Sworded Tales: Tim Burgess On What The Wu-Tang Clan Did For Me
, May 17th, 2012 09:08
Tomorrow night Luke Turner is doing a Q&A with Tim Burgess at Rough Trade East. Ahead of that, we print the missing chapter of his Telling Stories autobiography, where he discusses how the Wu-Tang Clan inspired The Charlatans
When I started writing Telling Stories I wanted to take the chance to let everyone know where I came from musically, from the first songs I ever listened to and the beginnings of my record collection. Certain albums and bands have had a profound and obvious affect on what I've done as a musician - before I was in a band, Sandinista! by The Clash let me know the possibilities of what could be done by going back to the drawing board as far as albums were concerned. So I wrote a chapter about what that meant to me. New Order got me to thinking that it was possible to be in a band, and Bob Dylan and The Doors threw in lots of ideas we played with while we were making albums.
Perhaps the least obvious influence would come from hip-hop - I doubt too many people would have The Wu-Tang Clan high up on a list of who I'd listen to, but in some ways they had the biggest effect.
I had an idea of how many pages I'd like in Telling Stories - I wanted it to be like a chat in the pub rather than a document of every move I'd ever made. For those reasons only one chapter got the chop. In fact, it was cut before it was fully completed. It was like a demo, and here it is.
You might think there's nothing further from the West and East coast hotbeds of hip-hop than the sleepy Cheshire village where I grew up, but the advent of The Beastie Boys sometime around 1987 joined the dots between the latter-day bass-driven beat of The Clash and the first hip-hoppers out of the blocks like Run DMC. I was aware of what they were doing and had bought the odd 12" and tried to like rappers like Schoolly D, but it was all just a bit misogynistic and laddy for me. It wasn't until I heard De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising that I became fully drawn into the world of hip-hop. I loved their mind-melting, flower-power twist on a genre that I never expected could get psychedelic - they seemed to be channelling Syd Barrett via a patchwork of samples and recorded skits that totally redefined the genre. In Manchester at one point it seemed that everyone had bought The Stone Roses debut album and 3 Feet High & Rising - that part of the world turned into a daisy age dayglo love in, with ecstasy replacing booze as the fuel. Dancing replaced punch-ups in clubs, and Manchester seemed to be at the centre of it all.
De La Soul's lyrics, look and beats made up a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. With the first Charlatans album, Some Friendly, we wanted to allow all our influences in just as they had, and hoped it would have as much appeal on the dancefloor as on the radio people listened to at work. We even approached Prince Paul for a remix. It didn't happen. Ah well.
With the exception of Boogie Down Productions and A Tribe Called Quest (both which I picked up from 550 Madison Ave NY when The Charlatans raided the RCA/BMG vinyl cupboard), and a couple of years later Check Your Head by The Beastie Boys, hip-hop wasn't much present in my record collection from 1990 to '96. For such an important genre, I just wasn't - how do I put it? - I just wasn't feeling it!
Then Wu-Tang Clan came straight outta Staten Island, they went for the jugular and I was smitten. Their attack on the world was hardcore, as opposed to De La Soul's flowery punches, but their impact on me was like no other. They were like some kind of massed league of superheroes - each with a different superpower. Their habits and demeanour made them more like super villains, but that gave them even more appeal. New York gang culture restyled as ninjas and with the best names in hip-hop thus far. Like a crack team assembled for a bank job, they had everything. RZA was the brains, GZA was the lyrical mastermind. Ol' Dirty Bastard was like the demon in everyone with tales of ingesting, fighting and fucking, Raekwon the chef, Inspector Deck, U-god, Ghostface Killah, Master Killa, and the super charismatic blunt smokin' pin up - Method Man. They had songs that matched Shaolin mysticism with American Psycho cool. It was pretty overwhelming.
First out the blocks after their debut was RZA with Gravediggaz. They even got their own genre, horrorcore. I was biting. Prince Paul was involved, the album was called 6 Feet Deep and I was going in. Poster boy Method Man was next. He had his good looks, velvet tones and vampire grills - Tical was the name of the album, odd title, odd guy, odd album. But amazing. The singles featured remixes from The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers – they were getting closer to my radar.
These songs, played by Jon Carter, fuelled a trip with the Heavenly Social mob up to Nottingham. Daft Punk, Tom and Ed from the Chemical Brothers and Death In Vegas were in the van too. It was an important journey in every way. Fists were bumped, pumped and gyrated. It was still as out there, but it was almost pop music too. The second single, 'All I Need', even featured multi platinum unit shifter and Grammy hoover Mary J Blige, and was produced by Sean Puffy Coombs. Believe it or not, I got the style for the chorus for 'North Country Boy' from that. Yeah, I thought you wouldn't believe it. How far to come? Method Man used to sell PCP on the streets of NYC. Thug life indeed.
Next? Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. It just happened be the most mental LP I'd ever heard in my life: lyrical psycho comedy freestyle, paranoid and scary at the same time. 'Shimmy Shimmy Ya' and 'Brooklyn Zoo' are up there with the craziest recordings I have ever heard. If De La Soul represented pyschedelia, this shit was on crack.
GZA's Liquid Swords and Raekwon The Chef's Only Built for Cuban Linx were the masterpieces, though, featuring guest spots from all of the Clan members. Rumour has it that Only Built For Cuban Linx was actually meant to be a Wu-Tang Clan album but Rae bagsied it for himself. It was a sprawling, almost concept record, like a film soundtrack with Raekwon as the lead, Killah as the the co-star and RZA as the director. I'm listening, and you can almost see the film it's trying to be. I imagine Quentin Tarantino set out to make that film. It was a permanent fixture on the stereo in the Jag I had while living in Didsbury. Yeah, it's not The Bronx, but some of those Sunday drives to Marks & Spencer could get a bit tasty. Finally, series one ended with Ghostface's solo Iron Man cartoon punk.
Method Man did a song for the Batman soundtrack - they'd done things their own way but were now the mainstream, and of course then they all launched their Wu-Wear clothing line before continuing to release amazing solo records. Ol' Dirty guested everywhere from Big Daddy Kane, Funkmaster Flex, Blackstreet, most notably on Busta Rhymes' 'Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check' & Maria Carey's 'Fantasy'.
Boom!!!!!! We are up to date – did I mention I bought all of these? The more they made, the more I loved them.
I once saw an ace pic of Method Man wearing Cazal frames. I needed a pair of glasses so I got me some. They were cool - pricey too, at £600, and apparently a status symbol if you were black or Jewish and living in NYC. I was neither, but it made me smile that I was now buying bling.
A friend of mine, Emma Forrest, interviewed the band in Germany and she called me up excitedly after she'd spoken to them. I'd borrowed a song title from Method Man and Redman's 'How High'. We'd recorded 'How High', and it wasn't exactly a foray into rap but it was a song done at breakneck speed that definitely shared something with the genre. Emma called to tell me that she'd played it to Method Man and that he'd loved it. That one of the Wu Tang Clan had heard one of our songs was just about the best news I'd had for years, and still make me smile now.
She interviewed them all, but hung out with ODB. He was as paranoid as he was talented and had become convinced the CIA were after him and spying on his every move. He told her he was the father of hundreds of babies and called himself Big Baby Jesus. It was all getting a little freaky.
I'd watched Serge Leonne's masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America more than any other film. It tells the tale of a gang of Italian immigrant friends growing up in New York and making a life for themselves. What touched me most was the relationship between Max and Noodles. They were name-checked in Raekwon's 'Wu Gambinos', on Only Built For Cuban Linx. All of this was a far cry from my life in The Charlatans, but Mark Collins and I had always thought of ourselves as having something similar to Max and Noodles. I was beginning to feel like a deleted scene from my favourite movie with full-on outlaw persona. My bling purchases had stopped at the glasses, but I still felt an affinity with the Wu.
They'd become vinyl super heroes. That's how Wu-Tang Forever became the most highly anticipated record of my collecting life. A sprawling double CD and quadruple LP, like Sandinista! by The Clash this wasn't for the faint-hearted – ambition was high on the agenda and variety the key. I bought it on CD and vinyl. It had me. First up was 'Wu Revolution', a spoken-word piece reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron's 'The Revolution Will Be Not Televised' over a massive sub bass. 'Reunited' gives familiarity, GZA starting, followed by Ol' Dirty and the final verse knocked out of the park by Meth. But it's track three, 'For Heaven's Sake' that is the first stand alone knockout. 'Inspektah Deck' the sleeper hit(ter) of this record begins, followed by Master Killer and Cappadonna's first introduction to the album "I put the best work in" – Cap says in the final line of the song. Maybe that's a message to the potential slackers in the band. If RZA was manager, he was now calling Cappadonna his Super Sub.
'Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours' is My favourite track on the LP. Actually it's probably my favourite hip-hop song of all time – simple in melody, sexy in execution. It sounds like it could have fit on Cuban Linx. The moment when Ghostface joins in is one of the most epic entrances in hip-hop ever. 'Dog Shit' is ODB at his comical best, or worst - I haven't worked that out yet. But save the best 'til last with 'Hellz Wind Staff' (featuring a sample from my favourite Arthur Lee song, 'Signed D.C.') During the riots in Tottenham (where I live) it was one of the only tracks that kept my head clear as I was trying to walk past bins on fire and shops with smashed windows and helpless owners.
It was the solo LPs and aftermath of the Wu's debut that inspired me to attempt to rap on Tellin' Stories, especially 'How High', 'With No Shoes', 'One To Another'. "Be my spider woman / I'll be your spider man" - I imagined ODB could say something like this. I imagined Method Man saying something like the chorus of 'North Country Boy' and 'How High'? Method Man definitely did say something like this. Wu-Tang Forever gave me the confidence to get cinematic on Us & Us Only. So that's what the Wu Tang Clan did for me.
I ran into RZA at T In The Park in 2004 and was surprised that he knew who I was. His advice was "Always keep your third eye open". Since then I have – it's not that I would do everything RZA told me, it's just that I thought it was a canny bit of wisdom. Not only that, it sounded fuckin' ace too, spoken like a Jedi, Samauri, Magii.
At Primavera Festival in Barcelona I hooked up with Ghostface Killah. He told me to "keep it real, kid." The fact that I am three years older than him didn't seem to matter - the "keep it real, kid", bit still sticks, don't know why, I guess he just meant it. They all did – that's why I love them, they brought us hip-hop from the Slums of Shaolin, they threw it in the face of the world. I am making a W with my hand right now.
Tim Burgess will be playing songs and talking to Luke Turner at Rough Trade East, tomorrow night, May 18th 2012. Entry is via wristband and first come, first served. His book, Telling Stories, is out now via Penguin.