It starts with the picture, back in the time when the picture comes first. Before we’ve slipped out the white paper inner, before we’ve pulled out the black disc inside—three fingers on the label, the meat of the thumb resting along its edge. Before we’ve lifted the lid of the turntable, placed the record over the spindle, before we’ve set the whole thing running. Before the needle comes down, before that bump and crackle as it rides the run-in grooves. Before the music. A creation myth. The very first time.
A big room, hard to make out, curtains and a gilt mirror at the back, half of a reflective, misshapen globe, a sun sinking (or rising?) through clouds and smog. The floor wooden, or etched with double lines to make it look wooden, the pinstripe on the suit of a god. A ring of votive candles, seven or eight in the shot, each set on a thin stick stuck into a blob of gold, the flames running horizontal—quite a distance—in such a way as to suggest an open door, or fan, or a complete lack of walls, as if the shot were taken on a platform high up in the sky, levitating above a city. But not a gust, nothing variable, utterly under control. Each flame uniform, part of a set, so that the candles seem to be pointing at something or someone just beyond the frame.
There are six figures. It’s possible, if we squint, to see a seventh, distorted by the light from the sun at the back. But what we can interpret as a head and shoulders blocking the light is in fact a cutaway, and what we’ve seen as a circle—that rising sun—is a huge, stylized W, their emblem. Legs bent, shoulders hunched, arms out in front of them. Gun fingers toward the back, thumbs cocked. The hand of the second figure distorted, so that the thumb seems to grow over the top of its index finger. The front-most figure making signs, right hand pointing downward, left hand the kind of shape you form to throw the shadows of a duck or an alligator onto a wall. Fingernails very white, overexposed, long and thin and graceful. Maybe we know how to interpret these hand signals, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. It’s not important.
All the men (do we presume they’re all men?) are wearing black hoodies with the cords on the hoods pulled tight round their faces. On the front two we can see the patch sewn on their chest. It reads WU-TANG in the middle of that same stylized, kung fu–backdrop W, and underneath, looping around the bottom of the circle, PROTECT YA NECK. The stitching at the top looks like a waveform on music software, but this is probably accidental, and anyway, we don’t recognize it as such. At a glance, we might think the second figure is wearing crazy, crepe-soled cowboy boots, but when we look closer, we see it’s probably Clarks or Timberland and the guy has his jeans rolled up to his knee.
The music starts. This should make things easier, but we’re not sure it does. A man is talking about sword styles in the clipped tones of a thirties Hollywood announcer. A beat kicks in—a compact lump of recycled funk, as solid as a boxing technician on the defensive—and someone hollers, over and over again, to “bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus.” The beat stops, a clown car seems to fall apart in the background, and the first of a series of voices rips into his verse. A finger snap turned up so loud, mixed so hard, it sounds like someone chipping marble from a sculpture, slices of another beat stabbed in here and there, slathered in reverb as if recorded in the middle of an ancient stone hall, so that the size of the room they’re occupying magically grows and shrinks. A strange, gossamer melody is twined between these elements, the kind of tune aliens might use to communicate in a black-and-white TV special. A slowed-down piano sample, so ponderous and covered in hoarfrost that it sounds like the drums are cracking it to pieces. And over it all, the voices, one after another, indomitable, unstoppable, at this point utterly unfamiliar.
But we’re still staring at the picture, letting the music soundtrack the image. It doesn’t matter how they’re standing or what they’re wearing. The thing that sets our heart beating or our mind working or our subconscious bubbling is this: The figures have no faces. Rather, they have white material pulled down over their features, so that a hint of their shape—their bone structure, the size of their noses—can be made out while rendering them anonymous, empty, in some way inhuman; a cross between bank robbers, shop dummies, and extras from a horror movie. The light is coming through so brightly, right to left, that the front figure’s lips and nose are spread out in silhouette across the inside of the mask, a scan. The face of the figure farthest left appears in absence, a flattened, Shroud-of-Turin effect. The others display varying gradations of blankness, the one at the back dyed bloodred, more a shield than a visage.
The power of the image lies in this negative fact: that its subjects are unidentified and, more important, unidentifiable. The six men are masked, and meaning multiplies out from this. A picture like this traditionally functions as a clue to help understand the music contained. This one does and it doesn’t. The group (we presume it’s the group—or at least some part of it) are deliberately disguised, deliberately hidden, deliberately obscure. This must be the conclusion we’re supposed to draw—that what’s contained inside is of hidden significance, an encrypted message, a mystery. That it is, in the word’s most literal meaning, occult. We are invited to speculate, to search for clues, to unpick and restitch, but at the same time remember that whatever we do, however long we take, regardless of the hours spent listening to the music inside, those six figures will remain masked. Treat it as an invitation to embrace enigma, to be eaten up by it. Lose face, lose skin, lose self in it.
You’re playing a game with complex rules, and the only one you’ve been taught is that the rules won’t be explained to you. Listen. A man is breathing—in, out, in, out, in, out. You don’t know if the man is scared or angry or excited, or some mixture of those, or none of them. You’re not even certain it’s a man. As you listen, though, you try to match his breathing to your own. At first you find the rhythm, then you try to couple your lungs to it, so that you inhale and exhale exactly the same volume of air at just the same speed. You experiment, trying to hold your throat as tightly or loosely as he does, all so that you make precisely the same sound. Is it possible that, if you can do this, if you can synch your respiration completely to his, you can figure out his thoughts, his feelings, whether he’s running toward something or away from it?
Will Ashon is the author of Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest (Granta, 2017) and two novels. He previously ran BIG DADA recordings, where his artists included Roots Manuva, MF Doom, Wiley, and Diplo.
Excerpted from Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America in 36 Chambers, by Will Ashon. Published by Faber and Faber. Copyright © 2018 by Will Ashon.