Friday, December 4, 2009

How (not) to be Wu-Tang style

If any genre could rightfully be called the "devil's music," I was convinced in middle school and much of high school that that genre was hip-hop. And to me it wasn't just an opinion -- it was practically a Biblically stated fact that the apocalypse would be brought about by none other than this sorry, tuneless, self-aggrandizing excuse for music. I made a habit, if not a pure obsession, out of telling all my fellow students who listened to rap (which was almost everyone) what idiots they were and encouraging them to listen to bands with "integrity" like Blind Melon, Bush and Everclear. I even based whole school projects on the subject, and nearly got into trouble a few times over arguing why hip-hop had to be banished from the Earth as promptly as sin itself. Man, was I annoying.

That was then and this is now, though, and with the help of numerous educational sources (primarily a history of rock & roll class at Chandler-Gilbert Community College), I came to realize that rapping, DJing, sampling, breakdancing, etc. are not only veritable art forms in their own right, but the basis for an entire culture that cannot and must not be dismissed. Though I still only physically own one hip-hop record -- Madvillain's surreal underground masterpiece Madvillainy -- I have taken it upon myself to give most critically acclaimed rap at least one very open-minded listen. I have rarely been disappointed since, and now can acknowledge why people I used to despise like Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and even Eminem were and are so popular, not to mention placeholders on various Pitchfork "best of" lists.

When curiously flipping through The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present (and yes, I'm admitting to visiting that shamelessly elitist online hype-monger on a regular basis, even though I adamantly disagree with some of their tastes), I read a blurb on Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" from 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). I was unfamiliar with most of Wu-Tang's material before reading this, and I was intrigued by the author's vivid description of their loping beats, hazy samples, offhandedly violent imagery, sick sense of humor and myriad MC tradeoffs. But then it mentioned something that still irks me to no end: Apparently RZA, the collective's commander-in-chief, has elevated the Wu-Tang style into its own psuedo-religious philosophy. RZA has explained that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) -- often considered one of hip-hop's landmark records -- was as inspired by Islam and Eastern thought as it was by comic books, kung fu film fighting scenes and the austere conditions of New York City ghetto life. And though I admittedly have yet to read either book, he also evidently explains in The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu that the Wu-Tang way of thinking is more or less a combination of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

I would be lying if I said I didn't grimace and shake my head immediately upon reading this, not least of all because I am staunchly opposed to the idea of religious amalgamation. However well-intentioned it may or may not be, you can't simply harmonize conflicting religions because ... well ... it's IMPOSSIBLE to do successfully, unless you omit certain parts from whatever religions you are trying to combine. There is a reason that the four canonical Gospels were never melded into one -- there are some scenes that directly conflict with each other, and who is to say which review of the Jesus Jam's got those details exactly right? Not Constantine, not the church, not anyone. Until the time machine is invented (which I hope never actually happens, because then we would have no reason for faith or God's mystery), we will never know whether the Jesus Jam caused a riot in the Temple in the middle or at the beginning of their tour of the Mediterranean, or whether their rockin' tunes opened the eyes of one blind listener or two.

I'm not an expert on Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or even Islam by any means, but I'm pretty sure the developers of each one wanted its followers to adhere to ONE religion. A person I will call Friend #1 made a comment several years ago about how all Eastern religions are basically the same, and two other people who will go by Friend #2 and Friend #3 told me afterward how offended they were by Friend #1's poorly educated remark. Friend #3 -- who has a degree in religious studies -- mentioned that if all Eastern religions are the same, why on Earth did they engage in holy wars? I am curious to read RZA's books just to see what he takes and leaves out from each conflicting faith to create his own philosophy. Based on listening to the gritty, unsettling and sometimes quite heartbreaking narratives on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The W, the Wu-Tang style of life doesn't sound terribly affirming or rewarding.

Half-joking aside, I would like to note in the midst of this argument that I am not against learning about other religions outside Christianity; in fact, I believe doing so is essential, not just for Christians but all people religious and nonreligious. But in the end it must stop at LEARNING, so that whoever is learning about whatever religion they are studying can make an informed judgement about its pros and cons. If one decides to convert to a different faith in the process of learning about it, to each their own, but you can't be just slightly obedient to one faith because you want to make room in your heart for slight obedience to another. From what I know about RZA's books and sources of inspiration, he doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on the true meaning of religious equality. Mohandas Gandhi may have famously advocated for such equality, but at the end of the day he was still a lifelong Hindu. All that term means is that we are in a perpetual state of agreeing to disagree -- we're not going to kill or oppress each other over our differences anymore, but if our beliefs are criticized we will stand up and defend them proudly.

Going to Fuller Theological Seminary -- the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world -- I have realized the value of agreeing to disagree more vividly than ever before. I argued with a classmate over whether or not convicted felons deserve a second chance at functioning respectably in society. But on the last day of class, he unexpectedly came to me personally and said how nice it was to meet me. I often butted heads with a more orthodox Christian than myself in a recent class, once to the point where the guy basically belittled me for being young and therefore full of "postmodern psychobabble." I was livid at first, but ultimately had some very pleasant, enlightening and loving conversations with him during our breaks from lectures. I got into a long, heated Facebook debate with a seminary buddy of mine over one of my previous blog posts, arguing back and forth over whether or not homosexuality is a sin (which I've come to the conclusion it isn't). But the next time I saw him, I ignored the knots in my stomach, sat next to him at lunch and was delighted to hear that he enjoyed the discussion as much as I did. All urges to protect my neck vanished in a heartbeat.

As one of my professors recently said, the worst arguers are ones who call the opposing side an idiot. There are certain religions and Christian denominations I disagree with -- sometimes quite vehemently -- and though I sometimes get into modes when I would love to just banish or ignore them all, I understand there's a lot you can learn from those who are not like you. And ultimately, just because someone is not like you does not mean they are less deserving of human dignity. Even in our evangelistic efforts as Christians, we ought to respect or at least remember the fact that what works for us may not work for everyone.

Although I take issue with RZA's thoughts on philosophy, I think Wu-Tang Clan as a unit actually stand as a decent model for ecumenism. At the time Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released, the collective had no less than nine MCs. I've never been fortunate enough to witness a street rap battle, but I can imagine it's not too dissimilar from listening to this record -- the MCs take turns with their verses, each one bringing their own unique style to the often intense mix. Ghostface Killah practically screams in a high-pitched yelp like someone's holding a pistol to his head. Raekwon the Chef sneers nonchalantly like he and his crew are about to smoke your behind in a blaze of gunfire. Method Man distinctively wheezes when taking breaths amidst his near-tuneful rhyming. Inspector Deck articulately proclaims every syllable like a newscaster announcing the apocalypse. The GZA plays it the coolest out of them all like a sardonic late-night disc jockey. The RZA shouts angrily like he's about to finish you with a single, fatal kung fu move. U-God and Masta Killa's appearances are scant throughout the record, but their respective menacing growl and preacher-style bellow are highly memorable. And Ol' Dirty Bastard ... well ... he sounded a lot like his namesake, mumbling semi-comprehensibly like he was wasted on the floor (which probably wasn't too far from the truth); may he rest in peace.

In addition, I think the music itself on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) reinforces the idea of the Clan as a good ecumenical model. The RZA had a very strange, innovative and massively influential approach to assembling beats. It's almost like he put them together as a low-resolution afterthought to the raps. Muted mid-tempo drum loops, overdriven bass, dissonant piano and organ motifs, kung fu film samples and a number of other ghastly noises are assembled haphazardly on what sounds like 20-year-old turntables, without any real regard for whether it was all rhythmically synced or even in the same key. It really shouldn't have worked but ... somehow ... it does. In fact, one could argue the music is beautiful because of the mess, not in spite of it.

Such a principle could apply to what humanity is in this day and age, when religious pluralism is all the rage. Society at large has taken a relativist approach to the divine, seeing every individual religion as a self-contained truth. But I disagree with this -- as the black liberation theologian James Cone once said, all religions are fundamentally searching for the same kind of meaning, just going about very different ways of doing so. Our rhythms may not pound in tandem with each other, and we are certainly not all playing in the same key, but at least we can all agree on a love for music. And in this increasingly secularized culture, perhaps we should sing a quiet ditty of praise whenever people still bother to worship some kind of higher power at all.

Still, just because our tunes don't exactly match up doesn't mean we should edit "The Word" to accommodate for every other composition in existence. So RZA, please take note: Amalgamation is not the same thing as equality. And to those who listen to and/or perform a single divinely written piece because you felt called to do so, keep doing what you're doing. Just know that if your favorite composer is challenged, be sure to bring the ruckus with the equivalent of a rap battle and not a drive-by shooting. There is a place on this Earth for every sound, even hip-hop.

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