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Ever wander through a record store, and all of a sudden a mysterious “new release” from your favorite artist catches your eye? Then, upon closer examination, you realize it’s not a new release from said artist, but something along the lines of A Bluegrass Jazz Tribute to Redman, with the word “Redman” in huge letters. Chances are, some of you’ve even been fooled into accidentally buying something like this, and getting home only to find pure disappointment, with the artist having nothing to do with the project, and most likely not even having any idea it exists. Fortunately, El Michel’s Affair Enter The 37th Chamber might seem like something along those lines at first glance, but in fact is completely the opposite.

Produced with the blessing of the Wu-Tang Clan, New York City funk outfit, El Michel’s Affair, has covered a handful of Wu classics, instrumental style. It all started in the underground funk 45 circuit, as the crew released big-hole 7inch singles featuring their renditions of songs like “Duel Of The Iron Mic” and “C.R.E.A.M.”, which did so well with the crate diggers that this full-length project was born. Later, El Michels Affair would come full circle, recording a “live remix” of Pete Rock’s “The PJ’s” with Raekwon himself, as well as backing up the Wu-Tang Clan during live performances.

So a crappy cover album this ain’t. To lend more credibility to Leon Michels and his crew, it was he who produced the original horn section that Jay-Z sampled for “Roc Boys”, and they were commissioned for a remix of Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is A Losing Game”. The rest of the El Michels Affair is made up of members of today’s current funk revivalist scene, including muscians from The Dap Kings, Budos Band, and Antibalas. So yes, this is the real deal.

Authenticity checks have cleared, but what makes this album so good? First and foremost, like Breakestra’s The Live Mix before it, El Michels Affair has reproduced a handful of dusty groove gems with today’s clean, studio sound. Make no mistake, it’s still raw – by no means did they try to make it sound “modern” – but instead, the sound is full and rich. Unlike Breakestra, however, the group isn’t looking to replay the original breaks, but instead the songs themselves. So “Duel Of The Iron Mic” for instance is exactly that – not a cover of David Porter “I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over”. Replayed pianos, moody violins, and of course the actual samples from Shogun Assassin playing over the top of it, making a beautiful new composition. “C.R.E.A.M.” is another lush production, expanding on the original, with reinterpreted Charmell snares and looming RZA basslines, not to mention that infectious piano loop – here played live, of course.

Listening to the original instrumentals by themselves might seem a little bare without the Wu’s colorful cast of characters on top of them, but it’s not the case with El Michel’s cover versions. “Can It Be So Simple” for instance, is executed so beautifully, that it evokes the emotional response of the original version and at the same time sounds completely original. In further brilliance, “Glaciers Of Ice” – one of RZA’s most off kilter, hardest-to-grab-onto-ever tracks is amazingly executed, as the crew’s new live rendition sounds less like a strangely chopped sample, but instead a fully realized deep funk song, with rolling guitar licks and that sneaky horn section. It’s original b-side, “Criminology” is another gush-worthy rendition, as its celebratory horns are played almost identical to the original, leading into an orgasmic xylophone driven breakdown. Yes, it’s that good.

The album hops around different eras of the Wu-Tang Clan’s career, much of it spent on covering Enter The 36 Chambers. However, it also leaps forward into the future with more recent (well, not that recent) hits like “Chez Chez La Ghost” and “Pinky Ring”. Longtime fans of the Wu-Tang Clan, or anyone who was present during the first five albums of the Wu-Tang Saga will fall in love with this record. While El Michels Affair will probably venture into creating an LP of original songs next time around, we can still wish for a song-for-song re-imagining of Only Built For Cuban Links. – Pizzo

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