The so-called “struggle rappers” of today can’t even begin to fathom the audacity of the Wu-Tang Clan of the early ’90s, who didn’t have Soundcloud or Twitter at their disposal, but sure as hell didn’t need them. Ever resourceful, the Clan crafted a truly unique, truly underground sound and aesthetic and made damn sure the world heard them, bumrushing stages and the industry like a carjacker who gave two shits about LoJack.
20-years(!) after the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) , there are still many things to marvel at the Staten Island group’s classic debut — from RZA’s rawest of raw production to the crew’s enigmatic (and influential) “sword style” of rhyming. There’s also the iconic album cover – a magnificently appropriate mix of mystery and grime, a lost scene from a blunted and dusted-out Shaw Bros. movie that never was.
36 Chambers ‘ album cover was shot by Daniel Hastings , who at the time had joined forced with Christian Cortes and Miguel Rivera to form Cartel , a creative company responsible for a slew of hip-hop album covers, as well as acclaimed music videos, like Jeru the Damaja ‘s “Can’t Stop the Prophet.” As you’re about to learn, the back-story (and last minute problem-solving) which led the Clan to don the extra rugged look of hoodies and stocking masks reflected the real life chaos and excitement of the Wu from the group’s earliest days.
How did you get the 36 Chambers assignment?
Daniel Hastings: At that point I had [done] a couple of album covers. I didn’t have that many. I shot KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap . I shot this group, The Rumplestilskinz. I was becoming friends with some rappers, so I was going to a lot of rap functions. And [RCA Records art director] Jackie Murphy had already hired me for my first album cover, which was Rumplestilskinz, and they were signed to RCA. I was in Atlanta at the Jack the Rapper convention when I got the phone call from Jackie saying, “I got this really exciting group, Danny. They’re crazy. They’re crazier than the Rumplestilskinz. This is all you. I need you to do this.” I don’t think they knew yet how creative I was. I think they were just sending me the most dangerous work that other photographers wouldn’t do. [ laughs ] I was like, “Sure, sure. What’s the deal?” She’s like, “It’s this crazy group called Wu-Tang Clan.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them.” They had “Protect Ya Neck” out and you could hear it at some hip-hop shows. By coincidence, they were going to perform that day at Jack the Rapper. So I was like, “Maybe I can step to them and talk to them and introduce myself.” And she was like, “Yeah, go ahead. Good luck.” [ laughs ]
[As it turned out], these dudes were fucking crazy, bro. I’m at Jack the Rapper and I’m waiting, and I can’t remember who it was, but an old school group was performing. At that point, the new school didn’t have the respect for the old school the way they do now. You know what I’m saying? Back then, the old school [was seen] as kind of corny, and the new school was coming with their new ways of rapping. So at that point I don’t think they cared too much for old school shit. Maybe I’m wrong. But what I witnessed definitely led me to believe that. ‘Cause there was some old school guys rapping, and I’m not gonna say any names. But all of a sudden you seen a man standing [on stage] in the middle of their set, with a stocking mask [on his face], right? And he’s just staring at them. And this group is just going back and forth on the mic, and then [they see] this dude standing there with this stocking mask on in their middle of their set. They’re like, “What the fuck, son? We’re doing a set over here.” Yo, the man in the stocking mask goes and just snatches the microphone from this dude and pushes him to the side. And then all these dudes with masks just come on stage. And they push everybody out. They fuckin’ take the sound man off and get in the booth, and do whatever they got to do. And then they fuckin’ start going, “WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’! WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’! WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’!” Yo, everyone was like, “What the fuck is that?!” [ laughs ] This shit was in 1993. This [sort of thing] didn’t happen. These dudes just rushed the stage and just fuckin’ cleared everybody out. And that place went bananas, bro. Everybody just started jumping around, man, screaming “Wu-Tang!” I was jumping around. I mean, it was the best of the best shit I’d seen. They had that “Protect Ya Neck” single, so dudes were checking for them, you know. Yo, man, it was fight music. They were like, “Fuck that. We’re opening this shit up.” No disrespect, but a lot these young rappers out now would not survive in the ’90s, bro.
So who was the group that got bumrushed?
Daniel Hastings: I can’t even remember, to tell you the truth. I want to say some names, but this was like 20 years ago. Like, if I say somebody’s name, they can be like, “That wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.” It was somebody from the ’80s. [You can probably guess] who was falling off at the time. Only like KRS has held it down. Rakim held on. It wasn’t them. But anyways…
Wu-Tang (post-bumrush) performing at Jack The Rapper in 1993. Note the stocking masks.
So what happened next? What was it like working with them?
Daniel Hastings: I was like, “I’m fuckin’ with these niggaz. I like these dudes.” So I stepped to the RZA right after the show. He was like, “All right, son. I’ll see you in New York. Let’s go.” Boom. That was it. So I come back to New York and went to talk [about concepts for the cover] with the RZA in the studio when they were finishing the album. The studio was called Firehouse. And it was the most disgusting studio I’ve ever seen in my entire career. This place had holes in the walls, wires were coming out of the walls, chicken wings all on the floor, blunt wraps all over the place, empty 40s all over. The place was insane, dude. [ laughs ] I was just like, “What the hell?” But I talked to the RZA and I’ll never forget it. He told me, “Hey, man, you see this sweatshirt I got on? I been wearing this shit for like three days. But I’m going to blow up because I got beats. And I’m gonna be an empire.” Yo, I don’t know why that’s still in my brain, bro. [ laughs ] But we talked about everything. We talked about Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee. We talked about karate. I grew up with all the Bruce Lee movies. He was like, “Yeah, I want to do some monastery looking thing [because] we’re a clan, we’re a crew. I’m like, “I got you.”
I loved their logo. So I was like, let’s take this logo and just make a big fuckin’ gold logo. So I got an artist to carve it out of foam core and paint it gold. And then we got a crazy church location that Jackie Murphy shared with me. It was called the Angel Orensanz Foundation. I went and checked out the location and fell in love with it. They’re still on Norfolk Street [in the Lower East Side]. Today, that place is gorgeous. You can’t rent that place for less than 5 G’s. [Back then] this place was destroyed. There was like rocks coming out of the walls. It was just crazy. But it was like an abandoned synagogue, and I was like, “Wow, this could work as a monastery.”
“So then we were ready to shoot…” continues next page…