Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #8

#8: "Protect Ya Neck" by the Wu-Tang Clan (off of Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers] (1993))



When I was in college, I lived in a fraternity house for two years.  Among the interesting and diverse cast of characters in the house was a guy named Aaron Markworth.  Aaron grew up not far from where I live now, in the Amish country of Eastern Ohio, and he was a funny and curmudgeonly guy.  At some point in our history as a fraternity, he was in charge of our social activities, a job for which I don't think he particularly enjoyed or was necessarily perfectly suited for, but on which he expended yeoman's efforts.

Our most notable social event under his tenure, at least in my memory, was the Ska Party we threw with the Delta Zeta sorority.  Our fraternity was founded during my freshman year, and by the fall of our sophomore year we had a renovated fraternity house to move into.  To celebrate it, we decided to throw a big party after a rare nighttime home football game.  I cannot recall why we decided that Ska music was a winning theme (this being the fall of '97 probably had something to do with it), but we managed to secure the services to two ska bands--Animal Chin and Doctor Manette.  I remember one chapter meeting where we were encouraged to promote these bands, and if anyone asked the perfectly reasonable question "who are Animal Chin and Doctor Manette?" we were instructed to act confused and respond "you mean you've never heard of Animal Chin and Doctor Manette?"  As if they were the Beatles and U2 or something--in this, we anticipated the basic life plan of hipsters by several years.

Anyway, about 48 hours before the shindig, one of the bands (I can never remember which one) cancelled on us.  Somehow we decided that this was a crisis which called the whole party into jeopardy.  In our moment of doubt, Joel Griswold, our fraternity president, announces that he is going to find us another band, using the power of the World Wide Web.  Now, for you youngsters, keep in mind that the idea of acquiring goods and services from the Internet was absolutely in its infancy in 1997, so this was seen as a bold proclamation.  And, sure enough, a few hours later Joel emerged with the news that he had secured a replacement band--Swing Set.

On that fateful Saturday, I was in the front room helping to set up for the party, when we got a knock on the door.  I opened the door to discover a group of about six middle school kids standing at our door.  Yes, this was Swing Set, and they were here on their first ever gig to play our party.  After a confused conference among the senior leadership, it was decided that we had to power through and let Swing Set play.  And so a group of 12 year olds played ska music in the upper room of our fraternity house, to the confusion of our party guests.  Oh, and the other of the Animal Chin/Doctor Manette duo didn't show until something like 4:30 in the morning (we did send them home).  Fortunately, we managed to have the foresight to also hire a DJ for downstairs, so while the ska portion of the program was a disaster, people still had a good time.

What does any of this have to do with the Wu-Tang Clan?  Nothing, except for the fact that Aaron was a big fan of the Wu, and he was the one who introduced me to their music, so I always associate them with my time in the fraternity.
"Protect Ya' Neck" basically show-cases everything that is awesome about the Wu-Tang Clan in one song.  There are eight different rappers on this song, there is no cohesive narrative, people are brandishing Chinese swords for no clear reason.  It's all manic energy, all the time.  I remember seeing this video for the first time (probably at Aaron's direction) and thinking "I don't know what this is, but whatever it is, it's awesome."

That's what is so great about the Wu-Tang Clan.  While many of the members are actually brilliant and clever lyricists, I find that listening to Wu-Tang tracks is more of a primal experience.  It's not clear why it's so great, but you are definitely enjoying it.  It almost resists analysis, tapping into something more visceral.  Weirdly, listening to the Wu-Tang Clan makes me happy, even when they are rapping about violence or social ills of one kind or another.  I can't really explain why I like the Wu-Tang Clan; I just do.

Opinions vary wildly as to the best member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and you can defend many different positions, but my favorite is definitely GZA, who provides the last verse of the song.  GZA chose to use his space on the song to carry out a beef with some other music producer/rapper.  The power of Wikipedia reveals that GZA's target was a NYC rapper named Grand Daddy I.U.  I will never mistake myself for an expert in rap, but I have never heard of this dude, and I suspect he is best known as "the dude GZA was talking about in 'Protect Ya' Neck.'"  But the key to GZA's verse is that he is totally committed to it.  It seems like he completely believes that you need to know about this dude and why he is a weak sauce rapper, and he is committed to providing you this critical information.

That's really the key to the Wu-Tang Clan as a whole.  Much of what they do, if taken in isolation, is goofy and ridiculous, and if at any moment they communicated that they thought this was a joke or some sort of shtick, they would turn into some stupid novelty act.  But the Wu-Tang Clan never does that, because they don't think it is a shtick.  They are totally committed to the notion that Kung Fu movies are the best vehicle for explaining the '90s urban situation.  And because they believe it, you believe it as well.

Postscript

I didn't include these guys in my top ten because I didn't really catch on with them until much later, but the other 90s group that is completely committed to their presentation and who are brilliant lyricists and who make you feel good is OutKast.  I've posted some OutKast videos previously--all but "So Fresh, So Clean" are off of 1997's Aquemini.

Comments

Aaron said…
Revisionist history. It was a perfect event. There were no minors present and as a dry, substance-free fraternity, all risk management rules were followed, especially since I'm currently running for public office. I definitely wasn't the best choice for Social Chair, but Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuttin' ta eff wit. GZA was the truth and his Liquid Swords solo album was a masterpiece. Now I'm gonna pour some out for ODB and watch RZA in The Man with the Iron Fists...
Michael Boyle said…
I should have mentioned that, indeed, we were a substance free fraternity and all relevant risk management rules were followed. And everyone who can vote for Aaron should absolutely do so.

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