Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Divine Mathematics

For ultra-quixotic, and therefore probably somewhat embarassing, reasons, I penned some lines about the Wu-Tang Clan, which I thought I would share with you, my people. Since a computer crash eightysixed an earlier and loopier version of this post (best line that no longer makes sense: "don't despair karma, you are not what they say you are!") I am going to indulge my laziness and leave titles un-italicized. You can sprinkle some peccorino romano or rub fresh basil on them if you wish...

“I verbally assault with my tongue…” Goodbye Short 20th Century

In 1999, Sonic Youth released a record called Goodbye 20th Century. It was a multilayered joke. Not only was the Gregorian calendar making its way queasily to a centennial jump (to say nothing of the possibly-apocalyptic-millennial-lurch, with its own doomsday computer virus and survivalist shopping sprees), but Goodbye 20th Century also marked Sonic Youth’s tribute to a musical genre whose name was days away from becoming obsolete. “Twentieth-century music” was the term people used in the twentieth century to refer to music written in the twentieth century. In a perfect exemplification of the process that Karl Marx called “reification,” by 1999, nine decades worth of resistance to bourgeois complacency-- twelve-tone spirals, abrupt tape splices, droning and burbling analog synthesis, inside-piano gimcrackery-- seemed to cohere in a set of aural clichés. The twentieth century had become a brand, and its music a sonic logo, as recognizable as the dun-ding-dun-dong that every resident of the twenty-first century automatically knows to associate with the Intel Corporation.

The correlation of twentieth-century and ultra-contemporary, however, was sort of terrifying, in its own way. The unmistakable implication seemed to be that the end was nigh. The world would not survive the twentieth century. Like Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsay, the nutbag authors of Christian-apocalypse-pornography bestsellers Left Behind and The Late, Great, Planet Earth, new music enthusiasts seemed to feel that there would probably be no twenty-first century to embarrass them.

1999 was nevertheless too late for an authentic Goodbye 20th Century—it should have come years earlier. In 1993, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, (Jewish exile from the same flaming Europe fled by my grandparents and lifelong Communist), completed The Age of Extremes, an obituary for the “Short 20th Century” that began in 1914 and ended in 1991. “There can be no serious doubt,” Hobsbawm wrote, “that in the late 1980s and early 1990s an era in world history ended and a new one began.” For those of us who didn’t spend the subsequent decade or so riding razor scooters around the awesome office parks of dot-com startups, it was easy to see the world after 1991 like Hobsbawm: “an enormous zone of political uncertainty, instability, chaos and civil war.”

In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan released a record called Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) which, in retrospect, seems like a proper Goodbye 20th Century, a farewell to the brutal decades between World War I and Operation Desert Storm. Appropriately, it is a blues record, albeit one very much of its time. The blues tenor of Enter the Wu-Tang becomes more clear if we keep in mind Ralph Ellison’s beautiful rendering of the blues as metaphysics: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”

The record opens up with a kung-fu movie sample-- a hyper-caucasian voiceover artist reading Shaw Brothers boilerplate doggerel-- that sounds like it was recorded with a handheld cassette player held up to a television: “Shaolin shadowboxing and a wu-tang sword style.” Soon it will become clear to me that martial arts cinema mythology, cosa nostra trivia, comic book superheroes, Staten Island drug trade lore, five percent nation holy writ are all elements of an occult and inscrutable language in which the Wu-Tang Clan encode their messages to the world. Like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sun Ra, the Wu-Tang Clan speak in a language meant to confuse and mislead outsiders like me; nonetheless, it seems all the more pleasurable the more it leaves me scratching my head and feeling like an idiot. The young Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz once said that the reason he leaves so much untranslated Spanish in his fiction is to give Anglo readers the sensation of what it’s like to be an outsider to a dominant culture. Unlike the bourgeois MCs of recent years, the Wu-Tang Clan do not speak the lingua franca of luxury goods and imported automobiles… there is no opportunity for the false solidarity of product loyalty… but rather an invitation to estrangement, the first step towards critical consciousness…

The group begins what will be the first of many chants: “bring the mothafuckin’ ruckus.” “Wu-Tang killer bees.” “Clan in da front.” Chanting, of course, is something people do in groups, an activity in which an individual identity is subsumed in the voice of a greater collective body. And what the Wu-Tang Clan do—why their music is so powerfully radical—is provide a glimpse into what kind of power a group might have. Or, in other words: politics.

The first thing one confronts when listening to the Wu-Tang Clan is the difficulty of separating individual voices—one volley of distorted syllables and surreal references seems to bleed into the next. The front cover art—the group in ninja garb and white masks-- reinforces the seeming intentionality of this bleeding of identities one into the other. The more one listens, the more one becomes attuned to the complexities of sonic difference. Making the entire affair all the more wonderfully disorienting is the proliferation of nicknames and noms de guerre, RZA the razor, “The sharpest motherfucker in the whole clan… razor sharp,” GZA, “the genius,” Raekwon, “the Chef,” “Lex Diamonds,” Method Man, “Johnny Blaze,” Ghostface Killah, “Tony Starks,” Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa…

Of course, this creative renaming is one of the chief characteristics of the blues—think of, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, The Masked Marvel, Black Ace, et al... Robert F. Diggs, “RZA” once noted that he and his cousin Gary Grice, “GZA” changed their names because they “had no choice,” a process that Clyde Woods calls a “blues transformation”: “Back in the ‘80s, I lost it. I became a problem for the world. I wasn’t living righteous… And we changed, both of us. We had no choice. It was either that, go crazy, or go starving.”

The Wu-Tang Clan member most firmly in this tradition was the late Russell Jones—“Ol’ Dirty Bastad,” “the Bebop Specialist,” “Osiris,” “Big Baby Jesus,” “Dirt McGirt,” “Freeloading Rusty”… Like Peetie Wheatsraw, the Devil’s-Son-In-Law, or Robert Johnson or Angola Prison bluesman Robert Pete Williams (whose “I’ve Grown So Ugly” would have been the ultimate Ol’ Dirty Bastard cover), Jones’s damaged-lung and spittle-encrusted trickster/badman lines loom like gargoyles over the proceedings. RZA described his cousin in words that might have been penned to describe other outlaw bluesmen like Robert Johnson or Charlie Parker: “In every kung-fu movie, there’s always the dirty bastard, the dirty rat; somebody who, no matter what he does, does wrong. Even when does right, his intent is to do wrong. Well, that’s Dirty in real life. He’d rather do it to a girl that got a guy than a girl without a guy.”

Great post, coming from someone who has never really been able to connect with Wu Tang's music. We saw a documentary recently about the Wu Tang reunion show in L.A. a few months before ODB died and it was completely amazing. It's called "Rock the Bells" and I'd imagine will be out on DVD sometime soon. Get it!
Wow, Kurt - very good, but this feels like just the first half of what you have to say? Keep going!

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