Just minutes before premiering “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” at New York’s Beacon Theatre Thursday night during the Tribeca Film Festival, director Sacha Jenkins stepped up to the podium and gave a “freestyle” for his speech, emphasizing that the Wu-Tang Clan story is an American success story.
“I wanted to make a film to help people understand who these folks are and how they are a reflection of, and a reaction to, the environment that they come from,” Jenkins said, adding why he decided to name the four-part docuseries “Of Mics and Men”: “We all know the American classic, ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and oftentimes as black artists, we are put in a black box and they want us to talk about our art during Black History Month.
“But we are Americans and this is American art, and America is not going to change until America starts treating us like Americans,” he concluded, to applause and cheers from the crowd.
If the goal was to make a statement bigger than rap, one that includes broad themes of race and economic strife, “Of Mics and Men” succeeds. This particular screening only showed the first two episodes — the series will debut on Friday, May 10 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Showtime — but it compacted decades of history into 120 minutes, peeling back the layers of the group’s formation starting from their childhoods, navigating the music industry with little to no experience, and sticking to their vision of the Wu-Tang brand. Not many hip-hop groups have inspired generations like they have, and it shows from the range of celebrities and cultural figures in the film who expressed their connection to the group with commentary. In attendance were basketball star Carmelo Anthony, actor Keegan-Michael Key, pioneering hip-hop DJ Kool Herc and rappers Nas, Posdnuos (of De La Soul), AZ, Dave East to witness the rare sight of nearly every Wu-Tang member (GZA was absent) together again.
In recent years, Wu-Tang has made headlines for internal beefs, but “Of Mics and Men” highlights their entrepreneurial spirit and brotherhood. Viewers get a comprehensive look at the rappers’ pre-fame lives through rare interviews and archival footage. A young Raekwon is a tour guide through Staten Island’s Park Hill projects while other members — including GZA, who heads to Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy — revisit their childhood apartments to relate the atmosphere of their neighborhoods at the time, and to explain what it took for them to abandon hustling in order to focus on their collective mission of shaking up the rap industry.
Segments featuring the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004, got a rousing reaction from the crowd: In many ways, his unhinged personality and perspectives on money and life made him the soul of Wu-Tang Clan. His wife, Icelene Jones, makes an emotional appearance in the film, telling a story about how ODB coached her rigidly on the Muslim meaning of her name, helping her to recite line after line until she’d memorized it.
“It meant a lot to me,” she said, “because he really made me to learn it — and once I learned it, I kept it with me all my life.”
The second episode of “Of Mics and Men” covers the history of building up the Wu-Tang empire, moving from the establishment of their business team to signing with Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records. Viewers meet characters like John “Mook” Gibbons, founder and CEO of Wu-Tang Management; Mitchell “Divine” Diggs, RZA’s brother and CEO of Wu-Tang Productions; and Oliver “Power” Grant, who was the executive producer of all Wu-Tang albums.
The film also includes footage of the group in the studio recording “C.R.E.A.M.,” which was initially named “Lifestyles of the Mega-Rich” and featured two long freestyles from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. Method Man came up with the hook, getting inspiration from letters he used to receive from a friend who was locked up. “I remember he put C.R.E.A.M. in one of them — gotta get this cream. Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” Meth remembers. “‘Cause cream rises, so money makes you rise,” Deck added.
“Of Mics and Men” isn’t just a nostalgia fix for longtime fans; it also services as an introduction for new listeners and documents the name and legacy of this legendary group. And if two hours of history weren’t sufficient evidence of their greatness, the members took to the stage after the film to let the music do the talking. Sticking mostly to songs from their landmark 1993 debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” — the 25 th anniversary of which inspired the group to reunite — the group was celebratory and excited, with RZA spraying two champagne bottles onstage and Young Dirty Bastard, ODB’s first-born son, hitting his dad’s verses. “Ice Cream,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Ya Neck,” “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and “Triumph” got the crowd going the most — Kool Herc even joined them onstage too.
Before saying goodbye, Method Man wished a speedy recovery to “Boyz in the Hood” director John Singleton, who is in a coma after suffering from a stroke. He then paid tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle before passing it off to RZA, who thanked everyone who was a part of the film.
“The most important thing I think also is that we created it, we gave it, and you received it,” he said to the fans. “I want to thank y’all for receiving us.”