wax Poetics
Photograph by Brad Howe.

Shaolin Soul

El Michels Affair channels the Wu-Tang Clan’s ruckus

New York’s booming soul scene equals hard work for Leon Michels. When not in the studio with Menahan Street Band, he’s avalanched with duties concerning his own band, El Michels Affair, which just released A Tribute to Isaac Hayes. After two years of refinements, Truth & Soul, a label Leon founded and currently runs, will release Enter the 37th Chamber, an instrumental cover album of all Wu-Tang tracks. 

published online
Originally published in Issue 35
By David Ma

“Because they’re smoked-out, cinematic, dark, and gritty,” he replies, when asked why he would choose to tackle RZA classics. “The most frightening thing about making this record was the possibility of it being corny. But we came at it from the soul side rather than the hip-hop side of Wu’s music. All the musicians involved had no interest in making a live hip-hop album. It’s more a concept record than a tribute record. What we ended up doing is so far removed from the originals that it’s hard to even compare the two.”

Leon Michels was twelve or thirteen when Wu brought the ruckus and, admittedly, wasn’t even “a huge fan of hip-hop at the time.” But it marked the start of his affinity for RZA’s production and added to his interest in soul music. And as Wu-Tang loomed large, as kids everywhere bought W-embroidered hoodies, a young Michels dabbled in and out of various bands in Brooklyn. After a brief stint with the Mighty Imperials, he formed and fronted his own troupe, El Michels Affair. 

Their debut LP, 2005’s Sounding Out the City, showed a penchant for cinematic touches layered with bass licks, breaks, and, most notably, thick horn lines. Leon then pressed an instrumental version of “C.R.E.A.M” b/w “Glaciers of Ice” on 45, and the response remains unmatched to this day. “People really liked it immediately,” he says. “It’s still the best-selling record we’ve ever had on Truth & Soul.”

Another 45, “Duel of the Iron Mic” b/w “Bring the Ruckus,” followed, and the releases were dubbed The Shaolin Series—which, essentially, laid the structure for Enter the 37th Chamber. “We started recording the instrumentals,” Leon continues, “because when you deconstruct RZA’s beats and play them with live instruments, they end up sounding like hard, ’70s avant-garde jazz. His beats are always layered with dissonant samples and weird sounds, which is the sound Truth & Soul loves doing.”

After the overwhelming support for The Shaolin Series, after Sounding Out the City spread some more, another opportunity came up. “Scion hosted a bunch of live events, and they wanted us to be involved,” says Leon, explaining how he met and eventually ending up working with Wu-Tang. “They paired us with Jeru, then Slick Rick, and finally Raekwon. It was amazing. It was supposed to be for one show only, but everything went so well between us that Scion hooked up a mini East Coast tour with El Michels and Raekwon. That’s where everything came together.”

Enter the 37th Chamber has been a project that took years, because the musicians were sidetracked with other projects, and a project like this one, where you rework revered songs, also needed full attention. Most of the songs are from seminal Wu albums, like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. These reinterpretations, filled with switch-ups, vocal drops, horns, and dark effects, typify Truth & Soul’s output. With more projects in place, Leon recalls a humbling meeting he had in the studio with RZA himself: “I played the record for RZA, and he especially loved our version of ‘Glaciers of Ice.’ When he heard it, he just said, ‘This is American music right here.’ ” 

Since publication in Issue 35, Leon Michels closed Truth & Soul and began the imprint Big Crown with Danny Akalepse in 2016 where he continues to release music as El Michels Affair.

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