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February 20, 2019

Will Ashon's Playlist for His Book "Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America"

Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Will Ashon's Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America is a brilliant examination of Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and American culture.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A conceptually audacious critical study about the conceptual audacity of the Wu-Tang Clan―and well beyond.... Hip-hop fans and anyone interested in the deeper seams of American culture will be glad [he wrote it.]"

In his own words, here is Will Ashon's Book Notes music playlist for his book Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America:

Coming up with a playlist connected to my book, Chamber Music, so that I can write about it for Book Notes presents something of a problem. That’s because the playlist already exists. It runs down the sides of the pages throughout the book and, when I tried to assemble it for Spotify, it ended up being almost 10 hours long. If I were to write something about every track included, it would probably end up longer than the book itself. Or would maybe just be the book itself. It would certainly be unwieldy. So instead I’ve opted to try to boil that epic down into a few tracks.

Almost by definition this will be a complete failure. One of the key themes of Chamber Music is that African-American music is a continuum and that when you embark on writing a book about, in this instance, the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, you are, of necessity, also writing about the whole of that continuum. Does that continuum fit into a few tracks? No, no it does not.

So here it is. I feel like I should do 36, but that’s still a bit long if I’m going to say something about each of them, so instead here’s 9, one for each member of the group (you get to decide which is for who).

Wu-Tang Clan – ‘Protect Ya Neck’

I had to start with this, didn’t I? The group’s debut, self-released single, with everything already in place—the attack in the multiple voices, the off-kilter production, the mythology, the humor and aggression and sheer chutzpah. What a way to begin.

U.S. Music w/ Funkadelic – ‘I Miss My Baby’

This one is a test case, really. Obviously it’s a stupendous, beautiful, supercharged, soulful slice of post-doowop, but what is it you love about it? Is it the melody line, the way the chord change leads you into the payoff half way through the chorus? Or the peerless harmonising of the backing singers (almost enough, personally, to convince me of the existence of God)? Or is it the drums, the work of Harvey McGee, the way he places the heartbeat thuds of his kick drum to push and pull the beat? Because let’s be honest, that’s the essence of hip hop right there, deep down in the rhythmic bones of the piece.

Brand Nubian – ‘Wake Up’ (Stimulated Dummies Remix)

When I began researching the theology of the Nation of Gods & Earths for the book, I was surprised to find out I already knew it. It took me a while to figure out that this was because it was all there, with brilliant beats and even better delivery, on the first Brand Nubian album, which I’d obsessed over when it came out. Please Educate Allah’s Children with Equality…

Thelonious Monk – ‘Epistrophy’

If there’s one outstanding aesthetic influence on Enter the Wu-Tang, it’s provided by Thelonious Sphere Monk, who – in addition to having a name suitable for a Shaolin Temple – first introduced to American music the spidery, oddly proportioned dynamics you encounter on Enter… The RZA (along with Cecil Taylor, maybe?) is one of the few musicians to take Monk’s example and push forward with it, to make something new rather than a tribute to a unique individual.

Mick Jenkins with BADBADNOTGOOD – ‘Drowning’

One of the key themes of Chamber Music is the notion of rap as an expression, extension and shadow of breathing (and how this ties in with the death of Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement)—themes which Jenkins touches on with considerably more economy than I do, and with a better beat.

Jelly Roll Morton – ‘The Dirty Dozen’

If the dozens are the seed from which rap culture mutated, then Professor Morton traces them back to Chicago. Also, please note, profanity in African-American music IS NOTHING NEW (although the commercial exploitation of it is). Opening line: ‘Oh you dirty motherfucker, you old cocksucker, you dirty son of a bitch, you bastard, you everything – and your mama don’t wear no drawers.’

Wu-Tang Clan – ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’

It’s hard to pick out a track to represent Enter… and this one has the disadvantage of not featuring GZA, but on the other hand it includes rare contributions from U-God and Masta Killah, superb verses from Inspectah Deck, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (‘No one could get iller’) and the moment when Ol’ Dirty Bastard fully transformed from Ason Unique into the wild and wonderful vocalist who elevated the group to new heights.

Angel Bat Dawid – ‘What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? (Dr Margaret Burroughs)’

This speaks for itself and makes me think of Fred Moten’s words: ‘It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much.’

Wu-Tang Clan – ‘I Can’t Go To Sleep’ feat. Isaac Hayes

In effect a massive steal of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Walk On By,’ it features two brilliant verses from the yin and yang of the Wu-niverse, Ghostface Killah and the Rza. Taken from ‘The W,’ the album isn’t all that great, but this one doesn’t so much ‘get the jelly out your spine’ (as Hayes puts it), as turn your spine to jelly. Sobbing.

Will Ashon and Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

The Big Issue review
GQ UK review
Guardian review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review

CBC Radio interview with the author
Granta interview with the author
The List profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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