Wu-Tang: An American Saga</em
Wu-Tang: An American Saga Hulu

Hulu has a new series about the Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang: An American Saga. It's entertaining, and has several great performances, particularly Ashton Sanders as RZA (Sanders, whose breakthrough was in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, is going to be a very big name in the near future). The series splits the Wu-Tang into two competing worlds, one of crime and one of music, and has a narrative driven by the real chance that one, the criminal, could easily overwhelm the other, the music. Because the series situates the Wu-Tang Clan's emergence in a period of hiphop that was transitioning from its modern period (1983-1992) to its late one (1993-1997), we often hear on the soundtrack a form of hip-hop that died in the last decade. This is hiphop hardness. This was the sound of the Staten Island crew's first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). We do not make music like this anymore—music that is a pure discharge of raw, urban energy. We feel it as the power of a big city released. The shockwaves of beats, the sudden system disruptions, the explosions, the crashing, the "piling wreckage upon wreckage" that's hurled "in front of [your] feet" as you are blown backward.

The first hard track in the history of hip-hop is Run DMC's "Jam Master Jay," which dropped in 1983, and was like nothing many of us at the time had ever heard before. It was concluded by many, including myself, that only the headz of a big city could convert the power that made the bigness possible (the collection of garbage, the electrification of thousands upon thousands of homes and businesses, the millions of hands flushing of toilets, the rattle of subway trains) into the sound of the power that could also destroy it. No small or mid-sized city could rock as hard as "Jam Master Jay."

After that, these notable hard tracks followed...

Schoolly D's "PSK, What Does It Mean?" (1985)
Schoolly D lyrics are not what made this track hard. Instead, it was the booming, blasting, building-breaking beats. Indeed, you do not have to be hard as a person to make hard hip-hop. The gangster era initiated by NWA led to the now-standardized combination of hard raps and soft beats.

Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" (1988)
I still have no words that can describe, without the feeling of some failure, the hardness that is "Bring the Noise." What the fuck? What planet? What year? What the what?

Eric B. & Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury" (1998)
Holy shit!

Beastie Boys "Pass the Mic" (1992)
This is the best Beasties track, in my opinion (next is "So What Cha Want"). It's on Check Your Head. It opens with the sample of James Newton's noh-like flute on "Choir" (1982), then explodes into big beats, which are then disrupted by the gigantic, system-compromising rock stabs from Bad Brains' "Big Takeover." It's hard to be harder than this, and yet the lyrics are not that rough and sometimes even self-helpie: "So this is what I've got to say to you all / Be true to yourself and you will never fall."

Dr. Dre's and Snoop Dogg's "Deep Cover" (1992)
This track marks the last time West Coast gangster rap fucks with hip-hop hardness by way of beats. After this point, it will be ever-hardening raps and ever-softening beats, as in "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang." Another fascinating thing about "Deep Cover" is that young Snoop—who makes his first major appearance on this beat—doesn't yet have the chops to hide how much his style owes to Slick Rick the Ruler.

Wu-Tang Clan's "Bring da Ruckus" (1993)
I remember the day clearly. It's summer and I'm in Portland visiting a friend of my then-girlfriend. He looks like a guy who should be in some white nationalist group, but instead, in his cosy single-family home, he's rocking Wu-Tang's debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) non-stop. The first track on the album, "Bring da Ruckus," sets the stage. There is no going back for the Clan. They are going for broke. They "are more rugged than slaveman boots."

Queen Latifah's "Rough" (1993)
In this track, the hard beats are matched by ghostly, Pete Rock-like horns, and what we see (or feel) is the dusky city without end. The buildings, the projects, the elevated trains. It it ain't rough, I can do without it.

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KRS-ONE's "Get Your Self Up" (2001):
One of the founders of modern hip-hop, KRS-One, says goodnight to the 18-year history of hip-hop hardness with this track, which explodes with punk energy. You don't want to dance to it. You want to thrash to it. A hip-hop mosh pit in full effect: You been locked down? You been shutdown? Get harder than hard.