It’s safe to assume that the packed-to-the-rafters crowd for Wu-Tang Clan’s documentary series premiere and performance in New York on Thursday night (April 25) will be the only Tribeca Film Festival audience to leave their screenings doused in champagne. (At this year’s festival, anyway.)
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, directed by veteran hip-hop journalist and filmmaker Sacha Jenkins and premiering on May 10 on Showtime, is a four-part series that follows the inception of the Staten Island rap crew through their rise to international acclaim. After the first two episodes screened at New York's Beacon Theatre, the vast majority of the Staten Island rap crew took to the stage for a scorching set of their greatest hits. (GZA was absent; Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a.k.a. Russell Tyrone Jones, died in 2004, and was represented by his son, Young Dirty Bastard, a.k.a. Bar-son Jones.)
The vibe was overwhelmingly that of a family reunion: Fellow New York rap veteran Nas shared his thoughts as a talking head in one of the episodes and turned up to support, and Raekwon the Chef was thrilled to see hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc up front, thanking him for coming before he was literally pulled from the crowd and embraced by Method Man and the group. Popa Wu and other associates were beaming the second they hit the stage. The mood was euphoric and evident in the pop of every bar. Wu-Tang Clan was back in their element, champagne showers and all.
The Beacon is a few bridges and tunnels away from their native Staten Island and Bed Stuy, but this was a homecoming for Wu-Tang, and a welcome return to form: Method Man mentioned that the last time they played the gilt venue was when they shared a bill with the Notorious B.I.G., and Of Mics and Men notes that their opportunities to see each other onstage and in the studio are more of a rarity these days. That’s why the first half Of Mics and Men feels so special: it’s less of an artifact preserving the history of the Wu-Tang Clan in amber than proving that the legend is still under construction and in perpetual dialogue with the tracks, scrappy entrepreneurial spirit and struggles that lay the foundation of their early days.
As was the case during the performance itself -- which rolled through “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Yo Neck,” ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (with an exceptional showing from YDB, who did right by his father’s kinetic legacy) -- Of Mics and Men demonstrates that the biggest Wu-Tang Clan fans are its members themselves. Their debut studio album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), turned 25 in November 2018, and the closeness forged between them since then is the backbone of the series. To hear RZA, GZA, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Cappadonna and Masta Killa speak on their brothers in rhyme is moving, frankly: Their compliments for each other’s artistry are frequent and potent, and the series puts their decades-long friendships on screen in an authentic, endearing way.
Jenkins made the brilliant choice to roll through archival footage at Staten Island’s St. George’s Theater, and gathered Wu-Tang’s members to watch clips of previous performances, and riff with the camera rolling. After plopping down in his seat, Method Man freestyles so dexterously it garners a high-five from Ghostface. The family dynamic extends to teasing and disagreements, too, and watching the guys fact-check each other in real time garnered belly laughs and guffaws from the Tribeca audience.
Though Wu-Tang Clan are to be commended for their candor, openness and explosive talent, Jenkins is the champion of Of Mics and Men. He offers fans a worthy tribute to their heroes with generous helpings of personal camera footage, vintage concert reels and a VIP commentary roster featuring Nas, actor Seth Rogen, DJ duo Bobbito Garcia and Stretch Armstrong and more. Viewers less familiar, in turn, get a 360-degree crash course in the history of one of hip-hop’s most influential and resilient groups: the intricacies of the business end and Wu-Tang’s complicated record deals are explained as simply as the geography of the Staten Island projects they called home and manager John “Mook” Gibbons’ early promotional strategy (which can be summed up to “winging it,” pretty much).
Compelling graphic design and inventive animation keep Of Mics and Men far from the weathered, sit-and-talk aesthetics of your average music documentary (and good, because the subjects are as distant from typical laurel-resters as Jenkins could hope to get). We’ll see how the second half of the series shakes up, but if its anything like the first, Of Mics and Men is the documentary series Wu-Tang Clan deserves -- and its premiere at Tribeca was a welcome reminder that they still ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.