Sacha Jenkins is the director of the Showtime documentary mini-series, Of Mics and Men – covering the historic careers of the hip-hop legends in the Wu-Tang Clan. Sacha got his start in journalism and produced his own magazine in the 90’s (Beat Down) which gave the Wu-Tang Clan their first cover story on any publication. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, Jenkins comes full circle with this rapturously reviewed series.
We discuss how he got involved with the production, what it was like to corral the disparate personalities in the Wu-Tang Clan, and the group’s place not only in hip-hop history, but within American culture at large.
How did you come to Of Mics and Men?
RZA and I share an agent at William Morris. The agent said that 25 years later they were finally ready to get into their story, and that they were looking to do a doc, (and) was I interested in throwing my hat in the ring. I said, “of course.” I was a journalist for many years writing about hip-hop. I had written about Wu-Tang over the years, interviewed some of the guys – including RZA, and we had some mutual friends. I flew out to Los Angeles for the day – I’m based in New York – took the meeting, came back on the plane the same day to New York. RZA talked about what he was looking for and the fact that he was ready to be the story.
Mind you, and I mean this as a compliment, RZA is extremely Hollywood these days. He’s a successful director in his own right. He pointed out that he had numerous big-name producers and directors who were interested in the project, and why should it be me? I said, “I’m of it.” I’m from New York, I’m black, I’m about the same age (as RZA), my career happened at the same time as yours – who better? I told him that if he went with any of those other production companies it would probably be fine, but they’re not going to do what I’m going to do. It took him a couple of weeks to make the decision. He later pointed out that it was his wife who said to give that guy – Jenkins – the job.
I imagine your background in hip-hop, journalism, and film, as well as having some personal connection was huge.
Yeah, and I think people can see onscreen the difference it can make. I’m not saying you have to be black to make a film about Wu-Tang, I’m just saying as a black man, there are things that I know are important to the story that I wanted to tell. For me, just like Wu-Tang, who grew up with hip-hop before it became an industry – this was just something we did on the streets as kids. To see where it’s come from and where it’s gone, I think a lot of people have divorced themselves from the notion that hip-hop is a reflection of and a reaction to the environment.
The (current) music is great. It’s entertaining. It’s engaging. But in order to really understand hip-hop, you’ve really got to understand the environment from which it came. That was a very important part of the story to me. Because at the end of the day, if you watch this film, it’s about any young black male who made it in hip-hop and came from the inner city. You start out selling newspapers. That doesn’t work out. Or, it works out to a certain extent, but there are things you want that you can’t have, and the only real business going that you have access to is drugs. Then you get to a certain level in the drug game, and then all of a sudden, you’re making music, you’re financing your own music, and now people want a piece of you. Then you go from dealing with the sharks on the street to the sharks in the music industry. Any rapper whose come from similar circumstances – and there are more than a few – this film tells that story.
There’s also a parallel between your entrepreneurial spirit as a publisher of magazines with the Wu-Tang Clan’s own DIY ethic. You both know what it’s like to be your own start-up.
What’s really trippy is in one of the episodes, I used to publish a newspaper called Beat Down, the very first cover of anything that the Wu-Tang were on was Beat Down. We found footage of them looking at the cover of that Beat Down newspaper for the first time. Why the whole overall story is very relatable to me is I started Beat Down with a childhood friend, and we had a falling out over something really stupid. We didn’t have people in our lives, people in our families, who were in business, or just fathers, to be honest, who could have said, you guys are having a really stupid-ass argument, here’s what you should do. A lot of the issues the Wu-Tang guys were dealing with were the exact same issues that I dealt with my friend inside of our little start-up newspaper. I understand first-hand the conflicts that arise when someone you grew up with, someone you’ve known since you were six years old, now, all of a sudden money is a part of the conversation. Who gets what is the issue, and it causes friction.
While watching Of Mics and Men, I was reminded of a VH1: Behind the Music special on the Commodores where Lionel Richie spoke about how everything changes when people in the group start making different levels of money. There’s a feeling that “we built this thing together, why are we not sharing equally?”
Right, and that comes with an understanding of how business works. Business is not always about family and what seems to be fair. There’s a whole separate set of rules. RZA and Divine built something. RZA had an idea, and his older brother (Divine) helped him build it. There’s a certain level of ownership that they assume, and as an adult, you can understand that. It was his idea, he put it all together, he should have ‘X.’ But the guy that you grew up with is like, “wait, we did this together.” That was literally my conflict with my partner on Beat Down. We look back on it now and think it was really silly. We probably could have settled it, but I didn’t understand business. You make these really emotional decisions, because when you come from the inner city and you have no social capital, this record deal or this newspaper feels like your only shot. You want all that you can get out of that shot, because you don’t know what’s next.
When you see your business partners as family, and you think family shares equally, that makes it hard to divorce emotion from business.
Also, in the inner city, whether it’s athletes or musicians, there’s this whole idea where one individual has to carry the whole neighborhood on his or her back. Which on one hand is a novel idea, but on the other hand, you can’t save everyone. When you’re on the plane, they advise you to put the oxygen on you before you put it on your kid. It’s a hard thing when opportunities are few and hard to come by, and it seems like this golden apple can be touched and owned by you and all your friends equally, but it took something to make that apple appear. A lot of things can get lost in translation, a lot of emotions can get come up, a lot of misunderstandings. But for me, regardless of all that, I still found it amazing the story of how all of these guys came together with one vision, one idea, and the power of that idea changed all their lives and changed music.
You can really see during the recording of the first record how much harmony there is between the band members. It’s almost ironic to think that things started to come apart once they became successful.
Then you start having that success and you see you can do your own thing, and wait…I don’t have to depend on eight other guys to make a decision? I can just go and make my own money? That’s not hard to understand if you’re Raekwon and I can go on tour with Wu-Tang and make ‘X’ or I can go on tour by myself and make (more). And do what I want to do and make whatever decisions I want to make. The fact that they are able to come together when the time is right for a Wu-Tang project speaks to their understanding of the power of what it is they all bring as a collective. They really are the Avengers of hip-hop. I always use the analogy of a band like Chicago. Everyone loves Chicago. Saturday in the Park is a great song, but you can’t name three people in Chicago.
Peter Cetera and done.
Right! But you can name everyone in Wu-Tang because they have such distinct personalities. You see it in the film. These guys…in the way that they speak English is engaging.
One of the revelations of the documentary is RZA’s older brother, Divine, who had so much to do with the business side. Do you think the strength of his personality coupled with him not being part of the creative side caused a lot of friction despite his business acumen?
I think it’s a combination of things. When Divine tells the story of…I looked at a computer and was like, what the fuck do you do with a computer? Then three months later I (Divine) mastered it, that of itself tells you what some of the issues might have been. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for a fact that Divine wasn’t being diabolical with the business practices, but I do believe it’s so obvious that these guys are learning on the job at the same time. They are making mistakes at the same time. With the success of the first album, I’m sure there were millions of people going in Method Man’s ear, Raekwon’s ear, Ghostface’s ear and (saying) “why are you doing business with these guys? You grew up with them. There should be a separation of church and state. I’ll make you a star. You’re not getting what you deserve.” It’s understandable why people would be enticed by the power of Wu-Tang and would want some of that action, and in the process of wanting to get some of that action, could have pointed out things that may or may not have been wrong with their business.
But when you see these guys all together, there’s this unspoken brotherhood. As U-God says, “shit was fucked up, but they’re my family.” There’s this underlying respect and understanding for RZA and his creativity, and his desire, and his passion. They all recognize that if it wasn’t for him, none of this would be happening. While Divine says he’s (just) sitting on his boat, RZA and Divine control the Wu-Tang brand. If Wu-Tang the brand is on tour, trust me, Divine is there, not far from the Wu-Tang tour bus. Those guys still have to work with one another. They always will have to. At the end of the day, they recognize the collective power of that ‘W.’ Everyone contributes to it and everyone benefits from the success of it.
It was fascinating watching the guys together in the theater. After all the disagreements and complaints found in the footage and in the one on one interviews, when they were int he same space, the vibe was warm and harmonious.
It’s rare that you see men, in general, showing that kind of affection to one another. Particularly rare that you see black men (do that). Ghostface and Raekwon embracing saying “I love you,” guys crying when they are looking at ODB’s footage. They have their squabbles and disagreements, but you see this underlying brotherhood, which I believe that is tied to the fact that when they reflect on where they were 26 years ago, they are thankful – more than anything – for the opportunity Wu-Tang has created for them. It’s a humbling message. I wanted people to go back to where they came from to understand all that they overcame to become who they’ve become.
I was astounded by how much work came out of such an unconventional contract situation. The fact that the guys were not exclusive to the label Wu-Tang was signed to and could go solo wherever they wanted – which never happens with record contracts. Yet, at the same, RZA worked on all of these individual projects too. It’s unheard of for record labels to work this way.
It was very unorthodox – the arrangement that RZA was able to engineer via his deal with Loud Records. The fact that the guy – if Loud Records couldn’t match or beat the offer (from another label) – were free to go elsewhere as artists was unprecedented. In some cases, competing record companies were working together to coordinate the release of albums so they could all benefit from the success of Wu-Tang. That is a marvel. I think if it didn’t happen that way it would have been nearly impossible to sustain Wu-Tang. Because it is a lot of guys that you’ve got to feed, and the ability to make your own money on the side – sometimes more than what you made with Wu-Tang – definitely balanced things out and probably created more life for the group. Otherwise, it probably would have imploded. There wouldn’t have been enough money for guys to live comfortably, and it’s easy to fall into old habits.
Were you as astounded by RZA’s work ethic as I was watching the movie? The number of recordings he’s worked on is incredible. It’s some Prince level shit.
He’s a workaholic. He says in the film that work is one of the greatest honors human beings have. He believes that work is germane to being a useful, successful, worthy human being. It didn’t really make the film, but RZA was married before – he had a whole family. During this early period, he basically lost his family and his marriage because he put everything into making all of those records during that really prolific era. He never got the time to see his family. There are always issues inside of Wu-Tang, but when they really get pissed off, they always seemingly take a breath and say, “if it wasn’t for this guy, none of this would be happening.” They really appreciate where they are today and how far they’ve come.
Speaking of where they come from, I felt like Staten Island was like another character in the film. It’s one of the least progressive areas of New York City. It’s an interesting place for those guys to have grown up in.
And we learn in the film what Staten Island was like for them growing up. A lot of racism. Schools that didn’t have much interest in their education, or where they would go after they graduated. It’s an isolated place. I can’t imagine being on this island where in order to go to school you have to go through neighborhoods that don’t want you. It’s not like we are talking about the 50’s and the 60’s in the south, we are talking about New York City. If it wasn’t for Wu-Tang a lot of people wouldn’t know anything about Staten Island. Wu-Tang is the reason I went out there for the first time in my life. When they first started in their neighborhood, Park Hill, they had Park Hill Day – which is like a block party. I remember going out there when Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” came out and they first started to emerge, and they were going to perform on Park Hill Day. That was the only time I had been to Staten Island in my life. There was no reason to go to Staten Island.
I almost refer to it as the Galapagos Islands. You have all this “wildlife” that don’t live anywhere else. That’s kind of what it was like for Wu-Tang. RZA’s in this isolated world, and he’s not competing against a bunch of guys in their basements in Brooklyn. There were producers on Staten Island, but Brooklyn had a sound, Queens had a sound, Harlem had a sound, the Bronx had a sound, and he was busy carving out what the Staten Island sound was. Which was the sound of Angel Dust. Unpredictable, not polished. When the Wu-Tang stuff first hit, everyone talked about how great RZA was, but in the beginning, a lot of his contemporaries thought his stuff was trash. “That beats not finished. I would never leave that click in there – that’s weird. What is he doing?” But now we know what he was doing was brilliant. Part of it was he was still learning the machines. Not all of it was a conscious decision. I think it was an artist in the process of evolving and growing and making his art. What was captured on tape came from a really passionate, hungry place.
The MCs on the record were equally passionate and hungry, and knew this was their shot, and they went for it. They didn’t have any idea. When we put Wu-Tang on the cover of Beat Down, we though we are an underground hip-hop newspaper and people will appreciate Wu-Tang because they are an underground hip-hop group. Nobody new. Although RZA will tell you he knew, and maybe he did. But no one was thinking it would become what it became. I think the authenticity of these guys is so universal that it’s undeniable. I believe there are KKK members who love Wu-Tang. I believe it. There is something about their storytelling and their energy that is just undeniable.
I loved the moment in the movie where they turn in their first video and it still has the running time block all through the video. It’s pointed out to them that it hasn’t been removed and they are all, “yeah, just run it like that.” It speaks to their ethos.
Mind you, this was a time when hip-hop was becoming extra-polished and pop. Puffy and all these other artists were emerging, and it was about polish. The way RZA approached music was almost what Nirvana was to (rock). Sort of putting a nail into hair-metal and spandex. All that stuff of the late 80’s. Here was Kurt Cobain in the early 90’s with flannel and the whole Seattle anti-rock star look and sound. I think Wu-Tang served the same purpose for hip-hop.
I found the third episode dealing with the life and death of ODB to be very moving. There’s a sense of ODB that he’s just a class clown. Some people unfairly see Flava Flav the same way. Like a class clown. I think what episode three does really well is restore ODB as an artist.
Hearing from his family you can get closer to who he was as a person. I did a major story for Vibe magazine, way, way back on Dirty. He was in prison and then he got shipped off to rehab. I was trying to track him down. I knew he was in rehab somewhere in L.A. We called every rehab and we learned that in order to get in touch with someone in rehab, you have to know their date of birth. This is before the internet. Then I remembered that his album cover had that quote – unquote welfare card on it with his birthday. So, I got his birthday off the album and we started calling rehab centers. We reached the Daniel Freeman Center in Marina del Ray – ironically the same place Kurt Cobain was that he escaped from before he died some days later – I said Russell Jones, gave his birth date, and they said “hold on a minute” and got him on the phone.
I said “Dirty, listen man, I’m sorry to bother you, I know you’re not in the best place. I’m working on this story for Vibe magazine, I respect you a lot, I’ve spent a lot of time with your mom, she’s really cool.” And he said, “What?! You spoke to my mom? Motherfucker let me tell you something. Don’t ever fucking go near my mom again!” And he hung up on me. So, I knew he was a fan of Al Green. I went to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and I bought him an Al Green box set. I went back to the rehab and I wrote him a note. I said, “Listen Dirty, I know you’re having a hard time. I have nothing but respect for you and your mom. It would be great to talk to you, but if we don’t, I totally understand. Please take this gift from me. I’m sorry I inconvenienced you.” I called him the next day and he was the sweetest individual. He apologized to me and thanked me profusely for the Al Green box set. He said come on down. I came and checked him out, interviewed him for a good 25 minutes. He was super-cool and then an attendant saw me and said. “Hey, what are you doing? You aren’t supposed to be doing this.” And I got kicked out. (Laughs).
Inside of that long story, what I’m trying to say is I knew there were multiple sides to this guy, and it’s easy to get caught up in the guy who says “Wu-Tang is for the children.” He was a son, and a father, and so much more. He was also troubled. I didn’t want to make any judgments, I just wanted people to see as many sides of this guy as possible. So, the viewer can walk away and make their own decision on how they feel (about ODB).
Most of the group have said the whole dynamic changed once Dirty died. Meth had to step up and be more of an entertainer. Dirty was the one who whipped all of them into shape. Some of those guys never really liked to perform. Dirty would encourage them to step up their performance. I think in many ways Dirty is extremely profound. There’s that one moment when he’s talking about money, and he says, “All money is is paper, and we’re out killing each other for paper.” Then he talks about welfare and getting food stamps. He said “Go get your welfare. I’m getting mine. I didn’t get 40 acres and a mule like I was supposed to get.” You think about it in that way and it’s really profound. The flip side of it is he wasn’t really on welfare. They were on welfare for a brief time. He grew up with two parents. There was a guy who was a really plugged-in performer who knew how to read a room, who knew how to sell a persona. I wanted people to see the other guy. The guy his mom called “Rusty.” I wanted people to see Rusty.
The last image of him as a young man that closes episode three is very moving.
It comes full circle. He literally walks into the light and that’s the last you see of him. Which I thought was really something. When we found that footage we thought “Wow. This is too poetic.” It goes all the way back to Rusty. When you see that photo, you’re looking at Rusty. He had a tragic end, but there was more to Rusty than what was explored when he was alive. I believe he had serious mental health issues that were never fully addressed. You mix that with the madness of the music industry and you’re already paranoid, it’s a whole heap of additional paranoia. When you think about what you have to deal with as someone who’s from the hood, has success, and those that don’t know you, and even some that do, want what you have – or what they perceive you have – and want to take advantage of you, it’s a very complicated scenario. He was like a prisoner without bars. The way he had to live his life.
Then you think about RZA when he’s asked why he didn’t want to let (ODB) out of his contract. OBD is pissed wondering why RZA let everyone else go and he’s not letting me go. RZA says “It all started with me and him.” We were looking up at the stars. We had this dream of making it, and I wanted to work with him. RZA eventually lets him out and still ends up working with him, but Dirty never lives long enough to taste the fruits of what that continued relationship with RZA might have been. You can see on RZA’s face when he’s telling this story and talking about it, he’s deeply hurt.
Throughout the movie, RZA seems to have good armor in the one on one interviews talking about everything that happened except regarding Dirty. Although he warms up considerably in the presence of the other guys.
The scene where they are in the theater which runs throughout the series, there’s so much information – non-verbal – that’s communicated just by how they look at one another and how they motion to one another. You can’t just get ten black guys in a studio and say “go.” You can’t just get nine rappers in a movie theater and say, “reflect on your lives.” There’s something really special about this combination of people that will never be replicated.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a real point of contention in the movie. From how it was recorded, to how the MCs got paid, and finally to the auction and the highest bidder being the infamous Martin Shkreli.
(RZA associate) Cilvaringz claims everything was on the up and up, and he let everyone know what was happening with the record, and they all got paid fairly. The guys on the other hand, say that’s not the case. Let’s say Cilvaringz is telling the truth and he let everyone know what was going on and they agreed to it, what can the guys say? But then, if the flip side of that is true, and they didn’t know what was going on with the record, and it sells for two million dollars, and they got paid two grand for their verses, and they’re pissed, what do you say to that? You ask who got paid for that record? Who made the money? And in the film, Inspectah Deck says, “Exactly.” And they’re having that conversation in front of RZA and RZA’s not saying anything. It’s interesting, while they are discussing how they are unhappy about Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, never once did anyone directly address RZA , and say, “RZA this is fucked up. You did this to us.” Nobody does that. They still put it on Cilvaringz. I think it once again speaks to the notion of no matter how messed up things may or may not be, we still respect RZA because he’s the guy who gave us this opportunity.
It’s hard to think of anyone less hip-hop than Martin Shkreli. I know RZA took the any publicity is good publicity view when it came to the auction. It certainly was a unique thing to do.
The idea of an album selling for two million dollars as an individual work of art is an amazing concept and an amazing precedent to be set, at a time when musicians work really hard and you have a generation that knows nothing about buying music, and don’t understand that artists need patrons to continue to make the art. That end of it was brilliant. But everything that happened in-between that is Cilvaringz says this and Inspectah Deck says that. RZA says this, Ghostface says that. That’s a big part of the film too. 25 years have passed, and everyone remembers things a little bit differently.
It’s the Rashomon of hip-hop documentaries.
You’re looking at Wu-Tang through the eyes of all the members. The truth of what Wu-Tang is is somewhere in-between what everyone is saying. I think that’s the fun part of the series. Who do you want to believe?
Who came up with the title Of Mics and Men?
I did. Wu-Tang is an American band with a uniquely American story. Often hip-hop and/or black culture is not given that respect of an American classic. We know Of Mice and Men is an American classic in literature. I think Wu-Tang is the same – an American classic in literature. I wanted something that spoke to that and put Wu-Tang in the same conversation. For me the Wu-Tang Clan is the ultimate story of the power of hip-hop and how it can change people’s lives. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to tell that story.