El Michels Affair – ‘Enter the 37th Chamber: Music Inspired by the Wu-Tang’

October 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, October 5, 2009.

El Michels Affair
Enter the 37th Chamber: Music Inspired by the Wu-Tang
(Fat Beats/Fuse)

Hip-hop and the live band have long been uncomfortable bedfellows. Aside from ?uestlove’s accomplished musical directorship of The Roots, few live acts have tackled the raw simplicity of the break with much in the way of genuine success. Plenty of live ensembles have eked out something like hip-hop; too few have got it right.

With this in mind, news of an instrumental band tackling the mighty Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – plus various vintage RZA cuts from classic Wu solo albums like GZA’s Liquid Swords and Raekwon’s Cuban Linx – should rightly be considered sacrilege. Luckily, the people behind Enter the 37th Chamber aren’t just any old band. The brainchild of saxophonist, organist and general soul savant Leon Michels, Brooklyn nine-piece El Michels Affair arrive with hip-hop and Wu credentials to spare, having worked with Raekwon in both a live and recorded context (recutting classic Pete Rock joints onto brilliant 12’ The PJs From Afar) and even survived a short tour with the Clan in 2007.

Out for a couple of months now, 37th Chamber is certainly celebratory of the Wu legacy, but luckily stretches beyond the bounds of mere nostalgia. It works on a couple of fronts. On the one hand, the record illustrates ensemble’s understanding of the material. Across the majority of these cuts, Michels and his people carry not just a groove, but more importantly, an atmosphere. Like the originals, there’s plenty of space in the arrangements, with tracks like ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ melting into loose, funk jams, accented by the subtlest of guitar licks and piano licks. ‘Mystery of Chessboxin’’, meanwhile, is even more lean and angular than the original, with a single guitar sinew swooping about a flat break.

Elsewhere, highlights include the orchestral flourish and nodding groove of ‘Criminology’ and Raekwon’s classic dirge ‘Glaciers of Ice’, which is taken widescreen with huge, surging horns segueing swirling guitars and clouds of organ atmospherics. But 37th Chamber’s real centrepiece is the classic 36 Chambers lament ‘Can it All Be So Simple’, with El Michels loosening it at the hinges – the verse swaying amid blissful, tropical funk, pealing brass and a slackened percussive strut.

Not everything works. The chord structures of two of the Wu’s most iconic cuts – ODB’s raucous ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ and classic ‘Protect Ya Neck’ – are just too dissonant for a soul context. But for the most part, RZA’s hooks and atmospheres translate incredibly well.

Indeed, while El Michels’ sublime interpretations are one thing, the record’s real calling card is its source material. More than anything, 37th Chamber confirms the sheer quality and timelessness of RZA’s beats. This collection will work for the committed Wu fan as much as the hip-hop ignoramus. It comes from the lab of not just one of rap’s premier producers, but one of wider contemporary music’s finest composers.

Dan Rule

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