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Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)

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Will Ashon tells, in 36 interlinked "chambers", the story of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and how it changed the world. As unexpected and complex as the album itself, Chamber Music ranges from provocative essays to semi-comic skits, from deep scholarly analysis to satirical celebration, seeking to contextualize, reveal and honor this singular work of art. Chamber Music Will Ashon tells, in 36 interlinked "chambers", the story of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and how it changed the world. As unexpected and complex as the album itself, Chamber Music ranges from provocative essays to semi-comic skits, from deep scholarly analysis to satirical celebration, seeking to contextualize, reveal and honor this singular work of art. Chamber Music is an explosive and revelatory new way of writing about music and culture.


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Will Ashon tells, in 36 interlinked "chambers", the story of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and how it changed the world. As unexpected and complex as the album itself, Chamber Music ranges from provocative essays to semi-comic skits, from deep scholarly analysis to satirical celebration, seeking to contextualize, reveal and honor this singular work of art. Chamber Music Will Ashon tells, in 36 interlinked "chambers", the story of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and how it changed the world. As unexpected and complex as the album itself, Chamber Music ranges from provocative essays to semi-comic skits, from deep scholarly analysis to satirical celebration, seeking to contextualize, reveal and honor this singular work of art. Chamber Music is an explosive and revelatory new way of writing about music and culture.

30 review for Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Viv JM

    I'm not sure I would ever have picked up this book but for a rave review in The Big Issue and endorsments from one of my favourite recording artists (Kate Tempest) and favourite radio DJs (Gilles Peterson). Anyway, I'm glad I did because it was pretty great - like an extended love letter to the Enter the Wu-Tang album. Along the way, we took in the socioeconomics of modern America, with side orders of Chan Buddhism, Kung Fu movies, the history of jazz, the politics of drugs and so much more. An I'm not sure I would ever have picked up this book but for a rave review in The Big Issue and endorsments from one of my favourite recording artists (Kate Tempest) and favourite radio DJs (Gilles Peterson). Anyway, I'm glad I did because it was pretty great - like an extended love letter to the Enter the Wu-Tang album. Along the way, we took in the socioeconomics of modern America, with side orders of Chan Buddhism, Kung Fu movies, the history of jazz, the politics of drugs and so much more. An excellent piece of creative non-fiction, especially recommended to lovers of early nineties hip-hop.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Voss

    Binnen de hiphopwereld is er geen groep zo mysterieus als de Wu-Tang Clan. Zeker de ontstaansgeschiedenis van het inmiddels klassieke debuutalbum Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993) is omgeven door rafelrandjes en vraagtekens, meer dan eens overigens door het rapcollectief zelf de wereld in geholpen. Vooral voorman RZA was daar druk mee bezig, aangezien hij het achterliggende concept nauwkeurig had uitgedacht. En hij had de negen groepsleden verzameld: familieleden, jeugdvrienden, kennissen, a Binnen de hiphopwereld is er geen groep zo mysterieus als de Wu-Tang Clan. Zeker de ontstaansgeschiedenis van het inmiddels klassieke debuutalbum Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993) is omgeven door rafelrandjes en vraagtekens, meer dan eens overigens door het rapcollectief zelf de wereld in geholpen. Vooral voorman RZA was daar druk mee bezig, aangezien hij het achterliggende concept nauwkeurig had uitgedacht. En hij had de negen groepsleden verzameld: familieleden, jeugdvrienden, kennissen, allemaal afkomstig uit dezelfde arme wijken in New York en vrijwel allemaal opzienbarend goede artiesten. Het geluid van de Wu-Tang was ongepolijst en grimmig, en nooit eerder werd het straatleven uit een Amerikaans getto op zo’n stijlvolle en doordachte manier bezongen. En wat het allemaal te betekenen had? Zelfs de trouwste fans hebben nog niet alle lagen doorgrond. Waar stonden al die – vaak onbegrijpelijke – aliassen voor die de groepsleden aannamen? Wat hielden de vele verwijzingen naar ‘Shaolin’ en ‘Mekka’ in, wat betekenden de Chinese kungfufilms waar aldoor aan gerefereerd werd? En wat had dit alles in vredesnaam te maken met deze negen zwarte jongens die voor hun 25ste allemaal al met justitie in aanraking waren gekomen en daar in versluierde vorm ook over rapten? Onmiskenbaar was het een sterk staaltje zelfmythologisering, zoals de Wu-Tang Clan zichzelf de hiphopscene in katapulteerde. Een nieuw geluid, een eigen subuniversum. Maar nog los van het feit dat het moeilijk is zulke mythes in stand te houden – de Clan maakt nog altijd muziek en is nu beduidend minder boeiend dan 25 jaar terug – slaat zo’n zorgvuldig geplande cultus al snel over in interessantdoenerij. De vroege Wu-Tang had echter twee grote troeven: de muziek klonk – en klinkt – gewoonweg zeldzaam sterk, en ging intussen voelbaar over méér dan de Clan-leden zelf. Dit laatste is duidelijk wat de Britse Will Ashon (1969), eerder werkzaam als muziekjournalist en veelgeprezen labelbaas, heeft geïnspireerd voor zijn Chamber Music. Het is een boek over het debuut van de Clan, maar toch ook weer niet: dat album vormt weliswaar de aanleiding en houdt de 36 losse ‘chambers’ (hoofdstukken) min of meer bijeen, maar Chamber Music is geen geijkt muziekverhaal. Geen veredelde groepsbiografie, geen reconstructie hoe de muziek noot voor noot tot stand kwam. Ashons aanpak is breder en spannender: in Chamber Music gaat hij in op de geografische, muzikale en vooral sociale context die ertoe heeft geleid dat een groep als de Wu-Tang Clan kon ontstaan, waarom jongens als deze begin jaren negentig in kansarme getto’s opgroeiden. En als je daarover schrijft, dringt zich automatisch de vraag op hoe zulke getto’s ontstonden, waar kwamen de drugs en de wapens precies vandaan, waarom kozen zo veel mensen begin jaren negentig plots voor rap en hoe was die muziek eigenlijk opgekomen? Elke bewering die Ashon doet roept nieuwe vragen op, en zodoende krijgt Chamber Music iets prettig weids. Ook door die onderverdeling in 36 hoofdstukken trouwens, eigenlijk stuk voor stuk kleine essays die soms amper nog met de Wu-Tang van doen hebben: Ashon leunt niet op een dwingende hoofdvraag en kan zich zodoende vrijelijk laten leiden door zijn associaties en interesses. Het ene hoofdstuk lees je nog over de geschiedenis van zwarte muziek, daarna over de totstandkoming van de FBI en het vroegste slavernijverleden, er volgen hoofdstukken over het racistische beleid van Nixon en Reagan, over de crackepidemie, over de precieze inrichting van New York, over de geschiedenis van copywrite-recht, over de Nation of Islam en de religieuze Five Percent-beweging en de veelbesproken ‘wederopstanding van het zwarte volk’ en voor je het weet ben je verdiept in een verhandeling over de geschiedenis van stoomschepen. (Je zou geweldige Triviant-rondes uit dit boek kunnen destilleren: de straffen voor crackgebruik liggen honderd keer hoger dan voor cocaïnegebruik, wat is het scheikundige verschil tussen de twee? Dat bestaat niet. Alleen wordt crack vooral gebruikt door zwarten en cocaïne door witten.) Chamber Music is een wonderlijk mengsel van geschiedenis, research en analyse. Zo opgesomd klinkt het overvol, bij tijd en wijle overspoelt Ashon de lezers inderdaad met namen, gebeurtenissen en jaartallen, of zoekt hij overdreven veel achter de Wu-Tang-nummers die hij aanhaalt – maar, en dat is een grote prestatie: het werkt wel. De springerige structuur. De brede, bijna grotesk ambitieuze opzet en de tegelijk nergens pedante toon van het geheel, waarbij Ashon zichzelf en zijn hiphopliefde overigens secuur wegcijfert: het woord ‘ik’ valt niet. Aanvankelijk dacht ik dat Chamber Music bij uitstek geschikt zou zijn voor rapluisteraars zoals ikzelf: gedetailleerd en uitgebreid, en dan ook met één specifiek album als losvast uitgangspunt – wat kan iemand die niets met hiphop heeft hiermee? Gek genoeg vrij veel; deze bundel waaiert dusdanig uit dat de stukken vanzelf boeiend worden voor buitenstaanders, en misschien nog wel het meest voor degenen die in rap nog steeds niets horen dan wat agressief, wereldvreemd geschreeuw over harde beats. Want als Chamber Music iets overtuigend laat zien, is het dat cultuur nooit zomaar ontstaat. Dat de context altijd vormend is, en breder dan je in eerste instantie denkt. En dat het niet zomaar toeval was toen achtergestelde, door drugs en armoede overspoelde zwarte wijken ontstonden. Net zoals het geen toeval was dat juist daar, op die meest kansloze plaatsen, vervolgens zoiets wonderlijk krachtigs als Enter the Wu-Tang werd gemaakt.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Forsyth

    I’ve bemoaned the lack of a great hip-hop-is-art book (outside of Hamilton: The Revolution) for a while now, and I had hopes we could add this one to the list. Ultimately, it falls a little short, but there’s still some very incisive and inspired writing here (along with some strange digressions and sections with less focus). ENTER THE WU-TANG was never a seminal album for me, but this book had me listening to the album and finding new details in it that raised it in my eyes. There’s an excellen I’ve bemoaned the lack of a great hip-hop-is-art book (outside of Hamilton: The Revolution) for a while now, and I had hopes we could add this one to the list. Ultimately, it falls a little short, but there’s still some very incisive and inspired writing here (along with some strange digressions and sections with less focus). ENTER THE WU-TANG was never a seminal album for me, but this book had me listening to the album and finding new details in it that raised it in my eyes. There’s an excellent Spotify playlist for the book too, which helps add historical context and explain musical influences, which makes for an enhanced experience.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Klaas Smets

    For the children:

  5. 5 out of 5

    Neal Obermeyer

    This is more a meditation on this album than it is a book about the album, but it’s still a fascinating trip through meaning, intent and how power dynamics play a role in those ideas.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eric Hultgren

    This might be one of my favorite takes on Wu-Tang and one of my favorite books on hip hop I have ever read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David Allison

    A book about everything for an album about all that and more.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Maarten Buser

    Waarschijnlijk de eerste keer dat ik vol enthousiasme 'Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!' naar een boek heb geschreeuwd. Waarschijnlijk de eerste keer dat ik vol enthousiasme 'Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!' naar een boek heb geschreeuwd.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Rizzo

    This started off promising, but eventually it just got too weird. The most interesting parts of the book were the biographical sketches of the members of the Wu-Tang clan, plus some of the insider production details on their debut album. Other interesting parts were some of the broader musical history, the detailed looks into music sampling, and commentary on race, drugs, and criminal justice. The book just got plain weird, especially near the end when it becomes something of a shrine to RZA and This started off promising, but eventually it just got too weird. The most interesting parts of the book were the biographical sketches of the members of the Wu-Tang clan, plus some of the insider production details on their debut album. Other interesting parts were some of the broader musical history, the detailed looks into music sampling, and commentary on race, drugs, and criminal justice. The book just got plain weird, especially near the end when it becomes something of a shrine to RZA and the clan. Some of it just becomes unintelligibly bizarre. Overall worth the read, but be prepared for strange digressions.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bryce M.

    I went into the book “Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)” written by Will Ashon not really knowing what to expect. I am a big fan of Wu-Tang Clan, a rap group that was immensely popular in the 1990s, right around the emergence of gangster rap, I've even seen them live before. I thought this book was going to be anecdotes from the famous rap group’s come up and how it was like growing up in the roughest neighborhoods of New York, but I got much more than that. I got perspective as I went into the book “Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)” written by Will Ashon not really knowing what to expect. I am a big fan of Wu-Tang Clan, a rap group that was immensely popular in the 1990s, right around the emergence of gangster rap, I've even seen them live before. I thought this book was going to be anecdotes from the famous rap group’s come up and how it was like growing up in the roughest neighborhoods of New York, but I got much more than that. I got perspective as to what it is like being a black man in America, I learned what it is like having to the violence of police and the killing of your brothers. I learned about the injustices of the police force and court systems like the killing of Rodney king, a black man that was put into an illegal choke by a police officer, and how the court declared the white man Bernard Geotz innocent after shooting 3 black men for “self defense” despite the black men not threatening him directly and being unarmed. These different anecdotes do the job of characterizing New York, as well as America as a whole, from the perspective of a minority just trying to get by. And this Ashon uses this characterization of New York to give context to Wu-Tang Clan’s music, primarily their debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers.” All of the members of Wu-Tang grew up and lived in the boroughs of New York, so this context puts their music in a much different light. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I may be biased because I'm a fan of the groups music, it was a very interesting read. I would recommend this book even to people who don’t listen to Wu-Tang Clan or even rap in general, because of the perspective it gives of the black community.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Eric Thompson

    This is a massive work that is so much more than just a love letter to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time (Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan). It covers policing, underground fashion movements, the art and practice of signifying, The Nation of Islam and The Five Percent Nation, the origins of battle rapping, cultural appropriation, and essentially everything that led to these men approaching the microphone, everything they did, and what it all meant and means. Its scope i This is a massive work that is so much more than just a love letter to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time (Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan). It covers policing, underground fashion movements, the art and practice of signifying, The Nation of Islam and The Five Percent Nation, the origins of battle rapping, cultural appropriation, and essentially everything that led to these men approaching the microphone, everything they did, and what it all meant and means. Its scope is bananas. Ashon's style of prose is expansive and impressive. Even if you don't know the music, the issues, the grasp he has on the culture makes it a worthwhile read. If you do know the music, you will get all the references, and come out of this with a greater appreciation for the record, no question.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Walsh

    Really great mix of topics: Some of the story behind the classic Wu-Tang debut, the author's detailed thoughts about the album, some US/world history, and some food for thought on racism. All this is blended together in an interesting and readable way. Not to mention many pages have songs written down the side that in some way relate to whatever is being discussed. So give it a read (and listen). Really great mix of topics: Some of the story behind the classic Wu-Tang debut, the author's detailed thoughts about the album, some US/world history, and some food for thought on racism. All this is blended together in an interesting and readable way. Not to mention many pages have songs written down the side that in some way relate to whatever is being discussed. So give it a read (and listen).

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    This was a pretty great read, I think Ashon did a great job of framing the Clan's debut record in terms of American history and all that means when it comes to race, poverty, striving, police, crime, culture - you name it. I do think the conceit of breaking it into 36 chambers (read: chapters) hamstrung it a little, some felt overly rushed while some lingered a little too long. But overall it was a really thoughtful approach of what this particular album meant in 1993 and what it means today. This was a pretty great read, I think Ashon did a great job of framing the Clan's debut record in terms of American history and all that means when it comes to race, poverty, striving, police, crime, culture - you name it. I do think the conceit of breaking it into 36 chambers (read: chapters) hamstrung it a little, some felt overly rushed while some lingered a little too long. But overall it was a really thoughtful approach of what this particular album meant in 1993 and what it means today.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    Suffers slightly from over mythologising and the muscular prose of the music writer (which I've succumbed to myself) but hits its stride when it's addressing issues of race, class and the judicial system in the contexts of Enter the Wu-Tang and the lives of the clan more generally. Overall a really good read and I'm now obsessed with Nation of Islam. Suffers slightly from over mythologising and the muscular prose of the music writer (which I've succumbed to myself) but hits its stride when it's addressing issues of race, class and the judicial system in the contexts of Enter the Wu-Tang and the lives of the clan more generally. Overall a really good read and I'm now obsessed with Nation of Islam.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jean-Pierre Extra Ordinair

    Gives great insight, not only into the making of the great debut-album of the Wu-Tang Clan, but also into the American society and the way non-whites percieve it. It is a great mix of sociological, historical, anthropological and musical information. Best of all it made me enjoy and appreciate hip-hop even more then I already did.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Eliot

    Fascinating. 36 chapters connecting the dots between hip hop culture, jazz, politics, numerology, science, crime, drugs, poverty, discipline, religion, movies, kung fu and so much more. Arguably one of the all time greatest albums broken down into microscopic detail. An important book about an important group and their groundbreaking debut. An easy, absorbing read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Meteorite_cufflink

    A cool idea for a book, written by an author who is not afraid to follow and analyze side-paths and associations. Ultimately I felt that the weight of the book was too great for the narrative framework provided by the 36 Chambers / Wu Tang Clan's debut album. A cool idea for a book, written by an author who is not afraid to follow and analyze side-paths and associations. Ultimately I felt that the weight of the book was too great for the narrative framework provided by the 36 Chambers / Wu Tang Clan's debut album.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Matt Northam

    The most thorough and erudite review of an album I've ever read. The most thorough and erudite review of an album I've ever read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Readosaurus

    https://readosaurus.blogspot.com/2020... https://readosaurus.blogspot.com/2020...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Diana

    I loved this! Who would have thought there'd be a book devoted to "Enter the 36 Chambers" that was both engaging AND academic? If you are a Wu-Tang fan, you will probably love this as much as I did! I loved this! Who would have thought there'd be a book devoted to "Enter the 36 Chambers" that was both engaging AND academic? If you are a Wu-Tang fan, you will probably love this as much as I did!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ian Green

    Superb. A beautiful and intricate book that tempers a passionate dissection with whimsy and biography, ranging from the minutiae of sampling to universal truths. Engrossing, funny, sad, wonderful.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    4.5, I think.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Bolexio

    Almost as good as its subject matter

  24. 5 out of 5

    Aurelian

    4.2/5 good read

  25. 5 out of 5

    Robert Monk

    The best piece of writing about hip hop (and a lot more ) I’ve ever read. This really gets to the heart of appreciating a great record.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joy Davenport

    Too niche for our little library. Some language in skimming; read more closely for further analysis if considering purchase.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cal Cashin

    This is probably the best book about hip hop I’ve ever read. 36 unrelated chapters, chambers, make up one amazing whole. Lovely stuff

  28. 5 out of 5

    Martyn Deykers

    One of the best hiphop books I have read. 36 brilliant essays capturing the times and circumstances in which one of the most important albums of our generation was made.

  29. 5 out of 5

    David E Weir

  30. 4 out of 5

    Perttu

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