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For a quarter of a century, a group of rappers from Staten Island have been a revolutionary force in hip-hop. Under the banner of one of the most unmistakable symbols in music – the golden W – the Wu-Tang Clan changed both the sound and the business of rap music forever. 

Now just over 25 years since releasing their game-changing debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), they’ve marked this milestone with a new four-part docuseries Of Mics and Men, which chronicles the characters, stories, triumph and tragedy of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The group and series director stopped by the Tribeca Film Festival to promote the series, due to premiere on Showtime on 10 May, and told BBC Music about what made the Wu-Tang Clan so distinctive and influential.

Mission control

According to the documentary’s director, Sacha Jenkins, the Wu-Tang Clan are more than just a group. “There are great groups like A Tribe Called Quest – people love Tribe, they’re a huge group around the world and have impacted people around the world,” he says. “But people see Wu Tang as something that encompasses so much more. There’s an identity that Wu Tang represents that people are drawn to.”

In 1993, when West Coast rap and its summertime sound filled the airwaves, Enter The Wu-Tang emerged like a fast and furious bolt from the blue. Fusing raw sounds, grimy beats and martial arts themes, the album sounded like the past, present and future of hip-hop all wrapped up at once.

The collective of rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and later Cappadonna – provided more than just a futuristic soundtrack, they came ready-formed with a mission. According to RZA, the group’s founder, the mission was: “To open up the minds of the youth and the people and become aware of our people, our situation, our community, martial arts, knowledge of self, and all the things that we put into those songs.

“It was wisdom of the universe. It was something that should inspire."

If MC Hammer sells 10 million records, that don’t mean nothing. That’s just 10 million people that are dancing. When Wu Tang sells a million records, that’s a million people that has woke up – RZA

RZA says the group never overlooked a chance to shout about their mission in interviews. “Dirty would be: ‘Wu Tang is the best, Wu Tang is the best’.”

An interviewer challenged that claim: if Wu Tang sold a million records and MC Hammer sold 10 million, how did that make them the best? “And we would say yo, look. If MC Hammer sells 10 million records, that don’t mean nothing. That’s just 10 million people that are dancing. When Wu Tang sells a million records – that’s a million people that has woke up. That’s a big difference. And that was our goal.”

Art of the Wu-Tang deal

The Wu Tang brand has always been about more than just music: “The slang, the personality – everything. Even the hoodies and the Timberlands,” says RZA.

The brand cashed in on this obsession with everything Wu Tang by launching its own fashion label, Wu Wear, in the 1990s, as well as other business ventures – publishing, production and management companies all have been part of the Wu Tang universe.

The creative and business sides of the Wu-Tang Clan were always “one unit", says RZA, who also pioneered a new type of record deal – they allowed the group’s members to negotiate solo deals with any label of their choosing. For 36 Chambers, RZA found a label, Loud Records, that would let the individual members pursue solo careers with labels that best suited their styles and personalities: Method Man became a genuine star under Def Jam, for example.

Shaolin worldwide

All of which has allowed the collective’s appeal to transcend language and geographic barriers, says Jenkins: “People around the world love Wu Tang. I’m from Queens and sometimes I don’t understand everything they’re talking about. How do people in Poland, Bangladesh – how do they relate to these guys?”

Inspectah Deck can speak from experience. In Croatia, there are fans “that can’t speak to me and say hello but he’s quoting my whole ‘For Heavens Sake’ rhyme. And that’s not even the easy rhyme. He’s quoting my whole complicated shit back to me word for word.”

Some things don’t need to be translated, says Jenkins. “Even if you don’t understand what they’re saying, the intent and the passion and conviction that was laid down in the track is a universal thing that people can relate to and react to – and that is why Wu-Tang Clan is who they are today.

“I think because they are a family – they are a clan. It’s a universal theme.”

The year that changed everything

For U-God, this 25-year legacy began with a request from RZA: give me a year of your life.

It was the early ‘90s and U-God was back from prison with “a verse and a half” on a record. “[RZA] knew I was crazy. I come to his house, I’d be putting guns on the table, drugs – he was like, ‘Yo, you gonna chill? You know what, I know you’re not going to stop doing what you’re gonna do. Just give me a year, and if shit don’t go right to where you want it to go, go back to doing what you’re doing.’

“I said alright, it was cool. I was ready for a change anyway. The block was driving me crazy… what else I got to lose, man? Dudes getting shot and killed around the way.

“I made the right choice, I have to say. I left it alone, threw the phones away and said we out. Put the Indiana Jones hat on, we went to the temple of doom baby, the adventure.”

‘Steel sharpens steel’

That adventure has spawned dozens of careers, launched record labels, clothing lines, tens of millions in album sales – but also has endured inflated egos, tension over contracts and collaboration, as well as the 2004 death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

It has endured, though. The group is still touring, with a vast combination of styles and personalities that has always made the Wu-Tang Clan more than the sum of its parts.

Says RZA: “[Inspectah Deck] had a quote – he used to say steel sharpens steel. You want your sword sharp, you gotta rub it against some other steel.

“That’s what we do. We sharpen each other.”

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