Wu-Tang: American Saga on Hulu just dropped its fifth episode. We are officially halfway through a series that is more than a simple origin story behind one of the greatest hip hop groups of all-time. It's also about the women who shape the men who will become the Wu.
We see Bobby Diggs (aka the RZA) making cassette tapes of his music which are passed on from person-to-person and then copied over and over -- the '90s Staten Island version of going viral. Bobby buys yellow cassette tapes in a black-and-yellow case, a nice nod to what will become the iconic colors of the Clan. But it's Shotgun (aka Method Man) who has one of the deepest nods to the future of the Wu when he says to Bobby, "Them tapes swarmin' in the hood like killa' bees and shit."
Wu-Tang Clan's music was inescapable in New York in the '90s, as songs like C.R.E.A.M. and Protect Ya Neck echoed from street corners and car stereos across a city beset by poverty, drugs and racism. Two decades later, the group's music and message still resonate and have impacted not just hip hop but our larger culture. Even if you don't know a single Wu song, you've most likely heard the iconic names of the group's members: The RZA, The GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Cappadonna.
For Wu-Tang fans, the past two years have been excellent. You can see the group live on tours to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). You can relive Wu-Tang's career with Showtime's outstanding four-part docu-series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. And now on Hulu, you can watch the scripted 10-episode series Wu-Tang: American Saga.
Hulu's new show takes us back to '90s Shaolin, aka Staten Island, showing the painful, harsh reality Wu-Tang was born from. It'sfor Wu-Tang, and it's a must-watch for Wu fans, pairing perfectly with Of Mics and Men, which features interviews with the Wu members as they reflect on their beginnings, success and disputes. What ties American Saga and Of Mice and Men together is the idea of making music to get to a better life. If you're unfamiliar with the Wu, now is the perfect time to learn about the group and its music.
American Saga shows the origins of the Wu across 10 episodes (I got to view the first four), which gives the story more space than a two-hour biopic like NWA's movie Straight Outta Compton or . A single movie could never contain the tales of all nine original Wu-Tang members as teens and young adults surviving during the height of the crack epidemic in New York.
The story centers around Bobby Diggs on his journey to become The RZA. Bobby is a dreamer who sees music as his escape but is too often pulled into the drug-fueled reality of his family and neighborhood. Ashton Sanders, from Moonlight, plays him wonderfully.
Rather than use the characters' troubled backgrounds as a springboard toward fame like a regular music biopic, American Saga lets the story marinate in their struggles, and the result feels much deeper and more authentic. It's powerful seeing the world Wu-Tang Clan grew out of and how success was their only salvation. At points, American Saga feels more like The Wire -- the gritty HBO crime drama that famously starred Method Man as a drug dealer -- than a jukebox biopic.
I know the Wu and their music inside and out. But watching American Saga I don't see The RZA or Ghostface Killah. Instead, I'm watching Bobby Diggs and Dennis "D Love" Coles, just a couple of teens from Staten Island. Part of the power of American Saga is seeing the Wu-Tang Clan as teens and young adults pre-Wu. This approach removes the inevitability that everything will work itself out for a happy ending and invests you in the choices (both good and bad) each person makes. That said, glimpses of the future Wu-Tang are enormously satisfying, like when Bobby is working on his beats and Sha, aka young Raekwon, agrees to rhyme. The two do a perfectly spot-on take of Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.
As they listen back to the recording Bobby says, "This is what you should be putting your work into. Fuck the streets."
"Making no bread off no music son," replies Sha, played by Shameik Moore, who voiced Miles Morales in. "Shit's a hobby we picked up in the lobby, know what I mean?"
D Love, aka young Ghostface Killah, played masterfully by Siddiq Saunderson, is one of the most complex characters in the first four episodes. He grapples with his own identity amid loyalties to his family, friends, girlfriend and self.
T.J. Atoms plays an initially unnamed character who is no doubt Ol' Dirty Bastard. Atoms carefully navigates some of ODB's over-the-top bits and even finds genuinely poignant moments throughout. At one point, Bobby plays a beat for Shimmy Shimmy Ya and young ODB starts free-styling over it. The hair on my arms stood up.
American Saga isn't just a straight-up dramatization of the lives of the kids who would be Wu. There are sequences that are animated or half-animated, including one portrayed in the style of a '90s video game appropriately named the Bee Keeperz. Don't worry, you'll see plenty of kung-fu on TVs in the background.
Wu-Tang: American Saga is created and written by Alex Tse and The RZA and executive produced by Alex Tse, The RZA, Method Man, Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo. I'll leave the last words to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard:
Rappinin' is what's happening
Keep the pockets stacked and then, hands clapping and
At the party when I move my body
Gotta get up and be somebody.
Originally published Sept. 5.
Update, Sept. 18: Adds the fifth episode has aired.