RZA, for one, loves the idea of Minnesota hip-hop fans born after 1993 shouting out the lyrics to “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.” at the State Fairgrounds on Sunday.
“Kids still relate to that album,” said the Wu-Tang Clan producer, rapper and original mastermind behind one of hip-hop’s all-time most celebrated records, “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” which is 25 years old this year.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things we rapped about then are still part of the saga for American youth,” he added.
Raekwon, meanwhile, is excited to rekindle the all-for-one energy that he believes made the album special in the first place.
“RZA was driving the bus,” the rapper said, “but it took all of us coming together to make a record of that magnitude. It needed that balance between all of us, which you can only get when we’re all together.”
Two of Wu-Tang Clan’s original nine members, Raekwon and RZA each got on the phone Monday sounding genuinely enthused and amused to revisit their seminal debut album.
The first stop on their “36 Chambers” 25th-anniversary tour is Soundset, where several Wu-Tang members have performed in prior years (Method Man with Redman in 2010, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah in 2012), but never the whole nine-man crew. The booking not only speaks to the clout of Minnesota’s Little Hip-Hop Fest That Could, but also reiterates how vital the record remains today.
In another celebration of the anniversary, the 1993 album will be remade song-for-song into a new album with younger rappers, an idea that RZA likened to “remaking a movie like ‘Ocean’s 11,’ except in this case it’s more like ‘Ocean’s 8.’ ” Even that fun update might pale in comparison to the thrill of the original crew (minus the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard) performing the full album on stage.
If they perform the record in full, that is. As of Monday, it sounded like even the group’s de facto leader didn’t know the exact game plan for Sunday’s show.
“With DJ Mathematics behind the wheel, I’m not sure if he’s going to do it from the intro straight through to the outro, or if he’s gonna shuffle the deck,” RZA said, only promising this for sure: “There’s going to be a lot of songs we don’t normally perform, like ‘7th Chamber’ and ‘Can It Be All So Simple.’ ”
However it’s rolled out, RZA sounded fittingly self-assured the performance will be smooth sailing. He harked back to the album’s original inception to explain why.
“Your first album is usually material you’ve accumulated over a time period, and you’re finally getting a chance to show it to the world,” he said. “A lot of those lyrics in a lot of those songs were lyrics that were maybe two or even three years old. So when we would perform them back in those days, everybody knew what everybody else was going to say.
“That album has that kind of energy, where we all participated with each other in a very strong way. I think people will get to see that energy again when we revisit this album.”
‘Brotherhood, love, loyalty’
When he first brainstormed the Wu-Tang Clan concept in 1991, RZA (Robert Diggs) was coming off a frustratingly short-lived recording deal with Tommy Boy Records under the moniker Prince Rakeem. He said he was the “common denominator” between the other eight members.
“After my experiences at Tommy Boy, I saw flaws in the industry, and I saw what was missing in the industry,” he said. “That’s when I got the idea for hip-hop drawn from a lyrical point, an Afrocentric point, scholastic point, but also hip-hop that was still very street-level, focused on street life from people that were actually living it.
“You look at Wu-Tang Clan, you see guys that are high school dropouts, ex-cons, people who lived hip-hop their whole life. And being guys really living the struggles. That had been missing in a lot of hip-hop at the time.”
The Wu-Tangers were certainly struggling at the time. Most members hailed from public housing projects on Staten Island, N.Y., which Raekwon called “the lonely borough.”
“We were disconnected from the other boroughs because you had to take a boat,” said the rapper, who’s featured prominently in many of the best-loved “36 Chambers” tracks, including “Can It Be All So Simple” and the money-scrounging anthem “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Dolla dolla bill, y’all!”)
“There was a lot of trouble and mischief like any other neighborhood,” Raekwon added, “but the music was always a strong factor there. We’d have great block parties, and it gave us more of a purpose.”
Later named one of the 100 best albums of the 1990s by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork and the third greatest hip-hop album of all time by Source magazine, the group’s debut spotlighted the members’ bleak and hardened backgrounds. It brought back a gritty element to East Coast/NYC hip-hop that had been washed over by more party-centric hits at the time, following the West Coast gangsta-rap wave.
There was a fantasy element to “36 Chambers,” as well: The album’s title and some of its verses and between-song sound clips come from the 1978 flick “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and other Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies.
Said Raekwon, “We felt the karate concept represented brotherhood, love, loyalty, all those things that brought us together in the first place.”
The saga continues
After some off-and-on hiatuses, Wu-Tang’s members have bonded again in recent years.
They released a new, Mathematics-produced album to a lukewarm reception in October, “The Saga Continues.” They also famously made another record prior to that one, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” which — through a series of bizarre, much publicized circumstances — got tied up in the bankruptcy and fraud court proceedings of hedge-fund millionaire Martin Shkreli, aka “Pharma Bro,” who paid $2 million for it. The record has yet to be made public.
“That’s all in the court system now,” said RZA. “As far as what the government is going to do with it, I wouldn’t know. We have to wait and see.”
With these more recent group efforts failing to connect with mass audiences, the Clan members seem all the more appreciative to have fans clamoring for the “36 Chambers” tour.
“I know we got a big, big fan base there in Minnesota, and the last time we came out we had a lot of fun,” Raekwon said.
Soundset first-timer RZA added, “I just feel like Wu-Tang is coming to your city to celebrate what you’ve done also. I really appreciate people there who over the years have supported us as a group and as individuals. That all started with ‘36 Chambers.’ ”
Here’s more of what the Wu-Tang Clan co-founders had to say
On how ‘36 Chambers’ changed hip-hop, per Raekwon: “It was a turning point. You had the West Coast doing its thing. We brought a new sound to the table. We had a certain kind of style that people related to. We were talking about the circumstances we were living in, and the emotional roller coasters we were on. Our music impacted people’s emotions.”
RZA: “I definitely think this is one of the great hip-hop albums. And I’m not saying it egotistically, but you can look at it like a signpost, a marker in time for hip-hop. It caused a dynamic shift in hip-hop, allowed a lot of energy that wasn’t getting through to get through. It allowed Nas, it allowed Biggie, Big Pun, Mobb Deep. And it went back and regenerated other, older artists who had gotten away from their roots.”
On their late bandmate Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who suffered mental illness and fatally overdosed in 2004, from Raekwon: “God bless him. He was like the head coach. He always steered us in the right direction when it came to the energy we needed to add on the records.”
On the continuing saga of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” the album that purportedly exists as just one copy, per RZA: “A challenge was set when that album was sent out into the world, and the challenge was to revalue music. At the time, music had been greatly devalued. It was not being considered art. People were buying up expensive iPhones and $600 headphones to listen to music, but they weren’t willing to pay for the music. It didn’t make sense.
“So we came up with a way to take music into the art world, take it from being an industrial commodity and give it more of a unique value. If you want to see the Mona Lisa, you have to go to the Louvre in Paris. To me, that’s how this album should be. It should sit in some kind of museum, or tour different museums, and you have to come out to hear it.”
With: Logic, Migos, Erykah Badu, Wu-Tang Clan, Atmosphere, Ice-T and 40 more.
When: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun.
Where: Minnesota State Fairgrounds Midway, Falcon Heights.
Tickets: $99 via Soundsetfestival.com.