“Exit Prince Rakeem:”
Released in 1992, Wu-Tang Clan’s first single “Protect Ya Neck” and its accompanying video immediately put the world on notice that “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F**k Wit.” Quite literally swinging swords, everything about this sizable group of young Black men was unorthodox and unapologetic. RZA’s production, which assaults the ears with distinctly deep and heavy bass, chaotic sounds like saxophone squeals, and velocity-sensitive piano chords, served as the backdrop while each member idiosyncratically spat their rhymes.
With gritty lyrics like, “The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is dirty and stinkin’/Ason Unique rollin’ with the night of the creeps,” there was no doubt this New York City crew came from and repped the hood. Their raw, yet reflective lyrics and in-your-face delivery revived hardcore Hip-Hop on the East Coast, as the West Coast G-Funk was primarily ruling the country’s airwaves. Needless to say, Prince Rakeem (RZA’s original name as a solo artist on Cold Chillin’ Records), was no more.
For nearly 30 years, fans have come to know Shaolin’s finest through their extensive collective catalog and successful solo careers. Poignant songs like “All That I Got Is You” by Ghostface Killah featuring Mary J. Blige proved that behind all the bravado of the young crew, each had unique experiences and stories to share. Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga paints the origin story of the legendary clique, giving viewers their most intimate encounter with Wu-Tang yet.
The ensemble cast includes Dave East (Shotgun/Method Man), TJ Atoms (Ason Unique/Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Shameik Moore (Sha/Raekwon), Siddiq Saunderson (Dennis/D-Love/Ghostface Killah), Erika Alexander (Linda Diggs), and Zolee Griggs (Shurrie Diggs), who all spoke with VIBE about portraying these iconic and some lesser-known but equally important characters. From plantation mentality to breaking the shackles of toxic familial bonds, the cast revealed how they bring to life the misfits who warned us to “protect ya neck.”
VIBE: How often do people on the street recognize you from the show rather than the music? Like, “Yo, you’re the guy from the show,” and don’t even know Dave East?
Dave East (Shotgun/Method Man): I get that. There’s people that don’t even know Dave East and I love it. I’ll be in the airport, a motherf**ker will run down and call me Shotgun or say, “That’s the guy that plays Meth,” and don’t even know nothing about my rap. So, that just lets me know that I’m doing my thing on that side, too. It just broadened my whole sh*t because I got a bunch of people who know me for the rap and what I kind’ve contributed to the rap game in my little time of being in this sh*t. And then I jump into the acting out of the blue so it’s people that’s in tune with that. So, it just helped me out. It helped my whole outlook. I’m not just in a box being a rapper no more.
What has the experience been like literally stepping into the footsteps of Method Man, one of the greatest rappers of his era?
It’s been dope, man. I think it just really broadened my outlook on sh*t just jumping into the acting. I mean, it’s one thing to play Method Man, but it’s one thing to be acting. Just the acting aspect of it is a whole ‘nother lane besides trying to impersonate somebody or recreate somebody ’cause, to be honest with you, to try to reenact Meth isn’t difficult ’cause that’s somebody that I was raised on, that’s somebody I done watched all my life. I know his movements. I just know Meth. I’m a fan of that sh*t. It’s trying to capture that sh*t as an actor, you get what I mean?
Now, it’s the cameras, it’s the call-time, it’s the 15- to 16-hour days on set for four or five months. It becomes a rigorous situation, but I feel like the outcome of it is just a part of my legacy. And I’m fortunate to even be attached to Wu-Tang’s legacy by playing Method Man now. Second season, it’s way more Wu-Tang this time. I feel like in the first season, you were just getting to know the characters, who we were, and sh*t like that. Now, I’m Meth for real. It’s gonna go up.
TJ, prior to your role as ODB, were you familiar with or a fan of Wu-Tang’s music, specifically, ODB?
TJ Atoms (Ason/ODB): Yeah, I was a big fan. I remember when ODB died. He died on my mom’s birthday. I was a kid. I don’t remember too many people dying, growing up, but I definitely remember where I was at when ODB died. Also, I was in this rap group as a kid and we rapped over Wu-Tang beats and we remodeled our logo after the Wu-Tang symbol. I’m connected to the Wu-Tang way in a deep, deep way.
Honestly, right now you’re giving me ODB vibes. I don’t know if that’s you personally or if it’s who you have become as a result of playing ODB, but tell me about how you have, essentially, embodied this character and brought him to life. Particularly with him having passed away, I’m sure there’s added pressure portraying his role, specifically.
It’s a lot of pressure playing ODB, man. Because I bet a lot of people did not expect it to go as it went. So, I had that pressure on me, but I just said my prayers, and I took a deep breath, and I just went with it. I did a lot of research. I studied his whole mannerism. I studied his son. I talked to his family. And I just took everything that I already knew watching Wu-Tang growing up and I used it to fully embody the character.
Was it difficult to mimic his very unique and unorthodox style? Did you have any specific ways that you tackled trying to portray his rap style specifically?
Man, it was super difficult trying to imitate ODB. For one, it’s like, ODB! So, there’s a lot of pressure to really know the character. My whole thing was, I was coming from the hood. I had a great opportunity to change my whole life and I was going to do whatever it took to change my life at that time. Because it was, like, super dangerous in Philly… It’s still super dangerous in Philly. So, I think I owed a lot of credit to just coming from where I was coming from at the time. I don’t know if I would have did it if I was a regular actor and I was already trained.
Shameik, speaking of imitating icons. I kept watching thinking, “I recognize that guy.” But honest to God, the way you pulled this role off, I did not realize that you were the same [guy] from Dope! Talk to me about how you went from, basically, a geek to the complete 180 of that, which is Raekwon?
Shameik Moore (Sha/Raekwon): At the time when I shot Dope, I wasn’t acting. It was closer to my spirit. I then did The Get Down, which brought me into learning a New York accent. New York has got a different… I got into an argument with Marcus [Callender] and Siddiq [Sanderson] one time and they were like, “Shameik, you’re not from New York! You won’t get it! We talk like this! You feel me? (moves hands in an animated and fast manner)” And I was like, “You guys have to stop talking to me like that. Y’all comin’ at me a little bit too aggressive (laughs with Siddiq).
After The Get Down, I had to clean my energy a little bit. By the time I got to Raekwon, I knew a more aggressive side of myself, and I needed to apply his isms and his story and the lines and his lingo into it. I also love to box. I love the sport of boxing and watching it, but I actually love physically boxing. It’s inspiring. The “it’s me or you” energy, I only experience it when [it’s] actually me or you in a ring. In an argument, I’m like, “I’m not about to argue unless we about to box.”
So, you bring that aggression to the role?
I think that’s what it is, and those are the ingredients that I kind of chef up playing the Chef (laughs).
Siddiq, your character Ghostface Killah has got sweet and street sides. When you’re in Ghostface mode, it’s one person, and when you’re dealing with your girl and your siblings, that is a completely different side. How do you approach that duality within your character in your acting?
Siddiq Saunderson (Dennis/D-Love/Ghostface Killah): I think, it’s about honoring the duality that exists within myself. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. So, there’s that side of it always. There’s that defensive, peeping out the energy, peeping out the vibes, sizing people up that is already ingrained within me. However, that’s something that I feel is very much pressed upon us men, especially Black men—that we gotta be that way. And, sometimes I don’t feel like being that way. Sometimes I wanna let the guard down or be a little bit more jokey and soft. And not soft in the sense that I can’t ever defend myself, but soft in the sense that I don’t always gotta have this huge guard up, or always be ready to beat somebody’s ass (laughs).
I think that’s something that exists within myself. I really just try to tap into that as much as I can in the portrayal of Ghostface because, the fact that the matter is, I’ll text him, “Yo, you just killed it.” He’s like, “Appreciate you Siddiq. Blessings.” A real positive vibe. And so, I wanted to capture that. I know that Ghostface Killah to a lot of people is just one thing. But again, that’s what my job is, as an actor, is not to just give the people everything they think that they want, but show them what they’re actually missing out on.
Erika and Zolee, both of your characters are put in positions where they have to make difficult decisions as women, particularly as Black women. What did you bring to your characters in terms of your personal experience as Black women having to make tough choices and balancing those dilemmas with everyday life as your characters had to?
Erika Alexander (Linda Diggs): That’s very familiar territory for most Black women. It’s very familiar territory for me. It may be foreign for others, but I don’t think we have ever had the convenience of that or the privilege of that. I appreciate it, but I wish it was different. I wish that Zolee [Grigg]’s character could be more the damsel in distress and not have to take on the pregnancy conversation. I wish she could have been cherished more by her mother and not seen as just a person to do the dishes and make the beds. But they were operating out of the plantation mentality.
All I can say is, there’s a reason why we’re as strong as we are to this day, that we are as vibrant. But that’s also the reason why a lot of women, especially Black women, are exhausted. So, it’s not right, it’s not fair. Maybe in the future, we can have more space to dream and be that Disney princess. But we are raising, not only ourselves. At the same time, we’re raising men and girls, we’re also changing culture and we’re also fixing politics and we’re also saving the world. That is a fact! And maybe we get chance to put on lipstick. There you go.
Amen! Zolee, you?
Zolee Griggs (Shurrie Diggs): Yes, of course I can relate! For me, it’s more so the male domination that I really look at because no matter where you go, you’re typically the only woman and maybe even sometimes the only Black woman in a complete male-dominant space. So, I look at Shurrie and I’m like, how does she handle these situations? Thankfully, it’s with her brothers. So, she can be a little bit more open and sassy and you know, whip back at them. But I’m able to learn from her because she’s a lot more patient and I am thoroughly impressed by her because of that.
I think Zolee, personally, I’m a lot more outspoken, whether you’re family or not. Being a modern woman that is not going to slide with me, but I respect her for that because she was patient with these men and took her time with them and didn’t belittle them, didn’t put them down. She took the time to raise them up, which is something that we should always be doing, is raising our people, but also being mindful, not to coddle and baby. Let’s work together to become better people.
As the two leading ladies on the series, I can’t wait to see what else you bring. Congratulations again on the show. Thank you so much for your time.
Erika: Thank you, Siobhan. You’re here because VIBE mattered and was there, then. So, thank you for continuing on the legacy.
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 the cast and crew.