It’s early on a Friday morning and I’ve just woken up after a late night spent watching the majority of Wu-Tang Clan: of Mics And Men, the new four-part documentary series that masterfully weaves through the chronicles of history altering ten-piece rap group Wu-Tang Clan. After recently being nominated for the Primetime Emmy in the Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming category, the film looks set to become one of 2019’s most talked about docuseries. Assembling all living members of the clan in a historic New York theatre, Sacha Jenkins, the chief creative officer of Mass Appeal and the film’s director, takes all living members of Wu-Tang through never before seen archival footage dating back 25 years. We caught up to chat about documenting the culture he experienced first-hand, finding rare footage, and all things Wu-Tang.
Hey Sacha, how are you doing?
Good, thank you. Just hanging out in NYC.
Congratulations by the way, I just got done watching most of the documentary.
Oh thank you, Wu-Tang is for the children and the adults!
You boast such an impressive and varied resume, from writing on The Boondocks, making your own music, to executive producing on the Netflix series Rapture. Has it ever been hard for you to concentrate all your efforts into a single output?
At the core of everything I do is writing, or the application of creativity through words. Whether that’s writing a book, producing and directing, writing an article, or making music—it’s all somehow connected to writing. With my creativity, I’ve found ways to have connectivity between all my projects and it’s not like I’m selling hamburgers then umbrellas and alligator skins, it’s all stuff that’s connected to culture or more specifically music culture and identity culture.
Was using words in these diverse ways something you planned to do early on, or did it take form on its own as it happened?
Well my mom is a fine artist and my father was a television producer, so ultimately my biggest inspirations were my parents and I was raised with the understanding that culture is important. I moved to New York in 1977 as a little kid and this thing we know as hip-hop today, wasn’t an industry yet, it wasn’t this platform that people were getting paid from yet. It was kids in the street painting their names on trains, it was kids dancing in the street, it was DJs cutting and scratching records and the “emcee” wasn’t even really a thing at that point.
For me, growing up in a household that respected culture, I was in a unique position to realise that what we did as kids on the street, was something that had great cultural capital. I wound up publishing a graffiti zine when I was really young and then from there, I started doing a hip-hop newspaper and that’s around when the cultural capital of hip-hop started to rise with the capitalism of the world and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, I guess.
New York has played a vital role in the evolution of hip-hop—if your family didn’t move there do you think you’d be in the position you are in today?
My father passed away when I was really young and interestingly enough one of his last films Cane River was recently found and it’s being resurrected, so my father was somewhat well known as a black filmmaker and producer of TV. He was in a network of other black filmmakers who were doing things as well but no one in my father’s network had anything to do with who I became or who I am today. It’s kind of a hard question because I didn’t go to college for any of this stuff, I just followed my instincts and I’ve always been curious about culture.
It started with me as a kid being the one who went outside with a football and came home with a can of spray paint, eventually realising that documenting the culture was something that was important and I had a great interest in it. This moved from documenting graffiti to documenting hip-hop culture as a whole, leading to my interest in journalism as a form in general. So with me, if [I] have an interest and I see a door that is slightly cracked open, I will open it and walk through it. Which is all I’ve been doing this whole time, you know that Nas line? where he says he “Kidnapped the president’s wife without a plan”? I can in some regard say the same thing, but it’s always driven by my desire to be surrounded by—and to have the ability to be—creative.
What made you transition from documenting culture as a whole to focusing in on certain artists, as you have with Wu-Tang in this documentary?
I did a film called Fresh Dressed, which was about the history of hip-hop fashion, I also did a film called Burn, Motherfucker, Burn, which was about the riots in LA in the ’60s and the ’90s, and I did another film called Word Is Bond about emcees and the art of writing rhymes. All of those are survey pieces that aren’t focused on a particular subject, but instead talk about them in a very general or broad way. The Wu-Tang project was an opportunity to really, as a storyteller, lean in on the story and pull out as much as I could and in a way, it’s sort of a survey of the group because there are so many guys and so much history. At the core of it though, they’re a family, so although it’s so broad and there are so many things I wanted to touch on, it’s really a story about a family, and an opportunity to demonstrate my storytelling chops through the prism of a semi-singular subject was an opportunity that would be great for my body of work.
How did the documentary come about initially?
It sort of came across my desk because RZA and I share an agent in Hollywood and he just said to me “Hey RZA is finally ready to tell the Wu-Tang story, would you be interested in telling it?” So I said “Of course”, obviously. I flew out to meet for the day and he said “I’m thinking of a lot of different production companies, why should I go with you?” with my response being “Well you can go with any big production company you choose, but no one can tell a story about the culture like I can because I’m from it, a product of it, a native, and that’s the difference”. Three weeks later they chose me, eventually telling me RZA’s wife was the deciding factor and thinking back it’s funny because the first cover they were ever on of anything was my hip-hop newspaper Beat Down.
Actually, we found footage that we put in the documentary of Wu-Tang seeing that for the first time, so it’s really surreal that it came 360 because we’d just create the newspaper, but we aren’t around when the artist is seeing it for the first time. That really gave us the ability to be in the room and witness the clan as they’re looking at their first cover of anything ever and for it to be my newspaper—I mean I don’t have all the answers, but it makes me think there are things outside of my control in play that has a hand in how it all happens.
Crazy, did you guys know that footage existed before then?
Nope, we had no idea. It was so surreal in the first place for them to even become what they have. “Beat Down” was an underground newspaper and we thought they were a cool underground group, so we put them on the cover, I never would’ve thought hip-hop would turn into what it became.
You grew up through what some refer to as the “golden era of rap”, so how do you feel about where it’s at today?
I think rapping is something that is now a part of the way people around the world express themselves, I mean rock and roll isn’t what it used to be and I’m in a rock band myself. I see kids today, even young white folks, who didn’t grow up with rock and roll meaning their first cassette was a DMX album. Rap is something that continues to evolve and the growth and success work hand in hand, for instance, now if you don’t have an association with a brand, people don’t think you’re cool. In my era though, being associated with a brand was the mark of a sell-out, and now if you aren’t getting money from brands people don’t respect you.
It’s just a different time, but I think hip hop is always a reflection of [and] reaction to, the environment and even if a kid is hyper and rapping about luxury items like jewellery, cars, and women, there’s a reason why. The music is a measure of what’s happening in reality for a lot of the people that create it, so I think its relevance will never go away, but my relationship to it is that I’ll never listen to hip-hop like I used to.
Hip-hop is in me and a part of my identity but it doesn’t speak to me now, as it shouldn’t, it should be a reflection of the people who are living through it today and hip-hop usually references pop culture, like the cartoons I grew up on are completely different to the ones the new rappers grew up on. It honestly doesn’t really speak to me today as it once did and that’s why having an opportunity to tell the Wu-Tang story was fantastic, but at the same time it doesn’t mean that just because it isn’t for me that it doesn’t have value or serve a purpose.
Do you remember where you first heard Wu-Tang?
Yeah I was going around distributing my hip-hop newspaper with my partner and we ran into this guy who was a record promoter, he grew up with the Wu-Tang clan and I knew him through graffiti. He then gave [me] a piece of vinyl on cassette and said “These are my boys from Staten Island, I’m helping promote the record” so we grabbed the cassette and went back to the car, popped it in, and the song was ‘Protect Ya Neck’. We were like “Yo what the fuck is this?” but we really liked the rawness of it, [it] reminded me of LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’ song and there was this certain punk energy to it that my partner and I really liked and that’s when we thought, This is really cool, lets put them on the cover.
Another funny thing is [that] there’s a skit on the first album where someone called into a radio presenter and says “You know what I wanna hear?” so the presenter goes “Wu-Tang?” and the caller says, “Again and again”. That was at City College radio station and I was cutting class to sit in with the presenter when that happened, so again it’s trippy how the world works and I don’t believe anything happens on accident.
Do you think rap would be where it’s at without Wu-Tang?
I think Wu-Tang had a heavy hand in the independent spirit that now exists because of the internet because they educated people on the importance of doing it on your own, sticking to your guns, believing in who are and what you represent. I think that if you look at Ol’ Dirty Bastard, he was the blueprint for rappers like 6ix 9ine and half the rappers today because now it’s more about being a personality than having the music, in my opinion anyway—I could be wrong.
I think those are very distinct ways that the influence is there, I mean these guys are older at this point but there’s still something so fresh about them and the respect that people have for the W represents more than an album or rap group it’s an identity. Which is why it’s so powerful, I mean so many people identify with their struggle, how they speak and see the world, their aspirations, it’s an identity that even people who aren’t from the projects would relate to and connect with.
Were there any mistakes along the way or anything you’d change while making the documentary?
No, I mean I interviewed a lot of people for it, which means there was a lot that didn’t make the cut because we realised we had the whole clan and they’re all amazing, colorful, and animated storytellers that have this passion and reflection that’s really powerful. Initially, I interviewed a lot of people to fill in [the] gaps but didn’t need them, so we cut way back and really focussed in on the clan itself and I think that’s what made the film special.
Wu Tang: of Mics and Men is screening at MIFF this month, head here for ticket info.