New York – A quarter century ago a ragtag group of New York kids that would become the iconic Wu-Tang Clan banded together, betting that mainstream music might just embrace hardcore hip hop from the streets.
Gifted with an ear for raw, menacing lyrics and fueled by a desire to rise above their poverty-mired peers, the nine-member collective ascended from New York’s then particularly rough outer boroughs to become one of the most influential rap acts in history.
Their hardscrabble journey that paved the way for dozens of successful hip hop artists is the subject of the four-part docu-series “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” — a riff on the American classic “Of Mice and Men,” the story of itinerant workers seeking financial stability — set to air on the US cable network Showtime next month.
“To see where they came from, how they did it, is no small feat,” said director Sacha Jenkins at the production’s New York premiere Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, after it screened at Sundance earlier this year.
“Now more than ever, people need to pay attention to what’s been going on in the inner city,” Jenkins told AFP. “It’s 25 years later and not much has changed. And that’s why Wu-Tang’s music still resonates.”
– ‘Our heroes’ –
Interspersing interviews with rare early footage, the series chronicles their origins as hustlers and drug dealers for whom music ultimately offered an escape from the revolving door of incarceration.
For RZA — Wu-Tang’s mastermind and de-facto leader — the deep relief of being cleared at trial of attempted murder opened his eyes to a different path.
In 1992 he formed the group with his two cousins and a handful of other friends, who claimed Staten Island as their territory and named themselves the Wu-Tang Clan after the 1983 kung-fu movie “Shaolin and the Wu Tang,” from which they drew samples for their landmark first album.
“For us, high school dropouts, guys that was forced to be street pharmacists… this is all we wanted,” RZA told AFP.
“Instead of our kids being those kids that’s out there causin’ crime, and shooting — no, no. Our kids are out there making the world more positive.”
For civil rights activist Al Sharpton, the Wu-Tang Clan is emblematic of struggles faced by minorities and the impoverished, offering hope in divisive times.
“Their story is our story. Ain’t nobody manufactured them, nobody created them. They came from the bottom and represented the bottom,” Sharpton told AFP.
“These are our heroes.”
– ‘Wu-Tang is the world’ –
In one endearing scene the docu-series watches Method Man — considered the brain behind some of the group’s catchiest lines — take the ferry back to his former job cleaning at the Statue of Liberty, where he catches his boss up on his success.
“I worked here for years and never went to go see this woman!” the 48-year-old performer says as he marvels at the monument.
“I guess we got lucky,” he says later on in the show, his quivering voice betraying emotion. “I guess we all did.”
Speaking to AFP on the red carpet before the screening, member U-God noted the significance of the docu-series’ prominent spot at Tribeca, a quintessentially New York festival that has long aimed to promote diversity.
“I’ve spilled my blood in New York City,” the 48-year-old rapper known for his brusque yet smooth flow said. “I am New York City. We were all born in New York City, we all raised in New York City, most of us will probably die in New York City.”
“But when we go we gonna take New York with us.”
Thursday night saw a rare gathering of the complete Clan, with all living members along with the rapper son of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard — who died of a drug overdose in 2004 — following the screening with a raucous performance including hits from their iconic breakthrough album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
“They’re everything, Wu-Tang is the world,” another venerable New York rapper, Nas, told AFP on the red carpet. “I’ve always been a fan, so I’m just blessed to be here and to see this happen.”
The crowd roared as the group performed its hit “C.R.E.A.M” — short for “cash rules everything around me” — in which members narrate their journeys from delinquency-by-necessity to fame.
Asked by AFP if cash still rules everything around him, RZA didn’t miss a beat.
“It rules everything around me,” the rapper laughed. “But it don’t rule me.”