Consider yourself fortunate, Philadelphia.
The Wu-Tang Clan will play the first two of only four total dates scheduled in the U.S. to mark the 25th anniversary of Enter the Wu (36 Chambers), the Staten Island hip-hop collective’s much-loved and massively influential debut album.
The 10-member crew that currently constitutes the complete lineup of the Wu — more on the specifics of that in a minute — will be at the Franklin Music Hall (the venue formerly known as the Electric Factory) on Thursday, Jan. 24, and Friday, Jan. 25. The next two nights, they return to New York to play Terminal 5 in Manhattan.
The shows are billed as “25 years of 36 Chambers,” and Enter the Wu is a landmark worth celebrating, even in an anniversary-driven pop marketplace — we just got done making a big deal of The Sopranos ' 20th, while the 25th of Kurt Cobain’s death and the 50th of Woodstock are inexorably headed our way.
Enter the Wu deserves its place among such seismic culture-quaking events. Among its many virtues is an independent spirit: Along with Nirvana’s Nevermind, it’s an early 1990s disrupter whose frenetic, undeniable energy marked its genre’s maturation and altered its landscape by forcing the underground into the mainstream.
The album stands as a pivotal accomplishment in the history of rap. It’s one of the great debuts of all time and the high-water mark of the Wu-Tang Clan’s career, and also the most impressively imagined and fully realized creation ever by a hip-hop collective.
That organizing principle of the collective — a group of individuals with disparate talents and personalities working together for the common good — is a familiar and frequent set-up in hip-hop, with teams of rappers taking turns at the mic, and a DJ or producer at the creative center.
That goes all the way back to early crews, like Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five and the Sugar Hill Gang. (“Rapper’s Delight” turns 40 this year, by the way.)
But Wu-Tang’s stature within that history is unique, with a Zen master visionary at the center in RZA, the producer-DJ-theoretician born Robert Diggs, also known as Prince Rakeem and Bobby Digital.
The group emerged with a raw, rugged street rap sound that broke away from early 1990s hip-hop, then dominated by Dr. Dre’s smooth West Coast G-funk, and the jazzy positivity coming from New York groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
In the original Wu-Tang Clan, there were nine. In addition to RZA, those would be: Method Man (the most recognizable, with acting roles in The Wire and elsewhere, and his How High weed-loving escapades with North Jersey rapper Redman), Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Master Killa, GZA, U-God, and, of course, Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
That number — 9 — plays a key role in the Wu-Tang origin story. One version behind Enter the Wu’s parenthetical subtitle is that it’s based on the 1978 Kung Fu movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Another is that we all have four chambers in our hearts. With all nine members of the Wu-Tang, you get 36 Chambers.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the group’s most erratic and endearing member, was born Russell Jones and died in 2004, two days before his 36th birthday. (Ghostface explains his theory of the significance of that coincidence in Wu-Tang: For the Children, a new 17-minute promotional film celebrating Enter the Wu.)
Dirty, whom RZA is producing a movie about, is also the Wu warrior with the strongest Philadelphia connection. (Though Inspectah Deck does open “Protect Ya Neck,” the band’s first single, released in December 1992, by rhyming: “I smoke on the mic like Smokin’ Joe Frazier / the hell raiser, raisin’ hell with the flavor.”) ODB’s Philly link is that he was arrested at the McDonald’s at 29th and Grays Ferry after escaping from a court-mandated drug treatment facility. (There was a movement to commemorate the event with a historical marker.)
So if ODB is dead, how are there going to be 10 Wu members at the Franklin on Thursday and Friday? The two additions will be Cappadonna, who joined in the 1990s after Enter the Wu’s release, and Mathematics, the DJ who also designed the original Bat Signal-like Wu-Tang logo, as recognizable to its intended audience as the Rolling Stones' Hot Lips logo.
The soul-sampling Enter the Wu had an enormous impact, bringing attention back to East Coast hip-hop, and making unvarnished, street level rap fashionable again. The album came out in November 1993, pointing the way forward to iconic releases that would arrive in the following years in what is considered rap’s golden age, like Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die.
Consciously or not, Enter the Wu’s influence was also felt on collectives to come, particularly those concerned with creating an entire multimedia gestalt around their work.
This carries on in the collectives that have risen to be commercial in the Wu-Tang’s wake, from New York’s A$AP Mob to the wildly talented Odd Future aggregation, which introduced major talents Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, and singer-producer Syd tha Kid of the Internet.
The cool collective of the moment is the California enterprise known as Brockhampton, led by Kevin Abstract, who have released four inconsistent albums since 2017. They are frequently compared to Wu-Tang, but their origin story reflects the times: The group, which prefers to be identified as a boy band and emphasizes inclusivity in all of its messaging, came together after meeting on the internet on a Kanye West fan forum.
In a quarter century, the Wu-Tang Clan have never collectively equaled Enter the Wu. But that hardly means it’s been all downhill. Though official releases have often been overstuffed or uneven, there’s been lots of excellent solo work.
That goes for Raekwon’s 1995 Only Built for Cuban Linx , ODB’s 1999 N- Please , and a slew of Ghostface Killah albums, including Supreme Clientele in 2000 and two cinematic Twelve Reasons to Die collaborations with producer Adrian Young in this decade. RZA’s done excellent soundtrack work, from Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog in 2000 to teaming up with Quentin Tarantino for the Kill Bill movies a few years later.
Wu-Tang fandom can be frustrating. I remember a painfully awful show at the Class of 1923 rink in West Philly in 2000 featuring Method Man and Ghostface that I described as “relentlessly torturous.” But I also remember an early ’00‘s Irvine Auditorium show in which ODB didn’t show, but Method Man was wildly entertaining, including taking a breathtaking leap from the balcony into the crowd.
And the Wu are always full of surprises. Of all people, U-God, the most widely disregarded member, unexpectedly released an acclaimed memoir last year called Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang. Questlove blurbed it: “There’s never been a book that deserved its title more.”
In recent years, both Drake and Logic have recorded songs called “Wu-Tang Forever.” The Canadian superstar failed to attract any Wu members for the track. But when Logic professed his love of the Wu on his 2018 album YSIV, the entire Clan showed up, sounding eager and motivated.