cover image Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)

Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces)

Will Ashon. Faber & Faber, $24 (374p) ISBN 978-0-571-35000-1

This thoughtful yet muddled cultural history takes a deep dive into the Staten Island hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan, who hit the music scene in 1993 with Enter the Wu-Tang. That album, music journalist Ashon (Strange Labyrinth) writes, brought New York’s “gritty, grimy hardcore style” back to the fore at a time when the sleeker West Coast sound of Dr. Dre was popular. Ashon admits his book takes “a largely non-linear, sample-heavy, magpie approach as its template,” and indeed he hops from broad historical sketches to discursive ruminations, including on police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s and the DEA’s Operation Pipeline (a police training program), that often have only tangential relationships to the music group. Ashon’s approach does yield some fruit, particularly when digging into Wu-Tang’s influence on such things as the quasimystical Five-Percenter movement and the Hong Kong wuxia (martial arts) movies. Ashon produces some meaningful background on individual Wu-Tang members, particularly Method Man (Clifford Smith took his name from meth) and the self-destruction of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Johnson “was strung up on crack” and died of an overdose in 2004). But too often his spirals of research—even into possibly germane topics like the history of early hip-hop—never connect back. It’s a fascinating book that too often gets tangled in its many narrative threads. [em](Feb.) [/em]