RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition. He does have an amazing PATREON, but also *normal* ARTIST WEBSITE too.

Thursday, August 9

EWA100 - #26. Wu-Tang Clan - Da Mystery of Chessboxin'

#26: Wu-Tang Clan - Da Mystery Of Chessboxin' (Loud/RCA. 1993. From the LP Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers))

Mike Dikk: Okay, I’ve been looking for a good excuse to write about Enter the 36 Chambers and this song specifically, for several years now. There is no way I will be able to do myself justice because I’ve been building up to this point in my music writing career since I started writing about music. There is no record I’ve listened to more in my life. I have owned no less than four copies of it. One on cassette, two on CD (in case one broke) and one on vinyl, plus a couple electronic versions and the instrumental version. I can recite the entire record with 97% accuracy, which is quite a feat for my forgetful ass. Since its release, I haven’t gone a month in my life without listening to at least one song off the record. Outside of a few breaks here and there, I listen to it in its entirety on an almost-weekly basis. I listened to it yesterday. It’s the greatest rap album of all time.
I know most people might point to Illmatic or Ready to Die, but you have to remember that there’s only one main rapper involved on those records, not nine. Plus the beats on 36 Chambers blow the beats on the other two records out of the water.
The reason for my undying love towards this album is the same reason hundreds of thousands of people feel the same way I do about it: Nostalgia. Not so much the record specifically, but what it embodies. Wu touches on a lot of elements from a lot of our childhoods: Kung Fu movies, comic books, pro wrestling, being poor, and just not giving a fuck. If I had to choose a set of lyrics to sum up the continuous theme throughout the record it would be Inspectah Deck’s “But as the world turns I learned life is Hell / Living in the world no different from a cell” from “C.R.E.A.M.”, but if I had to choose a song that displayed the overall hunger heard throughout, it would be “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”.
Hunger and passion are two very important elements of music that oft get overlooked in this day and age. You barely hear things now that make you go “Damn!” like Ron Simmons. Now it’s a lot easier to tell an artist’s main motivation is to make money than it ever was before. When you think to yourself that music sucks, it’s usually not because of talent or lack thereof, it’s because it has no soul.
If you’re reading this, I shouldn’t have to explain to you the structure of the 36 Chambers, but I will just for shits and giggles. The songs on 36 Chambers are more or less broken down to two categories. You have the storytelling tracks, then you have the more boastful tracks. Songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Tearz” are very well done, but Wu really excels on the all-out no-holds-barred tracks, especially for such a large crew of emcees. “Chessboxin’” falls under the brag track category, and a lot of people might lose it in the shuffle because of songs like “Protect Ya Neck” and “Bring Da Ruckus”, and if you’re one of those people, I must ask you to go back and listen to “Chessboxin’” before you finish reading this.
See, “Chessboxin’” is a very minimal track compared to the other tracks on the record. You get a constant, pulsating kick drum, a simple vaguely oriental sounding melody and a vocal sample of someone seemingly repeating the sounds “Doom-PAH, Doom-PAH” over and over again. The chorus appears twice, and its only four lines long with no repetition, so you’re basically left to concentrate on the emcees and their words. On top of that, and I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but the emcees manage to excel the pace of the song through the duration without the actual beat changing tempo.
The song begins with a sample from the movie the song’s title was derived from, and then it cuts into a quick sample from the movie Five Deadly Venoms that bleeds into the beat, ushering in the first, quick U-God verse followed by a verse from Deck. Both are par for the course verses, as far as this record goes. I mean, I’d kill for either of them to sound this great right now, but that’s not the case.
Next up is Raekwon’s verse, which is the first time the driving kick drum loop falls out for a couple bars, which also signals the first increase of pace and intensity. Following up is Method Man’s brief chorus which goes into ODB’s verse, and in my opinion, it’s the best verse ODB ever spit in his entire dirty, grimy life. By the time he gets to the part where he yells “Gotta get up and beeeeee somebody!” everyone should be in agreement with me on this. Then he goes into the prerequisite Wu Tang roll call followed up by the now classic “Introducin’ the GHOST FACE KILLLLLAAAHHHHHH!!”
The chorus refrain follows, which I guess is kind of odd placement, since ODB was introducin’ the GHOST FACE KILLLLLAAAAAHHHHH!! And not The Method Man, but whatever. Ghost spits a rough verse in his original Hardcore Boom Bap style as opposed to his more modern loved by the internet pop culture gibberish style. Ghost’s verse finishes and is immediately followed by the familiar “WU TANG! WU TANG!” chant, and this next part is where you really need to pay attention. It is basically the definition of “hunger” in relation to hip hop.
The kick drum once again drops out for a couple bars as Masta Killah spits “Homicide’s illegal and death is the penalty. What justifies the homicide when he dies? In his own iniquity it’s the master of the mantis rapture comin at cha”. Then the original drums come back in and Masta Killa is in the fucking zone. It’s not so much what he says, but how he says it. If you listen real close you can hear the uneasy tone in his voice. It’s the same tone you get in your voice the first time you have to perform in front of a large crowd or when you’re arguing before a fist fight. I’ve honestly never in my life outside of this one verse heard it on a recording, and if you notice Masta Killa has never rapped like this ever again in his life. By the time he gets to the line “Disguised like a lie paralyzin’ the victim” and he takes that audible gasp for breath before saying “You scream! As it enters your bloodstream...” the deal is sealed that this is the all time most Realy Really Rillest verse ever recorded. I dare you to find another verse on record that sounds this passionate and raw. The sound and tone in his voice really paints a bleak picture that this was his one chance to do something dope and hopefully not have to go back to poor, shitty life in a world no different from a cell.
On that note, I read an interview with I believe, The RZA, years ago where he said they used “Chessboxin’” to find the 9th Wu member. They had all the potential rappers do that last verse and Masta Killa’s was the best so they took him in. I’m not sure how true this is since I’ve never seen it anywhere else outside of that one interview, but if it’s true, it legitimizes why Masta Killa had that such an urgent tone in his voice. Not to get too overdramatic, but that really was his one chance, and he fucking killed it.
I know this has already gone on for too long, but I’d just like to say that if you’re scratching your head wondering how out of all the Wu songs to choose from, this one finished so high, this is why. So if you didn’t already go back and listen to the song over again like I fucking told you to do, please do yourself a favor and do it right now. We are the Expert Whiteboy Analysis and we wouldn’t lie about such things.

Raven Mack: I was pretty much set to talk about how, even though I was a huge Wu-fanboy back in the day before Wu Tang Forever came out (which, for me, is when they started to give a glimpse of their eventual collective suckiness), this song being ranked this high is completely ridiculous. And I'd been blowing off writing these blurbs for a while now because, fuck, the six of us who did this made this list like a long ass time ago. I think Marcel (one of the dudes) is dead now. (REST IN PEACE MARCEL! GO D.C. UNITED!)
But then I read Mike's blurb, and it allows me to shed my internet coolery skin (since everybody on the internet's a fucking giant fat-ass homo in real life anyways) to speak on some real shit. When the first "Protect Ya Neck" single came out, I was buying shit every Tuesday on release day, and bought that 12-inch because of the write-up blurb in The Source, which wasn't so much a write-up as a mention with a weird picture of a pack of crazy looking dudes holding torches. That was Wu. I did not jizz all over the "Protect Ya Neck" single, as it sounded underproduced compared to shit I was geeked on at the time, most likely Redman's first album and The Beatnuts' Intoxicated Demons EP, if time frame memory I have is not jarred too terribly by substance use. The B-side "Method Man" was good, but did not cover up for the fact, at least to me at that time, the A-side was a piece of not-that-great shit. Mike explaining in ridiculous detail this song reminded me of seeing the video for it on BET back in the day (or maybe The Box, hard to say). Everything is so clear, every syllable and all that shit, but to be honest, I can't remember U-God and Deck in the video, but Raekwon down in some gutted building in front of the bare framing exposed, that was grimy. And that's why I loved old Wu - the griminess. I guess they'll have an overhyped CD at some point, but it won't be grimy because you can't pretend to be hungry. It makes me sad, because when 36 Chambers cracked the world's skull, it truly was one of the last things to crack hip hop's skull. Mike's timeline is exaggerated, but there's some truth to it. I mean, I always thought to myself back in the late '90s, "Well, you had '88 with N.W.A and Rakim and Public Enemy and all, then '91 with The Chronic, and then after that Wu came out, so something's bubbling up that will turn shit on its ear and refresh the landscape." I've been telling myself that for almost a decade now. Seriously. It's not just old guy talk. There have been things that tapped on the door, but nothing has kicked hip hop over like the Wu did, which is why they'll be able to pack stadiums with Rage Against the Machine for shitty reunion shows that probably won't feature two or three of the best Wu Tangers anyways. People hunger for that hunger, and Mike's right, this song... or this CD is full of hunger. Full of it. And it's not just one hungry dude, but a pack of them, like feral wolves ripping into the intestines of a track looking for soul nutrition. (Haha, that last line was mad hilarious, and so pretentious, I think it best to pretend this parenthesis add-on doesn't exist and that's how I ended the shit.)

Download: Wu-Tang Clan - Da Mystery of Chessboxin'

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