A book about one of the most important albums of all time, in 36 interlinked 'chambers', Chamber Music tells the story of the seminal Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and how it changed the world. Chamber Music is scholarly, provocative, funny, satirical and fundamentally compelling reading. Ranging from the FBI's war on drugs to the history of jazz to the future of politics, it’s as explosive and complex as the album itself.
Will Ashon has selected five of his related essential reads for us, which you can read below, and we have an exclusive extract from Chamber Music.
The Souls of Black Folks: Essays and Sketches by W.E.B. Du Bois
Any book which still holds its meaning and significance 115 years after it was written has to be counted a masterpiece. What a shame that such a masterpiece is still necessary. A hybrid work of huge rigour and real emotion.
Can't Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
The first real attempt at a social history of the complete story of hip hop, it’s full of interesting details and real passion for the music and culture. Essential.
The Tao of Wu by The RZA
Of the two Wu-related books the RZA has released this is the best. Very concerned with matters of spirituality, it’s as surprising, insightful and intelligent as you’d expect from the man who came up with the Wu-Tang Clan’s initial five year plan.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
One of the key texts for understanding the post-Civil Rights backlash in America which coincided with the early lives of the members of the Wu-Tang. A brilliant, detailed example of scholarship and controlled outrage.
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
I’d recommend anything and everything by Ishmael Reed, but this novel, set in the 1920s and concerned with the Jes Grew dance ‘plague,' is one of my favourites. The book makes a slightly tangential appearance in “Chamber Music” and is as funny, wild, spiritual, outrageous, serious and formally bold as the music and culture it describes.
CROSSING THE BORDER
It takes twenty-fuve minutes to ride one of the Staten Island ferries from St George terminal across the Upper New York Bay to Whitehall terminal in Manhattan. The boats go every half hour, day and night, every fifteen minutes during rush hour. Back when Enter came out, a round-trip ticket would set you back 50 cents but today it’s free.[i] Sitting on one of these boats—down on the lower decks where the locals gather, leaving the views to camera-happy tourists—everything suddenly becomes clear. You’re making passage across an ocean.
You can smell it as soon as you get anywhere near to the water. Upper New York Bay is the place where the icy fingers of the Atlantic, funnelling down through
t he East River and up through the Narrows, meet each other and the Hudson in a churning, roiling mass of cross currents. Salt—you feel it in your nostrils and you know, somehow, that it means a significant journey, an epic. You don’t cross any stretch of water by boat without the journey carrying extra consequence, but the sea is water as deity, not merely a minor break or interruption in landmass, but a thing unto itself, a whole different category. The sea is powerful and capricious, changing shape, shifting, liaising with the moon. It makes the sky larger as well, scale altered by its flatness, so that mere humans are spots, insects trapped on the meniscus between one and the other. Or, as Inspectah Deck puts it, melding together references to both ‘America the Beautiful’ and Robert Crawford’s U.S. Air Force song and hence removing any landfall from the equation, ‘Across the clear blue yonder / Sea to shining sea!’
Even before the horrors of the Middle Passage,
Africans of many nations and peoples had an intimate relationship with water, physical and spiritual. Those dragged into slavery from inland regions may have been culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse but they were united most strongly by their engagement with the Niger-Senegal-Gambia river complex. ‘For the Bambara in Senegambia,’ W. Jeffrey Bolster points out in Black Jacks, ‘an androgynous water spirit called Faro maintained an individual’s soul or vital life force after death... Ibo peoples from near the Bight of Benin had similar associations with the transmigration of souls
in water... For historic Kongo peoples a watery barrier called the Kalunga line divided the living from the spirit world... To Africans water was clearly a potentmetaphor for life beyond this world.’ This tradition
is both continued and transmogrified in the ‘marine maroon colony’ of Drexciya, the utopia imagined by
the Detroit techno duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald, where slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage learn to breathe water and build a
new civilisation beneath the waves. It can be seen,
too, in the notion that death will somehow ‘undo the transformative Middle Passage’, so that the singer Bessie Jones could state that ‘the sea brought us, the sea shall take us back’. More prosaically, for many, many years, jobs at sea offered African Americans both (relative) freedom and the ability to make a living. Black seamen were common in whaling crews, as evidenced by Moby Dick. When the pirate Blackbeard (Edward Teach) was finally killed in 1718, five of his eighteen-man crew
were people of colour. And while Northern, abolitionist army regiments were still segregated during the Civil War, it has been estimated that 20–25% of sailors in
the integrated navy were Black.
African water traditions collided and melded with European ones, both in terms of seamanship and in
the way those sailors conceptualised the ocean. To the beliefs they brought from their homelands were added stories of Moses parting the waters, of Noah and his ark, of Jonah in the belly of a whale. The ancient Greeks provided Poseidon and Proteus the shapeshifter and the story of Odysseus, his boat tossed hither and thither on his return from the sacking of Troy, washed up on this island or that, challenged on each one, scrabbling for survival. RZA mentions having read a version of this book as a child, but it’s the stories of the Hong Kong film industry (another city separated by a huge bay, crossed by ferry, another place where cormorants bob and duck between boats) which he chose to repurpose.
All the same, think of those isles. The ferry picks its way past Liberty Island, where a siren welcomes travellers towards her with a promise which Ellis Island shows she can’t necessarily keep. The irony of this icon of immigration can’t be lost on people whose ancestors were shipped here in chains—and perhaps Method Man and U-God pondered this as they worked at Liberty’s feet. To the other side is Governor’s Island, traditionally a symbol of state power, from the British onwards, now transformed into a fairground, much like American politics. Further away up the East River, out of sight, lies Rikers Island, a cyclops-cave prison, where members
of the Wu-Tang (Ghostface Killah leaps to mind) have spent time against their wishes. And full steam ahead lies Manhattan—Mammon!—the site not just of high finance but of some of the most expensive land in the world, humans pushed upward in a dizzying profusion of towers, helicopters flying in low overhead like a corporate re-enactment of Apocalypse Now. There are pleasure boats out here, jet skis coming down the East River in a line, the sailboats of the wealthy, but what lies behind you is work. A barge carries three huge trucks. Ranks of cranes lie ready to disgorge goods from vast container ships, their arms mimicking the angle of the raised limb of Liberty. Two great grey hulks moored up in New Jersey look like warships, though they’re just unliveried, the colour of undercoat. A landscape of lunar silos huddles near to Bayonne. The Verazzano Bridge,
at your back, makes the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges look like toys.
Staten Island lies outside. Its status as part of New York is contingent, unlikely—and certainly other New Yorkers seem to have very little time or interest in the fifth borough, the only one among them to vote Republican, the land itself hunched tight up against New Jersey as
if for protection beneath a bigger brother’s muscled arm. If the feeling isn’t exactly mutual, there’s some kind of wounded pride involved in coming from the outskirts, from feeling excluded. ‘It’s an area that’s not noticed,’ says the photographer Christine Osinski, who has lived on the North Shore since the early 1980s. ‘ The people are not noticed. It had an edge to it. It’s not happy. It’s a tough edge. The people and the houses and the landscape—I think that’s where the edge comes from.’
Once you see Ellis Island you understand New York as a border, a kind of Kalunga line. Staten Island comes before the border. Any journey into Manhattan involves crossing that line—literal, social, metaphorical—and
in doing so, it becomes an invasion, at the very least an incursion. You’ve travelled past the gate, avoided the sentinel, you’ve dragged your boats up on shore, ready to wreak havoc in the counting houses of this, the new Rome. Stuck on a small piece of rock which can never provide everything its population needs, comfortable with water, inured to the devastation it can wreak, island people are marauders. So watch them maraud.
[i] A week before the album was released, Rudy Giuliani won the New York City mayoral elections, relying on Staten Island votes. Part of the price the rest of the city paid for these votes was the removal of ferry fares.
Will Ashon is the author of Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest (Granta 2017) and two novels. He previously ran BIG DADA records where his artists included Roots Manuva, MF DOOM, Kate Tempest and Diplo.