There was no precedent for the Wu-Tang Clan insurgency in the early and mid-1990s, and, if we’re being honest, there’s been nothing quite like it since.
Its success was a challenge to hip-hop’s prevailing business model, its aesthetic principles and its relationship to emotion. The group — RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Masta Killa and sometimes Cappadonna — was a collection of performers who could be fantastical superheroes or of-the-soil narrators, often both at once. And as a collective, they had an almost mystical veneer.
In “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” an intimate four-part docuseries directed by the documentarian and former music journalist Sacha Jenkins debuting on Showtime Friday, they are human-scaled — determined, gifted, anxious, fallible. It is less a film about the group’s sui generis success and more about how individuals use art as a lifeline.
For the first half, at least, this is a tale of conquest. The Wu-Tang Clan was a coat of armor, a group identity rooted in martial-arts mythos that reimagined hip-hop as a site of wild mystery and grungy mien. Especially in the period from its 1993 debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” through the 1997 follow-up “Wu-Tang Forever,” with several solo releases in between — it expanded the genre’s sense of possibility more than any of its peers, all while muscling it toward the pop mainstream.
The film traces how, from the beginning, the members saw their creativity as a means of escape from the Staten Island projects that most of them grew up in, and the persistent, seemingly ubiquitous racism of 1980s New York. “Mini-Mississippi,” Inspectah Deck says of a neighborhood he often had to traverse.
“Of Mics and Men” has ample early-era video footage and photos that capture the group in its raw joy, taking in the world that was opening up to them. The disagreements among members — and over the years, there have been countless — don’t kick in until the third episode, and even then, they’re refracted through the lens of resilient brotherhood.
That generosity of spirit is also embedded in the filmmaking, which is patient and lets people speak their piece. Often, rather than hard cuts away from interviews, the camera lingers for a second or two, capturing the softening of a pose.
Given space to breathe, the members tell disarmingly, and sometimes disturbingly, frank stories about their lives: Method Man recalls a stretch of his childhood living in a shelter for battered women; RZA remembers sharing four pairs of pants among three brothers; U-God speaks about his 2-year-old son getting shot; Ghostface Killah talks about helping care for his younger siblings who had muscular dystrophy.
Time and again, Ghostface is the urgent emotional pulse of the group, the arbiter of principle and the quickest to call out what he perceives to be injustice, whether financial or personal, like when he tells off the influential New York radio powerhouse Hot 97 at the station’s own concert, leading to a ban on the group’s music.
The second episode opens with a humorous segment: the group disagreeing over where its name came from. It’s a reminder that “Of Mics and Men” is both historical record and personality sketch. And given the group’s fundamental unruliness, it is also an impressive feat of logistics. (Just ask any journalist ever tasked with interviewing the whole crew.)
RZA serves as something of an omniscient narrator, even for the parts where he’s at odds with other members. One of the most important reveals in the film is the nature of the tug-of-war between RZA and his brother Divine, who served as CEO of Wu-Tang Productions, the icy businessman behind the visceral music. When the group begins to splinter, RZA tells Divine to let everyone out of their contracts, essentially collapsing the company. Divine, sitting on his boat for a rare interview years later, remains incredulous.
The most heart-rending moments come in the third episode, which lingers on the decline and death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the jester whose tragic unraveling became a wound that the group could not bear. This was the mid-2000s, and almost everything was being filmed: Ol’ Dirty Bastard calling Divine to complain about being penniless after getting out of jail, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s new manager failing to recognize RZA when they first meet.
And then he’s gone. In many ways, that’s when the story of the Wu-Tang Clan ends as well — the group has released albums since then, but its centrality to the genre has vastly diminished. Its rootlessness is embodied in the fourth and final episode, which is unsure of the story it wants to tell: mistrust, instability, redemption.
In the early episodes, almost no time is spent on the group members’ solo albums, which include some of the most important music of the 1990s: Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman,” Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx …” But several minutes are given to “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” the sole copy of which was auctioned off in 2015 for $2 million. The buyer was the reviled pharma bro Martin Shkreli, and, uncomfortably, he gets about as much screen time as Masta Killa, the group’s least visible member.
These days, the Wu-Tang Clan is an abstraction — a symbol, a logo, shorthand for a kind of unpredictability that mainstream hip-hop has largely abandoned. The group members only convene as a unit for business purposes, they admit. But to call this tale cautionary is to miss the point. As “Of Mics and Men” makes clear, survival itself is a kind of triumph.