A Personal Expedition Through Early-90s East Coast Hip-Hop

Late for the Party – A Personal Expedition Through Early-90s East Coast Hip-Hop, December 2011 Vhcle Magazine Issue 8, Music
2011: Late for the Party by Marc Ingber
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The Wu-Tang Clan are a different story. They feature an embarrassment of riches in mic skills, where even the lesser talented ones are better than most rappers. Three of them - the GZA, Raekwon and Ghostface - are typically cited as some of the greatest MCs of all time, and that’s not to mention the underrated Inspectah Deck and the two most well known members - Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
They formed under de facto leader, producer and beat maker, the RZA, who founded the group with his cousins, the GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard. The plan from the start was to release a group album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, to introduce the group’s varying personalities and then for each member to get his own showcase in the form of a solo album.
The first round of solo albums don’t differ much from Enter the Wu-Tang since all the other members make guest appearances on each of them and RZA continued to produce all the beats. Taken as a whole, these albums almost act as a genre unto themselves, as there is little else in hip-hop that sound quite like them.
Around the time the clan formed, the Dr. Dre-produced West Coast rap sound was dominating the scene. Dre relied on lots of Parliament and Funkadelic samples and was an expert at making catchy beats to listen to while driving around, imagining you were hanging out at the greatest block party in Compton ever. Unsurprisingly, it found a mass audience.
RZA’s beats, on the other hand, were a bit more bizarre. He relied on booming bass, snippets of vintage soul samples, minor-key piano loops and a dose of dialogue from 1970s samurai movies. It was rarely radio friendly and to make matters worse, he often didn’t bother to put a chorus, or hook, in the song. So while Wu-Tang certainly achieved some commercial success, it was never close to the level that Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2pac did.
Wu-Tang Clan’s MCs didn’t do themselves any favors towards making the group more commercial either. Their stories of drug deals and life in the slums of “Shaolin” (Staten Island) didn’t exactly glamorize the lifestyle. Unlike their West Coast brethren, it didn’t sound like they were having much fun in the hood.
Not to mention that it’s virtually impossible to figure out in the first couple listens what the hell they are talking about. Their verses are packed with street slang, terminology from the Five-Percent Nation religious movement, pop culture references and plenty of nods to the samurai and Kung Fu movies they adored. The martial arts obsession can be confusing at first, but overtime you begin to realize they use the concepts and dialogue from the movies as metaphors for surviving the streets of New York as well as the rap game.
All the Wu-Tang idiosyncrasies can be a lot to parse through for beginners, but I’ve found it to be far worth the effort, as the albums get better with every listen. I’ve probably listened to the GZA’s album, Liquid Swords, upwards of 60 or 70 times over the last couple years and I still catch a new line every time.
To me, those early Wu-Tang records are sort of like the musical equivalent of The Big Lebowksi. The first time I listened to them they just seemed confusing and sort of stupid. I liked them a little more the second time, but it wasn’t until the seventh or eighth time that they really started to click.
Exploring the other boroughs
Like any obsession, I never reached a point where I wanted to stop. After devouring most corners of the Wu-Tang universe, I simply branched out to other artists I read about: The Diggin’ in the Crates Crew was a collection of MCs and producers out of New York in the early 90s. It featured acts like Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz & A.G., Buckwild, O.C. and a freakishly talented MC, Big L, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1999.
The Boot Camp Clik featured Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Da Beatminerz and others. The Native Tongues collective, which included A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, offered a more light-hearted, goofy take on hip-hop before the concept of alternative rap really existed. And so on and so forth. I’ve found there’s enough hip-hop out there just released between 1990 and 1995 to get lost in for several years.
I’m honestly not sure why I’ve become so obsessed with this type of hip-hop. Unlike many of the teens who listen to it, I don’t have a particular interest in the lifestyle it portrays. I’m old enough to know I would look stupid if I dressed or talked like any of these guys and therefore don’t even try.
I also won’t attempt to defend it on any type of moral grounds, since much of it contains some of the most misogynistic, violent and “incendiary” lyrics ever put on wax. If you hate rap for these reasons, you won’t like any of the artists I’m talking about, regardless of how good their flow is.
But I’ve never sought morality from any type of music, much less hip-hop. I guess I became infatuated with this specific genre because I’ve discovered just how creative and clever it can be once you look past the violence and other elements that repel “sophisticated” music listeners.
If you haven’t had the chance, I suggest you explore it yourself. Start with bookmarking urbandictionary.com on your web browser and proceed from there.

Word on the Street: 10 Classic East Coast Albums
GZA - Liquid Swords
O.C. – Word…Life
Mobb Deep – The Infamous
Nas – Illmatic
Big L – Lifestyles ov da Poor & Dangerous
Raekwon (featuring Ghostface Killah) – Only Built 4Cuban Linx
Notorious B.I.G. – “Ready to Die”Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Smif-N-Wessun – Dah Shinin’
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but a chance encounter I had a few years ago with the Ghostface Killah ended up being something of a life-altering experience. I use the term “chance encounter” because I didn’t really go out of my way to check him out. My friend had given me a few albums that he recently acquired and Ghostface’s 2006 album, Fishscale, happened to be one of them.
As a casual hip-hop fan, all I knew about Ghostface was that he was a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the martial-arts-obsessed hip-hop collective whose heyday was back in the early 90s - around the time I was going through puberty. I thought it was odd he was still even on the scene, much less getting good reviews for Fishscale.
Needless to say, I was hooked from the get-go. It’s tough rationalizing why and when I take a liking to something, but there was no doubt he was on a completely different plane than pretty much any other rapper when it came to his storytelling ability, lyrics and flow.
It’s not that his subject matter of street life, drug deals, MC bragging and female encounters was all that different from many other MCs. But his bizarre free-form, stream-of-conscious story rhymes coupled with a hyper, over-caffeinated delivery was unlike anything I had heard. It was like the hip-hop version of reading Beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
I couldn’t get over how this guy had been rapping since I was in sixth grade and I didn’t discover him until I was close to 30. Naturally, I wanted to check out some of his older stuff. I figured if this is what Ghostface sounded like when he was approaching 40, what he was doing 15 years prior was probably even better. And I was not proven wrong.
But my musical expedition didn’t stop with him. In fact, Ghostface was just the tip of the iceberg. What started with him became an obsession that grew to encompass the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan and a whole slew of other MCs and producers from New York’s early 90s hip-hop scene.
With a little online research, I kept discovering more and more artists I previously had never heard of – Big L, Organized Konfusion, O.C., Smif-n-Wessun, Showbiz and A.G., etc. And they were all sickeningly good compared to just about any hip-hop I've heard. For a music geek like myself, it was like discovering a lost city of Atlantis.
Truth be told, for hardcore hip-hop fans, none of this is a revelation. “Discovering” that the Wu-Tang Clan’s early years were amazing is sort of like a new rock fan remarking that Led Zeppelin were actually pretty good. But the beauty about it was that it was all new to me.
I was always ahead of the curve as a teen when it came to the “cool alternative bands.” Thanks to the knowledge of an older cousin and friend, I was discovering bands like Modest Mouse and Kraftwerk years before most of my peers. But I’m not too proud to admit I was a bit of a dunce when it came to hip-hop, for reasons I will detail below.
Nevertheless, I am a dunce no more. In an ironic twist of fate, the music I felt was far too stupid to listen to as a 13-year-old I’ve become enamored with as I approach 30 with a wife and newborn baby. I certainly don’t like all hip-hop - most of my favorite albums center specifically on the stuff that was coming out of New York circa ‘92-’96. But I have much more respect for it, to say the least.
The whole process has turned me into something of an amateur hip-hop historian. From the Old School to the Golden Age to the rise of gangsta rap and beyond, I’ve learned what I was hearing on the radio for most of my life was just scratching the surface of hip-hop. I may have spent the majority of my early music-listening years actively avoiding this type of music, but I now listen to almost nothing but.
The Early Years
My adolescent years coincided with the heart of the East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop rivalry in the early 90s. As far as I knew, that’s all hip-hop was – rappers from L.A. threatening to kill their rivals from New York and/or sleep with their wives and girlfriends. For whatever reason, the rivalry was a big deal at the time with boys my age.
I remember ridiculous lunch room debates at my suburban, mostly white, junior high in the Twin Cities over which side people supported. Personally, I didn’t care much at the time because I didn’t listen to rap. I was heavily into grunge and alternative bands and rap just seemed stupid to me.
But as I got older and into more genres of music, my opinion mellowed a bit. In college, I retroactively discovered songs like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and Nas’ “The World is Yours” and started to grasp that there was actually was an art form to putting together verses and crafting beats out of samples.
My CD collection grew to include a few of the staples that are in any casual hip-hop fan’s diet – The Chronic, Doggystyle, Illmatic, Ready to Die and a few more. But much like owning Bob Marley’s Legend album doesn’t make you an authority on reggae, I was still a relative lightweight.
The other thing I was exposed to in college was a slew of “socially conscious” MCs, like Mos Def, Common, The Roots and Talib Kweli, who sat a little outside the mainstream. Though I like many of these artists, they've never had quite the visceral impact on me I've found with other MCs.
At times I feel like I’m getting a lecture when I listen to them, whether it is about a political issue, the lack of pureness in modern hip-hop or something else. Hip-hop, like rock n’ roll, is generally best when it isn’t overly pretentious.
It wasn’t until I heard Ghostface and subsequently the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan did I find something that combined the wit and verbal dexterity of the socially conscious MCs with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of gangsta rap that draws many suburban-raised folk like myself to this genre in the first place.  
Entering the 36 Chambers
The Wu-Tang Clan are one of those odd phenomenons where just about everyone has heard of them, but not many can name more than one or two of their songs, if that. For newbies, here are the basics:
The clan consists of nine MCs from the slums of New York who “formed like Voltron” in Staten Island in the early 90s. Though large posses are not uncommon in hip-hop,most of the time they consist of one or two skilled MCs and about four or five other “rappers” who happened to grow up on the same block as them.
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This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 8.

Marc Ingber is a journalist with
Sun News-papers, based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber
Late for       the party