sundance 2019

The Wu-Tang Clan Looks Back on 25 Years

Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

“Yo, can you get some vegetarian tacos for the crib?” Ghostface Killah asked a helper. He was wearing a bright-yellow puffer jacket with a yellow faux-fur-trimmed hoodie that made him stand out even more than he already stands out, oozing badassery wherever he goes.

The Staten Island band of brothers had come to this year’s Sundance Film Festival to premiere Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. It’s a four-part Showtime documentary in honor of the 25th anniversary of their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — and director Sacha Jenkins says he gave the movie that title “because they are an American classic.” There were rumors of them playing a house party and fevered Instagram sightings galore, which only served to emphasize just how extraordinary it is for a rap group not only to have endured this long, but to have created a mythology and a signature style indelible enough to create worship among fans who weren’t even alive when 36 Chambers came out.

The group is a lot more cohesive now than when I had the chaotic pleasure of profiling them back in late 2007 for the release of their 8 Diagrams album. Then, I couldn’t get any of them in a room with one another and had to chase down each member individually. Five of nine surviving members (minus dearly departed Ol’ Dirty Bastard) made the Sundance trip: RZA, Ghostface, U-God, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna. Method Man, GZA, Inspectah Deck, and Raekwon had scheduling conflicts.

But they’ll all be coming together again for a European tour that starts on May 10 in London — the same day as the release of their Showtime doc. Until then, enjoy this trip down memory lane and a taste of Wu-Tang bringing da ruckus to a film festival.

As soon as we sat down, RZA, who’d recognized me from 2007, treated me to a rap. 

How are you feeling? I did a profile of you guys in 2007 and you seem more unified than you did then, when I couldn’t get any of you in a room together.
RZA: Than during 8 Diagrams? Yeah!

Ghostface: Oh, okay. [Nods and laughs.]

Are you feeling more like a brotherhood now?
Ghost: We’re always a brotherhood. If you would’ve saw us two days after that day, it would’ve been different from that day you saw us.

Cappadonna: At this point every rap group has to look at us for the mold of how they should be, and should’ve been the whole ride. Because ain’t nobody together. Not even the Jackson 5.

Ghost: Delfonics broke up, you know what I mean? But we still here 25 years later, putting in that work. We strong; we stronger than ever.

Did you think you’d last for 25 years?
Unison: Hell yeah!

What does 25 years mean to you …
Ghost: It doesn’t mean shit!

… As a group and as human beings?
Ghost: What does it mean? We humble; we humble. Because like we said, a lot of groups, they break up! You watch Unsung [on TV One]? You see what goes down, and the group just goes. But to keep nine, ten members together for 25 years, and only lose one, and we still pushing? It’s like, yo, that’s a blessing. And the world love you at the same time? It’s like, that means a lot!

Photo: Jada Yuan

What was the best part of playing 36 Chambers anniversary shows together in Philly and New York recently? 
Cappa: The best part is that our family got to come out and see it.

Masta Killa: Go back to your roots right there.

Cappa: My brother came out for the first time in his life.

Ghost: It’s like you back where you started from. You know, Philly was a big market for us, and we’re from New York, so to stand in front of the people right there, and to feel that energy and the way that it was packed from wall to wall, is like it gets no better than that. That’s the blessing. There’s still love there.

RZA: You’re talking about 25 years. Actually, we deal in mathematics, and mathematics says the history of the planet is renewed every 25,000 years based on the circumference of the planet earth. We’re not going to have 25,000 years, but every 25 years is a big renewal point in life for any man, any band, any person. For us, we started as an album that maybe somebody invested $60,000 into, and now 25 years later you’re seeing a movie!

On that album we were trying to make an audio movie. I know as a producer I was trying to tell you a story, do the kung-fu samples and do stories like “Can It All Be So Simple?” and “C.R.E.A.M.” And now you’re watching that story instead of hearing it. But it takes that renewal. So I also feel like this is a great renewal year for Wu-Tang, and I think this film is one of the sparks of it.

RZA, Wu-Tang Clan. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

You all saw the movie for the first time at the premiere. It’s a lot of archival footage mixed with interviews. What was that like?
RZA: Well, I kinda snuck into the editing room a coupla times, so I knew what was coming.

Masta: The best part was, you’ve been with somebody for 25 years and you’re still learning things about them. And this is speaking about the people right next to me. Knowledge is infinite.

What advice would you tell your younger selves?
U-God: Don’t be doing all that crazy shit you been doin’, boy! Be chill, cool out a little bit. You know what I’m saying? It ain’t that serious. Don’t get sucked up in that bullshit.

You felt like you were extra serious as a kid?
U-God: Yeah, it was rough, man, growing up in the projects. Just hanging around the wrong dudes, you get caught up in a lot of stupid shit. If a lot of the brothers I knew had economic freedom with the wisdom and knowledge they had earlier, a lot of brothers wouldn’t have passed away.

Masta: RZA’s spoken on this, but we’d meet up [back then], but we didn’t really know what another brother was carrying when he left the house, those type of struggles of things that he could be going through. So to see it all filmed and to know, “Wow, my brother was going through that — I could’ve saw him that day and never had any idea” … it was just very educational.

RZA: For me, seeing myself, the 25-years-ago guy, actually for me it’s helping me now. It’s reminding me of myself. Because, you know, sometimes you can get away from yourself, from your pursuits. The Hadith has a great verse that says, “Whatever a man’s heart intends, he will find.” If you intend to go get married, you will be led there. If you’re intended for money, you will be led there. And I look back and I see this kid on the screen, or an earlier version of myself, and I see his intention. It actually has reinvigorated me. This is like medicine for me.

U-God: I kind of forgot who I was a little bit — what I was as a shorty. I’ve been away from that element for so long now. It’s like, Wow! Just the stuff that we were doing, we were fearless. And as you get older, you become fearful of certain things. When we was kids, we didn’t care. We were fearless, and that got us into trouble, too, doing reckless things and just not really caring, not giving a fuck, because you had to survive and put food on the table.

Do you feel like you get something from seeing your fearless younger selves?
U-God: Yeah, what I once was. And hopefully my sons won’t have to go through the same situation. They’re going to go through their problems and their ups and downs from being men, being humans.

Is there also something positive about the fearlessness?
U-God: In a way it was, because that was also the element that we had as a group. All of us, each and every one of my crew members of my clan, at some point in time was a fearless motherfucker. Whether it’s Ghost getting shot in the neck, RZA beating that charge [for attempted murder]. These are all rough situations, man, that brothers grew up in, and we came out on top. And not too many of my brothers can say they did that. That’s what makes this group so special to me and why I was really attracted to them. Especially to him. [Points to RZA.] I was attracted to RZA because of his mind. His great mind was, to me, a magnet.

I just want to point out that Ghost has fallen asleep.
Sacha Jenkins: It was a late night, and the travel and the altitude. The altitude is tiring.

Cappadonna and U-God, Wu-Tang Clan. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture.
Cappadonna and U-God, Wu-Tang Clan. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture.
Masta Killa and Ghostface Killah, Wu-Tang Clan. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture.
Masta Killa and Ghostface Killah, Wu-Tang Clan. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture.

[Ghost wakes up.] You need some vegetarian tacos?
Ghost: Yeah, yeah, we try to get these tacos. Try to get these tacos, baby!

RZA you’re a vegan. Did you get everyone else to turn vegan?
RZA: Nah, but we’re a pretty healthy crew.

Cappa: I just eat fish and tossed salads.

U-God: I cook lovely. I’m known for my fried chicken. My legendary fried chicken.

Cappa: We’ve got some spaghetti over there waiting for us at the mansion.

RZA: No tossed salad, though!

One of the most interesting parts of the documentary for me was seeing how much forestland you had surrounding the Park Hill projects in Staten Island. It’s not what people think of when they picture the inner city. Do you think that helped with the imagery of your lyrics, having a childhood where you spent time in the woods?
RZA: We used to call it the Fields, right?

U-God: Yes, sir.

RZA: There was a field where you could roam in the back, and the pond would freeze up in the winter, so you know what that means? Skating.

U-God: A couple kids fell in there and died, too. My dog fell through.

And died?
U-God: No, my grandfather saved him, and then he went to the hospital, too, because it was so cold he was in the hospital for a week. My grandma used to cook 100 hot dogs, remember? Come down and she’d give everybody a hot dog. Feed everybody.

Like he said, the Fields was cool, but you don’t go too far in the Fields. Remember that little train track that went through there?

Cappa: Don’t go past the train tracks.

RZA: I used to get chased by the white boys on their motorbikes.

I also loved seeing Method Man go back to his job he had doing custodial work at the Statue of Liberty. Did you visit him there?
RZA: Yeah, all the time.

U-God: I used to work beside him, so I didn’t have to visit him.

What wound up in the movie, was that your choice?
RZA: That’s the director’s choice. He’s the director and he has the freedom to tell that story. I have to let go. I’m a director, I’m a filmmaker, and sometimes my brothers would say I have a narcissistic, controlling personality, too. Just as a creative person, though. That’s just part of the “I’m making the beat; let me finish!” type shit, right? But I had to let go, and I think letting go was healthy for the film.

Did you get emotional watching it?
U-God: I did, I cried like a little girl.

Ghost: Seeing his baby get shot. [Shakes head.]

That was heartbreaking to see, you and your family recovering after your 2-year-old son got shot in the kidney while being used as a human shield by another drug dealer.
U-God: Yeah, I ain’t seen those images in a long time. My son, he died twice. He came back, too. You know, flat line. Boooppp. Come back, flat line again. Boooppp. Come back. It was fucked up.

Ghost: Seeing Dirty up there got to me, too.

U-God: Yeah, seeing Dirty, too.

Sacha: His child gets shot, and there’s that scene where he’s holding his child and he curses. And his child says, “Daddy, why are you cursing?” And he says, “Because that’s how I feel right now. I feel stressed.” And his little kid has the foresight to say, “No, Daddy, you’re not stressed. I’m stressed.” These are the things I wanted in the film for people to understand what it is, where this music is coming from, who these guys are. How intelligent and sensitive, how human they are. Because we are not humanized. We are not treated like humans, we are not respected like humans, and our music is a reflection of that. And inside of seeing them in their natural environment, you see the humanity of who they are, and hopefully people will watch this film and have an understanding of who we really are. We’re not just rappers; we’re not just thugs.

Hip-hop empowered these guys. It made them change their environment and their situation, and they go from housing projects in Staten Island to inspire people across the world. So I want people to watch this film and see the humanity, see the brilliance of these people who were written off. Every single day they write us off and expect nothing from us, and look what happens even when we have nothing. Look what we can do. Imagine if we had all of the resources we deserved. What would happen?

U-God: A lot of dudes wouldn’t have died. Like I said, we would have probably had more surgeons, more architects — just hundreds of people who didn’t have the economics. They had the mind and the ideas to do something, but they didn’t have the resources to follow through.

Ghost: You see, that was your whole life onscreen.

Ghost, you and Method Man both talked about realizing you were depressed as kids because of your home lives and being so economically disadvantaged. Did it feel cathartic to talk about it?
Ghost: Nah, I mean, I wasn’t embarrassed about it. Just let it out: “Yo, this is my life.” I don’t got a problem with expressing certain things, you know what I mean? All you got is you, and that’s what it was. I can’t tell nobody that wasn’t my life, I’d be fronting. But again, you’ve got other people that can identify with that, that basically lived the same shit.

It takes wisdom to look back and know what you were experiencing back then.
Ghost: It always run through you. You look at it like, Damn, yo. But like I said, whatever happened to me, whatever my childhood brought to me, whatever my scrapes and scars, that’s just — I accumulated that in this lifetime and it’s not going anywhere. Whenever you see that scar — [Points to a scar on his hand.] This one, it’s from ’89. I accumulated that.

Photo: Jada Yuan

RZA: You know what’s so funny though — we always expressed our emotions, our lives. We told you directly about it in our songs. He grew up on the crime side. He was using crack and weed as a 15-year-old. I mean, can you imagine your 15-year-old son or nephew doing that? You would hope not.

I think the thing that changes over time, as we get older, is that the rest of humanity or society figures out a way to put a name on it. You know what I mean? It always was there. But now they go, “That was depression,” or “That was ADD.” They find names to put on it. And you go, “Maybe I had attention deficit.” I’m on hypertension medication. And of course I’ve got hypertension. My mind is always moving.

They say as time goes, we find terms to identify and then we can look back. When Ghost and Method Man say they realize they were depressed, I’m like, “Yeah, it makes sense.” Why does this kid have sadness in his eyes? He don’t got the definition for it in his time in his mind. And then he look back on it and go, Oh, I’ve been depressed. Oh shit.

Ghost: I’m probably still depressed. Know what I mean?

One last thing, you’re going on a European tour this summer. What are you looking forward to the most?
RZA: Europe is always exciting, right?

Ghost: It’s just being excited about being around your family, going out there, doing what you do. That’s the same shit, more or less, but I’m waking up to brothers playing chess. That’s the fun stuff for me. And then going onstage and going to work after that. It’s work, but it’s not really work. This is what I love to do.

The renewed togetherness feels awesome?
Cappa: We want that bus!

Ghost [to RZA]: You know what it is, she done got some shit from 2007 that she then look at us in a certain way. [Laughs.] Shit wasn’t right over there.

Hey, I couldn’t get any of you in a room with anyone else! I kept trying to get a group interview just like this and everyone refused!
Ghost [laughing]: We good; we good. Believe it. We good.

The Wu-Tang Clan Looks Back on 25 Years