When NYC’s El Michels Affair started riffing on Wu-Tang Clan classics, eventually birthing 2009’s ‘Enter the 37th Chamber’, the novelty of mostly instrumental covers with the zip code of the Shaolin slums was that there was no novelty. Given both the Clan’s long patchy form and Leon Michels’ established assembly of elite jazz-funk musicians, including allegiances to Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings, El Michels’ skill of embellishing the unmistakable and making originals their own made them the Clan in the front. After all, who wouldn’t wanna hear a kids choir forecasting an incoming killer bee swarm on ODB’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’?
The band’s return to hallowed turf sustains their straight-to-tape, one-take musicianship, mixing bold flourishes, thoroughfares from scratch, and reserved respect of the source material. ‘Tearz’ in particular now belongs to El Michels, a masterstroke of keeping in-house and using the Americana of The Shacks’ Shannon Wise and soul-soaked Lee Fields on vocals. Lady Wray makes the Mary J Blige role her own on ‘All I Need’ to again mould the original into something greater, and El Michels’ version of ‘Iron Man’ comes on emotional when soap opera credits start to roll.
The pure coolness of the licks on GZA’s ‘Shadow Boxing’ (one of Method Man’s finest guest spots) and Raekwon’s ‘Verbal Intercourse’ (which featured arguably Nas’ greatest ever verse), contrast the unnerving go-betweens ‘Pork Chop Express’ and ‘The End’, mixing Shaolin initiation with Wickerman theory. Both calming and ferocious, jamming instinctively with raw funk and just enough kitsch to be skirting around hotel lobbies, the aura surrounding El Michels is now as revered as the Wu used to be. Unlike their muses, there are no wildcards coming-coming atcha, and despite the right to explore Wu mythology, there’s nothing too abstract here either: don’t be expecting covers of anything by Cappadonna or Killarmy.
Exceedingly well sequenced, the only downside is the paltry 30-minute running time. But the rambling nature of the Wu’s back catalogue (off the top of the head, ‘Triumph’ and ‘Gravel Pit’, ODB’s ‘Dog Shit’, and Ghostface’s ‘Run’ must surely come into contention soon), hopefully means the ‘37th Chamber’ is a time-share El Michels Affair will revisit. Hip-hop, soul, funk and fable in perfect harmony.
Words: Matt Oliver
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