Twenty-five years ago, hip-hop was given a unique sound that has not been duplicated since. With songs that used samples from old kung-fu movies matched with gripping rhymes about personal struggles in New York’s Staten Island (which they called Shaolin), nine MCs known as Wu-Tang Clan instantly became a sensation as their rugged style began to circulate through the rap scene.
The group’s first album, 1993’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” would go down as one of the greatest debuts in the history of hip-hop. It not only launched the group into legendary status, but, as the years past, gave many of the members individual success as solo artists.
Now the Wu is finally willing to tell its story.
Showtime’s four-part documentary, “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” (premiering Friday), is an exhaustive look at the members’ beginnings trying to stay out of jail (or not return to it), followed by international stardom once the first album hit. The group’s rise was systematically orchestrated by its de facto leader, RZA, who not only produced the albums (and many of the solo works), but also made the group a multi-million-dollar brand thanks to a popular clothing line as well as production and management companies.
And like every epic story, there’s also the bad side. Inner turmoil within the band and the death of outlandish member Ol’ Dirty Bastard caused years to pass without any new Wu-Tang music. Director Sacha Jenkins does a masterful job connecting all the dots to tell a story that shies away from nothing.
In fact, it’s a telling of the Wu-Tang that RZA always envisioned.
“The idea was a definitive documentary, which I told Sacha is the bible,” RZA told Business Insider. “And when it comes to archival, this movie should get an award. I don’t know how they got it all.”
But RZA needed some convincing at first that Jenkins was right for the job.
At the time when the Wu-Tang were being approached by many Hollywood producers to do something to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “Enter the Wu-Tang,” RZA said Jenkins also came to the table wanting to tell the Wu story.
“He was like, ‘I live hip-hop, I’m a black man, I’m an artist, I’m the one who should tell the story,'” and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,'” RZA said.
But there were few pitching a movie who had as much history with the band as Jenkins. The director recalled being so taken when handed the “Protect Ya Neck” single back in the early 1990s that he put the band, still unknown, on the cover of his underground hip-hop paper, Beat Down. As the years followed, Jenkins continued in other ventures like publishing and filmmaking, and on occasion interviewed the Wu-Tang. With that familiarity, he felt only he could tell the story the right way.
“I told RZA, ‘Let’s keep it 100, I’m of this culture, I grew up with the same experiences as black men in New York City of that time, I’m the guy.'”
RZA said he thought about it and after a few weeks finally agreed. He now thinks no one was better for the job than Jenkins.
“This was the right team because everyone let them into their homes,” RZA said.
Though “Of Mics and Men” features a lot of archival footage of the Wu-Tang performing and crafting hit songs, Jenkins goes a step further and uses the archival to explore many of the members on a personal level that they never thought would be made public.
“When you see the bottom of the poster, where it says ‘160,’” U-God pointed at a poster that was hanging up in the room where the interview was taking place, “that’s the address of my f—ing drug building right there. But I already talked to my lawyers so it’s all good. I’m just saying that’s how real this s–t is.”
RZA admitted he purposely didn’t provide any archival footage or photos, but Jenkins and his team somehow got a hold of something that was even more sensitive than his home movies.
“They called me from Ohio and said they were with Dominic, that’s my lawyer, and he was going to give them the transcripts of my trial,” RZA said, referring to a 1991 felonious assault charge, in which he was ultimately acquitted. “And I was like, ‘ummm,’ and then I was like, ‘f—k it.'”
Jenkins said his goal was always to go deeper than the music.
Throughout the four-part doc we learn about Five-Percent Nation, the movement whose teachings are prominent in many Wu-Tang songs; the harassment by police that many members went through in their youth living in Staten Island; and the personal lives of many of the members — ranging from Ol’ Dirty’s paranoid state at the end of his life to U-God’s son surviving being shot.
“To understand hip-hop is to understand the climate and the environment that people like us experience,” Jenkins said. “The music that these guys made were reflections of and a reaction to their environment. I called this film ‘Of Mics and Men’ because Wu-Tang is an American classic, and we have to start looking at black artists as American artists.”
Looking back on the history of the Wu — the poverty and crime the group was brought up in, the unlikely launch to fame, the band drama — RZA compares it all to life strapped on a roller-coaster ride that has led to the surviving members having a stronger bond today than ever before.
“A couple people that didn’t make it to this point, they didn’t hold on,” he said. “We’re all still here, we held on.”
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