Wu-Tang Clan Is for the Ravers
Photo by Stephen Pham

Wu-Tang Clan Is for the Ravers

The New York rap kings took to techno's biggest stage at Movement Festival in Detroit—highlighting their influence on generations of dance music producers too.
June 7, 2018, 8:07pm

Ahead of this year’s Movement Festival, Detroit production company Paxahau had a new billboard enacted atop the city’s Russell Industrial Center, a former factory visible to travellers driving the I-75 highway. “DETROIT IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF TECHNO” it proclaimed in spartan, all-caps letters, with the annual three-day event’s signature swirl logo smaller in the right hand corner. A well-known fact to locals perhaps, but one worth reiterating for the thousands of electronic music fans making the pilgrimage to Motor City for Memorial Day weekend. Hip-hop was born in New York, Chicago has house, and the seeds of techno were planted in Detroit by The Belleville Three—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—during the early 1980s. Of course, from there it quickly spread worldwide.

Originally started in 2000 as the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Movement has undergone several name changes and even more ownership changes since, but its guiding principles have remained the same. Over the years, the Hart Plaza audiences have skewed younger thanks to EDM-friendlier bookings, and the downtown venue feels several worlds removed from the roller discos, gay clubs, and underground warehouse spaces hosting the side shows and after-parties. Still, the 2018 edition of the festival offered something for everybody, with crowds braving scorching temperatures to see techno and house trailblazers including Saunderson (who curated one of Movement’s Sunday stages), Laurent Garnier, Nina Kraviz, and Tiga, alongside current talent like Avalon Emerson and Mija.

On paper, having New York City hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan perform their landmark 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in its entirety might seem like an odd choice for a festival as in touch with its legacy in electronic music, but it’s hardly the first time that Movement has spotlighted rap. Past editions have included Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg (under his DJ Snoopadelic moniker), Juicy J, Earl Sweatshirt, hometown hero Danny Brown, and more. This year featured hip-hop architects like DJ Premier—who peppered his career-spanning set with shoutouts to fallen artists including Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, Nate Dogg, and his Gang Starr partner Guru—and Too $hort. It also made room for artists influenced by rap’s long legacy, like Michigan musician and producer Shigeto and Canadian jazz experimentalists BADBADNOTGOOD, the latter who recorded an entire album with Wu member Ghostface Killah in 2015. Even Detroit “Godmother of House Music” DJ and producer Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale dropped “Bodak Yellow,” which got an added punch thanks to a backing drummer, and was eagerly received by the early afternoon stragglers.

Photo by Aaron Eschenburg

Although 36 Chambers clocks in at a just over an hour—a running time that seems especially economical compared to today’s overstuffed projects designed to game streaming services—its razor-sharp storytelling and soulful production created a new blueprint for hip-hop, and established Wu as a household name. Recorded at New York’s Firehouse Studio on an incredibly low budget, the album was produced, mixed, arranged, and programmed by RZA, using cheap equipment either borrowed from friends or bought secondhand. From kung-fu flicks to Stax and Motown hits to Thelonious Monk, nothing was off-limits to the Wu co-founder, who slowed down samples to fit the desired tempo or sped them up to create a woozy chipmunk effect. It’s easy to draw parallels between how he repurposed funk, gospel, R&B, and more, and the genre-obliterating approach of crate-digging DJs and producers of all stripes.

One well-known story is how Chicago bluesman Syl Johnson—whose 1968 song “Different Strokes” found new life in “Shame On a Nigga”—was paid well enough to purchase a house “built with Wu-Tang money.” In the years since, electronic producers too have come to borrow bricks from the Wu’s architecture. Four years after RZA sampled Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black” on “Hollow Bones” off their 2000 album The W, notoriously reclusive Detroit house legend Moodymann would flip the song for the laidback Black Mahogani cut “I’m Doing Fine.” Another, perhaps more direct, example is British electronica torchbearers The Prodigy’s breakneck, chart-topping 1996 single “Breathe,” which incorporates the swinging swords from “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”

Photo by Joshua Hanford

But part of what made the outfit make so much sense on techno’s biggest stage is how their music—and in particular RZA’s approach to production—has echoed through electronic music over the years. There’s a grim sparseness to 36 Chambers, which can even be heard in more straightforward techno releases. “It was fresh and amazing, and the low end was something different. I always listen to a lot of records that have a lot of bass in it,” Detroit linchpin (and DEMF co-creator) Carl Craig told TIDAL in 2017 . “It was one of those records that every time I listened to it, I couldn’t make music for weeks because I was so locked in to what they had done. It was almost like brain washing.” The group’s chaotic energy and lo-fi sonics also influenced veteran British producer Kevin Martin—whose genre-agnostic soundscapes as The Bug throbs with a similar punk energy. “They had their own Sid Vicious in ODB, Howard Devoto in the GZA and Genesis P-Orridge in the RZA,” Martin once said to Self-Titled, adding he was “utterly mindfucked” by RZA’s mix of “lo-fi, crunchy sampling, martial arts pilfering and off-kilter melodies.”

The group has never fully ventured into four-on-the-floor territory—aside from the ill-advised 2009 compilation Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture Vol. 2: Enter the Dubstep, a collection that finds brostep producers shredding the Wu songbook —but they’re well-aware of a shared history. “There's definitely a common denominator between the two," RZA said in a recent Detroit Free Press interview, citing 80s touchstones like Roland drum machines and songs like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” as major influences on both genres. "They're like cousins, in a way. That's the cool thing about it—electronic music gave the individual the power to create without a band, and hip-hop was formed by that same phenomenon." (Certainly Los Angeles electro-rap pioneer The Egyptian Lover—who played a Soul Clap-hosted Movement party a few days earlier, and had a vape-heavy patio crowd cheering for the 808 for five minutes straight—would agree with this statement.)

Photo by Jacob Mulka

While some festival-goers might have turned up their noses, by the time dusk set on the grounds Monday night, Wu apparel equally numbered “DETROIT HUSTLES HARDER” and techno periodic table shirts in the crowd. The Staten Island crew have been in the news a lot in 2018, though the majority of these headlines revolve around the fate of their one-of-a-kind, Cher-featuring album bought by “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli in 2015 for an alleged $2 million. During their 90-minute set, which was padded out by other Wu-Tang hits and solo material, there was no mention of the convicted fraudster from the nine members onstage (and their DJ Mathematics) and they seemed to be in full nostalgia mode. If there was any lingering bad blood between U-God—who didn’t appear on the group’s largely dispensible last album The Saga Continues due to contract disputes and criticized RZA as a “control freak” in his 2018 memoir Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang—and his brothers-in-arms, they didn’t show it as they two-stepped, sprayed champagne on the front rows, and took turns handling the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s verses (no doubt the hefty performance fee helped negate any internal awkwardness). They might be a few steps slower than they were when they were running and hustling through New York streets, but their chemistry hasn’t lost any of its potency.

Watching the group tear through timeless, lighters up anthems like “Can It All Be So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Ya Neck,” and “Triumph,” it was impossible to not feel a second (third? fiftieth?) wind, no matter how many hours straight you’d been dancing. At one point they brought out New Jersey-born, Detroit-based soul singer and Wu affilate Candi Lindsay, better known as Blue Raspberry, before shouting out Motown, house, Eminem, and his rap crew D12. I couldn’t help but notice how much more diverse the crowd was than your typical run-of-the-mill summer festival. From my vantage point on the fringes of the packed concrete amphitheatre I spotted ravers old and young, punks, #realhiphop enthusiasts, and proving a famous ODB quip true, at least one child on his parents’ shoulders. Perhaps the biggest similarity between Wu-Tang Clan’s music and techno is its universality—no matter where you go in the world, you can find disciples, even if sometimes you need a reminder of where it came from.

Max Mertens is a writer and editor based in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter.