From the 'slums of Shaolin' to the Opera House, Wu-Tang celebrates 25
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From the 'slums of Shaolin' to the Opera House, Wu-Tang celebrates 25

Hip-hop legend RZA's first visit to Australia about a decade ago included a helpful bit of knowledge from his "buddy" Russell Crowe.

"I was looking at the harbour and I said to him, 'Wow, that's a great basketball stadium y'all got there.' And he was like, 'No brother, that's the Sydney Opera House,'" the leader of rap icons Wu-Tang Clan recalls with a laugh.

"Here we are years later, and this will be my first time stepping foot into that building, glad to be bringing some hip-hop culture, some rough-and-raw New York energy, into the place."

The collective – all nine of its living members – are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their definitive debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), among the most revered and influential artefacts of '90s boom bap-era hip-hop.

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RZA: "To play here now, it's a great achievement."

RZA: "To play here now, it's a great achievement."

Its unique scope – a clamour of woozy soul samples, obscure kung-fu film snippets, Eastern philosophy, Five-Percenter politics, street-hustling realism, and its members' infectious personalities – is still felt across the hip-hop landscape, from Kanye West's playful production to the DIY camaraderie of Odd Future and Kendrick Lamar's Black Hippy collective.

"It was a capturing of time for us," RZA, now 49, says about the album. "Young men trying to find our path in life, some optimism, some pessimism, the discovery of sex, drugs, violence, spirituality ... It feels so relevant because young men and women will always have to pass through that portal."

It also retains its own personal resonance, says RZA, musing back on the sessions that birthed a classic – it was essentially a "second chance".

"Before Wu-Tang, I made a lot of bad decisions. I was facing eight years in jail, and at the same time I'd just got a girl pregnant with the prospect of not seeing my child born ... I was on the wrong path," he says.

"I always say this, the disappointment of a parent to a child is more pressure than law enforcement, know what I mean? When your own mother looks at you as a failure, like you've let her dreams wash away because of your foolishness ... My mother had looked at me like that.

"So I sobered up, I started reading more, going to the law library, accepting my responsibilities. I thought about my future, the potential of my talent and the talent around me. I realised a determined idea, with one mind leading it, would be able to penetrate the industry and every pinnacle of success.

"I told my brothers, 'Give me five years and I'll take us to number one.' And they did, and I didn't let them down."

Wu-Tang Clan perform at the Sydney Opera House this week.

Wu-Tang Clan perform at the Sydney Opera House this week.

For RZA, 36 Chambers' journey from the "slums of Shaolin" (the group's mythical Staten Island salad days) to the Opera House's Concert Hall is testament to the way the album's artistic innovations have helped hip-hop transcend the cultural bias that once kept it arm's-length from such establishment institutions.

"We came in with the idea of making [the album] big and having a lot of success, but there were always those things you'd think were off-limits, that your creative ambition and opportunities outside that world would never cross-pollinate ... To play here now, it's a great achievement."

Wu-Tang Clan will perform Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) at the Opera House from Saturday to Tuesday.

Robert Moran is an entertainment reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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