The El Michels Affair is a band of musical miscreants fronted by and named after saxophonist/organist Leon Michels, but the name doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what they’re about. The cast and crew of EMA are session musicians who were looking for a break from the normal routine, a chance to recapture a sound they described as ‘Cinematic Soul’ heard in old school reggae, 60’s rock and Blaxploitation funk. After making a small but noticeable impact with their debut album “Sounding Out the City,” EMA got the break they needed with an unexpected gig playing live instrumentals for Raekwon at a promotional concert. Suddenly for EMA it all clicked – their freeform ‘Cinematic Soul’ was perfectly matched to the unconventional production techniques of RZA and his Wu-Tang co-horts. That first gig led to another, then another, working with more and more members of the Clan, perfecting a sound that ultimately led them to release instrumental re-interpretations of “Bring Da Ruckus” and “C.R.E.A.M.” as successful singles.
Fast forward to 2009. If you’ve already made a name for yourself doing jazzy instrumental versions of Wu-Tang Clan classics, why not take it to the next level? It’s time to “Enter the 37th Chamber,” a chamber that’s just beyond the 36 we all know and love. On this Fat Beats release EMA really take it to the next level. Instead of focusing solely on songs by the Clan as a group, they also dig into the solo albums Wu-Tang fans know and love and strike paydirt by remaking a wide variety of affiliated tracks. This is kickstarted with the very first track on the album, an elegantly minimalistic revision of GZA’s “Duel of the Iron Mics” that adds just aLITTLE bit of soulful string playing. If that wasn’t enough, EMA samples the same cinematic classic that opened GZA’s original version, tying the two songs together beautifully and giving me an unexpected shiver down my spine. It’s that good shiver – the one you get when something new pleases you in a very unexpected way.
As EMA are most famous for their funky, jazzy version of “C.R.E.A.M.” it’s no surprise to find it included on “Enter the 37th Chamber” second track in, but each joint that follows is another pleasant surprise. The short “Mystery of Chessboxin'” draws you in with a howling sonic landscape, then bangs your head with a plucky version of the original instrumental perfect in reverb and style. You may catch yourself going “ooh, ahh, ooh, ahh” or spontaneously busting out U-God’s opening verse. “Can it All Be So Simple” mellows things out for a bit, but it’s not long before the high energy “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” picks you right back up. From there EMA break into more of the solo joints – Raekwon’s “Glaciers of Ice,” Ghostface’s “Cherchez LaGhost,” but the one that really threw me for a loop was doing “Heaven & Hell.” As strange as it is to not hear Blue Raspberry, Ghost and Rae adding their touch to it, hearing the song stripped down to an instrumental base reinforces just how moving it was the first time I heard it on the “Fresh” soundtrack.
EMA close out their chambers by going back to Wu group songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck,” but the final chamber is a very fitting and appropriate tribute to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard with a raucous instrumental take on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” with a group of children imitating the song’s chorus throughout. If you’re PATIENT though the album doesn’t REALLY end there. Hidden after a series of short six second tracks is an unlisted actual 37TH CHAMBER, an instrumental-only version of a rare single they recorded with Raekwon entitled “PJ’s From Afar.” The song is well worth the wait, and the album is well worth the effort to track down for any dyed-in-the-wool Wu-Tang Clan fan going back to the early 1990’s. The interesting thing about EMA though is that you can play “Enter the 37th Chamber” for your friends who say they don’t like hip-hop, and they’ll just think you’ve hipped yourself to a hot new jazz band they’ve never heard of. They’d be half right – El Michels Affair is definitely a hot ensemble who will be making great music whether or not they’re covering songs by Method Man and Inspectah Deck (and even though it’s not strictly a Wu song I’d love to hear their take on “Above the Clouds” by GangStarr) because they love that old school ‘Cinematic Soul’.