Wu-Tang Clan were there for hip-hop’s infancy.
When rap music was coming into the world, they were children peeking their heads out of their bedroom windows and running down the stoops of the Brooklyn and Staten Island projects that were their homes to listen to some of the game’s early greats beatbox and freestyle right on the street. The pavement was the stage, and the crowds surrounding them were in awe—including the nine boys who would eventually make up one of the greatest rap groups in history.
The Wu's ascension into icon status is documented in Showtime’s four-part documentary series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. The series, premiering May 10, explores the group’s landmark 25-year career, the indelible mark they’ve made in the global cultural landscape, and each member’s individual trajectory. Through their immense talent, RZA's vision, and their collective hustle, the Wu overcame the crack epidemic, poverty, endless violence, extreme racism, and an oppressive, segregated system that disenfranchises Black men, and came out on the other side to see millions the world over chant “Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuthing ta fuck wit.”
Following the recent success of music biopics like Straight Outta Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody (and if you go back a bit further, Notorious, 8 Mile, and Get Rich or Die Trying), a thoughtful telling of the story of Wu-Tang Clan felt not just timely, but long overdue. A scripted series about the group is also on the way from Hulu.
“We was waiting for it. It was time,” Cappadonna told me while tearing into a breakfast plate of eggs, waffles, and sausage. “It was perfect timing for us to get out there, put our story out after 25 years. That gave us enough footage. Enough motivational energy.”
Gathered in a hotel suite high above the tourists taking carriage rides through Central Park South—a short distance but a world away from the neighborhoods they came from—RZA, GZA, Cappadonna, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa spoke with VICE about the docuseries and the group’s seemingly impossible rise to success. Joining them was Young Dirty Bastard (son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who performs with the group in his father’s place) and director Sacha Jenkins, who Cappadonna credits for “the celebration of our legacy being broadcast to the world.”
"A lot of people know a lot about Wu-Tang through the music, but this was like another level of education," said Masta Killa. "Even for us as being members of the group, you know what I’m saying? Because through the film, I’m learning about things about my brother that I never knew."
"Wu-Tang was very private about a lot of our lives. I think we feel evolved enough and [are] mature enough at this age that we gotta let our story be known. It can’t be a secret," said RZA. "It gotta be like, 'Listen, people, if you look up to us and our music and you think we’ve done something to help change the world creatively, well, look at our path. Look at that, for real.' And we’re doing it. Of Mics and Men does that."
In the first episode, the living members of Wu-Tang sit together in the red velvet seats of Staten Island's beautifully ornate St. George Theater, where Raekwon recalls watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid. They peer up at the silver screen on which grainy home videos of their early days play, taking them back to the messy bedrooms and living rooms where they'd smoke weed and practice the rhymes that have since become canon. Like brothers, they laugh and struggle to remember who gets credit for introducing everyone to the old kung fu movies that inspired their group's identity.
"It’s a mind-blowing experience [seeing your home movies on screen]. That little picture over there"—says U-God, pointing at a photo in a collage for the docuseries' poster—"I was looking at that picture. That’s the Oooh building [referring to the Park Hill project he lived in]. I definitely spilled blood and scraped my knees on that damn building. [The series] is definitely going to tell you the real story behind us. We came from the streets for real, man. We came from the hood. We represent the Black men from the ghettos across America, and let them know that you can make it out. We live the same life y’all live and you can be successful … Our story is everybody’s story. I hope they embrace it, because it’s a real crazy story. It had to be fucking told after all these years."
As nine Black men that grew up in the rough streets of New York, their story was improbable from the jump. The series tells anecdotes of the pond behind a building they played in, never crossing to the "white boys' side," and how they went from selling newspapers on a bridge, to selling drugs on the corner, to working odd jobs (including cleaners at the Statue of Liberty, which Method Man calls "the best job I ever freakin' had") to get by—all while writing rhymes, performing at night, and making the moves needed to bring Shaolin to the masses.
"Growing up in New York City, we had babysitters [instead of teachers]," said Jenkins, who went to the same junior high school in Queens as Nas. Both were told they should go to vocational school.
"There’s nothing wrong with vocational school," Jenkins continued. "We need jobs. But the way that the New York City school system thought was, as Black youth, the only thing we could possibly do was fix things… Nas is one of the most prolific poets of our generation. What if he went onto fix refrigerators?"
But watching memories from their early days play out on-screen also brings nostalgic delight to the members of the Wu. "[When] me and Dirty was… I don’t know, 18 years old, we got in a rap contest," recalled RZA. "They said 'OK, no cursing…' And we cursed every fucking few lines! Just watching it [on the theater screen] and remembering…those type of memories, they’re touching, they’re inspiring, they’re reflective, but they’re healthy."
The overwhelming takeaway that most of the members have, looking back on their complicated story, is gratitude. In a place where, as RZA put it, if you had to defend a nice pair of sneakers or a gold chain often by violent means, survival was a daily struggle. This reality has been an intrinsic part of the storytelling in their music, and a reminder to them now as they sit in that hotel suite telling the story of their lives.
"I was grateful that God gave me something else, and I found something in myself to utilize to become a success in an environment that was totally against us and everything we do," said Cappadonna. "I beat the system, you know what I’m saying? I ain’t got no high school diploma, but today I sell words for a living."
Through the Wu-Tang Clan, these men found the vehicle to spread their truth, enlightenment, and discuss their philosophy of life and purpose. RZA, very much the architect, had a plan for each member, for himself, and for the group as a whole. And they followed, with little-to-no safety net, because the Wu gave them hope. That roll of the dice changed the game. That makes the Wu-Tang Clan worthy of study, says RZA. "You gotta study the great fighters in order to be a great fighter. Our words are like those of a great fighter," he says. "You probably could take all our lyrics of the whole Wu-Tang dynasty, and you’ll end with a volume as thick as a Bible."
In helping to shape hip-hop culture as it, in turn, helped to shape America, the Wu-Tang Clan’s influence can be staggering to process. In South Korea; in Mexico; in Italy; anywhere, you'll find the impact of the Wu-Tang Clan's influence in fashion, music, and language.
The increasingly blurry distinctions between “Black culture” and “American culture”—and what constitutes cultural appropriation, or straight-up idea theft—is hotly discussed with every cornrowed Instagram look worn by Kylie Jenner. And there are lines not to be crossed; Jenkins fervently speaks up against the use of the N-word by non-Black people, even if they feel a connection to hip-hop culture.
"We’re being called ‘niggers’ every day. It’s still a word that will polarize you, that will stop you from getting a job," he said. "And at the end of the day, going back to what I said in the film, when this guy tells a story in the film about seeing ‘KKK,’ ‘kill all niggers’ [graffitied on walls in their neighborhood] as a youth… When he says it, he says it with a laugh … Anything traumatic that we as Black people deal with is always done with a laugh, and so 'nigger' is supposed to be ironic. But it’s not fucking ironic, right? And [the Wu-Tang Clan] made music that wasn’t ironic. This is how we speak amongst ourselves. This music was initially meant for us. And it just so happens that that music was relatable to a lot of people. But at the end of the day, in my opinion: Fuck all that shit."
While the racial politics of hip-hop can be debated for endless days and hours, for the members of this group, it’s ultimately the love and appreciation for the work they've created is what matters.
"At one point I felt like, I own hip-hop. It’s my shit," said RZA. "But when Wu-Tang started doing tours and seeing the inspiration that it did to people around the world, we realized, Yo, this is a world thing. Because this is the sound and the spirit of the youth, and they grow [up] to [be] men."
Telling the story of the Wu-Tang Clan is telling the story of hip-hop—of the men and women who took it from the streets to the globe’s biggest stages. Jenkins calls hip-hop "the purest form of communication," and Wu Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men is a mainline to the struggles and realities of Black people in America as told by nine of its most brilliant and enigmatic minds.
"One thing I trust is that someone in the world, anywhere in the world, there’s someone who can identify with one of us," said Masta Killa.
"In the struggles that these guys documented in their music, there are universal themes in there," said Jenkins. "The fact that they’ve called themselves a clan… ultimately, the series is really a film about a family, and sometimes it’s dysfunctional. But what family can you name that isn’t dysfunctional?"
Follow Alex Zaragoza, who used to rap over beats her big brother would make for her, on Twitter.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.