Chamber Music focuses on the Wu-Tang’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), released 25 years ago. Over 36 chapters, Will Ashon does a bravura job at presenting an archaeology of the Wu-Tang Clan, digging around the group to situate it within the larger structures of American society and culture. At times you might prefer a more direct approach. The bald statement, “This book tells the story of the first album made by the Wu-Tang Clan,” for example, doesn’t come until page 24, three chapters in. But by and large Chamber Music is both engaging and edifying. Whether it’s tracing the heritage of Protect Ya Neck’s squealing saxophone sample, querying whether hip-hop appeals to white audiences in the same way as minstrel shows, or analysing Ghostface’s allure (exemplary, Ashon says, of Keats’s idea of negative capability), the prose flows like the blood at a murder scene.
This fascinating and ambitious insight into one of the defining records – and hip-hop groups – of the 90s goes way beyond mere album biography... Ashon’s proudly lateral approach and self-referential tone may irritate some... Some chapters take an oblique concept...and proceed through 15 or so pages before getting anywhere near to explaining their connection to the group or the album in question... For the most part, though, it’s hard to resist the sparky intellectual game-playing, even when it over-reaches, because Ashon is having such fun with it... Indeed, this kind of nerdiness is what the Wu demand of their most passionate fans... It’s a shame there isn’t more of it, because when Ashon does turn directly to the Wu’s music, his passion is unmissable... Chamber Music is meant to be a collage of disparate but enticing fragments, like Wu-Tang’s music – rich with sampling, allusions, oblique references and confusing tangents. It’s ambitious, flawed and a lot more fun than any straight album biography would be.