Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (Review)

Sacha Jenkins’ 2019 documentary mini-series on the Wu-Tang Clan has finally made it across the pond, airing for the first time in the UK last month on Sky Documentaries. For any fan of the Clan it’s a must-watch, and I would venture to add that even those less well acquainted with the music of the Wu-Tang will find themselves able to enjoy Jenkins’ documentary for its gripping rags-to-riches narrative alone.

First things first: It’s a treat just to see all ten living members together in the same place at the same time. Jenkins sits the group down in the St George Theatre in Staten Island where they are filmed reminiscing over footage that spans the length of their nearly thirty-year old careers. It is a subtle yet effective directorial trick, allowing us as an audience to witness the group dynamics play out naturally, free from any performative or put-on displays that would surely have arisen from a less fly-on-the-wall approach.

In both the unseen raw footage and the responses they incur, it is the small moments of candour that constitute the documentary’s most rewarding. At the start of the second episode, an argument breaks out between Ghostface and RZA over the origins of the Wu-Tang name. Who’s right and who’s wrong is unimportant – what’s most interesting is noticing the internal relationships that exist inside the group, the roles each member naturally inhabits. Ghostface is clearly the outspoken voice against injustice, even if it is sometimes to his and the group’s detriment (see his Hot 97 call-out, which cost them over a decade of airplay from one of New York’s biggest radio stations). RZA, meanwhile, is the diplomat. Despite being the original founder, unspoken leader, and centripetal force around which all the other members gravitate, he never stops looking to the rest for their opinions, sparking conversations like an eager schoolboy always keen to earn the respect of his peers. As the argument between these two progresses, Raekwon and Meth stir trouble in the second row; U-God sits out on the wings, shaking his head unimpressed; and GZA and Inspectah Deck remain quiet in the middle, each as detached and aloof as the other to such minor squabbling.

The opening episodes, those dedicated to the group’s early period, are undoubtedly the best. The previously unseen footage sheds invaluable light on each individual’s personality as they existed before the money and fame turned them into the characters we know today. There is something heart-warmingly human about Method Man’s humility when he revisits his first job at the Statue of Liberty (“Best job I ever freaking had”) or in seeing Ghostface open up about the struggles of caring for his younger brothers, both sufferers from muscular dystrophy. Another memorably touching moment comes in the form of U-God’s interactions with his son, who was caught in the crossfire of a random shooting and was left paralysed in one leg. Standing in the Park Hill project in Staten Island, the child innocently asks him, “Why did you say a bad word, Daddy?” “Because that’s how I feel, man. I feel like saying bad words”, U-God replies, issuing an abrupt laugh at his young son’s perceptiveness.  It’s one of many tender moment that inject a sombre humanity into the voices and personalities we know only on record, showing us how easy it is to forget these are real people with real-life stresses and struggles.

As the nostalgia of the early days gives way to the foibles of worldwide recognition, a familiar story begins to unfold, as money and fame, the biggest killers of any promising artistic career, rear their ugly heads. These, combined with the clashing of newly inflated egos, make the slow disintegration of Wu-Tang’s collective spirit inevitable. While early footage shows each member proclaiming their unbreakable unity and filiation to the Clan (“we form together like Voltron”), by the turn of the millennium the draw of separate solo careers naturally begins to tear at this once tough fabric.

The latter half of the third episode is especially sad, dedicated to the downfall of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, shedding light on his growing paranoia and his harassment by the authorities. It was during his stint in jail that the other Clan members began to drop like flies, releasing themselves from the contracts they had previously signed with Wu-Tang Productions. When ODB finally came back and found himself the only one still contractually obliged to the group, he understandably felt cheated.

It is hard not to sympathize with RZA here, who could only watch as his brothers jumped from the ship he had built and was still trying wholeheartedly to commandeer. His decision to release the other members from their contracts, thereby significantly decreasing the value of Wu-Tang Productions, soured his relationship with his own brother, Divine, head of the company and the more business-minded of the two. Their beef continues to this day, such that Divine is interviewed separately from the others, from the boat where he now lives and spends all his time. The whole affair is an ugly one, frankly, and no side comes across as better than the other. The only emotion felt as a viewer is one of sadness, that base-level material wealth was enough to break apart relationships existing since childhood.

Though the mini-series tries to end on an upbeat, hopeful note, the final episode is inarguably the least enjoyable of the four. Here we witness RZA’s attempts to keep the Wu-Tang brand alive internationally, with substantial time dedicated to the embarrassment that was the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin fiasco. This marks a particularly low point for the group, not only because of the elitism inherent in auctioning off an exclusive album for millions of dollars (or even that it was bought by an individual as repulsive as Martin Shkreli, now thankfully serving his own jail time), but because none of the original members besides RZA had any knowledge of the affair before it took place. Their inputs and verses had been pre-recorded at different times and spliced together by Dutch rapper and group affiliate Cilvaringz, thus making the album Wu-Tang in name alone. “Makes us look like a circus act,” Method Man mutters in disgust, while RZA looks on sheepishly. Its impossible for anyone to disagree with him.

RZA’s main takeaway from the whole affair is positive, however. Financial gain, it seems, is his principal motivation, and since the Wu-Tang brand is now worth more than it was in the year 2000, it is enough for him to signal this as a rebirth moment. Personally, as a fan of Wu-Tang the music and not Wu-Tang the brand, I find it hard to share in his optimism. The Wu-Tang symbol may be worth millions, but for those of us who don’t give a toss about Wu-Wear or the largely uninspiring affiliate albums, the ‘W’ truly inspires little confidence or excitement in the year 2020.

At this point, honestly, I’ve given up listening to new Wu-Tang albums. Projects billed as comebacks feel more like cash-grabs than genuine attempts to recapture that once undeniable spirit. It was never the clothes, nor the money, nor the fame, that made the Wu-Tang Clan so great. It was the passion, the struggle through solidarity, the menace born out of sheer desperation, the prevailing attitude that no individual could ever come above the group. As long as all these components are missing, Wu-Tang albums will always sound somewhat empty.

There’s a moment at the end of the video for ‘Protect Ya Neck’ where the camera spins around in a circle, revealing the viewer and listener to be surrounded on all sides by an endless number of blurry and menacing figures. It’s a visual representation of what listening to early Wu-Tang is like – feeling overwhelmed, overpowered, unable to escape the onslaught of verse upon verse, sheer unfiltered talent tripping over itself in a rush to spit the next rhyme. Early Wu-Tang is an aural celebration of the philosophy of power in numbers, of success that comes only when multiple strengths are combined to create a force more powerful than any single MC could muster alone.

The grittiness that marks the period from the 36 Chambers to Wu-Tang Forever is part of why every project from that era remains a stone-cold classic. The minute the Wu-Tang began to focus on branding over ethos, it became corporatized. The grittiness disappeared, and the collective spirit was replaced by atomization. Personal interest superseded the philosophy of unity that bound all nine members together as one. As the DIY ethics and aesthetics slowly began to disappear, so too did everything that made Wu-Tang so unusual and so revolutionary in the first place.

Although Of Mics and Men is a must-watch for any Wu-Tang fan, it did leave me feeling somewhat flat. As I watched the documentary’s closing moments, I came to the sudden realisation that all the truly great Wu-Tang projects are now relics from the past, and that never again will that original magic exist as it once did. No amount of money or marketing can recreate feeling, and as long as each member has one eye resting on their solo interests, the relentless drive that permeates those first projects will always be lacking.

This is no fault of any single member, of course –it’s just a fact of life. All that befalls us, as listeners, is to accept the passage of time, and to rejoice in greatness as it once existed, rather than wish for it to be shoddily recreated. The Wu-Tang Clan as I and so many others love it may be a thing of the past, but the achievements of those first albums will always exist for endless revisits. As I plug in my headphones and hear that crackly, overdubbed voice proclaim, “Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style”, I can take comfort in knowing that the old classics will forever be there.

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