We’re nearing the end of An America Saga’s first season. Episode 8 brings us closer to the pay-off (WU-TANG! Proper rap names!) and takes us deeper into Wu’s inspiration with a chapter format, like the kung fu movies that inspired the crew. We follow Bobby through key moments of his first promo tour with each scene done in real-time with one continuous shot. And like kung fu movies, there are challenges and lessons to learn in each chapter. As Bobby progresses through his tour, he learns more about how the game works…and about himself.
Prelude: The Motel – Houston
Bobby (Ashton Sanders) and Gary/Genius (Johnell Young) have cousin Ason (T.J. Atoms) on the road with them for their first tour run as part of a line up including Naughty By Nature and Bronx rapper Just-Ice. They’re acting like any young rapper on the road for the first time: chicks, weed — they’re living the dream. A shirtless Bobby stumbles out of his hotel room, leaving two half-dressed women behind, exclaiming to Gary, “I love being on tour, ni**a!”
Soundcheck – Houston
The fine points behind the business and work of being on the road appeal to Bobby less than everything that happens after the show. His sound is jacked up and the venue’s engineer doesn’t care. Ason is interrupting his press interview for weed emergencies — and swapping the gear he wanted to wear for his show — his merch is spelled with “Rakim” instead of “Rakeem,” and while he’s beefing about it, he bumps into Just-Ice, one of the first gangsta rappers and a real street cat, even though he was also righteous.
Hearing Bobby ranting about the name he got from the five-percenters, Just-Ice grills Bobby on the meaning of the name and supreme mathematics (this entire moment reminded us of an old head in the frat running up on a neo). Bobby’s only half-listened to the Five Percenters preaching around New York, he hasn’t studied up and isn’t fully enmeshed in the Nations of the Gods and Earths just yet. Fortunately, Gary/Allah Justice/Genius is, and he comes to his cousin’s aid. Genius tells Bobby he’s gotta be careful playing around on the road because Five Percenters take it seriously (and at this point in hip-hop, many of the prominent rappers embraced at least some aspects of the Five-Percent Nation faction of Islam). He tells Bobby that the reason Just-Ice moves so fearlessly and confidently is that he has knowledge of self. As though to prove the point, Just-Ice is able to get the sound engineer to fix the same monitor issue Bobby complained about (part of that was more Just-Ice being a big, scary dude from the Bronx, but for the sake of the narrative, we’ll go with Genius’s explanation). Gary tells Bobby he’ll give him some literature to read and help him out.
Radio Promo – New Orleans
In Houston, Bobby was in a crew mindset, adding the track he produced for Genius, “Pass the Bone,” to the set. The guys walk into the local station for promo feeling great about the crowd response, and Bobby tells Genius he really thinks it should be the first single.
They get settled in the green room and into common tour-mate camaraderie with the Naughty by Nature crew. Ason, who we now understand is on his own kind of promo tour, is trying to hit Bourbon Street since they missed Mardi Gras (although, he found some mardi gras beads somewhere), Gary’s scoping out the craft table making sure nothing was made with pork products, and Bobby’s trying to flesh out some lyrics.
In this episode, we slip into Bobby’s head with him as he puts together his ideas for music and rhymes. It’s somewhat disorienting, especially combined with the continuous camera shot, but that’s kind of the point: this is all a little disorienting for him. Bobby, Gary, Treach (Moise Morancy), and “Ali Baba” (Treach’s machete) go into the studio to get ready for their on-air hit. They’re each expected to spit a freestyle, and Bobby’s working on his in his head — we think, until host Zina D (Malikha Mallette) chimes in to tell him he can’t curse on the air. But she likes what he’s spitting and hopes that’s the kind of material he plans to put on his album, “I know you got that Prince Rakeem sh*t for the ladies. But this lady would like more of that real sh*t.”
When Zina announces “Come Do Me” as Genius’s new single, Bobby’s hurt. They were just talking about “Pass the Bone,” and he didn’t say anything. Gary tells him Andre and the label wanted a radio hit. Bobby still wants to produce on the album, at least, but Gary tells him the project’s locked and finished and offers excuses about label politics. Finally, he suggests to Bobby, “Just put it on your album.” Deflated, Bobby admits he still only has a single deal.
Album Signing – Greensboro
Bobby is back in familiar territory; the city where he spent summers as a kid with his uncle and (evil) aunt. He’s excited because this is the part of being an artist he’s been craving: connecting with fans of his music.
As Bobby and Ason walk to the local record store with childhood friend Pat (Jimi Stanton), Bobby looks for the Bojangles (we understand), Ason asks about the “freaky picnic out in Atlanta” (Freaknik), and then Pat asks Bobby about the name “Rakeem.” This time, Bobby’s able to break it down. Between Texas and North Carolina, he’s gained some knowledge of self.
Inside the local record store, Bobby’s enthralled with the vinyl offerings and wants a minute to browse before the fans come inside. Ason stumbles upon a collection of kung fu movies on sale for 99¢, including The Shaolin Drunken Monk, the film that would eventually inspire Ason’s name, “Old Dirty Bastard.” Bobby grabs those up, has the shop owner’s nephew spit for him, and is really feeling himself. This is his moment – no Genius, no Naughty. Just him. Even his abusive aunt Goldie (Kecia Lewis) bum-rushing the spot doesn’t kill his vibe. But then Andre (Jamie Hector) gives him some news that does — Tommy Boy ain’t clear the Denise Williams sample for Bobby’s single (an on-going issue with Tommy Boy), so the store can’t sell their existing stock, which leaves Bobby nothing to sign but stickers, posters, and the shirts with his name misspelled. He’s understandably furious until Andre tells him the label approved a budget for the video, he just has to re-record the song with a different track.
Video Shoot – New York
Bobby proudly brings his big brother to the “We Love You Rakeem” video set since Divine (Julian Elijah Martinez) hasn’t been able to travel with him on the road. Bobby wants him to see first hand that all he was working on in the basement is paying off. Divine’s impressed and proud of his little brother, “You got your name in lights!…You really made it, brother.” But Bobby is still focused on the bigger picture — the crew. “Nah man, we made it.” That feeling of pride and excitement dies as soon as Bobby steps all the way onto the soundstage and sees a set out of a 1950s Hollywood musical. He told Andre he wanted his video to be “cinematic,” but he didn’t mean this.
Dre distracts him from his complaint momentarily by introducing him to DJ and De La Soul producer Prince Paul (Jaison Hunter), and Bobby’s geeked because he’s a fan. But then Dre tells him the label wants Paul to produce his album. Bobby’s been fighting to be taken seriously as a producer from the jump, and the label still won’t entertain the idea. Everybody is hitting Bobby in the head with “Just trust me,” as they push ideas that don’t align with who he is and what he wants to represent. He tries to push back, arguing, “When people see me, I need them to know who I am and where I come from.” A tuxedo and a top hat definitely do not say “From the slums of Shaolin.”
Sha (Shameik Moore) and Dennis (Siddiq Saunderson) coming to the set just drive the point home even further. While Sha is gassed by the hoopla, he still remarks more than once that the whole set-up doesn’t reflect where they came from or the Bobby he knows.
Then Dennis shows up and almost turns the set into another kind of shoot. Bobby’s managed to keep him and Sha from crossing paths until now, and Dennis is furious that Bobby’s lamping with Sha on set, going so far as to ask if Bobby was trying to set him up. Bobby tries to calm him down and convince him that the beef should be dead. Now that he got his deal, “all that street sh*t is over.” But this pisses Dennis off even more, and he lets all his frustrations about everything loose: the weight of taking care of his family, feeling left behind as his friends are traveling all over the country with no obligations, and most of all Bobby refusing to understand that Sha straight-up tried to kill him and could have also hurt his family in the process (he has a point, though. Sha was out the window, double-hand blasting at his crib). Saunderson doesn’t look like Ghostface, but the go-hard energy he delivers is all Ghost, and in this scene, he almost became Ghostface for a minute. He captured the real Dennis Coles’ mannerisms perfectly.
As Dennis storms off, Bobby catches his reflection in the mirror, and we can tell he feels foolish seeing himself in the electric blue cumberbund and ruffled tuxedo shirt. The AD calls for everyone to get in their places, and Bobby still ain’t even got his hair done…but that’s ok because they give him a top hat and some gloves! He plods up the steps of the staircase on set, not looking at all like an artist about to shoot their very first video, but like a kid forced to complete a chore.
The Studio – Brooklyn
Back in the studio, Bobby is working on music for his album. Music that feels the way he wants it to. He gives the engineer direction to push all the settings above normal to give the track a raw, gritty feel. Sha, Genius, Ason, and Rebel (Joey Bada$$) are also in the studio, at Bobby’s request, so he can finally realize his vision. He tells the guys he wants to do a crew track, but not in the usual style with the first position through the anchor. He wants them to compete with each other and push each other, but to also come at it like a unit.
“Hit them ni**as with that Wu-Tang sword style, slicing ni**as with sharp tongues.” And finally, the moment we’ve been waiting the whole season for: a declaration of “Wu-Tang. Ain’t nobody f**king with the clan.” The Wu is born. The guys are hype and getting their rhymes ready to jump in the booth, so of course, this is the moment Dre shows up to put a damper on things. He breaks the news that Bobby’s single with the new sample isn’t moving units, but Bobby’s not surprised, telling Andre that “People over that corny, poppy sh*t.” But Bobby’s not going to get the chance to come back with his own vision; Tommy Boy is dropping him from the label.
What This Episode Got Right: Industry Rule #4080 is real, especially if you don’t have the power or confidence as an artist to assert your creative control. Genius asking the station staff if the beignets were made with lard (because five-percenters can’t have no swine!) took us back to the 90s, when dudes would swear they couldn’t eat gummy bears because of pork gelatin, but would say it while drinking (which they’re also not supposed to do).
What This Episode Got Wrong: In Houston, Bobby meets a young Kenny “The Jet” Smith at soundcheck. Ain’t no basketball players coming to soundcheck. They come backstage pre-show or post-show. Nobody in history who’s eaten at Bojangles has called it, simply, a “fast food restaurant.” At least give it the respect to call it “a chicken spot.”And also, even though Freak’nik had spread beyond the HBCU world and was doing serious numbers already in 1991, we’re not sure a white boy – even a hip one – in Greensboro would have been onto it already.
What We Could Have Done Without: The use of Arc Choir’s “Walk With Me” in the New Orleans scene took us out of the story for a minute because it’s impossible to hear that now and not think of a certain other rapper. The song wasn’t even recorded until 1997, so we’re not sure what that point was. It was a strange misstep in what’s otherwise been solid music execution.
Things We Have Questions About: Why was Gary the only person who knew what an armadillo was? And do armadillos really just wander about in the streets like that? We’ve been to Texas… we ain’t seen no armadillos strolling around like raccoons.