Part of my recent pursuits to close some serious cultural gaps (ie mostly non-white components), I’ve been dipping my toe into the world of Wu-Tang Clan. This has been done in the following ways:
1. Listening to “Enter the Wu-Tang” top to bottom on repeat
2. Reading Wikipedia-level recaps on the key players
3. Watching a lot of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” on Hulu.
4. Re-watching old “Chappelle Show” sketches (which make more sense now)
As with most things, I saw a lot of comparisons to the Ramones. I will now attempt to make sense of this comparison, given the fact that I am more a student of the Ramones than the Wu, but I still think it’s worth having.
One last note: I recognize that I’m probably performing some form of either heresy or exposing my biases by comparing what is largely considered a masterpiece of the rap world to “the white thing I know.” I do not mean to denigrate the work in anyway; I just see the connections. Please bear with me.
1. Streets to Studio. This one is so easy I won’t explain it much. They’re even both from “forgotten corners” of New York City. Both groups grew out of neighborhoods where a bunch of kids with music inside of them had no good place to spend that energy, were getting very little support from the world around them, until they finally said “Screw it. We’ll do it ourselves.”
2. Innovators, but Also Followers. This is a little less easy. The Wu-Tang Clan are following in the footsteps of many before them, engaging in the general culture conversation that is hip-hop. To my admittedly under-trained ears, it feels like they took parts of gangsta rap, mixed with the group assault of Tribe Called Quest. There are probably lots of innovations that I’m missing just because I’m not a rap scholar, but it all feels related to those earlier things. An evolution.
Similar to the evolution that lead the world from the likes of the Velvet Underground to the Ramones: another stripping away of excess, a focus on guitar and speed and energy. Neither group sounded like any of their contemporaries, but they didn’t come out of a vacuum.
3. Music Guided by Philosophy. The Wu-Tang philosophy is multi-layered and vast. The Ramones’ philosophy limits itself mostly around their performances and style of musicianship, but it’s still very much there. In fact, it seems like both groups came about in large part BECAUSE OF their philosophies, rather than the other way around. Tommy Ramone had an idea of who could sing (Joey), how they should play, all that stuff. He saw the group as an art project. And near as I can tell, RZA et al saw their artwork fitting the Voltron description: from many, create a strong One (yes, there’s more to it than just that, but you get me). Both groups went into their studios and writing process with these philosophies driving them, rather than just, y’know, performing some music and stuff.
Why is this anything? I’ve been thinking about the artists before these artists. I could be completely wrong, but it seems like a lot of their predecessors created music because they wanted to just make music. Groups like the Beatles, Stones, Run-DMC… I don’t get the idea that they had philosophies. At least not as a guiding, origin-story-level principle for doing the music. Not so with the Ramones. Not so with Wu-Tang.
4. Inflated Legend and Descriptions. These are tiny things, but still… the line on the Ramones is that their songs were all 3 chords and easy to play. The line on the Wu-Tang Clan was that they had so many members, and that their breakout single (“Protect Ya’ Neck”) didn’t have a chorus. I call bull on all these counts. Many Ramones songs have four or five chords. Many songs are not easy to play THE SAME WAY they play them. Lots of music groups have tons of members — just not a lot of RAP groups. And there is a chorus on “Protect ya’ Neck.” It’s just an UNCONVENTIONAL chorus. It’s RZA saying “Protect Ya Neck” multiple times through out. That counts, dummies.
And another thing: aren’t there lots of songs without choruses? Isn’t this what Bob Dylan did/does all the time? Just seems like a fancy hook to sell how “crazy” this music is when, y’know, it’s not really.
5. “Clowns,” Wild Cards and Misunderstood Genius. I’m thinking specifically of Dee Dee Ramone and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, two human beings who occupy a world that I have never come close to entering or nearing. They’re also two of the most notable Big Characters in their respective circles. They both died early in life of drug overdoses. They both (likely) had mental issues, or at least existed off of center, capable of spouting lyrics/sentences/words that come from no other human being. They had distinct, absolutely-their-own-logic artistic voices as well as distinct, unconventional speaking/singing/performing voices. They did things that the world laughed at, maybe at them more than with them. They were both misunderstood as they brought uniqueness to their worlds which nobody could replicate; people WISH they could, but they can’t. And both represented, in a way, the truest spirit of their groups, as people living a slice of life so much that they need the help of others to realize their artistic visions; they make the art better, but probably wouldn’t have gotten there on their own.
6. Simple Connections. Both groups have a love of comic books and movies, violence and “crazy” stuff. They both sang about movies, set up movie scenes of a sort. These are the givens.
7. All As One. Both groups tried to present themselves as a unified organization. You get one — you get the rest all at once. It’s an assaultive attitude that comes through in the music. And while certainly each member of each group has their own distinct personalities, the guiding
8. Unity of Album Voice. This is the big one, I think. Both group’s debut albums managed to wrangle all their respective cats in one bag and still build something unified. On one hand, I want to say the harder job was done in Wu-Tang’s studio, since it’s just so many (as Rza has said) “alphas” all in the same room, so getting a unified ANYTHING constitutes a minor miracle (and maybe not ‘minor’ at all). Yet where he can do it is behind the deck. It’s in the production. The VHS-drops to Kung-fu movies, the choices behind who sings where, who’s NOT in this song, but shows up in THAT song. He even manages to make the aforementioned barely-a-chorus of “Protect Ya’ Neck” into the chorus OF THE ALBUM, dropping it in spots in the beginning, middle and very, very end. The Ramones had a unity built out of necessity/limited skill sets, but they curated their album to rise, rise again, dip, rise, spin, slow, speed up and finally come to a climax in the very end, with the final track using the same chords used in the first track. Both documents represent a world where planning, plotting and listening all work together to bring out something greater than the sums of of their parts.
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