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Wu-Tang Clan | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

“Hip Hop is often treated as a collapse or retreat from the ‘high’ African American culture of Jazz, a bastard kind of offspring lacking the musicality, sophistication, complexity, even the spirituality ir morality of its besuited forebear. But if you think of the music of the African slave diaspora as a music of re-reference then it’s possible to suggest that Hip Hop is, in fact, its highest, most realised form…..the most re-referential music ever made” – Will Ashon

In his latest book, Chamber Music: Wu-Tang And America (in 36 Pieces), English scholar Will Ashon lays out a detailed exegesis of the Wu-Tang Clan’s aesthetic and philosophy in 36 interrelated chapters. Using the group’s debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) as a launching point, Ashon digs deep into the story of how an impossibly dense web of influences combined to birth the Wu-Tang. Positing the group as the standard bearers of hip-hop’s obsession with reference and recontextualization, Ashon argues that it is the group’s (and hip-hop in general’s) hybridized nature that lies at the core of what makes them one of the most wholly unique phenomena that American popular culture has ever produced.

Formed in Staten Island in the wake of hip-hop’s initial flowering out from The Bronx and into New York’s surrounding boroughs, the Wu-Tang Clan expanded on hip-hop’s voracious appetite for cultural sampling. Melding together spiritual lessons from the 5% Nation of Islam, classic Bronx-style rap routines, beats sourced heavily from Stax-style southern soul records, as well as a wealth of visual and sonic cues taken from Golden Age Hong Kong action cinema, the group would craft a singular mythology out of this chaotic mix of desperate cultural touchstones.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of 36 Chambers and the group has embarked on a tour of North America to celebrate. After years of infighting, internal lawsuits, canceled shows and attempted reunions, it seems as though the Clan has healed, pulled themselves together and are ready to receive their just due appreciation. On January 24th, all 7 surviving members — RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Raekwon — along with Cappadonna, Masta Killah and Young Dirty Bastard (performing his father Ol Dirty Bastard’s verses) brought the first show of the tour to Franklin Music Hall in Philadelphia.

W’s | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

A testament to the group’s standing and intergenerational reach, the multiracial crowd is made up of 20 somethings, 30 somethings, hypebeasts, grey beards, and people that have to be to work in the morning. After a brief, but dramatic intro, the iconic sample from Chi-Hwa Chen’s film Shaolin And Wu-Tang wafts in over the house speakers

“Shaolin Shadowboxing….and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous!”

The heavy, cavernous beat for “Bring Da Ruckus” drops and The RZA, Ghostface, Raekwon, Deck and GZA rush the stage, the first wave attack of the killer bee swarm.

Wu-Tang Clan | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

In direct energetic contrast to “Bring Da Ruckus”, “Shame on a Nigga”’ illuminates the room with its bouncy bass groove and brass fanfare nicked from Syl Johnson’s impossibly funky 1968 “Different Strokes”. Young Dirty Bastard takes center stage, commanding the song’s chorus and opening verse with power, channeling his father’s vibrant spirit from the other side. Method Man makes his first appearance, with his loose, quotable verse feeling like it could blow the roof off the building:

“Yo RZA, yo razor, hit me with the major
The damage, my Clan understand it be flavor
Gunnin’, hummin’, comin’ at ya
First I’m gonna get ya, once I got ya, I gat ya
You could never capture the Method Man’s stature
For rhyme and for rapture, got niggas resignin’, now master
My style? Never!
I put the fuckin’ buck in the wild kid, I’m terror, razor sharp, I sever
The head from the shoulders, I’m better than my competta
You mean competitor, whatever, let’s get together”

Wu-Tang Clan | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

With the exception of a few crowd-pleasing detours (like bringing out Cappadonna to perform his marathon classic “Winter Warz” verse over the beat from Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya”), the Clan performed their landmark debut from beginning to end. It is a bit jarring to realize that something that was once so cutting edge, a group that was once so mysterious and volatile that you wondered who they were and where they came from, could be celebrating a quarter-century in existence. In 2019, the Wu-Tang are no longer outliers with a seemingly alien admixture of influences. From the woozy cinematic jazz of bands like BADBADNOTGOOD to the funky and ornate productions, film scores of composer Adrian Younge to the experimental films of Louis A. Moore and Khalik Allah, the Wu-Tang’s aesthetic DNA can be found everywhere. Like many of their Gen X peers and the bands they formed, the group is now an institution. The nostalgic weight they hold takes up ample space in the mainstream pop-cultural consciousness.

Wu-Tang Clan | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

What does all of that history and hard-earned prestige look like in the long run? In addition to this 25th Anniversary tour, the Wu has signed a deal with HULU to produce a docuseries on the group’s tumultuous history. Undoubtedly, each member will continue to make new music and go out to perform the old favorites. Right now, the story of the Wu-Tang is the story of seven men from the hood who have survived long enough to live and perform in a world that their music had a hand in changing. Their story is that of an untouchable legacy and a big room full of people throwing the W’s up.

Wu-Tang Clan performs a second night at Franklin Music Hall tonight, then takes its 25 Years of 36 ChambersGods of Rap show to NYC for two nights a Terminal Five. They will also embark on tour with De La Soul and Public Enemy later this year. Check out photos from last night’s show in the gallery below.

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