It'll hurt hip-hop fans (and music fans at large) 35 and up to read this, but the Wu-Tang Clan doesn't have the same relevance it once did.
Rap sounds entirely different today than it did 25 years ago, when the Staten Island iconoclasts kicked down the doors of the music industry establishment with their gritty, intellectual music inexplicably wrapped in Kung-Fu mythology. Maybe the group's star has dimmed because, with the exception of Old Dirty Bastard, the Wu-Tang dudes are all still alive and have yet to become as mythical as Kurt Cobain or Tupac. Whatever the reasons, Wu-Tang's currency has become sort of lost in the mix, appreciated mostly through vintage T-shirts and cheeky references on TV shows. Method Man is perhaps best known to Gen Y and Gen Z for rapping alongside Hailey Bieber on Drop the Mic rather than being part of one of the most influential groups of all time.
Fortunately, Showtime's docuseries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men gives the Wu its due. In four parts, the series traces how a scrappy startup of poor black men with the audacity to name themselves The RZA, The GZA, Ghostface Killah, Method, Raekwon, Capadonna, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and the O.D.B. overcame their environment to become global superstars and leave an indelible mark on music. It is vital, important viewing. Though the story's stars are not as popular as they once were, the series unpacks the magnitude of their accomplishments, and the brilliance that enabled them to do it. Uplifting, heartbreaking, inspiring, funny, and infuriating at times, Mics and Men is also an unflinching look at how poverty, racism, economic disenfranchisement, and criminal justice disparities impact individual people on a day-to-day, micro level, and how miraculous it is these men even lived to tell their stories, let alone sell millions of albums worldwide.
"We live in apartheid in America," says Jim Jarmusch, the filmmaker and friend of RZA's who's one of many high-profile people in the series. "For me, hip-hop is the love of language and what you can do with it. Oppressed people on any level... you cannot destroy the strength of ideas and the Wu-Tang Clan celebrate that. They are warriors of imagination and imagination is stronger than guns or money."
In sit-down interviews, personal archival footage, old news interviews and more, Mics and Men shows how RZA, aka Robert Diggs, masterminded the group after years of collective suffering and close scrapes with the law. The series' unescapable theme is the metaphorical prison that they, and other poor black people like them, lived in: stuffed in housing projects, surrounded by drugs and violence, traumatized by broken households, stifled by limited opportunity. Ghostface acknowledging he was probably depressed as a 10-year-old, lifting his brothers with multiple sclerosis onto a toilet will shatter the toughest heart; same when Method Man recalls going from a black middle-class neighborhood on Long Island to a women's shelter with his mother, escaping domestic violence.
But there is so much joy here too, and if the omnipresent theme is the effects of society's ills (think about how many more artists, doctors, inventors and more never had a chance), the greater, more triumphant themes reveal the tenacity of the human spirit, the universal quest for freedom and the astonishing ability for black creativity and ingenuity to flourish in the most awful of circumstances. As the story delves into exactly how RZA and his friends, who had zero business training, marketed Wu-Tang and forced record labels to give every Wu member their own deal outside of the group deal — unheard of before them — viewers can't help but see them as unacknowledged geniuses.
While the story is remarkable, the telling gets frustrating. When Wu-Tang's rhymes throw the whole kitchen sink at listeners all at once — poverty, drugs, the Five Percent Nation, Kung-Fu movies and so on — it's riveting. When this series hops around from one member's story and one piece of stunning backstory to the next (Raekwon loves the movie Grease because it reminds him of the racist Italians he went to school with who'd chase and threaten him and his friends) it feels disjointed and chaotic. A kinder, metaphorical way of explaining the series' narrative structure might be to liken it to a meandering freestyle rap. While those are fine, carefully told stories — Ghostface's "All That I Got Is You" or Method Man's "All I Need" stand out as choice examples — captivate so much more. Fans of the group or of music history might not care about the jerky, helter-skelter organization but the casually interested may find this hard to follow. Nonetheless, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men tells an essential, affirming story and serves to adorn these giants with the bejeweled crowns they so rightfully deserve. It's an important watch, perhaps especially for the young kids who have no idea who these old guys are. After all, Wu-Tang is for the children.
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men premieres Friday, May 10 at 9/8c on Showtime. The entire series is currently available on Showtime's streaming apps.