By Marcus J. Moore
May 08, 2019 at 01:00 PM EDT
Kyle Christy/SHOWTIME

The Wu-Tang Clan was supposed to rule forever — not on-again, off-again forever, but forever ever, a continuous reign on the throne. In the early-to mid-’90s, it seemed like the trailblazing rap group would keep its promise, that they could withstand music industry nonsense and churn out groundbreaking hits. But when you have 10 artists in one collective, egos get in the way. With success comes money, then comes resentment, then the people you called brothers become strangers.

So it was refreshing to see the RZA, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Ghostface, U-God, and Cappadonna gathered on the sixth floor of NBC Studios in Manhattan on a recent Wednesday afternoon in April. They were there to celebrate their 26 years in music and promote a forthcoming Showtime docuseries, called Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, that delves into the group’s ups and downs. They’d just finished soundcheck for their big performance on  The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and in six hours, eight of its core members (the GZA was absent; Ol’ Dirty Bastard passed away in 2004) would flood a tiny black stage and perform a song called “Triumph,” the monumental first single off their 1997 sophomore album Wu-Tang Forever. Though the track was released more than 20 years ago — an eternity by current industry speed — the music somehow still felt current, like the Wu had only recently steered the course of hip-hop to grittier terrain.

The guys look older now, but aside from a few gray hairs and a little balding, the crew has the same energy it always had: nonchalant, cerebral, and businesslike. There’s love here, and after all these years of making music, traveling the world, and fighting with each other, it feels nothing could rattle the squad. They’ve gone through heaven and hell, enduring racism and poverty to reach the highest peak of cultural fame. They’ve also seen their music lose steam, their record sales dip, and their popularity diminish. The Fallon gig was a grand moment for them: Long after the Wu emerged as saviors of East Coast rap, they’re back in the city they call home, poised to stamp their legacy on the most storied show in late-night television. “I just like to keep working,” Wu member Masta Killa says with a laugh. “Whether it’s one more time, whether it’s 100 more times, the time is now and people are recognizing. From so many different aspects, it’s definitely a resurgence and it’s truly a blessing.”

If there was pressure, you couldn’t tell backstage. After soundcheck, the RZA, Inspectah Deck, and Cappadonna convene quietly with a small team of managers and publicists. Ghost is somewhere off eating a wrap sandwich in a tiny dressing room. Masta Killa strolls up the hallway toward the elevators for another press appearance in the building. U-God eventually meets him, plopping into a chair across from The Roots’ rehearsal space. Soon after, a guy in a black Wu-Tang logo t-shirt appears. It’s a modified version of the group’s iconic yellow “W,” with paw scratches right through the middle of it and the word “Wakanda” where the name “Wu-Tang” usually sits. The tweaked design doesn’t just commemorate the massive cultural phenomenon of Marvel’s Black Panther, it’s an inside joke about getting members of the Wu together. “Sometimes,” the RZA says about trying to keep track of the group, “it’s like wrangling cats.”

RCA/Photofest

The Wu-Tang Clan dropped its debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in November 1993 to a hip-hop culture largely preoccupied with what was happening out West. The year prior, Compton native Dr. Dre put out The Chronic. As a producer, Dre built the album around Parliament-Funkadelic samples and live orchestration, giving it a laid-back gloss that would come to define Los Angeles hip-hop. Wu-Tang was the polar opposite; the RZA formed the collective on Staten Island and created its music on old beat machines, opting for darker compositions that sampled obscure soul, funk, and gospel records from the 1970s. There was an overt sadness to the music he crafted. The beats felt dim and the mix seemed distant, like an artifact plucked from the bargain bin at the local record store. Couple that with the lyrics: “C.R.E.A.M.,” the Wu’s biggest single to date, features Deck and Raekwon rapping in searing detail about the perils of surviving 1990s New York City. It was the feeling of black struggle, of stretching $10 to the end of the week until your paycheck hits your account. It spoke to oppressed people on the grind, to the projects in Park Hill, Stapleton, and Bed-Stuy. The music was raw and the imagery unsettling, but to those who’ve been in that situation, the Wu felt prophetic.

They didn’t filter themselves for the sake of commercial appeal either. They made listeners come around to them. It was unlike anything being played on FM radio or TV, and rap music would never be the same again. “The music transcended,” says RZA tells EW, “and I think it’s even more relevant now all these years later.” Indeed, there is renewed interest in Wu-Tang’s music, partially because its members have remained visible through the years. Ghostface and Raekwon have found new life as solo artists. Method Man has appeared in a number of movies, played a central character on HBO’s hit series The Wire, and is now co-host of a TBS rap battle competition series called Drop The Mic. The RZA also made his way to Hollywood, appearing in films like American Gangster and Funny People.

Masta Killa equates part of the Wu’s resurgence to the heightened political climate in the United States, where there’s a stronger appetite for music with substance. Thank musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington as well; they released two albums in 2015 (To Pimp a Butterfly and The Epic) that were considered groundbreaking for hip-hop and jazz. Now there’s an appetite once again for incredibly black, sonically challenging music to thrive in the mainstream marketplace. “Everything has its time,” Ghostface says. “So now’s the time for that. Now it’s time to start putting out conscious rap, or whatever you want to call it. You don’t wanna keep hearing the same s—, so if you got brothers like Kendrick and Kamasi, it’s like ‘OK, cool, we’re adding on to what was already here anyway.’”  

Sue Kwon/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Directed by veteran music journalist Sacha Jenkins, Of Mics and Men walks through the group’s formation in 1992, how they rose to global superstardom, and the circumstances that led to their demise. In 1997, shortly after the release of Wu-Tang Forever, the Wu pulled out of an international tour with rock outfit Rage Against the Machine because of internal strife. Then Ghostface dissed the tastemaking radio station Hot 97 at their own Summer Jam showcase; the station banned the Wu’s music for four years after that, which hindered the group’s ability to generate income. The crew’s influence waned. Though they continued to release albums as a unit, it didn’t have the same impact as their earlier output.

In recent years, they’ve been mired in questionable drama. In 2014, they announced a new album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and that one very expensive copy would be auctioned off. The RZA called it high art; in the docuseries, the other members dispute the way it was compiled, saying they didn’t know that their verses were being recorded for that project. (Ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli bought the record for a reported $2 million; he’s now in prison for securities and wire fraud, and Shaolin is the property of the U.S. government.) Then Raekwon openly criticized the RZA’s beats, saying that he hadn’t done enough to update his sound. They eventually reconciled in time for a new album, A Better Tomorrow, which was released in 2014. It got mixed reviews from critics.

Through archival footage and first-hand interviews with all living members, Of Mics and Men is a definitive piece about one of music’s most influential units that examines its broad influence on hip-hop music and pop culture overall. “It’s a story about a family,” says Jenkins, who in the early ‘90s founded a zine called Beat Down and gave the Wu its first cover story on any publication. “The Wu-Tang story is an important one, particularly for folks of color. It shows that you can have a vision, and you can manifest it. And you can put together a team, and your brothers can be on the same page with you, and you guys can share in the light and the success.”

While the doc celebrates the group’s influence, in interviews, Wu members insist that they’re still looking forward, that there’s more music to be created for future generations to discover. Until the next album, they continue to build on their 26 years in the limelight. This month, they had a street corner named after them on Staten Island — not bad for a group of guys who didn’t know if they’d be alive to experience moments like these. “My theory is just ‘Keep creating,’ ” says RZA. “People didn’t understand Tesla; we’re just figuring them out. I don’t mind not being figured out by the generation I’m living in. The legacy is still being created, but the foundation is there.”

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