Re-posted from Egotripland.com. To read the original version click here.
The so-called "struggle rappers" of today can't even begin to fathom the audacity of the Wu-Tang Clan of the early '90s, who didn't have Soundcloud or Twitter at their disposal, but sure as hell didn't need them. Ever resourceful, the Clan crafted a truly unique, truly underground sound and aesthetic and made damn sure the world heard them, bumrushing stages and the industry like a carjacker who gave two shits about LoJack.
20-years(!) after the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), there are still many things to marvel at the Staten Island group's classic debut — from RZA's rawest of raw production to the crew's enigmatic (and influential) "sword style" of rhyming. There's also the iconic album cover - a magnificently appropriate mix of mystery and grime, a lost scene from a blunted and dusted-out Shaw Bros. movie that never was.
36 Chambers' album cover was shot by Daniel Hastings, who at the time had joined forced with Christian Cortes and Miguel Rivera to form Cartel, a creative company responsible for a slew of hip-hop album covers, as well as acclaimed music videos, like Jeru the Damaja's "Can't Stop the Prophet." As you're about to learn, the back-story (and last minute problem-solving) which led the Clan to don the extra rugged look of hoodies and stocking masks reflected the real life chaos and excitement of the Wu from the group's earliest days.
How did you get the 36 Chambers assignment?
Daniel Hastings: At that point I had [done] a couple of album covers. I didn’t have that many. I shot KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap. I shot this group, The Rumplestilskinz. I was becoming friends with some rappers, so I was going to a lot of rap functions. And [RCA Records art director] Jackie Murphy had already hired me for my first album cover, which was Rumplestilskinz, and they were signed to RCA. I was in Atlanta at the Jack the Rapper convention when I got the phone call from Jackie saying, “I got this really exciting group, Danny. They’re crazy. They’re crazier than the Rumplestilskinz. This is all you. I need you to do this.” I don’t think they knew yet how creative I was. I think they were just sending me the most dangerous work that other photographers wouldn’t do. [laughs] I was like, “Sure, sure. What’s the deal?” She’s like, “It’s this crazy group called Wu-Tang Clan.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them.” They had “Protect Ya Neck” out and you could hear it at some hip-hop shows. By coincidence, they were going to perform that day at Jack the Rapper. So I was like, “Maybe I can step to them and talk to them and introduce myself.” And she was like, “Yeah, go ahead. Good luck.” [laughs]
[As it turned out], these dudes were fucking crazy, bro. I'm at Jack the Rapper and I’m waiting, and I can’t remember who it was, but an old school group was performing. At that point, the new school didn’t have the respect for the old school the way they do now. You know what I’m saying? Back then, the old school [was seen] as kind of corny, and the new school was coming with their new ways of rapping. So at that point I don’t think they cared too much for old school shit. Maybe I’m wrong. But what I witnessed definitely led me to believe that. 'Cause there was some old school guys rapping, and I’m not gonna say any names. But all of a sudden you seen a man standing [on stage] in the middle of their set, with a stocking mask [on his face], right? And he’s just staring at them. And this group is just going back and forth on the mic, and then [they see] this dude standing there with this stocking mask on in their middle of their set. They’re like, “What the fuck, son? We’re doing a set over here.” Yo, the man in the stocking mask goes and just snatches the microphone from this dude and pushes him to the side. And then all these dudes with masks just come on stage. And they push everybody out. They fuckin’ take the sound man off and get in the booth, and do whatever they got to do. And then they fuckin’ start going, “WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’! WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’! WU-TANG CLAN AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO FUCK WIT’!” Yo, everyone was like, “What the fuck is that?!” [laughs] This shit was in 1993. This [sort of thing] didn’t happen. These dudes just rushed the stage and just fuckin’ cleared everybody out. And that place went bananas, bro. Everybody just started jumping around, man, screaming “Wu-Tang!” I was jumping around. I mean, it was the best of the best shit I’d seen. They had that “Protect Ya Neck” single, so dudes were checking for them, you know. Yo, man, it was fight music. They were like, “Fuck that. We’re opening this shit up.” No disrespect, but a lot these young rappers out now would not survive in the '90s, bro.
So who was the group that got bumrushed?
Daniel Hastings: I can’t even remember, to tell you the truth. I want to say some names, but this was like 20 years ago. Like, if I say somebody’s name, they can be like, “That wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.” It was somebody from the '80s. [You can probably guess] who was falling off at the time. Only like KRS has held it down. Rakim held on. It wasn’t them. But anyways…
So what happened next? What was it like working with them?
Daniel Hastings: I was like, “I’m fuckin’ with these niggaz. I like these dudes.” So I stepped to the RZA right after the show. He was like, “All right, son. I’ll see you in New York. Let’s go.” Boom. That was it. So I come back to New York and went to talk [about concepts for the cover] with the RZA in the studio when they were finishing the album. The studio was called Firehouse. And it was the most disgusting studio I’ve ever seen in my entire career. This place had holes in the walls, wires were coming out of the walls, chicken wings all on the floor, blunt wraps all over the place, empty 40s all over. The place was insane, dude. [laughs] I was just like, “What the hell?” But I talked to the RZA and I’ll never forget it. He told me, “Hey, man, you see this sweatshirt I got on? I been wearing this shit for like three days. But I’m going to blow up because I got beats. And I’m gonna be an empire.” Yo, I don’t know why that’s still in my brain, bro. [laughs] But we talked about everything. We talked about Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee. We talked about karate. I grew up with all the Bruce Lee movies. He was like, “Yeah, I want to do some monastery looking thing [because] we’re a clan, we’re a crew. I’m like, “I got you.”
I loved their logo. So I was like, let’s take this logo and just make a big fuckin’ gold logo. So I got an artist to carve it out of foam core and paint it gold. And then we got a crazy church location that Jackie Murphy shared with me. It was called the Angel Orensanz Foundation. I went and checked out the location and fell in love with it. They’re still on Norfolk Street [in the Lower East Side]. Today, that place is gorgeous. You can’t rent that place for less than 5 G’s. [Back then] this place was destroyed. There was like rocks coming out of the walls. It was just crazy. But it was like an abandoned synagogue, and I was like, “Wow, this could work as a monastery.”
The Angel Orensanz Foundation interior [Then], and exterior [Now].
So then we were ready to shoot. At that point, the label gave me the advance, and there wasn’t really much [discussion] between [myself and Loud Records]. I was already dealing with Jackie Murphy, she’s an art director. Loud Records, at this point, I think was [based] in L.A. Steve [Rifkind] was kinda traveling or whatever. There was really no one overseeing this. Boom, boom, boom. See what happens when there’s not a marketing director [involved]? You get to be creative. There are a lot of great marketing directors out there, but sometimes they go for the obvious. The greatest album covers are the ones where the artist is not on the album cover. To me, at least.
So, anyway, we get a date [to shoot], and I get a Winnebago and we wait for the crew at the Staten Island ferry. We’re expecting [the whole group], but what we get is only like [six] people. It was RZA, ODB, Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, the GZA [and Raekwon]. U-God, Method Man, and Masta Killa did not come for some particular reason. So RZA was like, “Yo, man, we need the whole crew here.” I was like, “This is it. We got to do something because we’re not spending any more money on these guys.” I didn’t know if the Wu-Tang Clan was gonna sell records or not. The executives were like, “We already spent a few thousand dollars on this. Get something.” And I was like, “Yo, what if we do what you guys did [at Jack the Rapper]?" If I didn’t go to Atlanta [and see the Wu-Tang perform], I don’t think the stocking masks [on the cover] would have happened. They were like, “You’re not showing our faces?” I’m like, “Yeah, man, you guys are the Wu-Tang Clan. You’re selling the Wu-Tang Clan. Let’s do this. Let’s get some hoodies, put the logo on there.” They had stickers so they put them on their hoodies. [I was like], “Get some hoodies and then fuckin’ put on the stocking masks, and then we do the cover.” And RZA liked the idea. So we went in and did it. But if I hadn’t gone to Jack the Rapper I wouldn’t have come up with that idea. Because I witnessed it. They weren’t thinking, “Don’t show my face” [on the album cover]. Everybody [in the group] at that point wanted to show their faces. And I remember Funkmaster Flex when the album came out, he was like, “Yo man, you all dudes look so ill with this cover.” And after that, I shot like a zillion album covers.
And that's the great thing about it: it’s actually them, but you can’t see their faces. Before that happened what did you think you were gonna shoot?
Daniel Hastings: I thought I was gonna shoot the same thing that I did, but showing their faces. But since not all of them were there we had to use the stocking masks. But I’m like that – I think of solutions in the moment while we’re going. I always like the work that I do that doesn’t have the artist on the cover – using pictures and telling a story [through them]. I think my school for this was really rock n' roll: looking at all these rock n' roll albums [as a kid] that rarely showed the artist on the cover. And if they did it was some great photography. I had every record that was coming out in the '80s. I had everything from Def Leppard to Rush to Van Halen. And I was the kind of kid that would look at the [album] covers and listen to the songs on my Walkman. Iron Maiden, for example. I would look at how the artist Derek Riggs would draw Eddie, the monster, while I’m listening to “The Trooper” or when I’m listening to “Run to the Hills.” That excited me. Looking at a record and listening to it on my Walkman was a part of me growing up. And I was into the more conceptual [album covers] coming from rock n’ roll legends. Like if you take The Police or Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, you look at their albums and there was concepts. Concepts would tell you how the music was gonna sound [before you heard the album]. Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s how I learned how to [shoot album covers]. I heard the Wu-Tang, I gave it a visual of what the record sounded like. The sound helped me visualize it.
Images as album covers leaves a lot to the imagination for the audience. To see this artwork and hear this music takes you to this other space. And Wu-Tang specifically was such a different sound at that time.
Daniel Hastings: Yeah, you know I’ve had people come up and tell me that they would only stare at the [36 Chambers cover] while listening to the album: "You don’t understand, man, I was always looking at this cover and this picture and kept listening to the album and just kept looking and imagining things!" I always wanted to continue shooting some of the Wu-Tang album covers. But at that point I was already doing too many things – so many albums that, you know, I got hated on a little bit.
Daniel Hastings: I mean, it was like everybody wanted to get at them. At that point [the Wu] were a million dollar power house. You know how many dudes – creative people — they had around them? It was like impossible after a while. [But what’s] important [is] what we did [together with the album cover], represented a sound and a music. [The cover] looks like the [Wu-Tang] sound. It sounds like [the cover] looks.
How did you get past any apprehension the guys may have had with the cover shoot concept? Because even if RZA was cool with it, it’s their debut album and their faces are not on the cover.
Daniel Hastings: We shot a lot of other pictures though that day. We went to the Queensborough Bridge and we shot pictures of them before we actually finished [at Angel Orensanz]. So when we got to the conceptual part of the shoot they were already excited. They were already cooperating. We took pictures of them already in different parts [of New York]. If you open the album, you see like we’re underneath the bridge and they’re standing in formation. And then we did some stuff in the streets and from there we went to the Angel Orensanz. Also, my lighting was very complex too. I had in there tungsten lighting, candles, strobes. I had a bunch of things that I knew how to use. And at that point when they saw what I created they were like, "What the fuck is this? This looks amazing!"
Who made the decision that that was the final image for the cover?
Daniel Hastings:It was art directed by Jackie Murphy. I [made] a lot of decisions in the art direction of the photography – but not the packaging. If I show you the contact sheet – every shot could be an album cover. Every shot.
Yo! I need to see this!! How can I see this?
Daniel Hastings: I don't wanna release any of that. We can get together over some coffee.[laughs]
Enjoyed this blog post? Here's another one: London Street Shoot.