The rap game -- well, any game -- could use more people with the ambition of the RZA and the ability to make good on it. The man born Robert Diggs is more than an MC, a producer, and an actor. His resume also includes "DICTATOR" in big, bold letters: When the Wu-Tang Clan was just a bunch of young bucks with no focus or discipline back in the early '90s, RZA concocted a five-year plan as a stepping stone to achieve the status and stability they have today. The five-year plan involved RZA having full authority and creative control over the entire group and its side projects for its first half-decade -- a move that ultimately paid off very well. If Wu-Tang somehow upped and dissolved for good tomorrow, it will have left quite the legacy behind: the main Wu group albums, solo records such as GZA's Liquid Swords and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., a clothing line bearing its famous logo, a PlayStation game, and wise financial advice such as "You need to diversify your bonds, nigga."
Most importantly, it gave the world 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a debut that's easily in the running for being the best hip-hop record of all time. Not only is 36 Chambers full of insightful social commentary and brilliant rhymes, but it also has scads of intriguing pop culture references. Seeing as His Highness Prince Rakeem and company stop by the Regency Ballroom (with Moe Green) this Sunday, Jan. 22, let's look back at eight of the most memorable pop culture shout-outs on the Wu-Tang Clan's very first album.
1. "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?" "En garde, I'll let you try my Wu Tang style."
36 Chambers doesn't begin with a boast or a beat, but rather a snippet of dialogue ripped from the 1981 kung fu film Shaolin & Wu Tang, and then a separate snippet from the 1979 movie Ten Tigers from Kwangtung. Kung fu films have been instrumental to shaping the group's personality. The Clan itself takes its name from the former film (just last year, Raekwon released a record called Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang), and references to swords and daggers have repeatedly popped up over the group's discography. Pieces of dialogue from other kung fu films are sprinkled all over 36 Chambers, and it's to the Clan's (or at least RZA's) credit that everything flows so well.
2. "However, I master the trick just like Nixon/ Causin' terror, quick damage ya whole era/ Hard rocks is locked the fuck up, or found shot/ PLO style, hazardous, cause I wreck this, dangerous/ I blow sparks like Waco, Texas"
During his very first verse on a Wu-Tang record, Ghostface Killah debuts one of the lesser-known motifs in Wu mythology: "PLO style." Aside from "Bring Da Ruckus," the phrase is mentioned in 36 Chambers' "Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber," and Method Man titles a song after it on his solo album Tical. The acronym is a nod to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is one of the diciest groups you could throw your support behind. In a passage from The Wu-Tang Manual, RZA's 2005 analysis of all things Wu, he clarifies, "We weren't supporting terrorism, we just felt their guerrilla style: machine guns, ski masks, bandanas." The explanation is the kind of cop-out that doesn't reflect well on Wu-Tang Clan. Sometimes, the members come off as if they're above empty visual concepts and operate on an higher ideological level; at other times, they make statements or write verses that are disappointingly shallow.
3. "I grew up on the crime side/ The New York Times side/ Staying alive was no jive/ Had secondhands, moms bounced on old man/ So then we moved to Shaolin land/ A young youth, yo rockin' the gold tooth, 'Lo goose/ Only way I begin to G off was drug loot"
Then again, Wu-Tang can break out the blunt reality when they feel up to it. Raekwon's verse on "C.R.E.A.M." is among the album's darkest, and using a reference to a Polo Ralph Lauren goose down jackets ("'Lo goose") as a symbol of his difficult, crime-filled times is a provocative decision. The clothing brand pops up again just a few lines later, emphasizing the idea from before: "My life got no better, same damn 'Lo sweater." On the whole, Raekwon can be materialistic as hell (his references to Land Cruisers, Lexuses, and Champion gear on 36 Chambers rarely serve any deeper purpose), but when the Chef's firing on all cylinders, he can be incisive in ways you're not anticipating.
4. "Here I go/Deep-type flow/Jacques Cousteau could never get this low"
Ol' Dirty Bastard was several things: a strangely lovable hound dog of man; an idiosyncratic lyricist; a speech interrupter long before Kanye came along; a would-be target of the FBI; an abuser of food stamps; and a man whose death encouraged one of his collaborators to develop a "fetish for loose ladies and baby mommas." A great thinker he was not, which is what makes his signature opening line on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" so amusing. Perhaps it was irony (likely not), or maybe it referred to how it was difficult to understand his songs (which is way more believable). For as random and brilliant the Cousteau name-drop is, it's about par for the course for ODB on 36 Chambers, as he somehow finds a way to fit cartoon character Beetle Bailey, martial artist Jim Kelly, and Roots author Alex Haley into "Chessboxin'," too.