25 years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Today, or more precisely this spring, we’ll be watching a four-hour Showtime documentary about the most influential hip-hop groups of all time and how it all came to be.
How did it all start?
Wu-Tang Clan was formed in the early 1990s with RZA as the leader and the group’s producer. Its original members counted East Coast rappers RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa. Method Man, who met RZA in 1990 after hearing a tape the producer recorded as Prince Rakeem, recalled:
I went round his house. We went to the basement and I guess they was showin’ off ‘cos I was there. There’d be RZA and his brother Devon on the decks. RZA was cuttin’, Devon’d go cut off the light, then RZA’s go cut on the light, Devon’d be cutting, then he’d go cut off the light. They was doing some wild shit, man. And Ol’ Dirty was there and he’d echo every rhyme of RZA’s while beatboxing, ‘cos that was in style then. That was the beginning of Wu-Tang.– Method Man
In just two years, the nine members had a sizable underground following. Their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, is one of the greatest hip-hop/rap albums of all time. Its success established the group as a creative and influential force in the mid-1990s hip-hop scene, allowing Ol’ Dirty Bastard, GZA, RZA, Raekwon, U-God, Method Man, and Ghostface Killah to negotiate solo contracts.
The first episodes
During the first two episodes of Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, Jenkins draws his audience through the group’s formation, their early recording sessions, and their eventual breakout with “36 Chambers”. The opening of the documentary finds the members assembling at Staten Island’s St. George Theatre to watch old footage of themselves and shoot the shit. While some of the members – Method Man and RZA, in particular – look like they haven’t aged a day, there’s an inherent and magical gravity that comes from a maturing Cappadonna or U-God reflecting on the young turks they used to be. Or the way the room goes immediately introspective whenever footage of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard appears.
RZA, ever the frontman, introduces each member over the course of a zig-zagging 20-minute opening. There’s Ghostface Killah, “the most dangerous villain”; Method Man, who always had the best hooks; Raekwon, the “eloquent” chef of the streets; U-God, who RZA notes “always had an aggressive violence” to him; Inspectah Deck, who “saw everything”; the 2007 addition and “slang master” Cappadonna; the man who “through his realness” became Masta Killa; GZA, “the genius”; and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who RZA remembers as having “a personality that was just raw and unapologetic.”
Jenkins and his collaborators uncovered a treasure trove of nascent Wu-Tang Clan footage. They added a healthy dose of context, accompanied by reflective interviews with the members of the group, who couldn’t possibly have ever believed they’d still be doing this after 25 years. Jenkins’ ties intertwine the past with the present, and these memories, illustrated in beautifully restored found footage and discussed by the people who lived through them, are what elevate the documentary to must-see status for any fan.
Throughout the history of hip-hop, no single group changed the game in the same way the Wu-Tang Clan did. In the early ‘90s, a group of young rappers from Staten Island and Brooklyn joined forces to escape the poverty, violence, and oppression of their neighborhoods through music. Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men is, above all, about the music and the messages behind the music. It chronicles every meaningful beat of the group’s ongoing career. And they do it as they’ve done just about everything: together.
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men captures the very start of the Wu-Tang Clan through colorful storytelling and a dose of Staten Island context. The 4-part documentary series premiered this Monday, at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The release date on Showtime is the 17th of May.