Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene. View all
Today I unveil a long-awaited post. It originated as a discussion in Kyle's basement a few years ago, which in turn was partially responsible for me becoming part of Those Who Dig. I am going to examine one of my favorite films, one of my favorite hip-hop albums, and their compelling similarities: Pulp Fiction and Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I bring da motherfuckin' ruckus!
I have a lengthier personal history with Pulp Fiction. I saw it at a young age – it was 1996 probably, I wasn't yet a teenager – and it left an indelible impression. I cannot remember being so aware of dialogue before; it strikes me as the first instance I realized how joyful it could be to listen to characters speak, converse, ruminate, or swear. Though incredibly graphically violent, I intuited that it was not meant to be taken too seriously. Overall, the viewing experience was shocking, yes, and I certainly was not perceptive then of its groundbreaking place in the landscape of cinema, but it was undeniably cool and memorable. I have watched it several times, and my esteem for it has never waned.
During college in the mid-2000s, I acquired the 1993 debut album by the Wu Tan Clan: Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers. I dug it (obviously, right?), and it quickly became apparent to me that why I liked 36 Chambers wasn't all that different from why I liked Pulp Fiction. They came out in the same period and had profound cultural impacts for virtually the same reasons, namely their treatment of violence, inventive words, and riveting group dynamics – not to mention the soul tracks the RZA used for beats and Quentin Tarantino used for soundtrack cuts becoming an influential aesthetic touchstone. I am not the first to note possible ties – and they in fact came together when the RZA scored Kill Bill – but I do find it interesting and worth deliberating. Also, I find it worth celebrating, so this article serves as the induction of these opuses into the Shrine of Dig where they definitely belong.
The multiple depictions of utterly brutal acts are 36 Chambers' and Pulp Fiction's most prominent shared hallmark. The Wu Tang members frequently make menacing threats in their verses, often involving guns – it only takes Ghostface two lines to mention his glock on the first track – and a whole song exhorts the Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' ta fuck wit. However, the skits present the strongest parallels to Pulp Fiction. One at the start of "Wu Tang: 7th Chamber," concerns a man who dies of a gunshot wound to the head, which always reminds me of Marvin's head exploding when Vincent's gun goes off in the car. The increasingly sinister torture sequence between Raekwon and Method Man prior to "Method Man" mirrors the twisted fate that befalls Butch and Marsellus Wallace in the basement of Maynard's pawn shop. While viscerally disturbing things to see and hear, they sit closer to cartoonish than real on the violence spectrum due to their over-the-top nature, reaching points of absurdity that lessen their intensity. Method Man's and Raekwon's tongues are firmly in cheek. "I'm pretty fuckin' far from ok," is an appropriate response by Marsellus, but one funny enough to deflate the nightmarish gravity of what happened to him for the viewers. And how can you not help smiling at Jules' righteous indignation when he finds himself on the repugnant brain detail in "The Bonnie Situation?"
On the other hand, though the violent acts are generally portrayed with an underlying sense of humor, the Wu Tang Clan and Pulp Fiction characters tend to eloquently contemplate their effects. Because of their sober and unflinching manner, conveying the lamentable implications has more potency than the violence itself. After getting shot at repeatedly from close range yet almost unbelievably going untouched, Jules is a changed man. He grasps the significance of those precious inches between life and death. When asked how it feels to kill a man, Butch flatly remarks that he doesn't know since he only found out later. No glorification. Raekwon and Ghostface paint a vivid picture of the context where one can easily slip into a life of crime on "Can It Be All So Simple," and the RZA does a poignant about-face from his previous bombastic malice to pure grief on "Tearz" when he recounts the tale of his little brother's murder. Incidentally, isn't "After laughter come tears" a perfect sum up of the evening at Jack Rabbit Slim's and Mia's subsequent overdose? Clearly, these are some philosophic motherfuckers. Their poetic musings on an ugly topic unquestionably contributed to the film's and album's resonance.
[For some reason, I can't embed any Pulp Fiction clips. Here's a link for the one I wanted to put here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6csp2fZt2E]
For me, the bigger draw of Pulp Fiction and 36 Chambers is the words, the litany of great lyrics and great lines. The heady mixture of slang, profanity, and pop cultural references intoxicated me immediately and still does. It might be hard to recognize now, nearly 20 years on, but upon their release a completely original way of talking/rapping broadly reverberated throughout the mainstream. It was a breath of fresh air that, for better or worse, set the tone for what would come next in film and music. Despite many poor derivatives and a few innovative acolytes crowding the milieu, these sources of inspiration remain sacrosanct.
As writers, Quentin Tarantino and the Wu Tang constructed immersive worlds that listeners and viewers had likely never entered or envisioned. Language was the major signifier of these worlds, and in the steady torrents of dialogue myriad items, people, concepts and so forth surfaced that would fit comfortably in the other's universe. Debating the differences between McDonald's in Europe and McDonald's in America, the merits of a $5 shake, or the charming pig from Green Acres is a lot like talking about forming like Voltron, or quoting the Warriors, or listing the Lucky Charms. Each contains elements of historic and current events, an obsession with film, and an affinity for low culture. A mutual love of kung fu movies is paramount. They gave the Wu their name, and excerpts of them pepper the album. In Pulp Fiction, there's Mia's Fox Force Five pilot plot (the rundown of members resembles Method Man's blow-by-blow of the Clan on the radio segment at the end of track five) and the samurai sword with which Butch saves Marsellus.
The parlances verge on replication to such a degree there should be a McSweeney's list, "Pulp Fiction or Wu Tang quote?" Another fun game is to try crossing them. Raekwon's description, "a literate type asshole," easily applied to the full cast of the movie essentially. I usually imagine the Wu saying lines from the film. Couldn't GZA say, "Oh I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?" or Method Man crack "Let's not start sucking each other's dicks just yet," or Ol' Dirty Bastard threaten "I'm going to get medieval on your ass?" Both nailed a trifecta of Allusive-Hip-Aggressive. It would be nearly impossible to definitely determine which tallies a higher number of notable quotes (or curses for that matter), and I will avoid the temptation to attempt it to prevent this from morphing into a quoteathon, but plenty still echo in the lexicon today, no doubt. Word is bond.
I love that there is an abundance of rich characters on the pair of tremendously deep rosters. The Wu Tang Clan is nine members and Pulp Fiction credits twelve. Each offers something unique on their own of course, but more excitingly the various groupings create new magic. I find this endlessly intriguing in creative works and real life, so I consider these prime examples. In the film, there are monologues, conversations, and group scenes, basically equivalent to the mixed configurations of solo, duo, small group, and entire clan (or damn near) on the album. Everybody has their preferences, but personally, I especially enjoy the Jules and Vincent interactions and the Wu Tang songs incorporate as much of the clan as possible. "Protect Ya Neck" tops the list with eight of nine.
The magnitude of the ensembles is integral to the allure of Pulp Fiction and 36 Chambers. All the rappers and actors absolutely bring it, raising everyone else's game in the process. It is unimaginable to consider either the film or album minus a single member. It would be awesome to initiate a comment thread of which Pulp Fiction character equals which Wu Tang member. Tons of arguments can be made, but here are some of my ideas. Raekwon is Vincent for the hot-headedness and ubiquity, as Rae has the most verses and Vincent has the most scenes. Butch is Method Man for the charisma. I feel like Jules is the GZA, but maybe that's the Wolf? Please leave your comparisons in the comment section below.
Briefly, I believe there is a bit of structural mirroring too. The intro of "Clan in Da Front" is 36 Chambers' opening credit sequence, and it follows the second track, just as Pulp Fiction's opening credits follow the diner scene with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Though the album isn't exactly non-linear like the film, the choice to end the album with "Wu Tang: 7th Chamber – Part II" – which is track four's verses again with an altered beat – recalls Pulp Fiction ending in the place where it began, the diner, with a new perspective.
So there you have it. It is indisputable that these works dictated the course pop culture and, more modestly, belong in the Shrine of Dig. We will surely keep digging them well into the future.