Method Man is late. It’s a sweaty summer day in lower Manhattan, though the tree branches hanging over the graffiti’d fences in the backyard of hip-hop boutique Community 54 provide a cool little shelter from the heat. Over a dozen people – photographers, camera operators, extras, entourage members – are here to film the music video for rapper Erick Sermon’s “Clutch,” which also features Redman and Method Man. Sermon has been rapping since the early ’90s, when he was part of hip-hop duo EPMD, and Redman’s had a career just as long, but Method Man will likely be the draw to this video. He was the first breakout star of Wu-Tang Clan (the only member with a solo track on their debut album), and has piled up a respectable acting career since, with memorable appearances in The Wire, Garden State, and Trainwreck, among others. The only problem is that he’s not here.
This isn’t exactly a surprise, or at least it shouldn’t be. Wu-Tang Clan members have a tendency to run on their own time. After all, the reason the rappers’ faces are masked on the cover of their debut album is because not all of them showed up to the photo shoot.
Method Man’s absence doesn’t pose a problem, for now. The video, which came out in September, is split into multiple segments, each one featuring a different rapper decked out like a black civil rights leader. Right now, Redman’s in his Malcolm X costume — suit, tie, glasses, hat — holding a rally for “neighborhood kids”; extras circle him, sitting on chairs, cinderblocks and coolers. In addition to acting in the video and providing a verse for the song, Redman is also the director. Both he and Sermon are committed to the video’s premise. The concept of evoking civil rights leaders seems very charged at the moment, days after the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo.
“I just think the whole thing was going on, between Ferguson and all the other acts that happened, from Staten Island to those acts happening around the world, even back to Trayvon Martin, all of this is part of the same thing,” Sermon says. “I think we playing our part to say ‘hey, we didn’t sit back and sending nothing, we sending the message too.’ We ain’t activists. We’re just doing our part to what we gotta do.”
They aren’t the only rappers, or even the first, who are using music videos to speak about the modern protests of police violence. Kendrick Lamar’s blockbuster “Alright” video, nominated for four VMAs, features the rapper flying free until he’s shot by the police. Vince Staples gets arrested in his video for “Norf Norf,” whose chorus declares, both confident and frightened, “I never ran from nothing but the police.” Sermon and Redman have been rapping since before Staples was born, but they’re both energized by this younger generation – and especially their ambitious videos.
“Concept videos are coming back now,” Sermon says. “Before, people were just doing the green screen or just doing the girl, car, you. Now it is coming back. With Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole and Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$, a lot of underground hip-hop is big now, so concept videos are coming back. We haven’t seen concept videos in a long time.”
Method Man still isn’t here, but the Malcolm X segment is done, so it’s time to take the operation down the street to Tompkins Square Park, where Sermon will deliver his verse as Martin Luther King, Jr. (whenever Method Man shows up, Redman says the plan is for him to play President Barack Obama). Sermon takes his spot inside a pillar in the center of the park. “HOPE” is written in big block letters above him.
Redman now shifts roles and moves behind the camera to direct the scene. Like Method Man, Redman has done his fair bit of TV and movies (sometimes they’ve even appeared together, as in their short-lived Fox sitcom Method & Red) and this experience has helped shape his directorial ambition.
“It gave me proper etiquette: how to call sound speed, how to yell ‘action,’” he says of his time on sets. “I want to be behind the scenes, and learn more. What cameras to use, what lenses to use, what shots I want to get. And it takes time, so being on movies and sets, I just learn. I just use every experience I go through as a learning experience so I can better myself and get in position on what I want to do.”
This new set is a lot more public than Community 54’s backyard, and people start breaking on their bikes and pausing their walks to see what’s going on. A lot of people even recognize the rappers.
“That’s Redman! I’m about to die!” One woman screams to her friend.
Redman rolls with it. Not only does he take some selfies with the fans, he invites them to be extras in the video. Soon Sermon-as-MLK is rap-preaching to a sizable crowd, divided pretty evenly between actual crew members and random park bystanders. These shots take a little longer than usual, since Redman has to repeatedly give the same directions to some of the amateurs, but hey, Method Man’s still running late, so the only rush is to maximize sunlight.
The afternoon is becoming evening, so the crew heads back over to Community 54. Word is that Method Man should be here any minute now, so in the meantime pizzas are ordered, while the cameramen grab some extra B-roll.
Sermon, Redman, and Method Man each have new albums this fall (“Clutch” is the single for Sermon’s ESP). Their contemporary, Dr. Dre, recently released his first album in 16 years). It’s not just the old guard, though; the entire hip-hop community seems energized right now. Young innovators like Lamar, Staples, A$AP Rocky, and Chance the Rapper are putting out great albums, forward-thinking videos, and massive tours; and mid-level veterans like Run the Jewels are thriving.
Where is all this energy coming from? Sermon and Redman aren’t sure; they’re just riding the wave. Before any deeper contemplation can be achieved, a black car pulls up in front of the store, and Method Man finally steps out. He’s late, but not impossibly so. The summer sun is still shining; there’s plenty of time to dress as Obama, and film on the roof, and finish this, for today.