Book Review

Chamber Music: About the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces)

yes it is good!

Yes, again, im going to do that thing I do reasonably regularly where I read something that is famously good and say (bluntly and directly and fatuously, pointlessly, valuelessly, needlessly, emptily, vacuously and – for no one but me and you and maybe my dog -) that it is good.

The good book is good.


What we’ve got here is a much more self aware, much more informed and much more articulate 2010s version of David Foster Wallace (and his then housemate or something whose name I cannot remember off the top of my head)’s Signifying Rappers, i.e. a chatty book about hip-hop for the chattering classes.

I mean, obviously, no shade on the culturati arty types, that’s what I am and it’s from a middle class english perspective that I found this music… I’ve been to some parties where partying happened and while that partying happened people played early Wu-Tang Clan (though I haven’t been to those (or any) parties for a long time, obviously; the only Wu-Tang that would be likely to be played at the only parties I’d be likely to get invited to these days would be ‘Gravel Pit’ (and that’s probably only because the lame hosts like erroneously think it’s a song by the B52s from the fucking the fucking the fucking John Goodman fucking Flintstones fucking movie (which is why I stay at home/the gym/any fucking where else other than where I “live”))) so I fucking get it, y’know;

absolutely fucking blasted at fucking at fucking 4am, listening to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and fucking and fucking Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the fucking greatest thing you’ve ever fucking heard in your entire fucking life (especially if you’d led a life as nothingy as I have every moment that wasn’t spent in my early twenties fucking wired and still with hair and still attractive enough to not cry every time I see a mirror and fucking listening to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx

Ashon discusses how that first Wu-Tang album is about nostalgia, and discussing it is an act of engaging with nostalgia too – it definitely is for Ashon (who’s just about old enough to have encountered solid Wu-Tang material while it was new and he even interviewed RZA as a journalist during the tail end of Wu’s period of world dominance) and it certainly was for me; those two albums I mentioned I first listened to on CDs while I still had a laptop with a CD drive. CDs!

Remember those? Lol. Yes. (For any younger readers, CDs were small plates you put (one at a time) in a hole in your computer so you could listen to a song; for any older readers, computers are a special time of magic box.)


Ashon’s book is split into 36 Chambers (chapters) each of which looks in detail at a certain aspect of the Wu-Tang Clan as a group and cultural entity, as Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) as a cohesive work, on the contexts of Staten Island in the 80s and 90s, on the music technology/technologies that were used to make their sound, at the musical and cultural inspirations that fed into their work, on each member of the Wu-Tang Clan as individuals and their contribution to that album and to culture beyond that point, at hip hop itself, at the specific places the Clan members lived and grew up in, about the politics of the time, about martial arts movies and the history of film production in Hong Kong, about the “crack epidemic” and its realities (positing that the potential riches of crack dealing formed as much if not more of a dangerous addiction than the consumption of the product itself, tho Ashon does that in such a way that it sounds much less fucking offensive than I have made it sound) and the Nicaraguan contras (which crops up a lot in hip books from before the pandemic – did the CIA release COVID as a way to distract from hipsters teaching slightly younger hipsters about-)


Ashon explores the lyrical content, explores the sound and the meaning of the language and the voices, the contexts of its production and performance and the cultural impact this classic album had. He looks at and interprets the album art, he explores historical indignities against the indigenous populations of Long Island as well as the sociocultural impact of the transatlantic slave trade and-

There are 36 chapters and each one deals with something different that is, in some way, connected to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)… Yes, sometimes a chamber/chapter is about a song from the album, sure, sometimes about a musical sample, sure, but sometimes it’s a brief discussion of social housing policy in New York City, sometimes it’s a potted history of cannabis (pot? geddit? 🤪🤪🤪) as an intoxicant, sometimes it’s about the founding of the FBI, about America as a carceral state, about gun crime, about addiction, about mental illness, about creativity/genius, and sometimes it’s about the poetry of someone saying “I’ll fucken I’ll fucken I’ll fucken sew your asshole closed and keep feedin you and feedin you and feedin you and”-

It’s a great book, discursive and wide-ranging, and Ashon – thankfully, because if he didn’t this book just wouldn’t work – comes across as incredibly knowledgeable (which he should, right, he was a music journalist and ran a record label so has very much “in” the industry) but also critical. This isn’t just “fanboying” hagiography, and though there is a bit of squeamishness around some of the grimier personal details of the Clan’s personal lives, this also means there’s a clear absence of morbidity and Ashon’s book thus never becomes gossipy or gimmicky or like it is missing its mark.

It’s easy to hear a pitch about this book and feel a little nauseous (middle aged (and though I hate to use that term for someone who isn’t old enough to have been my parent, the time has unfortunately arrived in my life where “middle aged” means people gulp people like me) “white English-type” white English guy writes a three hundred page book about the Wu-Tang Clan published by Granta), but Will Ashon has not only produced the best possible version of that pitch, he’s also made a book that is genuinely good: engaging, informative, entertaining and full of a real love of music and evidence of a wide knowledge and reading.

If you can stand the pitch – and I think you should (but I’m not different enough from Ashon for my opinion on this to matter) – then it’s well worth a read.

It’s a little restrained in places, sure, and it lacks something of the immediacy and emotionality of the similarish recent “intellectual does hip-hop” Do Everything Wrong: XXXTentacion Against the World, but it’s a great read for anyone who’s listened to and enjoyed those early Wu tracks, sure, but also to anyone with a passing interest in sociopolitical history through a cultural lens.

Which is something we all – indicates readership – enjoy very very much. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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