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Revisiting 'Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)' 30 years later

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Once upon a time, in a land called Staten Island, lived a group of young boys. Growing up, life was not easy for them. They faced poverty, violence and racism. But as these boys grew into men, they came to call their home Shaolin, and they would band together to form a musical brotherhood - a clan, if you will - with nine distinct members - the RZA, the GZA, ODB, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon the Chef, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa. And together they formed the Wu-Tang Clan. And their first album, "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," released 30 years ago this week, is still considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Cash rules everything around me. C.R.E.A.M. - get the money. Dolla dolla (ph) bill y'all.

MA: So to talk with us about the impact and influences of this album, we're joined by Marcus Evans. He's a Ph.D. student at McMaster University currently writing his dissertation on Wu-Tang Clan and the influence of martial arts films on the music. Marcus, you're literally a Wu-Tang scholar, so thank you for joining us.

MARCUS EVANS: (Laughter) Thank you for having me, Adrian. It's an honor to be here.

MA: So we'll come back to your scholarship on sort of the relationship between this group and the kung fu cinema influence. But just to start, can you take us back to 1993, the year that "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" was released? What, at the time, is the landscape of hip-hop?

EVANS: Sure. At the time of 1993 - and I'm recalling this from the experience of being a young kid in Mississippi - but it seemed to me that West Coast gangsta rap was really the dominant form. You know, I remember listening to Dr. Dre's "The Chronic," Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggystyle" - really this kind of gangsta rap, this melodic form of rap, the kind of rap that made you want to get in a '64 Chevrolet Impala and just ride out.

MA: The West Coast sound is dominant - right? - this sort of smooth, sparkly sound. Into that landscape drops "Enter The Wu-Tang," and it's not smooth. It's, like, the opposite of smooth. It's like...

EVANS: Exactly.

MA: How would you describe it?

EVANS: I mean, it was raw, gritty, dirty and it was just radically different from all of the West Coast music that I was familiar with.

MA: To understand the group, they decided to call themselves Wu-Tang. That name really stands out. So where, for them, does that come from, the desire to call themselves Wu-Tang?

EVANS: I think that, you know, for RZA and for the Wu...

MA: RZA being the sort of - the leader of the clan.

EVANS: Yeah. He's the kind of de facto leader of the clan. For RZA and for the Wu-Tang Clan, watching these films gave them kind of images of other worlds, of something that was totally different from the experiences that they had in North America, in their urban environments. And RZA talks about this quite often. You know, he speaks about, yo, these films taught me something unique. It showed me that there was a history broader than the history that I ever learned about, being a Black American in the United States, right? He says, growing up as a kid, as a Black kid in America, I was always taught in school that, you know, we had a slave history, right? So these kung fu films for him resonated with him, in a way, because they told him about a kind of alternate history of Asian people who were, in some cases, like Blacks, suffering oppression. So he found these kind of cross-cultural parallels there between the martial arts films and his own world.

MA: When you think about this album, like, where do you hear that martial arts influence the most?

EVANS: One, I think just about the conceptualization of the album itself. The album "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" - of course, it borrows its title from at least two kung fu films. One is the Bruce Lee film "Enter The Dragon."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ENTER THE DRAGON")

PETER ARCHER: (As Parsons) What's your style?

BRUCE LEE: (As Lee) My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.

EVANS: Also, "The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, vocalizing).

EVANS: The second part of it really has to do with the sonic, you know, style. The very first thing that we hear on the album is a sample that comes from the film that basically informed the whole mythology of the Wu-Tang Clan, this film called "Shaolin And Wu-Tang," the film out of which they formed their identity as the Wu-Tang Clan. And so the first thing that we hear on the track when we put in that CD or that tape - showing my age - we hear "Shaolin And Wu-Tang." Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, then the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang is dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING DA RUCKUS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: En garde. I'll let you try my Wu-Tang style.

EVANS: And then we go into the songs. "Bring Da Ruckus," to which that sample is attached, is a song wherein the lyrics are all about lyrical martial arts - deadliness, dangerousness, head chopping. I mean, several of these tracks on the album are all, in some ways, appealing to kind of form of martial arts that take shapes and the lyricism that the Wu was doing.

MA: Marcus Evans, thanks so much for joining us on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And good luck on your dissertation defense.

EVANS: Thank you, Adrian. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF WU-TANG CLAN SONG, "WU-TANG CLAN AIN'T NOTHING TA F' WIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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