The Wu Movement: Hart Plaza fest celebrates 25 years of '36 Chambers'
This weekend's electronic music festival will be headlined by the Wu-Tang Clan, celebrating the 25th anniversary of its landmark debut album
Wu-Tang Clan T-shirts are a staple of any music festival; they're as common as cargo shorts and $10 beers.
That's the power of the Wu. But at this weekend's Movement Festival at Hart Plaza, there will be more Wu shirts than usual, since the New York rap collective is headlining the fest, staging a Monday night performance that will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the group's debut album, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)."
The album sent shockwaves through the rap industry in 1993, when the nine-member crew — the RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Masta Killa — blew the doors off of hip-hop with a narrative that focused on kung-fu, mathematics and chess at a time when other artists were talking about low riders and parties. The group has experienced its ups and downs since (and suffered the death ODB in 2004), but it remains a powerful live draw with an unquestioned significance.
We talked to Raekwon, aka Corey Woods, earlier this week about his memories of recording "36 Chambers" and the legacy of the Wu. "I would call it an astonishing movement," Rae said, on the phone from his New Jersey home, summing up his experience as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Detroit News: Where were you at that point in your life when you were making the album?
Raekwon: I was still in the hood, still doing what I was doing. I believed in the movement. When things started to happen, for me, it was time to really focus and really go for this. So a lot of times I would be around RZA, spending my days with him, really hanging out with him heavy. That’s why you have somebody like me on the majority of the records that was made back then, because I was so overwhelmed with the fact of changing my life and finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
I was happy, I was motivated. I felt like RZA was the best in the world at the time. And it was just the willpower that kept us all in the movement. When we were finally able to start doing shows, and things were starting to pick up, my money got better, and I finally decided to move out of the neighborhood. We knew that the world was looking for something new at that time, and we had exactly what they wanted. So when I got the opportunity to get out of the neighborhood, I was like hell yeah, I wanna be near this, because this is gonna be my job. This is going to be something that’s going to take care of me forever, and if we do it right, it’s going to take care of all of us forever. So that was the goal.
TDN: What was the vibe like when you were recording '36 Chambers?' Were the sessions late at night, early in the morning? How crowded was it in the studio?
Raekwon: When we were making the album, it was a lot of everything: early in the morning, late at night. We came late at night and we stayed the whole day. Some records were made in the daytime, too. This is back when records took, actually, a whole day to make. The clutteredness of everybody in the studio — it wasn’t a studio, it was actually RZA’s home where he was living. It was a small place, I’d say about 800 square feet, and we all couldn’t be in there all at one time. But we had them nights where it got pretty packed in there.
A lot of the production was made early, meaning RZA had certain records that he had already done, individually, in the stash. So when it came down to working on a particular record, nine times out of 10, he was already working with that person closely to get a blueprint of what he wanted to put on the album.
A lot of it was done organically, no pressure, because it was inside his house. It was really more about that day, RZA might have called to say yo, I’ve got this beat on the stove, I think it fits you, and then I would come through and check it out. Or sometimes it was just being in the right place at the right time.
TDN: How would you characterize your role in the group at that time? There were a lot of different personalities in the mix. Where did you fit in?
Raekwon: I was just a team player. It’s like dealing with a basketball team, you know. You make the cut, you come up and you do your job. We all come from the same (situation) and we’re trying to get out. We all believed that together we could make a move, so it wasn’t really too much different. Some guys are quiet, some are loud, maybe I might have come across as loud because I believed in it. You know what I mean? I was amped about everything. I would just say I was a team player, doing my part and excited to hear what was going to be the finalization of this album we was creating.
At that time, it wasn’t all about who was going to be the leader or the captain or the mascot, it was just about yo, making great music, you get in where you fit in. If it’s a record that you feel that you like, you get up there, and you be competitive with it, and you make brothers follow it or get involved with it the way that you got involved with the record.
If it was a record like 'Protect Ya Neck' and Inspectah Deck came and lit the wick with the first line, 'I smoke on the mic,' I automatically heard what he did and I picked up on him, and then the next person picked up on me. That's how these records got lined up. It was definitely a weird origin on how we did it, but that’s what you call organicness.
TDN: What were your favorite tracks on the album to work on?
Raekwon: 'Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to F--- With' and 'C.R.E.A.M.' Those two records right there are so different, but they have so much energy. We knew that those two records would take us to stardom. Because you got an opportunity to hear energy and reality: reality music. You didn’t hear a lot of guys talking too much about where they come from and creating this acronym that came out to 'Cash Rules Everything Around Me.' We started putting our own ebonics inside the music, and that was something that people respected. They respected our struggle. They knew we were from the bottom, and you listen to a record like 'C.R.E.A.M.,' it’s so real and vivid, and you’ve got kids all over the world that live that same lifestyle. Those two records took us to where we needed to go.
TDN: When did you know you had a classic on your hands, while you were recording, after you wrapped or sometime after?
Raekwon: When we finished the album and we all sat down at the table and we listened to it and agreed that it was definitely a different album from anything else out there. When you’re an MC, you know when another MC is about to take notes and check out what you got, so we were just like, 'the average MC can’t front on this.' We felt like it’s so authentic that if people get it the right way and understand our vision, they’re gonna call it a classic, when we kinda already knew that we made a classic when we made it. Because when you’ve got nine MCs in the room, it’s hard to be wrong. It was a go. The confidence allowed us to create what we felt was a masterpiece.
TDN: You performed plenty of times in Detroit over the years. What do you remember about those performances?
Raekwon: Back then, the D was a big, big impact for us. Because the music was out there, but there was not enough performers coming out there to show love like that. So when we came out there, it was the roaring '90s, and all I remember is like, yo, big parties at the Pontchartrain Hotel. It was a cool hotel, it had that back in the day but still modernized (feel). Just chillin, rockin' the show and everybody embracing us. Every time we happened to go, it was always a great show. It definitely made us feel good about coming out there.
TDN: What is the mood like when you guys get together these days?
Raekwon: It’s like putting on a uniform and going out and playing a sport that you love to play. We get together, everything is always humble, and we talk about life and kids and what we all got going on individually. And when we step on the stage it’s like you black out and you go into 25 years of excellence, you give 'em the heat, that heat that they’re looking for, the songs that they want to hear. Then when we finish the show, we jump back out of that uniform and I just enjoy the time with my brothers.
TDN: What can people expect from the show at Movement this weekend?
Raekwon: I would say get ready. Come and see. I can’t let you taste the food without it being fully done yet. It's gonna be a dope show. Very raw, very uplifting energy. You’re gonna have all the members there. It’s gonna be off the meat rack. That’s what we say: off the meat rack.
TDN: Was making the 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx' cassette purple your call?
Raekwon: Yes. That was my time to do my thing with my record. I was in full control of what I wanted. When it came down to it I definitely wanted a color tape. And I requested another color, which they couldn’t produce. My favorite color is green, so I might have wanted it to be like an Army green. They were like, "nah, they don’t make that color." So I was left with three different colors, and I chose purple because purple was a royal color.
It was something I knew would stand out among everybody else’s tapes. You know sometimes you’re in your car you have all your tapes thrown in the backseat, or on the floor of your car, and I knew a color tape would stand out, that people would say, “let me check this one out, why’s this so different?”
TDN: I saw you perform at the Gathering of the Juggalos in 2012. It was in a tent in the middle of the night, it was like 3 or 4 in the morning, and the guy next to me was literally smoking crack. What do you remember about that performance?
Raekwon: You could expect anything at that festival. It was definitely a collage of different musical lovers. I definitely saw some weird (things), some (messed) up (things), some funny (things), some amazing (things). It was just a night to remember. When I think about festivals like that, it’s like everybody’s invited, and you’ve gotta be expecting anything at that time. And just having it under a tent, I don’t know if it was raining that night, I don’t remember, but the energy was just crazy; it was all over the place.
When I came out, they definitely gave me my love, and I’m like ay, as long as y’all love it, that’s all that counts. It was a lot of (things) going on there, you’re right. I think I did smell crack out there, too.
with Wu-Tang Clan, Claude VonStroke, Loco Dice b2b with the Martinez Brothers, Diplo, Badbadnotgood, Inner City, DJ Premier, John Digweed, Seth Troxler, Too $hort, Carl Craig and more
Hart Plaza, Detroit
Tickets $85 daily, $195 weekend, $320 VIP