Leon Michels is sitting in the Spring Lounge bar in Soho, talking about the technicalities of mixing down music through five analog tapes to re-create the “haze” that defined RZA’s peak work for the Wu-Tang Clan in the Nineties. As the rain steadily drips down outside, the 34-year-old Michels rhapsodizes about this same sonic texture he was trying to achieve for Return to the 37th Chamber, the latest project by his own band, the El Michels Affair. The album features the funk unit crafting new songs based on both RZA’s productions for the Wu as well as the original Sixties soul tracks he sampled. “It happens when the music goes through multiple layers of tape, and frequencies get shaved off and it sounds fuzzy,” Michels says. “The music needs that hazy quality.”
The musical path that has brought Michels to reinterpreting esteemed Wu-Tang songs is one that’s steeped in funk. At sixteen years old, he ingratiated himself into the nascent retro movement of the early 2000s. Under the tutelage of future Daptone Records founder Gabriel Roth and scene staple Philippe Lehman, the multi-instrumentalist Michels was schooled in the history of “super rare crackly funk 45s.” He released gritty tracks under the guise of the Mighty Imperials, founded the (now shuttered) Truth & Soul label, and wound up playing in Sharon Jones’s backing band, the Dap-Kings. Somewhere along the way, he formed the El Michels Affair “kinda by default” by calling on the musicians he regularly worked with.
After the El Michels Affair were offered the opportunity to back up the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon on tour as part of a series of collaborations sponsored by Scion, a joint studio session produced 2007’s The PJs…From Afar. “At the time, we were selling 500 copies of a record, but this one sold 6,000,” Michels says. “It was like, Oh, shit, I guess people want to hear this.” An entire album of instrumental Wu-Tang Clan covers soon became a reality: In 2009, the El Michels Affair cut Enter the 37th Chamber, which featured the band’s take on anthems like “Protect Ya Neck,” “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and “C.R.E.A.M.”
“A lot of people love that first record,” Michels says of Enter, “but it was almost too easy with ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ ” He feels the El Michels Affair version relied too much on listeners’ affection for the original. “My cover was cool, but I didn’t think it was special.”
So for Return to the 37th Chamber, Michels holed himself up in a studio in Long Island City with a bunch of vintage equipment he’d amassed — including a synth version of a koto (a traditional stringed Japanese instrument) released in the early Nineties — and changed the emphasis of the project: “This time I was inspired by RZA’s general production and vibe rather than just the compositions.”
The result is a series of tracks that sound like Michels has teased out a third life from the soul tracks RZA sampled and the hip-hop standards he subsequently produced. Two interludes from Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele that draw on a riff by jazz bandleader Gap Mangione now become the melancholic anti-hero’s anthem “Iron Man.” “Verbal Intercourse” flips from being a backdrop for Raekwon, Ghost, and Nas’s block-corner ruminating into a spectral voodoo congregation. On “You’re All I Need,” the R&B singer Nicole Wray helps tackle Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s Grammy-winning duet, which she remembers as “literally my theme song getting dressed for school in the morning.” Now her honeyed vocals connect the Wu’s version back to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s blueprint.
By focusing on “reverse engineering” RZA’s production nuances, Michels has lifted Return to the 37th Chamber beyond just a collection of covers. He points to “Tearz” (which features the dreamy indie-pop duo the Shacks as well as soul singer Lee Fields) as an example of what Return accomplishes. “A song like ‘Tearz’ is not really like a hip-hop song but some weird dubbed-out cover of the  Wendy Rene original,” he says while finishing up his beer. “I really wanted the new melodies to be interesting enough so it’s not just ‘Name That Wu-Tang Song.’ ”