Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Chamber Music

Faber Social: Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces) by Will Ashon

Faber Social: Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces) by Will Ashon

Faber Social: Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces) by Will Ashon

Faber Social: Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces) by Will Ashon

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

by Will Ashon

For Will Ashon--novelist (Clear Water, Heritage), record label founder and former music journalist--big questions and ambitious goals are familiar territory. His debut nonfiction book, Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest, examined the Epping Forest and what it means to get lost. With Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces), he grounds his focus not in the mysteries of the English woods, but the enigmas of American hip hop.

In this remarkable project, Ashon explores the musical, political and social landscapes that helped shape the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). His central premises: "The genius of hip hop reaches some kind of wild, ramshackle apogee on Enter the Wu-Tang," and, "To come close to understanding that record is also to understand something about America."

Collectively, the pieces compose a portrait of an album and an era. Individually, the chambers (chapters by another name) provide three dozen deep dives into elements of the Wu-Tang story and Wu-Tang's America. The whole is akin to, as Ashon himself notes, a jigsaw puzzle; each piece feels distinct and different, together constituting something cohesive.

Ashon locates the album within the history of jazz, R&B, gospel and, most recently, hip hop. "Hip hop has often been treated as a collapse or retreat from the 'high' African American culture of modern jazz," he argues, "a kind of bastard offspring lacking the musicality, sophistication, complexity, even the spirituality or morality of its besuited forebear."

To better understand the landscapes from which the Wu-Tang Clan grew, Ashon explores Staten Island and the housing projects Stapleton and Park Hill. It was in these places that most of the group's nine members grew up and found themselves creating their own blended family. And here, in Ashon's reporting, location, lineage and politics bleed together. Members RZA, GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard are first cousins, with shared heritage in the Cuffee family of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Ashon writes at length about the Cuffees, and in particular the cousins' probable ancestor Fred Cuffee who was expelled from the Carlisle Indian School in 1892. The reason? "Too much negro."

Issues of hybridity, mixing and remixing play into the story of the Clan in myriad ways. In the chamber on the Shinnecock, Ashon wonders, "When it comes up against a totalizing system of categorization, does the very resistance of hybrid culture to easy classification operate as a broader cultural resistance? And isn't hip hop a hybrid culture, too--moreover, a culture of hybridity?"

Ashon is interested in inventories; he often takes stock of things by the numbers. He'll count the number of words in a song, or a section. He tallies the number of lines each member has on the record. He questions the efficacy of this method; still, it's especially informative as he examines the images of violence in the album. Ashon counts the references to guns and shooting; the mentions of "swords, blades, chopping, stabbing and slicing"; death itself; and uses of the words "dead, death, die and deadly." He considers how others might interpret the prevalence of this imagery--that, simply, the Wu-Tang Clan lived with guns, in a gun culture. But in the particularly compelling chamber "Thanatasia," Ashon makes a different argument; that Wu-Tang is, critically, instead creating a myth "whose job it is to... destabilize the dominant paradigm of 'reality'.... Perhaps in the same way that 'bad' comes to mean 'good,' so 'death' in the Wu-Tang's world actually comes to mean 'life' and the gun fires the silver bullets which bring breath back to the lungs of the undead."

Importantly, Ashon reckons with his own positioning as an English, white, Oxbridge-educated male. Given these facts, he decides, "This book shouldn’t exist." Or, at least, he decides that it's complicated to insert himself into it. However, his reflections on this matter make for some of his most thought-provoking and best writing. He interrogates not only his own ideas and roles within the music industry and society at large, but broader notions of capital-A Art and genius, and how to understand (or implode) them. And throughout, he broadens the conversation to include perspectives beyond his own, "sampling" sources from a wide spectrum of eras and fields: W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Said, Kodwo Eshun, Bakari Kitwana, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zadie Smith and countless more. He curates diverse perspectives, pulling scholars, thinkers, musicians and artists into the conversation--and he does it like an artist himself. His writing pulses and jumps. Some pieces flow into one another, while others pivot unexpectedly, suddenly, powerfully or playfully (as in the Kung Fu chamber. It's as fun as it sounds).

The members of the Wu-Tang Clan were not officially involved in the creation of the book. But even without the group's direct participation, anyone interested in better understanding hip hop and the history of one of its most fascinating groups will likely find this mosaic an enduring, worthy contribution--and even if Ashon might resist the word, a work of art. --Katie Weed

Faber & Faber, $24, hardcover, 9780571350001, February 2019

Faber Social: Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces) by Will Ashon

Will Ashon: On Great Art from the Periphery

In Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America (in 36 Pieces), Will Ashon composes a biography of an album, a group and a scene. Through 36 interlinked essays, Ashon (Strange Labyrinth) hails the 25th anniversary of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), exploring the circumstances that begat the Wu-Tang Clan, and the album's--and band's--lasting impact. The book will be published by Faber & Faber on February 19, 2019.

This book is a portrait not only of a record but of an ethos. You write, "To come close to understanding [Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] is also to understand something about America--a place which, like the music it has birthed, creates beauty and boldness, humor and warmth, all out of underlying horror." How is this album a reflection of its origins? Is it still a reflection of the U.S.?

The album Enter the Wu-Tang reflects its origins in many ways, but is also a transcendence of those origins. While it couldn't have been made outside of the set of social relations which informed the lives of its creators (the post-Civil Rights backlash, Reaganomics, mass incarceration of the black population, the crack epidemic, the developments of hip hop from the early '70s, the technological advances which made sampling cheaper, black religious and spiritual movements, etc., etc.), it also represents a jumping free of all the constraints working upon them. That's why it's a piece of art.

As for whether it's still a reflection, I'm afraid the answer is yes. Trump's presidency only begins to make sense if you see it as another backlash, this time against a black presidency. Trump's way of using social media and the transparency of his pandering to racists may be relatively new, but the ideological playbook the Republicans are using has its origins in Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign (and every Republican presidential campaign since, though Bill Clinton didn't exactly help, either).

In Strange Labyrinth, you took a similarly inventive approach to a very different topic. Can you trace the path that led you from London's Great Forest to New York's Staten Island?

Yes, absolutely there's a path. Towards the end of writing Strange Labyrinth, which was my first attempt at longform nonfiction, I realized that the methods I was using (simply speaking, sampling and collaging the words and thought of other people to create a composite work) were hip hop methods. It was a key moment for me in terms of understanding what I was doing and bringing together the different interests and obsessions which had dominated my adult life. I then decided that I wanted to write a book about hip hop using hip hop methods and principles--not the surface language, slang and style, so much as the underlying aesthetics and processes of decision-making. Chamber Music is the result. As for Staten Island itself, it has a lot in common with the borderlands of London and Essex, where Epping Forest lies… they both sit on the periphery of major cities, and I think great art and music often comes from the periphery.

You write about authenticity by way of RZA's verse in "Tearz," that it's "heavy with emotion, with regret, with lost innocence. It is utterly sincere. And it's a complete fiction." What does authenticity mean to you? To this story?

The point I was trying to make here is that so much of the reception of black art is predicated in terms of its authenticity i.e. to the extent that it is considered 100% true and "real" it is lauded (or attacked). And what this really comes down to is a need for black art to be simple. But black art (in this case represented by hip hop) is anything but simple. It's a sophisticated composite--much, much more sophisticated than most of the criticism of it.

In his brilliant memoir, Heavy, Kiese Laymon remembers he and his schoolfriends using the phrase "that black abundance" as a kind of mantra. It's also a boiled-down aesthetic manifesto which should be familiar to anyone who has listened to a hip hop album, particularly the skit-filled, sample-heavy records of the mid-nineties. Why do we limit black art and police its boundaries so much more assiduously than other art? I'm afraid the answer to that has everything to do with racism, even--or especially?--amongst people who consider themselves lovers and defenders of "black music."

You curated and embedded a playlist in the book. How has your career in the music industry shaped your process generally and how did it shape your playlist specifically?

The playlist was actually the idea of my editor, the mighty Max Porter. If I remember rightly, when he read the draft he kept noting things to listen to in the margins and so the idea came to him that we should add it to the book. Some of the music relates directly to the text, some relates thematically and some is just great music! I recently put together (incomplete) versions of the playlist on Spotify and YouTube, so people can listen as they read.

It's been said before, but if you want to kill your interest in music, working in the music industry is a pretty effective way to go about it. In fact, I believe that the most successful people in that industry are probably the people who didn't like music to begin with. So I can't honestly say it shaped my process at all. Though, having been an A&R (who has climbed mountains, but never played electric guitar), I guess I have to believe in listening to editors--as proved by the playlist! On a personal level, writing this book was about falling back in love with music, and I think it's no coincidence that I chose a record that I loved as a fan before I had any professional role or interest in the music business. There's a purity to loving something just because you love it. --Katie Weed

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