BEST SINGLES OF THE 90s: #10
April 6, 2012
“Best” means “my favorite.”
“My favorite” was determined through highly unscientific means.
I’m going to do one of these every Friday until we’re somewhere in the negative numbers.
What we’re here for
“So what’s up, man?”
“Yo, you know I had to call–you know why, right?”
“Becaaauuuse–yo, I never ever call and ask you to play somethin’, right?”
“You know what I wanna hear, right?”
If you don’t know where this is going, then really, god help you, because you’ve wasted your life–or at least, the portion of it that’s occurred since 1993.
Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck”–the nine-deep rap collective’s first single, released in 1992 (and again in 1993)–represents a kind of opening shot at the whole of popular music. How could anyone have expected this record to succeed and forge the lasting reputation it carries? In 1992, white suburban kids were busy not washing their hair and buying corduroy hobo jackets. People tuned-in to what was going on in “urban” music were either people buying Whitney Houston for the shovelful, or music critics who thought that in 2012 people would still be talking about Arrested Development. (There was a music group with that name back then. No relation.) People who were digging rap music definitely weren’t looking at New York until some kid five-miced it in The Source. People wanted Cali music–slow-rolling, stoned gangsta music designed to make a car ride feel like some sort of slow-motion movie. “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”–”It Was a Good Day”…
The East Coast, from top to bottom, could only counter with the likes of “Jump Around” and “Rump Shaker.” (The only thing from that wave of hook-conscious class-of-’92 pop-rap to have any kind of lasting vitality: Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip.) Enter the 36 etc.
“Protect Ya Neck” is very much an audio artifact of its time, not only in its opposition to dominant trends of beatmaking and song structure, but in the fact that it’s pretty obvious that this was, like, the peak of the Wu’s angel-dust consumption. You can all but hear dangerous chemicals huffing out in hot breaths–even the laid-back flows sound ferocious. Compare the RZA’s production to the likes of Dr. Dre, on Dre’s hits like “Deep Cover” and “Fuck Wit Dre Day”–out West, the hook is built into those throbbing, tumbling bass lines, with rappers riding over them like surfers, and the drums and synths just there to keep things lively. Not so with “Protect Ya Neck”: the bass is a muffled drone pulse, while the drums march nervously and samples flicker in and out, or hover and whine. The entire composition is busy, and the rappers are kicking against it.
Even the flavorful touches are worlds apart–Dre and co. lapsing into smirking taunts or fuck-tha-police skits, and Wu-Tang favoring kung-fu chops, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s hopeless singing, and RZA and Method Man screaming like men possessed (RZA especially). Dre and Snoop want the listener to be complicit in whoever they’re after, whether it’s rivals, cops, or Eazy-E. Wu-Tang is talking to you, threatening you, and doesn’t give a fuck what you’re gonna do about it. The only respite is the GZA, turning his rage away from the listeners in the last verse, and toward music-industry execs who don’t understand the group’s singularly nihilistic vision.
“Protect Ya Neck” is also one of the few songs improved by censorship. The original 1992 release, AKA the “Bloody Version,” leaves everyone’s verses intact and uncensored, every fuck and shit preserved. For 1993′s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album and the accompanying re-release of “Protect Ya Neck,” a new mix was created that does little more than tweak the original–it’s the LP version, or the “Shao Lin Version” according to the ’93 single’s label. On the ’93 version, a bunch of grinding buzzes were added in to censor the various swear words, but extra shocks of noise were added to various points, making the whole thing sound even more out of control. ODB’s part, in particular, collapses into pure mayhem as the noise just sounds over and over, as if struggling to bum-rush Dirty out of his own verse. The only downside: losing part of RZA’s verse, where he tags in the GZA, and screams “take us the fuck outta here” so harshly the speakers practically ooze his stomach lining.