November 9, 1993
This day is one of the most important days in hip hop history—for two reasons: Wu Tang Clan released their debut album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) and the already legendary A Tribe Called Quest dropped their third studio album, Midnight Marauders.
If I had a “Mount Rushmore” of albums, 36 Chambers and Midnight Marauders (along with Nas’s Illmatic, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions…, and a few more if I could expand my monument.) would be etched in the mountain.
In his book, Mo Meta Blues, The Roots drummer and hip hop connoisseur Questlove has pointed to November 9 as hip hop’s “end of innocence” and “the last pure, unadulterated moments in the genre.”
His melodrama aside, Questlove was right—November 9, 1993 represented that nexus between the first (1986-1993) and second golden ages of hip hop (1994-1999). And that day marked a beginning for the Wu Tang Clan and the start of the ending of Tribe. As Michael Rappaport illustrates in Beats, Rhymes, and Life, his A Tribe Called Quest documentary, the group started experiencing chemistry issues after the recording of their second album, Low End Theory. A Tribe Called Quest was originally comprised of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi (the “spirit” of the group). Jarobi left the group before they released the equally classic Low End Theory.
Meanwhile, 36 Chambers caught lightening in a bottle. The nine emcees—RZA, The Genius/GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon the Chef, Masta Killa, U God, and Inspectah Deck—were hip hop’s first formal supergroup to debut as a supergroup, unlike Marley Marl’s Juice Crew (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, Masta Ace, Craig G., Roxanne Shante, and Biz Markie) and the Native Tongues (A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Queen Latifah, and Chi Ali). RZA and GZA were the only two artists who had previous solo deals. They are also among the distinguished few hip hop artists who actually reinvented themselves out of obscurity (see 2Chainz for a contemporary example). GZA released the basically forgettable Words from a Genius on Cold Chillin Records and RZA, as Prince Rakeem, dropped the corny “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” single on Tommy Boy Records in 1991.
Now…onto the albums. I will not provide detailed song-by-song reviews of 36 Chambers and Midnight Marauders. I only plan to wax nostalgic.
Midnight Marauders was the third in the run of classic albums that A Tribe Called Quest had released between 1989 and 1993. Only a few hip hop artists and groups claim to have released three consecutive classic albums—People’s Instinctive Travel and Paths of Rhythm, Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders. That’s right—Jay Z, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, or even Lil’ Wayne could not make that argument. Only Outkast and Public Enemy can make that claim. Mobb Deep and Kanye West are the only other artists who may have an argument, maybe. Really, both Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders may be in the top 15 of all-time great hip hop albums. Friends like to ask me which album I like on any given day—and, do not get me wrong, this is a real debate (Google Midnight Marauders vs. Low End Theory or see here and here for evidence.).
Midnight Marauder’s is one of the albums that defy the cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” because its cover is awesome. It was the “Guess Who” of music album covers. Tribe represented hip hop well, capturing the images of MC Lyte, 3rd Bass, Ice T, Chuck D, and even Diddy (then Sean Combs). The group said in an MTV interview that they wanted their cover to reflect hip hop unity by inviting artists from all regions (including West Coast artists) to appear on the cover. Their “unity” cover actually comes to reflect an ironic twist considering how the East Coast-West Coast feud developed in subsequent years and how Tribe, itself, began to fracture after Midnight Marauder’s release.
Musically, Midnight Marauders puts Q-Tip in the one of the most underrated producers ever category. Q-Tip’s use of Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love,” James Brown’s “Just Enough Room For Storage,” and Clyde McPhatter’s “Mixed Up Cup” for “Lyrics to Go” is heavenly. How many of you knew Bill Cosby released a jazz-funk album called Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral and Marching Band? I learned that in the early 2000s when technology allowed me to track down Cosby’s track, “Martin’s Funeral,” which the group sampled for one of my favorite Tribe tracks, “We Can Get Down.”
“I’m the cherry on top of your ice cream. I’m the wish you thought inside your dream. Listen to the way we pulsate the jam. I’m the nigga here with the mic in hand…” – Q-Tip, “We Can Get Down
Lyrically, Tribe remained clever, but they balanced their wit with frankness. Phife Dawg’s verse on “We Can Get Down” is great because it captures that first golden age spirit of originality and it is one of the best explanations of what rapping over instrumentals was supposed to be coming out of the tumult that was NYC urban life during the 1970s and 1980s. “We Can Get Down,” Q-Tip’s solo “Sucka Nigga,” and the beautiful “God Lives Through,” were simultaneously the first golden age’s Afrocentric hip hop’s last gasps and the first breaths of the pretentious “mad rapper”/ “underground” lyricism (of which I was a fan) that emerged in response to the second golden era’s gangsterism and shiny suit materialism.
Of course, the album’s singles were great. “Award Tour” is Tribe at its very earnest. The group strikes that playful flirtatious tone on the chill, and all but perfect, “Electric Relaxation.” Midnight does not have the legendary posse cut (“Scenario”), but “Oh My God” represents that headbanger single for those who loved “Scenario.”
I’ve written too many words already, and I still need to talk 36 Chambers, so I’ll leave you with this: Midnight Marauders is pretty close to hip hop perfection. If you do not own it, then buy it twice to make up for missing it the first time.
Wu Tang! Wu Tang! Wu Tang! Wu Tang!
Their chanting in between Ghostface Killah’s and Masta Killah’s verse in “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” is one of the most hype and unforgettable hip hop moments. This was also the first track that had really caught my attention. It represented everything that the Wu was and everything I loved about them—it had the kung fu sample, the hard beat, vivid and rough lyricism. RZA took boom bap to a new level.
I remember the first time I listened to 36 Chambers in its entirety. I acquired a dub of a dub on a Fuji blank tape from a friend a little after its release. I remember popping it into my little boombox to copy it. It was fifty-nine minutes of stupefying madness. There were kung fu samples from movies I had not heard of, RZA’s beats were unorthodox, there were all of these rappers that I really could not understand. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was crazy! But I loved every single minute of it. I think I understood how my older brothers and older listeners felt when they had heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Eric B. and Rakim, and Boogie Down Productions for the first time. I, as well as most of my friends at the time, knew, THIS was OURS!
Wu Tang was what many teenage hip hoppers wanted in life—a cutting edge giant crew that would dictate the cultural agenda for their peers. None of us did, of course, but there was something about nine mostly unheralded rappers who had to turn to (appropriate) Far East cinema and culture to forge their identity on the vibrant NYC hip hop scene.
So…to the actual album. Like Midnight Marauders, I love(d) every song and my “favorite” track used to change by the day or the week when I first heard the album. “Shame on a Nigga” was probably the second song that caught my attention because of the hardcore beat and Raekwon’s and ODB’s verses. The Genius reintroduces himself as “The GZA” on “Clan in da Front” with his angry (yes, he was angry then), vivid, and menacing verses, often punctuating with “Wu” chants, just to remind you how they rolled deep.
What else is crazy about 36 Chambers is that literally have of the albums songs were singles. 36 Chambers had six singles! That would be unheard of today. They were pretty diverse and the list contains the hit, “C.R.E.A.M.” On the one hand, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” is a story of black teens struggling in urban America where the inner city and the mass incarceration state are indistinguishable—“Handcuffed in the back of the bus, forty of us, life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough. But as the world turns I learned life is hell, living in the world no different from a cell,” Inspectah Deck raps. Method Man shows his “five mic potential” as he styles on the rest of the rap world on the self-titled, “Method Man.” “Protect Ya Neck” was the Wu’s first single, as one would be able to tell by watching the video. All of the Wu artists, except for U-God who did not appear on the track, ripped it.
U-God’s absence on “Protect Ya Neck” brings me back to “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.” U-God started the track by dropping fire like he had accidentally picked up burning coal. What is crazy is that that may be one of his three best verses. But, there was something about this track—the iconic video with everyone rapping on the human chessboard, the alternate video version of the song with all of the extra sound effects, and EACH VERSE WAS CRAZY! There were moments where Deck’s verse was my favorite, then it was Raekwon’s, then Ol’ Dirty Bastard, then Masta Killa’s. Actually, that was Masta Killa’s only verse because he was serving time, and it was memorable.
November 9, 1993 is both legendary and bittersweet in hip hop history. It represented a beginning and an end for the genre. One golden era was passing while another was emerging. The sound was changing. Sampling disputes began to constrain the artistic creativity as artists had to pay to clear samples, thus phasing out the dense and multi-layered sampled beats from the likes of the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Beastie Boys, and A Tribe Called Quest. Thus, the genre’s aesthetic center of gravity began to shift from the jazz-based samples featured mainly in East Coast (mainly New York City) rap to both the harder edged and dusty boom bap found among artists like the Wu and Black Moon and the funk-based, heavy bassline-laden, melodic, and more polished sound of the West Coast. Then Snoop Doggy Dogg dropped the single, “What’s My Name,” another infectious Dr. Dre production.
Snoop Dogg then dropped Doggystyle two weeks later.
Lyrical content was also shifting. The Afrocentric pro-black positivity and playfulness of Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers took a backseat to the smooth gangsta rap and intense struggle lyricism. Even hip hop’s black nationalists Public Enemy and X-Clan had declined by 1993.
Most importantly, hip hop finally invaded pop culture. Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin But a G Thang” and Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” transcended cultural and regional boundaries. I remember vividly MTV and BET giving all of Salt-N-Pepa’s music videos major airplay. The Chronic sold well the year before. Salt-N-Pepa, Snoop Dogg, and Cypress Hill all dropped platinum albums in 1993.
For the Tribe, November 9, 1993 represented the end of a legendary three album run. They released Beats, Rhymes, and Life on July 30, 1996, at the height of the ultimately tragic East Coast-West Coast beef. Beats, Rhymes, and Life were actually good, but it was overshadowed by plenty of other classic albums like Jay-Z’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, 2Pac/Makaveli’s Don Killuminati…, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, Outkast’s ATLiens, and Nas’s It Was Written. The group dropped the fan favorite single, “1nce Again,” where Q-Tip told us he was “getting off like O.J.” They introduced hip hop to another one of hip hop’s legendary beatsmiths—J. Dilla (Jay Dee at the time)—and one of the heirs to the Native Tongue legacy—Consequence. Ironically, Dilla’s first musical contribution was not received as well as his later work. And, ultimately, you could hear the tension that all of the group members must have felt in the singles “1nce Again” and the aptly-titled “Stressed Out” and the skits. Q-Tip complains about drama at the end of “Jam” and then we endure a skit depicting a shooting at the end of “Crew,” both reflecting the strain within the group and within hip hop culture as a whole.
Wu Tang just took off after 36 Chamber’s release. The group embarked on one of the most legendary runs in hip hop history (1993-1998) that may be unparalleled by any hip hop artist and/or group. They built an empire. Their unprecedented record deal with Loud Records allowed each member to secure label deals elsewhere. They seriously entered into street fashion before Roc-A-Fella and Diddy (“Wu Wear”). Musically, RZA continued his theme of artistic resurrection by assembling De La Soul’s Prince Paul, Frukwan, and Poetic, to form the group, Gravediggaz (early precursor to Odd Future). Method Man dropped the great Tical, ODB dropped the excellent Return to the 36 Chambers, then GZA and Raekwon dropped megaton bombs—Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx—in 1995. Ghost dropped his debut in 1996. My friends endured my incessant complaining about album push backs and general impatience the two years before the group’s follow up, Wu Tang Forever, dropped in the summer of 1997. Their run ended in 1998 with RZA’s fine debut, Bobby Digital in Stereo and Method Man’s sophomore album, Tical 2: Judgment Day. Both albums were fine, but the cracks in Wu Tang’s armor broke when Raekwon put out Immobilarity and U-God released his debut album the following year. Remember U-God’s laughable intro where he raps in acapella to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at what sounded like a basketball game (which I am sure is easier said than done)? It did not matter, though. Wu Tang was, and still is, better than No Limit.