Shaolin Shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style....
If what you say is true the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous.
Do you think your Wu-Tang Sword can defeat ME?

With that simple question, nine MCs from Staten Island unleashed one of the most important albums in rap history. Its beats a mixture of snaps, handclaps, rattles, thick syrupy bass lines that shake and thump as if oozing from huge speakers strapped to the bed of an El Camino on hydraulics; its tracks hotwired to blood-curdling cat-gut strings raked across fractured bone. Mix in the hard soul and blaxploitation samples, as well as the pensive, ghostly piano loops, as on the standout classic “C.R.E.A.M,” and you have the rest of the recipe. And of course there are the eponymous martial arts movie interludes. For fifteen years, journalists have been fond of calling The RZA’s soundscapes “jittery,” but this makes them sound haphazard and schizophrenic. In fact, they are such complete, complicated environments their wholeness can’t be questioned. The instrumentation captures a symphonic quality The RZA has strived to masterfully employ for the rest of his career, into his film soundtrack work. Only in the newest record, 8 Diagrams, does it finally sound (fuller and richer though it is) as fully organic as it does here.

But it’s the flows that elevate 36 Chambers into the legendary. Every time I listen I hear something new that blows me away. (Case in point, tonight I heard Ghost say “Nobody budged while I shot slugs/ Never shot thugs/ I’m running with thugs that flood mugs” on “Chessboxin’,” as if for the first time.) Such verbal facility, fluid delivery and metaphorical ingenuity spread across nine disparate voices and characters is so staggering, so unbelievably creative and compelling, so far above and beyond mere penny-ante braggadocio about money, diamonds, coke and guns that listening to most hip-hop today only makes you realize how far it has fallen. And then you stop listening. There are plenty of other talented, committed MCs, not just in the recent past, but right now, this minute. But for insight, poetry and comprehensive genius, there will never be anything close to the Wu ever again. Even the Wu-Tang Clan aren’t as good.

GZA/Genius’s flow on "Clan in Da Front" remains one of the greatest solos of all time, and a perfect introduction to the promise of this exacting, if enigmatic artist soon to reach an early apex on Liquid Swords. It’s appropriate that Ghostface is the first voice we hear on the record (though Inspectah Deck’s red-alarm lead-off on the single, “Protect Ya Neck” was technically the first Wu anyone ever heard). And undeniable that Ghost, the truest pure storyteller in the clan, is the one that still matters most, the one who has built, arguably, the best career and the best body of work. But ODB is without doubt the raucous soul of this album, he blesses it like a household god bestowing favors, and he sparks it like an angry arsonist, laughing while it burns. He is a jester, a trickster, a Chorus and an oracle. In a college English class I once wrote a paper comparing him to Shakespeare’s fools and recommending his casting in a contemporary re-staging of King Lear as Lear’s Fool. Had he lived, I would still stand by that recommendation. He is one of the special artists whose truth is so true that regular people perceive it as madness. He was America's Shane MacGowan.

But that’s all academic. It’s impossible for me to express in a few paragraphs what effect this album has had on my life, what it means to me in memory and experience. My entire college career was bookended, literally, by the Wu-Tang Clan, played out in the four years between 36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Forever. Some of the most important, lasting friendships of my life were forged late into those nights over beer, blunts and cheap wine quoting this album from start to finish, studying it, learning it, attempting to live it—in our honest, naïve way—from the first verse of the first flow to the last. Those same people can still quote those raps with me to this day. That’s how it was. That’s how we were. Now we live all over the world, and we still carry these rhymes in our hearts.

This is what boys in their early twenties sound like. That’s the enduring secret of 36 Chambers. The energy, the swagger, the grandeur, the fraternity, the pride, the comedy, the silliness, the seriousness, the codes and the symbols, the priorities, the problems, the language and the dreams of young men with a vision—all of that is woven unbreakably through every fiber of this album. It is the sound of someone rising to the challenge, silencing the doubters, hitting his mark, calling his shot. It’s the sound of arrival, and in ways only we can understand and defend, if only to ourselves, the Wu spoke for us all.

Remember walking into a party with “7th Chamber” blasting? Remember driving around town in a packed car to “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’?” Remember karate-chopping the air to “Shame On a Nigga,” shouting the chorus with a mixture of solidarity and unease? Remember the first person that hipped you, no doubt stoned, to Cappadonna’s flow on Ironman? Remember hearing “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to F’ Wit” in a crowded club and going crazy?... I know Mike, G, Jonny, Murph and Rob all do.

A good friend looked through my music the other day and said, casually, “You don’t like rock and roll much, do you?” For a brief, glorious period of time—maybe 1993-1997, after all—the Wu-Tang Clan WAS rock and roll.