War song “Magic Mountain.” They’ve sped up the original, giving it a brighter more positive sound. The yodel that servers as a chorus came from the Parliament track “Little Ole Country Boy.” A drum machine pattern emphasizes the beat. Mostly these are the kick and snare, with hi-hat sounds used to “hurry up” the beat, using during the third beat. In the late-80s/early-90s, this was a popular place to play in the beat. The rest of measure would often follow basic patterns, but between the third and fourth beat, something interesting would happen which encouraged many of the dance styles of the time.

Me Myself and I

De La Soul’s biggest hit “Me Myself and I” stands as one of their best. In the song, they reference the Jungle Brothers’ track “Black is Black,” from which they drew the vocal rhythm. They took the dominant sample of the song, including the synth hook from “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic. They’ve layered samples from a few other artists, as well as made use of the drum machine to strengthen and give continuity to the beat.

I love the intro with the snare on the first and third beats, with kick on second and fourth beat; this dramatically turns the beat upside. It’s disorientating, exciting, while maintaining the beat. They also use the fader control on their table to produce a stuttering effect to the backing vocals during the chorus. This funky effect gives life to the track while creatively manipulating their source material.

Eye Know

Their single “Eye Know” gets its refrain and synth hook from Steely Dan’s “Peg.” Originally, the line “I know I love you better” was the last line of Peg’s second verse, but here it has become the chorus. This is noteworthy, because usually when a sample is used for the chorus of a hip-hop song, it was the chorus of the original song as well. The strummed guitar and melodic horn stabs were sampled from the beginning of “Make This Young Lady Mine” by The Mad Lads. This time, they’ve sampled acoustic drums from “Get Out My Life, Woman” by Lee Dorsey.

The speakers offer a life-long relationship to an ambiguous female love interest. Each three members of De La Soul each get a verse, where they share a little of their philosophy of love and relationships. Throughout the song, there’s self-introductions and visions of a beautiful life together. These are peppered with references to other songs on the album, as well as songs by other hip hop artists, including another reference to the Jungle Brothers(“Behind the Bush“). De La Soul does not shy away from throwing references in, making little jokes in their songs, and just generally having fun doing what they are doing. On this album, they strike an impressive balance of being playful while being true to their vision.

We could live in my Plug Two home
And on Mars where we could be all alone
And we make a song for two
Picture perfect things and I sing of how
I know I love you better

Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.