“We’ve just received a report that New York City is under attack by swarms of killer bees. They’ve been seen approaching from Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. We urge you to stay in your homes at this time.”
Substitute “swarms of killer bees” with “the coronavirus pandemic” and this opening quote from the video for Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 track “Triumph” is eerily accurate today. The visual depicts an apocalyptic universe filled with panic, fear, and the looming threat of death, perfectly foreshadowing the current state of New York City and the world at large.
When Wu-Tang: An American Saga debuted on Hulu in September 2019, life, as we know it now, was completely different. Most people were oblivious to what was in store just a few months ahead. Panic, fear, and the looming threat and reality of death due to COVID-19. In particular, New York City far surpassed anywhere else in infection rates and fatalities. True indeed, the deadly coronavirus assaulted the Empire State like a swarm of killer bees, reducing it from the Big Apple to one badly bruised and rotten.
So, it’s no surprise that TV and Hip-Hop fans alike are reveling in this biographical timepiece because, for better or worse, it takes us back to a time that we know or at least recognize, even if we did not experience it firsthand.
Set in the early ’90s during the height of the crack epidemic, the series chronicles the lives of a group of young Black men in New York City as they struggle with poverty, crime, family dysfunction, friendship, and foes, all while trying to toe the line between street life and breaking into the music industry. Wu-Tang: An American Saga is the origin story of one of Hip-Hop’s most formidable collectives.
The show features an expansive soundtrack that includes songs like “All That I Got Is You” by Ghostface Killah featuring Mary J. Blige and “For the Love of You” by The Isley Brothers, to name just a few. In addition, the cast spits original renditions of Wu-Tang Clan’s “7th Chamber,” among other iconic tracks.
Executive produced by Shaolin’s own RZA and Method Man, as well as Alex Tse, Brian Grazer, and Samie Kim Falvey, the Season 2 finale debuted on Oct. 27. Soon followed up by the bittersweet announcement that the popular show had been renewed for a third, but final season.
Bringing together a mélange of talent comprised of familiar faces like Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) and Shameik Moore (Dope), veteran actors (Erika Alexander and Bokeem Woodbine), silver screen newbies (Siddiq Saunderson and Zolee Griggs), as well as successful and rising Hip-Hop artists (Dave East and TJ Atoms), Marcus Callender, Julian Elijah Martinez, Damani Sease, Uyoata Udi, and Johnell Young round out the ensemble cast.
Much like the real-life clique they portray, the actors are a motley crew who vary in every way from which coast they hail from, to how they relate to their characters. But ultimately, fiction mirrors reality as loyalty, brotherhood and above all, Hip-Hip music connects the cast beyond the set.
VIBE’s Wu-Tang Wednesdays series features intimate, candid, and often hilarious conversations with the cast from Wu-Tang: An American Saga. Read on and stay tuned for exclusive interviews with some of your favorite stars from the series and see why nearly 25 years later, Ol Dirty Bastard’s words from “Triumph” still remain true: “Wu-Tang is here foreva, mother**kas!”
VIBE: There’s a quiet, stoic, sort of mysterious nature to Bobby/RZA. Is that the character or something you bring to the character?
Ashton Sanders (Bobby/RZA): I’m a mysterious guy. I get that a lot. Yeah. I don’t really know how to answer that question.
How did you prepare for the role of Bobby/RZA?
Ashton: RZA himself is a mystery of a man. So, I’m just not sure, like, he picked me for this role specifically. So maybe there’s similarities between who he is and who I am that he saw and that I naturally have. But just having those conversations with RZA, spending time with him, getting to know his energy, watching interviews from who these guys were in the ’90s.
Obviously, he’s not the same dude that he was back then—he’s grown up a lot—but still trying to hone in on his spirit, on his energy. You know what I’m saying? What I get from RZA in this show is he’s the person who has this vision for everybody, you know? He’s The Abbot. He has this vision that he wants to see come into fruition.
As the centerpiece for the entire group, how did you develop the role of RZA from Season 1 to Season 2?
Ashton: He’s bringing all these guys together, that come from all this different type of adversity, wanting them to look past their adversity in order to do something that’s never been done before. And him being that driving force, that middleman between all of the drama, all of the stuff that goes on within the show to be like, “Yo, but the music! But the music!” You know what I’m saying? I think that resonates and carries over for me. And it’s something that I feel is a part of who he is naturally as a boss, as a creator, as a person. He always has a vision, that he—I don’t know if he manifested or if it just comes into fruition through hard work.
But I feel like that’s something that I’ve been able to tap into and really apply. And obviously, in Season 2, the characters grow. And since Season 2, we’re focusing more on [Enter the Wu-Tang] 36 Chambers, we’re focusing more on the growth of these guys transitioning from like a Bobby to a RZA, like a Dennis to a Ghostface and so on, so forth. So, I think it’s continuous growth within the script within these characters. I feel like a lot of people are going to see that and be able to tap into that.
Uyoata, in Season 2, you took over the role of Rebel/Inspectah Deck, which was played by rapper Joey Bada$$ in Season 1. How did you prepare for the role? Do you have any similarities as far as your personal background or knowledge of the character beforehand?
Uyoata Udi (Rebel INS/Inspectah Deck): Preparation for this was incredible. I reached out to a lot of the people I knew that were in the New York City area during that time and of that energy and culture. I just tapped into the energy of it and I sort of allowed that energy to shape the way in which I go about portraying Inspectah.
OK. You actually… Damn, you look like him! Yeah, I see it!
Uyoata: It’s been epic! The connection between each person that plays their character is beyond.
And Marcus, for your role as Power how did you prepare? Same question for Julian as Divine…
Marcus Callender (Power): Luckily, for me, I have formed a personal relationship with Power, so me and him talk all the time anyway. But specifically with this season, the biggest thing I asked of him to help me was I said, “Send me all your favorite music.” So, I put together a playlist of all the songs that he listens to. And so, that would just be something I play in my trailer as I’m getting dressed. Really, for me, it’s like once I’m in costume, then it kind of just comes together.
When I’m in my clothes, I feel like I’m just back to Marcus, me. But as soon as you put the jeans on, you put the sneakers on, you put on the flash with the earrings, you know what I’m saying? And then he got these gold fangs. I put those on, it’s a wrap! Then it’s like, “OK, now we goin’ into it.”
Julian Elijah Martinez (Divine): I worked with an acting coach and a dialect coach to try to help me get closer to the dialect than I was in Season 1. And basically, what I did is, I take a lot of Divine’s interviews, which he’s only done a handful of them, and I’ve got this big YouTube playlist. And then I put one headphone in my left ear and I basically, just listen to him for about a month before we start shooting and then every day over the course of a shooting. So, on repeat, I just listen to Divine talk over and over and over and over again.
Are you listening more for his voice, the content of what he’s actually saying, or both?
Julian: Both, actually. So, what I’m listening to, it depends on the day sometimes, and it depends on what I’m working on. I believe that every time you step on set, it’s a chance for you to work on something new. So sometimes I’m working on purely the sounds he makes, sometimes I’m trying to drop into his essence, sometimes I’m trying to get the cadence of his voice. And sometimes I’m just listening, literally just to get his thought pattern and the way he kind of bounces ideas off. So, it’s a combination, it just depends on the day. And sometimes it’s just in my ear and I forgot it’s in my ear [laughs].
So Johnell, what would you say you have learned from Gary/GZA the real-life person and the character?
Johnell Young (Gary/GZA): Fortunately enough for me, playing GZA, GZA is still alive. So, I get to really tap in with him and really learn who he is as a person, where his mindset was during ’93 and ’94. It’s been a journey, but it’s been a good learning experience.
Playing GZA, I’ve learned he’s very spiritual. He’s not just a regular rapper. He has some science to what he’s talking about. Whenever he speaks, you really want to listen, because if you miss a gem that you could use, that’s on you. But he speaks gems and he speaks facts.
That’s seems to be an overarching theme with Wu-Tang—the deeper, spiritual, intellectual aspect. How did you incorporate that into your portrayal of Gary/GZA?
Johnell: My dad, a lot of my dad’s friends, and people that he’s around, they’re God Body, or they study the Supreme Mathematics. And being from New York, from Staten Island, New York, I hear that everywhere. I’m on a subway, you got the people outside saying the Supreme Math back.
So, growing up, it kind of prepared me for this role. I know how to spit it. I know how to say it. I know what it means, some of it. So, it’s really a great learning experience. And learning just that whole religion alone, that’s stuff that you could use that I feel is knowledge. Everything is about learning every day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream now on Hulu.
Tune in with VIBE on Wednesdays for upcoming interviews with Erika Alexander, TJ Atoms, Dave East, Zolee Griggs, Shameik Moore, Siddiq Saunderson, and RZA.