90's Hit Parade #12
Wu Tang Clan - Da Mystery of Chessboxin'
Remember the baseball speech at the beginning of The Untouchables? Wu Tang always remind me of that. They're a very democratic organization. Oh, sure, there's a hierarchy, no doubt. There are stars, and there are second stringers. But everyone on the team gets their turn at bat. I especially like "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," one of the best ensemble raps ever recorded, because the two rappers that most would agree are at the bottom of that hierarchy both get plum spots: U-God kicks things off, and Masta Killa bats cleanup. And both of 'em knock that sucker outa the park.
U-God comes on with a gravelly voice, growlin' like Howlin' Wolf: "Raw, I'ma give it to ya/With no trivia/Like cocaine straight from Bolivia." Actually, I always thought it was "With no treble, yo," which would be a cool line because it would pun on uncut base and uncut bass, but it's still pretty great. I love how he just digs into certain syllables, like "eMANciPAtion PROclMAtion." Inspecta Deck and Raekwon both throw in some hot verses, and Method Man rocks a chorus, but then Ol' Dirty Bastard comes in and just takes the track over, half-rapping, half-singing, throwing out crazy shit like "Jacque Cousteau could never get this low." One of his best recorded moments is the line "Rappenin' is what's happenin'/Keep the pockets flappenin', hands clappenin'," not just because he adds those extra syllables, but because he makes them sound so good, like that ought to be how those words are pronounced, and because he makes those syllables hit right on the rhythm. And then there's the way he busts out "Gotta get up and beeeeeeeeeeeeee somebodeeeeeehhhh!" Finally, he introduces Ghostface Killa, and the track goes into yet another phase.
Ghostface is just nuts here, completely off the leash, hyperactive and chaotic, like a berserker swinging his sword every which way, chopping against the rhythm, "hittin' like a spiked bat." It's an amazing verse that builds momentum up to a chant of "Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang!" Then Masta Killa emerges in a clearing: "My styles illegal and death is the penalty." It's not necessarily the most impressive verse on the track, but it's exactly what the track needs right at that moment. His voice begins calm, contrasting with Ghostface's crazy spitfire routine, and slowly building intensity.
Funny story: I got Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers from Columbia House. I never really understood how Columbia House managed to stay in business. Pretty much everyone I knew had ripped them off at least once, getting those 12 CD's for $1 and then never buying anything else. Anyway, when the album came, I was extremely annoyed to find that it was the "clean" version. But I shrugged, and just made the best of it. It's possible that the reason "Chessboxin'" was my favorite is because it survived the editing process more intact than many of the other tracks. The worst, of course, was "Shame on a Nigga," which became "Shame on a Nuh." Not only does that not make any damn sense, but it doesn't even go with the rhythm. Years later, when I finally upgraded to the "dirty" version, I really started digging this song. While "Chessboxin'" is a great showcase for the whole Wu Tang crew (save Rza and Gza, who sit that track out), "Shame" showcases Wu Tang's bully boys, the stars of those early recordings: Method Man, ODB and Raekwon. They're all amazing, but if I had to pick a favorite here it would be Meth, who drops these amazing (and hilarious) lines: "razor-sharp I sever/the head from the shoulders, I'm better/Than my competor/You mean competitor? Whatever!/Let's get together." That's some all-time Hall of Fame shit right there.