Wu-affiliated project offers an instant rap-geek curio for anyone who likes hearing bands cross the bounds of sample-based and live hip-hop instrumentation.
What the El Michels Affair have subsequently come up with is a weird little diversion that’s as interesting for its unexpected detours and minor blasphemies as it is for its familiarity. When you’re working with reinterpretations of music that often distorted the workings of 1960s and 70s soul into grimy, warped territory, it’s almost impossible to play it on standard instruments without having to reel it back in just a little. Just to give you an idea of what we’re working with here, their version of “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” is a little over three minutes long, and the horns that kicked the door down from the get-go in the original Wu-Tang track don’t even come in until after a minute or so of drums-bass-guitar vamping. This and other tweaks– drastically abbreviating “Mystery of Chessboxin'” and spending a third of its length on a melting-analog intro that sounds more like Dr. Octagon’s “Blue Flowers”, or sweetening those spare, piercing string notes from “Duel of the Iron Mics” into a weepy violin solo– could be a natural result of a band trying to make the structure of a loop-based backing track a bit more dynamic in a purely instrumental context.
And sometimes they extend it to the point where they kind of lose the original tracks’ spirits. Despite their ability to play to a range of moods, as displayed on their fine 2005 debut Sounding out the City, the Affair decided to make even the lighthearted and triumphant moments in their trip through the Wu catalog sound sinister and grim. That includes the jaunty, Dr. Buzzard’s-quoting intro of “Cherchez La Ghost” and the manic, giggly piano loop from “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, both of which now sound a bit more like theme music for white-mustached Shaw Brothers villains. And many of these tracks– fun interpretations as many of them are– still sound like they’re sorely missing the MCs they were originally crafted for, a situation some enterprising mash-up artists are free to try and rectify.
But fitting the RZA’s productions to a 1:1 ratio isn’t quite the point here, even if their approach is still reasonably reverent. Enter the 37th Chamber works best as a series of familiar touchstones sifted through a filter of hazy, almost psychedelic mud-fidelity gloom, getting at the sorrow and menace of classic Wu-Tang at a somewhat different angle. The Affair have a similar ear for diabolical soul sonics and 42nd St. cinema atmosphere as the RZA, but they get to it through a more organic (or at least organic-sounding) route, transforming split-second snippets into fleshed-out licks and choppy loops into glass-smooth riffs. “C.R.E.A.M.” is the highlight of the set, sweetening the horns, pushing a shivering, stinging guitar melody to a more prominent role and giving that iconic piano riff an understated jolt. “Criminology” is a little pared down– the original’s thousand-horn swagger feels a touch lighter in the brass department– but those stuttering vibes are replicated beautifully and that loping bass-drum backbeat still swings its shoulders wide. And “Protect Ya Neck”– well, it sounds like an unusually badass Booker T. & the MGs’ instrumental from 1968, which does justice to the Stax/Volt side of RZA’s affections. In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the movie that inspired the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album title, Gordon Liu masters his training in all 35 chambers of Shaolin and subsequently forms the 36th as a way to teach others outside the temple. Seems that the 37th chamber involves unlearning what you already know.