For a lifelong music learner, the pattern’s almost always the same, familiar at the very least: early on, after you’ve decided music means something more to you than daily soundtracking, after you’ve started questioning your own taste and (of course) the tastes of others, after you’ve clocked a few hours flipping through too much shitty vinyl, too many shitty used CDs, largely useless yet oddly romantic cassettes, after you’ve given in, surrendered, raised the white flag of obsessive collecting without even realizing it….early on, a trustful someone hands you a record and says, simply enough, Here. You need this. And it feels this simple because it is. A few words, a few songs, the beginning of a new avenue so cast until now in complete shadow that you’ve walked right past it again and again without even know it existed.
Throughout my ninth grade spring semester and the following summer months, this must have happened to me two or three times a week. I had made friends with music heads, had started hanging out after school at the record store across the street, spending as much time eavesdropping on what in hindsight were very record-store-y conversations—primarily debates about who or what was better: Parliament or Funkadelic, Springsteen or Leonard Cohen, Fun House or Raw Power—as I was clocking hours alphabetizing backstock and changing out cracked CD cases. (Quick aside: one day, I ejected the CD that had just stopped playing over the store’s precariously-wire-strung sound system in order to put a new one in. The second I placed the old disc data-down on the counter instead of immediately back in its case, all three half-stoned fellow employees hurled some serious obscenities my way. So. It was that kind of place. In short: a record store.)
Anyway, I was a smart enough student during the school day, but the minute I walked into this sacred hole of mysterious carpet stains and sun-bleached Cure posters, I had my education cut out for me, and I knew it. More importantly, I was hungry for it. So I listened. Whether or not someone was talking directly to me, I listened. When Marvin the timid-maybe-zonked first-pressing jazz collector came in for his weekly check up through our carefully tended jazz racks, I listened. Sun Ra. Jimmy Smith. Ornette. Out to Lunch and Electric Bath and On the Corner, the last of which would soon after change my life in that visceral, urgent, grossly unfair way life-changing records all have. When red-eyed beatsmith Rich hunted through a customer’s incoming collection for breaks, studiously lowering the needle on any number of seemingly inglorious records, making notations and great chuckles of joy when the search proved fruitful, I listened. When anyone handed me something on my way out the door at the end of the day and said, Here. You need this, you’re damn right I listened.
36 Chambers wasn’t my first hip-hop record—that would be The Low End Theory, one of three CDs I took home as payment for my very first day of record schlepping, and the one that blew the doors of the genre wide open for me, as well as, yes, about a billion other curious middle class white high-schoolers throughout time—but it was definitely my first unabashedly weird one. First off, the cover was bizarre, with its title and subtitle kind of squished into one corner and its blurry, poorly-cropped photo of masked persons looking largely like it was accidentally selected over the better quality one that must have surely existed, one where everyone made it into the photo and the cameraman’s hands weren’t shaking. When I popped the case open, popped the album in, and the music itself started up, though, the cover art quickly became the least of my worries.
No matter how many times you listen to it, the best part about 36 Chambers will always be the voices. There are nine of them—nine!—and right there on first play-through each is distinct and distinctly really fucking weird. RZA sounds like a furious, unhinged demon, even when just dropping in for the chorus. Method Man’s having a blast, rhyming words together that almost definitely wouldn’t rhyme in any other context, and clearly grinning against the mic. Inspectah Deck sing-songs in ways that sound somehow equally terrifying and rhythmically right. ODB, of course, breaks down every structural expectation, stopping everything in its tracks the minute he starts spitting. And GZA, the Genius, simply sounds like one, last on every track when he’s not flying solo so no one will have to follow. There are the rest, too, obviously—Rae and Ghost pitching high and low, U-God and Masta Killa hardly there at all, really, but leaving scorched impressions in the earth with the time they’re given—but the point is more this: this is ‘93, and we’ve got no guest spots, no cross-breeding, no other voices beyond the Clan, the inducted, the family Voltroning again and again and again. When you consider the size of this particular clan, that’s not just impressive: that’s really fucking weird.
And perfect, somehow, in a hundred intangible ways. The production seems sloppy, but sloppy-on-purpose. The cadences accidental but brilliantly so. Everything about the enterprise feels on the verge of either falling apart or blowing your mind at any given point and it’s a bona fide capital-c Classic because, miraculously, it’s that exact tension where the magic resides. And again, even more miraculously, all of this is immediately clear on first listen.
If you’re inclined toward the damaging, edifying life of a music nut, the pattern’s almost always the same: someone hands you a Here, you need this record, and it changes everything. But here’s what’s supposed to happen next: that record gets you going, introduces you to Horses or Rain Dogs or Free Jazz or whatever the hell, but you grow up and out of these, and the rest of the legwork’s up to you, and it’s the result of that legwork that will really lead you to the gems you possess for yourself due primarily to the thrill of self-discovery, the songs and bootlegs and B-sides you either dub or swap or keep guarded for the rest of your life.
For just about everyone who comes across it, though, 36 Chambers is something else entirely: each and every time you listen, the thing only gets deeper, and better, and way fucking weirder. Chalk it up to the unpredictable production, to the nine voices, to the lyrics that seem to either open up for you or lock all the way down depending on the day you’re listening. It’s not the only album like this, but it’s one of only a few. They’re a special breed, inalienable in the purest meaning of the word: no one can take their power away from you—not even you. Try as you might, you won’t find another record that sounds quite like the Wu debut—not even the first listen will sound like the second, or the eighteenth like the thirty-fourth. It lives, shifts, educates. In a sense, it’s no different from a record store: too many voices that, for the ready and insatiable, always seem like never enough.