“God bless you RZA!”
Working on VIBE’s Wu-Tang Wednesday series over the last several months, I found myself saying those words time and time again in sheer bewilderment. A fan of Hulu‘s hit series Wu-Tang: An American Saga since its 2019 debut, I volunteered to write a simple article announcing the Season 2 premiere. However, this quickly snowballed into an all-day virtual junket with the cast, numerous out-of-country zoom interviews, long work hours, and restless nights dreaming about swinging swords and Hip-Hop music.
Truthfully, creating a cohesive collection of work based on the varying voices, backgrounds, and experiences of the cast has been an exhausting undertaking but also incredibly rewarding. And I’ve often wondered how at just 23 years old RZA managed to unite a diverse group of young, hot-headed, beefing Black men from the hoods of New York City to form what is now one of the culture’s greatest Hip-Hip collectives, the Wu-Tang Clan.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga gives fans never-before-seen insight into the challenges RZA faced as the mastermind behind the 10-member group. Set in New York City during the height of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, the biographical drama tells the life stories of these friends and foes as they struggle with poverty, crime, and family dysfunction, all while trying to balance street life and breaking into the music industry.
As one of his many aliases makes clear, the Abbot functioned as the group’s unspoken but well-respected leader. A conductor of sorts, RZA decided who appeared on which tracks and where. He also produced Wu-Tang’s music using his distinct style, which assaults the ears with distinctly deep and heavy bass, chaotic sounds like saxophone squeals, velocity-sensitive piano chords, and unexpected throwback samples from the likes of the Jackson 5 to Gladys Knight & the Pips.
In true boss fashion, the 52-year-old is also behind the music in Wu-Tang: An American Saga, and serves as creator, writer, and executive producer for the series. Ashton Sanders, whom RZA handpicked to play himself, is at the center of the coming-of-age origin story. The ensemble cast also includes Erika Alexander, TJ Atoms, Marcus Callender, Dave East, Zolee Griggs, Julian Elijah Martinez, Shameik Moore, Siddiq Saunderson, Damani Sease, Uyoata Udi, Bokeem Woodbine, and Johnell Young.
In the finale of our exclusive series, Shaolin’s finest talked to VIBE about “those crazy young group of actors,” opened up about how he really reacted after finding out his best friend Dennis/Ghostface got his sister Shurrie pregnant, and why sharing his life story on the show is much deeper than a Wu-Tang redux.
VIBE: You handpicked Ashton Sanders to play yourself [Bobby/RZA]. What was it about him, either personally or professionally, that made you choose him for this role?
RZA: I saw Ashton in the film, The Equalizer 2, and he played an artist. He was torn between trying to be in that street life or be that artist. And there’s a beautiful scene with him and Denzel [Washington], when Denzel took the gun from him. And Ashton has these eyes, I think, that really call out to be an artist that wants to be expressed, regardless of what everybody else thinks. He has these eyes. And when I met him—he’s from California—he’s not from New York. But I just looked at his eyes and by looking at his eyes, I knew that in those eyes was the story of the young Bobby Diggs trying to figure his path out.
Honestly, when I interviewed him, I was shocked to see the real him versus who he portrays in the show. Like you said, total Cali dude, nothing like you, but he absolutely captures your essence. How do you feel he is doing portraying you as a character?
I think he’s doing a great job as Bobby. In Season 1, I think he had all the personality and inflections of the lines in the scripts we gave him. In Season 2, I think he watched me a lot. He’s pretty much an absorber. But you will notice him coming into a leadership position. I can’t wait to see how it turns out towards the end, where he fully evolves into who he needs to be as a character at that point of the story.
The evolution of the characters’ manhood is very evident from Season 1 to Season 2. There are a lot of changes—Dennis/Ghostface Killah [Siddiq Saunderson] becomes a father; Dennis, Bobby, and Shurrie [Zolee Griggs] move to Ohio. Why was it important to show this transition?
Well, it was important to show how far away that even Bobby got from music. You look at Episode 1 of Season 2, in the place where he keeps his floppy disks, right? I mean, they went through hell to get those disks back from Attila in Season 1. Now, in Season 2, he has his money stashed in that box! So, he’s far away. His keyboard wasn’t even hooked up! Ya nah mean? So, he’s far away, and so is Dennis. They’re far away from heading towards their dream. They’re actually going in the opposite direction of their dream.
I think there’s a line where [Bobby] even says, “I’m not a prince no more, but I’m a king to this town.” Feeling like, I got a new whip. I got a girl. I got money. I got a gun. And that happens to a lot of young men. And I’m from New York, so in those days, New Yorkers would go out of state and plant their flag somewhere and become a problem to the community, in all reality, whether intentional or unintentional.
There’s a point where Bobby gets sent down South for the summer as a child, which is very common for African American New Yorkers. This seemed imperative to his development as a young man and, most importantly, his musical development. Why did you choose to include this in the story?
Because in reality, and in our character, if Bobby wouldn’t have went down South to see his Uncle Hollis, his mind would’ve been trapped in his four-block radius, which a lot of us do, a lot of people, especially on Staten Island. I know guys who don’t even ride the ferry to Manhattan. They just stay right in the hood and that’s what they do. And they’re comfortable with that, but they don’t realize what they’re not gaining. So, traveling is an important aspect.
Then we had Aunt Goldie, who was a very stern woman. My Aunt Goldie would really, seriously whoop you, but that sternness builds discipline. And then with Uncle Hollis being so warm and so full of wisdom, all those elements at that young age of absorbance become important for a person and, for us, important for the character.
So, when you see little Bobby on the bed with the lightning bugs, it’s showing that these pivotal moments in a person’s life can have their destiny go all the way to the right or all the way to the left. And for Bobby, those moments, actually pushed him to the right.
Even in Ohio, where [Bobby] was doing foolishness and getting involved with street life, you see that we got him on the stand and he told his story. We used it in a poetic way. And I hope that the viewers caught the poetry of the lyric, where he says, “I never listened to the things that my mother keeps telling me.” Right? That’s how we be when we teenagers. “Getting upset because the teachers are failing me/Brothers on the streets got desires of hurting me/So, you got beef, church, and religion on the urge of converting me/Pop always telling me what I could be/Siblings talking to what I should be/Everybody telling me what I’m gonna be, but no one really asks me what I wanna be.”
It got to the punchline where he says, “Life is a struggle and every day is a puzzle/And we ignore the ones who truly love you/As we do foolish things we see others do/I try to do the same thing my big brother do.” That was the original lyric, but we changed it in the [show] to say, “When forced with death or when a man under pressure, it brings out another you.”
We changed it to that because, even though Bobby was emulating [his older brother] Divine in his own way, and we, as young men, we emulate our big brothers or our big cousins or the big homies, right? But worse than that, what happens when the pressure of fear is on us? You go back and talk to a lot of guys that’s incarcerated, you’ll realize that it was a moment of fear that made them do what they did, and now they’re paying for it for the rest of their life. And for some people, it was a moment of joy, right? For teenage pregnancy and they paying for it for the rest of their life. And so, all these different things, we wanted to point them out in our own way and in our show.
Even if you look at the character of Shurrie. We was very conscious to have her on the bus in Season 1 saying what she said. [“I’m fu*kin’ wit some bitch who gon’ let that ni*ga slide up in her once or twice at prom, end up with his baby, and then two months later, he gonna end up in jail, while she end up riding the back of this bus for the rest of her life!”] And then she becomes what she didn’t want to become, because of how we make these decisions in life.
When I interviewed Zolee, we were trying to decide if that scene on the bus was foreshadowing on the writers’ part, or was it almost like a premonition.
As a writer and co-creator with my partner, Alex [Tse], we are not making it up as we go, you know what I mean? But I would just add this to the equation for the real-life people. When my sister had to make that decision, [when] my sister Shurrie and Dennis/Ghost wanted to build this relationship, I was against it. But what they said that zipped my lips was, “Yo.” He said, “I love your sister.” She said, “I love him.” I was like, “Yo, hey, nothing could stop love.” Nothing stops love [laughs]. Nothing stops love.
Zolee’s character provides a lot of balance, not only in terms of femininity but in the vulnerability she’s able to bring out of different characters. Ironically, she said that she brings that to the set as well with the real-life actors.
Yeah, she does. Zolee definitely changes their energy and balances it out for those crazy young group of actors we got [laughs].
Speaking of those crazy young actors. Wu-Tang is an unconventional Hip-Hop group. It’s large in size. There are lots of different personalities, characters, strengths, skill sets, backgrounds. Embarking on this project, were you ever leery of reality mirroring the storyline, meaning infighting and discord among the cast?
I mean, not concerned about it. I actually look forward to it. I think it’s beautiful. One thing that’s happening is, once again, there’s a group of young black men coming of age in the business, growing, getting more exposure, more economics, their talent is only getting better and better. They’re getting a chance to work with a lot of smart and great directors and good producers. All that just makes you sharper and sharper. And I’m watching them. Over the course of three years, I watched them grow as well.
Zolee just turned legal when she first entered our set. And now she’s a young woman. So, for me to watch everybody grow like that, it’s almost like me watching Wu-Tang Clan grow again! Look at TJ [Atoms]. TJ doesn’t have a lot of films under his credit, but this is preparing him for a great career. He could go on and become what he wants to become, just like ODB went on and became a legend. So, for me, it’s a blessing to watch all these young people. Look, it’s not easy. I got to let you know that, OK [laughs]? But it’s definitely a joy.
You are the man behind the show’s music. Then you’ve got rapper Dave East. During our interview, TJ revealed he also has experience rapping. But most of the cast has no musical training or background. Why is it important to have the actors actually rap and not lip-sync? How did you prepare the characters for those real-life performances?
Well, it’s a couple of reasons. First of all, my partner Alex Tse is a Hip-Hop head, aight? Gabe [Fonseca], in my writer’s room, is a total Hip-Hop historian, aight? So, they’re not gonna let it go out like that. So, we knew that this had to be real and as pure as possible, but it was difficult.
We got King Tech from Sway & Tech The Wake Up Show, who has seen many of the best MCs pass through that radio station. We got DJ Mathematics from the Wu-Tang family, and we had Rich Nice for the second season, Sean C for the first season. Rich and Sean grew up around us, grew up in New York, been in studios with some of the legends. We had the actors go to the studios with those guys. We thought it was important to make the actors really MC and act it out. It’s not easy.
Look, they don’t know exactly how you hold that mic, aight? It’s not easy to really hold that mic in the right position to get your voice out. But the beauty is that they kept trying. They did everything from the pre-records to performing it on set to even going to ADR [automated dialogue replacement].
So, when we wrapped the whole show, it’s COVID so we can’t have a big wrap party, but the Soho House gave me a private room. Most of the cast was there, whoever was in town. The DJ throws on “Protect Ya Neck.” And every cast member ran up to the stage, grabbed the mic, and they performed it. And people there, like Sway, who grew up on Wu-Tang, they all just lost it! Like, “Yo, for a moment, I thought I was in 1993 Wu-Tang,” because they was just doing it, yo. And that’s a beautiful thing.
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.